In the south, we have a saying, “we don’t hide crazy, we parade it out on the front porch and give it a sweet tea.” It is an interesting turn of phrase that most people don’t understand. The basics of it mean that whatever makes us different isn’t something you hideaway in the dark recesses. Instead, bring it out for all to see and appreciate. But it also has a second meaning, one that refers to the fact that even the oddest parts of our families are still, just that… family.
But that is not the case with all the crazies…
Perception of being Southern and gay
There are plenty of television shows and movies that show how southern belles cannot go one single place without their gay besties, giving them both beauty and fashion advice. Those queer men dressed to the nines and held in high regard, in many circles.
The south, however, is a very class-ridden society that places more importance on social status than anything else.
Those less than fortunate circles aren’t as lucky. Religion becomes a more dominant mindset and forces many queer folx to retreat to a life of being in the closet. A brutally, classist culture that hasn’t changed much since the early days of segregation. An often brutal culture that is prone to victimizing those that are different with a heavy hand. If you are poor from the country and live in a trailer then you cannot hope to navigate circles of those that have money or perceived power and position. It is these distinctions where queer folx may or may not be accepted.
My Personal Journey
The first time I heard the word fag was around the age of five when I got caught experimenting with a cousin. At the time, I did not fully understand the ramifications of that word, I only knew it made me feel bad. Through most of my elementary school days, I remember being called queer. I lived in a house where my father would call gay men “fucking faggots” even though he was friends with a lesbian. Well, “friends” is giving too much credit, he mostly tolerated her. The harshness of those words didn’t set in until my fifth-grade year when we went to Washington D.C. for a class trip. During this trip, classmates called me a faggot for hugging my mother.
What struck me odd about my journey was that I had a cousin who was also gay. His name was Tommy and he was beautiful. Tall, thin, and blonde, he dressed well and was always so nice. Everyone loved him. While Tommy was the school darling, I was the poor, picked on, and often overlooked kid. I retreated inward and became withdrawn. I often hid it well from the casual observer, but it came out in different ways. I started not focusing in school, so my grades suffered. I hung out with those that were also considered the cast offs and perceived as troublemakers by school officials. Why was he so accepted when I was not?
I walked around in fear of being exposed for who I was while it seemed that Tommy was held high for being different. It was a lesson learned at a very young age of how people can be treated so differently based solely on perceptions others have. I would later learn that these distinctions came with a price for both sides.
The real-life of southern gays
No matter which circle you navigate, in the south, there are concessions to be made. We still live our lives in a manner of closets. Our spouses are often referred to as our friend, instead of lovers. Simple acts that seem to eat away at our very self-respect. While you can maintain a stately house, you have to make sure that all the “gay things” can be easily tucked away before you entertain. Queer folx are often predisposed to acting congenially to disarm our straight counterparts. Then forced to endure platitudes of acceptance, with cutesy names like Uncle Poodle or Gay Tom. Names that are more demeaning than funny.
To often I hear from straight southerners how they accept their gay friends, but what they dont tell you is that it is only to a certain point. Many of those same “friends” do not support gay marriage, quick to judge when a transgender woman enters a restroom, or deny trangender children their right to participate in sports teams.
We’re forced to accept that we are fine as long as we know our “place.”
Change comes, slowly
There is an acceptance in the south, one that mirrors old policies forgotten by the military. As an LGBTQ person, not being able to talk about your life, partner, and such, can allow for quiet acceptance in southern communities. In and article titled, Gay-Rights Movement Tackles Cultural Battle In The Deep South, Larry Best sums it up best.
“We’re just not going to talk about it. Our straight friends and family don’t talk about it. They may know we’re gay, but nobody talks about it because we don’t talk about such things in the South.”
Best goes on to say that the best way to overcome this kind of stigma is for LGBTQ people to be more open about their lives. Don’t shy away from using terms like spouse or how you choose to identify. This allows others to see the differences and realize that you do not put any more significance on it than they do talking about their lives. But, this can come at a risk of backlash.
In the last few years, we have stood witness to states like Virginia that has made huge changes to LGBTQ acceptance with laws that remove discrimination in jobs and housing. This has promoted the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign, HRC, to start a campaign to win the hearts and minds of the Deep South. The mission is to change the minds of those more rural and right-wing states to affect change on a larger level.
What being gay and southern means to me
The south has a history of classist and prejudiced views, but there is also a good side there. I came from a community that never hesitated to lend a hand to someone in need. My mother raised me to believe if I was able to help a person, then it became my obligation to offer help where I could. It was a community where you never met a stranger. Everyone receives a smile and a wave, as if they were a distant cousin that you haven’t seen in forever. It fostered in me the mindset to work for what I wanted to achieve. These are values I am proud of, as they have led me this far in my life. These are the parts of being southerner that I love and is what I take with me, the rest I leave behind for time to wash away. It is time for all types of crazies to be put on the front porch and given a glass of sweet tea.