When I was little, I climbed New York trees. Growing up, I had a New York dog and a New York cat as pets. I had a New York family. In the summer, I went to the New York beach with my New York friends and ate New York hot dogs. I got a New York education (I have a High School Diploma, Bachelor’s Degree, and Master’s degree from New York schools). I even went to a New York church.
What I am saying to you is that I was born and raised in New York—the liberal utopia of the United States.
But where we grow as children is not always where we live as adults. For the last two years, I have been living in Forrest County, Mississippi. Let me be clear: I don’t just reside here. I live here. I have a Mississippi dog and a Mississippi cat. I go to Mississippi beaches. I eat Mississippi hot dogs. From time to time, I even climb (and fall out of) Mississippi trees, and I teach at a Mississippi school.
Each semester, when my students inevitably discover my New York roots, I am greeted with a rapid succession of self-deprecating remarks. The most popular response is characterized by a look of utter horror and a shocked exclamation: “Are you crazy? Why would you ever leave New York for Mississippi? This place is backwards!”
And this response isn’t exclusive to students. It seems that a lot of Mississippians feel obligated to take a preemptive strike against their own state. This fact is depressing and troubling, but it isn’t terribly surprising. After all, people are just restating the “facts” that they have been spoon fed their entire lives: New York is a secular, pro-gay, pro-choice, anti-gun, liberal, loving paradise; while Mississippi is the fundamentalist, anti-gay, anti-choice, anti-poor, anti-woman, hateful heart of the Bible Belt.
It is an erroneous and sad little binary that we have all bought into.
Saying that everyone in Mississippi is a conservative and judgmental fundamentalist is about as logical as saying that everyone in New York is a conservative and judgmental fundamentalist ie., it’s unutterably illogical. The Campaign for Southern Equality is helping people realize just how illogical and unfounded our characterization of Mississippi truly is.
The Campaign for Southern Equality is a grassroots movement (largely comprised of southern individuals) who are calling for full equality for all LGBT individuals. Their WE DO action is a movement that is aimed at fighting against unjust state and federal marriage laws. It involves LGBT couples in the South requesting—and being denied—marriage licenses. According to the Campaign website
“These WE DO actions serve to make the impact of discriminatory laws visible to the general public; they illustrate what it looks like when LGBT people are treated as second-class citizens under the law.”
But of course, the WE DO campaign is much more than that. This is a group of individuals coming together to share their stories. They talk about what it is like to live beneath the scorching Mississippi Sun as an LGBT individual. Their tales are often about work or school. They usually involve parents and children. Many speak about their faith and their heartbreak. These are stories that are worth telling, and this movement reveals that there are people in the South who are willing to listen.
Moreover, the Campaign for Southern Equality proves that LGBT people in the South are not alone. They are not wholly condemned by their community; rather, there is a strong contingent of southern individuals who, like myself, support LGBT rights—who realize that LGBT people are our friends, coworkers, parents, and children. They are our neighbors and members of our congregation. Most importantly, they are Americans and they are human. As such, they deserve the same rights and privileges that are afforded to other individuals across the nation. They deserve freedom and equality. They deserve love and support. And we are willing to fight for these ideals.
These people are people, and we embrace them.
Yesterday, I traveled to Jackson, Mississippi to take part in the last WE DO action that I will be able to participate in during this stage of the movement. This morning, I was compelled to write this post because, twenty years from now, I want to be able to look back and remember how it felt to be part of something so important.
But there is a larger reason. As I was typing this, I stumbled across a news release about Carlos Vigil, a 17 year old youth living in New Mexico. Carlos is homosexual and, as often happens, he was mercilessly bullied by his peers as a result of his sexual orientation. He tried to take his life Saturday, and he passed away early this morning. Before taking his life, Carlos posted a suicide note on Twitter. It reads,
“I’m sorry to those who I offended over the years. I’m blind to see that I, as a human being, suck. I’m an individual who is doing an injustice to the world and it’s time for me to leave. Please don’t ever feel sorry for me, or cry – because I had an opportunity at life and that opportunity is over. I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to love someone or have someone love me. I guess it’s best though, because now I leave no pain onto anyone. The kids in school are right, I am a loser, a freak, and a fag and in no way is that acceptable for people to deal with. I’m sorry for not being a person that would make someone proud.
I’m free now. Xoxo.
I desperately want Carlos to know that he wasn’t alone; I want him to know that he was never alone. And I want others to know that they aren’t alone either. There are thousands of people, literally, thousands of people all across the South, all across the country, and all across the world who have your back and are rooting for you.
If you need someone, call The Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386. For adults over 24, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-866-273-8255. Or if you don’t feel comfortable doing that, send me a message. I might not have anything helpful to say, and I might make awkward Star Trek references. But if you need an awkward, trekkie Mississippian to just sit back and listen, I’m here.
Edit: Want to help? Take a look at the It Gets Better Project to see what you can do in your area; go the The Campaign for Southern Equality’s Hometown Organizing section; or even contact the American Civil Liberties Union to see what you can do.