More often than not, when I am asked what it was like being gay in the South, it is met with certain expectations. You can tell the person asking is likely anticipating me to offer a dramatic pause—perhaps one long enough to let a single tear fall down my face—before ultimately saying something that fits into their stereotypical presumptions. Maybe they expect me to tell a story about being shoved down by a gang of overalls-wearing homophobes on a hog farm, too. Who knows, but based on reactions, I typically don’t offer the response they’re seeking.
As someone who is also Black (and not having “transcended race”), I am used to this; it is very much akin to the falsehood that Black folks have some monopoly on homophobia. Much like that issue, homophobia in the South is not all that different at its core than it is anywhere else. If nothing else, perhaps it is unique in its delivery.
That said, when one says “the South,” specifics are required.
I am from Houston, Texas, with both sides of my family largely hailing from Louisiana. Texas is a nation unto itself and while Houston is southern, the rest? Eh, not so much. Similarly, you can’t expect major southern cities like Houston, New Orleans, Atlanta, or Miami to be the same as towns in Mississippi or Alabama. The reality is, while I chose to wait until I was a 21-year-old intern in New York City to admit to myself and my friends that I was gay, I could have easily done so in high school.
At the time, many of my friends were sneaking into gay and lesbian clubs where they were free to be themselves. One club in particular was called Big Yo’s. I never made it there—and though everyone comes out on their own schedules—a part of me wishes I was. It was always described to me as a fun, joyous place where people were allowed to live as individuals—a feat often unallowed in every other space of their lives. Rappers like Trina would perform at the clubs because (surprise, surprise) some people knew early on that money is money and that all people—even those defying heteronormativity and rigid gender binaries—are just people.
Years later, relatives would tell me about their drives to New Orleans to see groundbreaking queer rap artists like Katey Red perform. Some would join Katey Red onstage to twerk the night away. For all the current chatter about where hip hop needs to go in terms of allowing more LGBT representation, a fun fact is that this has long been happening in the South.
This same joy I’ve heard and seen in cities like Houston and New Orleans also exists in other places like Atlanta, and yes, Orlando.
The thing about us southern folk is while bigotry might be directly in our faces and heard at higher volumes, we have always found a way to bounce pass it—literally and figuratively. And the thing about hearing prejudice at its bluntest delivery is that it does not mean you are any safer in places where it is conveyed in softer tones. Donald Trump is a bigot and xenophobe, but he is nothing more than a reflection of the Republican Party, and in many ways, America.
This is right on par when it comes to homophobia across this country. While I do find New York to be one of the safest spaces to be a member of the LGBT community, it is not immune from the ugliness of deadly expressions of hatred. I moved here in 2013, mere days before a man was fatally shot in the West Village. In March, his murderer, Elliot Morales was convicted of a hate crime. During Morales’ trial, prosecutors claimed that he was driven to kill by his own issues with his sexuality. Months after that murder, a trans woman was beaten to death in Harlem, where I presently still live.
I’ve been called a “faggot” in every part of America. There is no singular place where I feel safer than the other. If anything, when it comes to being gay and being gay in spaces designed specifically for queer people, I’ve never had more fun than I have in the South.
I have lived in Houston, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and New York. I’ve been called a “faggot” in every part of America. There is no singular place where I feel safer than the other. If anything, when it comes to being gay and being gay in spaces designed specifically for queer people, I’ve never had more fun than I have in the South.
People dance in the South. People take themselves far less seriously in the South. People are more congenial in the South. People are more inclined to want nothing more than a good time when going to a club in the South. I love the South. I may not always be there now, but the South will forever be home.
What Omar Mateen did in Orlando is not indicative of the South, but rather where we all still collectively struggle as a society. Now that we know Mateen had used gay dating apps and frequented the very club in which he terrorized, it suggests that there was some sense of conflict in him. He turned to religion for that. Religion is often a great place to learn how to hate yourself, especially when it comes to being queer. After he became a religious fanatic, Mateen was able to buy an arsenal that no average American should access.
Mateen suffered from various frustrations, but none of those frustrations speak to what it’s like to be queer in the South. All it does is highlight how fucked up our (lack of) gun laws are; how toxic masculinity is; how much more dialogue is required from Christians and Muslims alike in terms of interpreting dogma to define homosexuality and bisexuality.
When discussing what happened in Orlando, Florida, speak to those things, but not the South. Southerners deserve more respect than that. Mateen is not the worst of us; he is the worst of this country as a whole.