Same-Sex Marriage Has Come to the South. Cultural Change Is Another Matter. 

Southern US.
If the South had a Facebook profile …

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Image via Creative Commons

Did you overlay your Facebook profile picture with a rainbow on June 26 to show solidarity with a victorious LGBTQ rights movement? Did you scoff at the emptiness of such gestures? Perhaps a bit of both? By now, most of my Northern friends have figured out the exact right time to remove the rainbow filter and have done so. Before the moment passed, some of them even shared articles questioning the utility of this sort of feel-good slacktivism. But here in the South, celebratory profile pics and heartfelt status updates in support of same-sex marriage have been at the heart of a cultural moment where the local emphasis on manners and conflict avoidance broke down at long last and ordinary people began to have some very tense, high-stakes conversations about the Supreme Court decision and gay rights more generally.

It hasn’t always been pretty—people have argued with their closest friends and family, and relationships have suffered—but it feels like it just might be the cultural breakthrough many of us have been waiting for. In the South, at least, this is much more than armchair allies and bandwagon-jumping—this is what change looks like.

Make no mistake, the cultural changes we’re seeing stem from the bravery of LGBTQ activists, men and women who refused to settle for second-class citizenship. People like Sophy Jesty and Valeria Tanco, whose Sixth Circuit case was among those decided when the Supreme Court made the ruling known as Obergefell v. Hodges, and who kindly agreed to speak with me last Friday. Married in New York before moving to Knoxville four years ago, the two professors of veterinary medicine relocated because the University of Tennessee was the best option if they wanted to live together while advancing their careers—finding one position at a university is tough, snagging two close together can be all but impossible.

Before the move, the couple wasn’t sure what to expect from life in a Southern city. “I said ‘I don’t give a shit—if we can’t hold hands in Knoxville, we’re not moving there,’ ” Tanco told me, laughing. Once they were in the Volunteer State, however, they found the environment to be a good one—good enough to settle down and make plans to expand their family.

Life in Tennessee had one big downside—as a consequence of the move, Jesty and Tanco’s marriage was legally invalidated, complicating their ability to seek a green card for Tanco, who is originally from Argentina. This issue was resolved after the Windsor decision made same-sex couples equal in the eyes of the federal government, but there was another issue: After Tanco became pregnant, Tennessee law would have made Jesty a legal stranger to her own child. “I think, for us, the pregnancy was a big part of why we got involved in the case,” Jesty explained. She and Tanco joined with other couples and some of the best lawyers in the state to make the case that this unequal treatment was arbitrary, unfair, and burdensome.

Culturally speaking, however, Jesty and Tanco are outsiders to Tennessee. Their experience here has been a lot like those of many other transplants (my wife and I included)—they’ve made friends in the area who are queer or queer-friendly and have found that even Southerners who disagree with same-sex marriage make courteous neighbors. They aren’t capital S Southern, and that difference often offers transplants a measure of protection from the less supportive attitudes of some locals.

Jesty and Tanco both told me they hadn’t experienced any significant backlash after the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide. For those who were born and raised in Southern states, however, the fallout has been all but unavoidable.

About a week after the Obergefell decision was handed down, a bartender at a place where my wife and I are regulars offered his congratulations. “I’ve lost friends,” he said. “Arguing on Facebook—it’s crazy how many people still have these ideas about how wrong it is for two people to love each other.” A cook from the kitchen also sought us out. “You two were some of the first people I thought of [when the decision came out],” he said. “Can I hug you guys?”

Kadie Britt is a graduate student in my wife’s department. She grew up in North Carolina; did her undergraduate work at a small, private college in Virginia; and has rarely been outside the Southern United States. She spent an evening showing me her Facebook feed from the days immediately following the Obergefell ruling, digging up example after example of friends posting anti-gay memes and messages, and others defiantly defending their queer friends and neighbors. She avoided being drawn into the fray on Facebook—“I’d be afraid of getting into huge fights about it,” she told me—but she’s very sincere about her support for LGBTQ people, despite holding to the Christian faith she was raised in. At times she has attempted to gently persuade her family away from their harsher belief system. “Would God intentionally create something that’s gonna go straight to hell?” she asks, rhetorically, before answering, “God is good. God is loving. God wouldn’t do that.”

Britt isn’t alone, by any means. A generation of young people are growing up to challenge the beliefs of their parents and grandparents—among young Republicans, support for same-sex marriage has risen sharply in the last decade and currently stands at or around 59 percent (roughly the same as among Democratic boomers). This still leaves many bitterly opposed, however, particularly in a state like Tennessee, where 81 percent of voters backed a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage in 2006, and where anti-gay posturing has been a consistent force in local, GOP-dominated politics for more than a decade.

This new tension has also impacted queers who were raised in the South and continue to live and work here. Robin Lovett, a recent UT graduate who was born and raised in Tennessee, told me she was called “disgusting” by one member of her church and had a homophobic slur aimed at her on the bus, an experience she described as being well outside the norm for queer people in Knoxville. She remains hopeful, however, that there are signs of change coming to the region. “Recently, I’ve had family members that I thought were fairly affirming posting some pretty nasty things on the Internet. My family never really talked about it before, but after the decision they have. We needed to have these conversations—but since we’re from the South, none of us wanted to make a scene.”

Driving around Knoxville the weekend after Obergefell, my wife and I came across two separate church message boards condemning the decision. (The most direct of these proclaimed, “A WOMAN WED TO A MAN PERIOD.”) Churches are changing, too, though. Lovett’s church openly celebrated the decision, and two weeks ago, the local Pride festival featured table after table representing a wide spectrum of religious denominations advertising their tolerance and signaling their support of LGBTQ people.

Legal victories are essential to ensuring a fair and equal framework of laws around which gays and lesbians can build stable, loving families. But in order to thrive, those families also need to be rooted in supportive communities, and that’s something that can’t be legislated. When I asked Tanco and Jesty what they thought of the rainbow Facebook avatars, they agreed that it was “awesome.” Jesty said, “I think it’s a great way to show support, even if you’re not gay.” Many parts of the South continue to be culturally hostile to gay men and lesbians, but there are signs that those who seek change here can achieve it, with the help of our straight Southern allies.