It’s a watershed year fraught with turmoil for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. Across the American South, queer, trans and gender-nonconforming people are facing wave after wave of legislation that threatens our safety, well-being and very existence.
From “bathroom bills“ to ordinances that permit discrimination, this battle is in many ways a backlash to all of the victories our community has seen recently —including last year’s nation-wide legalization of same-sex marriage — and it serves a multitude of political and social purposes for the religious and political right.
In this new series, HuffPost Queer Voices Deputy Editor JamesMichael Nichols, who hails from North Carolina himself, talks to some of the leaders, movers and shakers of the fight for queer and trans liberation in the South about their own personal experiences as activists, the current political and social climate for the LGBT community in these states and the action that we, as a community, can take to help. Check out the previous interviews Pamela Raintree, Councilwoman LaWana Mayfield and Joce Pritchett.
As legislative war continues to rage in North Carolina over House Bill 2, activists in its sister state of South Carolina are continuing the fight for queer liberation on their own turf.
One of those championing the fight for LGBT rights in South Carolina is writer and activist Alvin McEwen, who runs the influential blog Holy Bullies and Headless Monsters, which just celebrated its 10-year anniversary. Living in Columbia, South Carolina, McEwen is an openly gay man of color whose blog tells the important stories of the LGBT community on a national level, but with a focus on the often overlooked struggles of queer Southerners.
Much of McEwen’s crucial work centers on the ways in which, in his own words, “religious-right groups distort legitimate research and rely on junk studies to stigmatize the LGBT community.” McEwen is a also two-time GLAAD Award nominee.
In this interview with The Huffington Post, McEwen reflects on the past decade running Holy Bullies and Headless Monsters, the history of anti-LGBT bigotry in the South and what, in his mind, queer Southern liberation looks like.
The Huffington Post: To start, tell us a bit about your story. Do you consider yourself an activist? How did you find yourself at the forefront of South Carolina’s fight for LGBT rights?
Alvin McEwen: The incidents that led me to this point of what I’m doing now can be best described as moments which stood out and had an affect on how I view things as a gay man. One of the most crucial [moments] was when I slowly came out during college in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. This was a time before Ellen [DeGeneres], before “Will and Grace” ― stuff like that. Even being hinted as gay could cause you to get an automatic beat down. It wasn’t a good time because there weren’t that many social settings where you could be comfortable with being yourself. I remember the first time I was in a room with nothing but other gay men ― it was us meeting in a professional setting ― I actually kept my glasses off for a few minutes because I felt so damn uncomfortable. Other than being the editor of a college publication which mentioned gay issues and being a silent member of a campus gay group, I didn’t do anything of note.
In terms of my dealing with my sexual orientation, college was not a good experience for me. Even when I came out, I had a serious problem embracing my sexual orientation and dealing with the isolation and the stoppage of life which came with it. By the “stoppage of life,” I mean that I wasn’t able to mentally grow like other folks. I didn’t go out on dates, I couldn’t pursue a public relationship. I had clandestine encounters but that’s not healthy. It makes you feel like a ghoul sneaking around a graveyard at night. The knowledge that no matter if I was in the closet or not, life would be different from what I wanted before I realized I was gay was devastating at that time, but slowly I learned to deal with it. I guess I got involved in activism to create an environment in which these things that crippled my development couldn’t affect others.
I think I really got into LGBT activism in 2004 when I became a board member of the South Carolina Pride Movement. From there, I did a few other things ― helped found a statewide LGBT of color organization and tried to write a book on the religious right. I self-published the book and it was a disaster, but it led me to create the blog “Holy Bullies and Headless Monsters” in 2006. The blog is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month. It’s given the issues I’m working and myself a lot of positive attention, as well as opened many doors for me.
If I call myself an “activist,” it’s only because I can’t of a better word to define what I do. I don’t like the word because it brings up bad connotations to me. When I hear “activist,” I think of someone who stages a loud public protest over one issue, gets all emotional over it, then moves to another issue without really getting anything solved. I’ve seen some people use “activism” as public action designed to attract attention but then they abandon the issue. I think that if you are concerned about an issue, you do more than participate in a street protest. You work not only to bring attention to an issue, but also to push some type of resolution. That means you devote more time to it, build some type of structure which can be self-sustaining for a long time. Also, when I hear the word “activist,” I can’t help but thinking of a group of intellectual people arguing over esoteric terms and language while not even attempting to figure out how to communicate those things to the folks they are trying to convince or help. I like details, the slow planning and the attention to detail it takes to sustain things. I don’t mind being behind the scenes and doing the grunt work. And I believe in keeping things simple, communicating ideas in a way to get people to understand what you are attempting to do.
What unique set of struggles do LGBT people face in South Carolina?
In South Carolina, LGBT people have to deal with living in a so-called red state in the Bible belt. That means we get a lot of flack from folks who like to clutch their Bibles ― and that bleeds into our legislature. We’ve had a few problems over the years with legislators remembering Bible verses with better precision than they remember their secular duties to serve all South Carolinians. And it gets downright sad when they go off on some issue tangent. The majority of recent conflicts with the LGBT community and the legislature in SC stems from state congressional leaders taking it upon themselves to assertively attack us. I know the religious right narrative is that LGBT people encroach things and some so-called moral people take it upon themselves to fight back. You can forget that mindset here. A year ago, one legislator interrupted the debate on the Confederate flag after that awful shooting in Charleston to rail against President Obama and marriage equality. That shows you the caliber of nonsense the community in SC have to deal with. The good news is that he was defeated in a primary this year because of incidents like the one I just talked about. Slowly but surely we are winning the battle to win hearts and change minds. The momentum is definitely on our side.
What have your experiences been like as a blogger fighting for queer liberation in South Carolina? What have you focused on? What have been your biggest challenges?
Being an LGBT person of color in the South itself can sometimes be a “drag,” if I am allowed to use out-of-date vernacular. I think we have the same problems that LGBT people of color have in all areas of the country ― but down here, things tend to get intensified. We are in the middle of the so-called Bible belt, as well as in the areas where the 1950s and ‘60s Civil Rights Movement took place. That means the problem of dual invisibility from both the black and gay communities we face is starker. On one hand is the black community and in the center of that is the black church. No matter what some folks in the media say about the black community, the LGBT community is a bit more accepted than people think, but that’s as long as we silently agree to the role we are psychologically assigned to play. That means we are supposed to fit the stereotype that some in the black community have about us. Gay men are “weak nellies.” Lesbians are uber butch predators, transgender men and women are trying to trick heterosexuals into sexual activity, and bisexuals are confused and promiscuous.
We are looked at as “special” in a way that we are not supposed to, feel insulted when heterosexual black people tell us that they love us even if they “don’t agree with our lifestyle.” It means we are supposed to accept a place of anonymity in the black community when it comes to family, history, and the church. And that last part is extremely ironic because there would be no present black Southern church culture if it weren’t for black LGBT individuals. It’s a sad irony when you think about how the black Southern churches sing many of the songs that we wrote and arranged, admire us as gospel singers, wear the hairstyles that many of us gave them, or wear the fancy clothes that many of us make for them to wear while they sit in the pews, but won’t acknowledge that we are people with lives and not “lifestyles.” In the gay community, it’s matter of unconscious ignorance, i.e. the idea that all LGBT people are the same. There has been a failure to understand that being LGBT is different in every culture and that the popular things and people in the white LGBT community aren’t necessarily popular in the LGBT community of color.
Now, that may be changing. There are some folks who will acknowledge and respect the uniqueness that LGBT people of color bring to the community. And that number is growing. But that presents new problems. It’s been my experience that sometimes I get taken for granted as a black gay man. I certainly want to be respected as an LGBT person of color. I want my culture to be respected and acknowledged also. But I don’t want to be pigeonholed. Take what I do on my blog, for example. It exposes and refutes anti-LGBT propaganda that the religious right uses to denigrate us and deny us our equality. How many LGBT people of color do you know do this type of work? Sometimes I wonder if my blog would have more success and attention if either I were a gay white male from a metropolitan city tackling these issues or if my blog focused solely on African-American issues. And, unfortunately, racism from some in the gay community does show up. I’ve been in situation where I have been called several ugly names, including “tar baby,” by some in the white gay community. That sort of thing tends to attack your spirit and makes you wonder what’s the point.
What challenges for LGBT people in the South are unique or different from the rest of the country?
South Carolina has changed tremendously over the years. In spite of the problems we still have to overcome, our community continues to grow. At our recent Pride, we had over 55,000 participants. And this was the first year which I saw no protestors and I think that’s very important. At several past Prides, the protestors would be at the State House with their “Sodomy Is a Sin” or “You Will Judge You. Repent” signs. This year was strangely different but very nice. And I think that sort of thing sends a message that slowly things are changing for the better. That doesn’t mean we are without problems, especially that of lowered expectations. Not from us but what LGBT people in other parts of the country think about us. We aren’t just fighting religious ignorance down here, we are fighting ignorance thrown at us from other parts of the country.
The LGBT community in this state was able to pass nondiscrimination ordinances in several cities and counties, we have a plethora of wonderful city and statewide LGBT organizations including some dealing solely with the transgender community, LGBT youth, and LGBT people of color, our Pride celebration is respected for making money for the state year after year and bringing in noted celebrities, we have a few affirming churches, and a wonderful LGBT community center, The Harriet Hancock Community LGBT Center. We have an amazing community with diverse leaders. But all it take is one ignorant legislator to say something stupid or one ridiculous incident and all of that disappears in the eyes of so many and we are called backwards rednecks. We have to deal with stereotypes from other parts of the country and the fact that people expect to hear bad news about lgbts down here but will ignore the good news, even if the good news outweighs the bad. I think that’s our unique challenge. Somehow articulating to the rest of the country not to believe the ridiculous stereotypes and to know that down here we are thriving and succeeding as a community in spite of the challenges we face.
Obviously the South has a long history of anti-LGBT bigotry but things seem to be intensifying ― especially from a legislative standpoint ― but why do you feel like legislators have chosen this particular moment — and these particular issues — in order to attack and discriminate against LGBT people in the South?
I don’t think there is anything special or shocking about this that’s not indicative of what’s happening around the country. What we are seeing is a backlash and sometimes backlashes aren’t all negative in terms of what they mean and what you can do when they happen. There are times when backlashes mean that you are pissing off or scaring the right people. The big question is what do you do when it takes place because you have two options. You can either cower in a corner or rise up to the challenge of facing it head on. What happened in the SC legislature this year is an example of that. That former legislator I mentioned was pushing one of those awful “bathroom bills” through. Granted, the bill was not popular because folks, including Governor Haley, was reluctant to get into the same type of controversy and boycott that grips North Carolina. Still, the LGBT community didn’t take anything lightly. Organizations got together and fought the bill. And in fighting the bill, they put on a campaign which I think was awesome. They worked with members of the transgender community to articulate a message which didn’t try to avoid talking about how this bill would affect that community. I think that was a problem in other areas where bills like this were being pushed; those fighting them were trying to avoid taking on the “bathroom bill” narrative head on. Instead, the transgender community told their stories to a legislative committee and the public. It was amazing. We had transgender students and their allies protesting on the State House grounds outside while inside, several transgender men, women, and children spoke to the committee and broke it down in terms of how this bill would harm them. The bill didn’t pass but I think the major point was that in South Carolina, the LGBT community took on the “bathroom bill” narrative and beat it.
Looking towards the future, what does an American South where LGBT people are liberated and free look like to you?
An American South where LGBT people are liberated and free is one where they can make choices with regards to their lives based upon what they want to do and not by how others define them. But even in that future, we must always be vigilant. There is no such thing as freedom which can’t be taken away if folks get complacent and lazy.
Want to hear more from McEwen? Head here to check out his blog Holy Bullies and Headless Monsters.
Stay tuned to HuffPost Queer Voices for more in this series talking to some of the leaders, movers and shakers of the fight for queer and trans liberation in the South. Check out the previous features with Pamela Raintree, Councilwoman LaWana Mayfield and Joce Pritchett.