A Marriage Equality Plaintiff Opens Up About The Fight For LGBT Southern Rights

"We were so used to living as a discriminated against class that we just accepted that there were some restaurants we couldn’t eat at, some physicians who wouldn’t treat us, some places we weren’t safe going."

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 and Councilwoman LaWana Mayfield.

Courtesy of Joce Pritchett

It’s been just over two years since the Supreme Court of The United States (SCOTUS) ruled DOMA (the Denfese of Marriage Act) unconstitutional, enabling same-sex couples to marry one another in every state in the nation.

But now that we have marriage equality, it can be easy to forget the extreme efforts it took to get there. The fight for same-sex marriage was long and arduous, and involved individual lawsuits filed in states with marriage bans on a state by state basis. Joce Pritchett and her wife Carla Webb were among these plaintiffs suing their states for the right to wed in one of the most homophobic parts of the country ― Mississippi. Becoming plaintiffs meant launching themselves into the public eye in an extremely high profile legal battle, and putting their family’s safety and well-being at risk for the greater good of the community.

Two years later, same-sex couples may be able to wed, but the fight for queer people in Southern states is far from over. Earlier this year, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant signed a law that allows businesses to discriminate against the LGBT community under the guise of “religious freedom.” In this interview with The Huffington Post, Pritchett reflects on her fight against the state of Mississippi to achieve marriage rights, the current battle for LGBT rights in the South and why she and her family, after all of these years, have decided to leave the state.

Courtesy of Joce Pritchett

The Huffington Post: Do you consider yourself an activist? How did you find yourself at the forefront of Mississippi’s fight for LGBT rights?

Joce Pritchett: Three years ago, I was just a mom living in Mississippi trying to carve out a life for my family. Carla and I had gone to exceptional lengths to have children ― at the time there was no fertility specialist in the state who would treat us, so we’d gone to New Orleans and Baton Rouge to get pregnant. At the time, we didn’t see this as an exceptional hardship. We were so used to living as a discriminated against class that we just accepted that there were some restaurants we couldn’t eat at, some physicians who wouldn’t treat us, some places we weren’t safe going. So we just didn’t go to those places.

The result was that our lives became really small. It was a wonderful life full of friends and the family members and neighbors who did support us and we just ignored the rest. Then two things happened. DOMA fell and a local reporter asked us to speak about what that meant for our family. We were unsure about being so open about being gay and how that would affect our businesses and children, so I posted a question to the few friends we had on Facebook at the time: “Should we speak to this reporter?” We received an overwhelming “NO” response. I was shocked and despondent that our closest friends and family felt like it wasn’t safe for us to speak out about something so important that affected our civil rights so profoundly. Then in January the MS Legislature tried to pass its first Religious Freedom Reformation Act (RFRA) bill. Something in me snapped and I just couldn’t sit quietly anymore. I felt like my family was being attacked and the Mama Bear in me was furious. I made contact with and joined every LGBT organization I could find, started organizing rallies and helped create a business sticker that went viral. We got that bill changed to something that was much less egregious and I emerged from that experience an activist.

Courtesy of Joce Pritchett

You were one of the plaintiffs for Mississippi’s case for marriage equality. What was this experience like? How did it feel to be so publicly visible in a state with a reputation for being so vehemently anti-LGBT?

We were genuinely afraid for our safety at first to become plaintiffs. But we were so angry at the state that seemed to be actively oppressing us that we couldn’t NOT do it. We’d been searching for attorneys and researching what it would mean to sue the state and whether or not we could win when our friends at Campaign for Southern Equality (CSE) connected us with Robbie Kaplan in New York. The whole experience was a rollercoaster of emotions. CSE was incredibly protective of us and that made us feel safer than if we’d been on our own. At that point, they’d been conducting their “We Do” actions all over the South so they had FBI and law enforcement connections and they knew how to diffuse even the slightest threat.

Becoming public figures overnight was a little bit overwhelming at times. It was a strange dichotomy to be seen as “heroes” to one group of people, “villans” to another group and at the same time completely unknown to most Mississippians. When I first met Edie Windsor, I asked her how she handled all that attention. She told me “you’ve done something big. Just enjoy it.” So that’s what I’ve tried to do.

“We were so used to living as a discriminated against class that we just accepted that there were some restaurants we couldn’t eat at, some physicians who wouldn’t treat us, some places we weren’t safe going.”

Curiously, two things happened in Mississippi at the same time ― one totally unbeknownst to the other. At that same time CSE was working on a lawsuit for Marriage Equality, the Human Rights Camaign (HRC) had begun initiating their Project One America program. They set up an office in the state and started having conversations with local elected officials and other local civil rights organizations and running television ads highlighting gay families and allies. In my view, this ended up achieving two objectives with regard to the lawsuit: they sort-of “broke ground” ahead of the legal actions and gave the public an incredibly positive image of LGBT people to view while we were in court. And they served as a safe haven and organizer for the small local groups and the community to rally around. It was a coincidence that made me feel like we were part of something much bigger than just fighting for our family. We were fighting with really strong allies for all of Mississippi.

Courtesy of Joce Pritchett

How have you seen Mississippi change in terms of its attitudes towards LGBT people? What have your experiences been like since the passage of marriage equality?

In the last two or three years I’ve seen a lot of personal change in attitudes towards LGBT people. I think many LGBT people have come out of the closet and as a result, their friends and family have become more vocally accepting of them. But at the same time, it seems that hate groups have become more vocal and public as well.

Mississippi’s “religious freedom” bill is part of a campaign being waged against the LGBT community in Southern states. What are your thoughts about this bill? What are some of the real life implications of it that you’ve seen?

The primary implication to me has been the systemic disparagement of the LGBT community. I think after Obergefell, the general consensus was that our big fights were behind us. When HB1523 came out, there was an overall sense of discouragement that no matter how many times the federal government issued protections or ruled in our favor, our state would not quit pursuing us.

“When I first met Edie Windsor, I asked her how she handled all that attention. She told me 'you’ve done something big. Just enjoy it.' So that’s what I’ve tried to do.”

Obviously the South has a long history of anti-LGBT bigotry but things seem to be intensifying ― especially from a legislative standpoint. 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 think the presidential election has had a lot to do with it. Mississippi is ripe with some of the worst racial and anti-LGBT hate groups in the country. In the recent past, they’ve remained active but behind the scenes. The “Trump effect” seems to have emboldened them to step out publicly and not just speak out against us but to contribute more publicly to political campaigns. Our state elected a Republican Supermajority last year. I think some of these religious hate groups had a huge hand in financing many of these campaigns, as well as writing and promoting the legislation. One of the results is that legislatures and state officials promote fear of us and use that to raise money and get out the vote for their party.

Courtesy of Joce Pritchett

What challenges for LGBT people in the South are unique or different from the rest of the country?

One of the hardest challenges is complacency and internalized homophobia. Many of us were born and raised in the South and no matter how well-traveled we are, living in the closet for so long takes a toll. It wasn’t until I had children that I became willing to fight hard for our civil rights. I was able to fight for them where I’d never been willing to fight for myself. Many gay people were actually angry at us when we started to stand up and fight. Those bubbles we were living in were small but relatively safe. When we broke a lot of those bubbles, people felt unsafe ― personally, emotionally and financially. It’s a hard situation to deal with.

You recently made the decision to leave Mississippi. What led you to do this? How does it feel to leave after all of the work that you’ve put into fighting for LGBT people in the state?

There were a lot of factors that went in to our decision to leave Mississippi. One of them was that the economic atmosphere in Mississippi is so depressed that our businesses were suffering. Add the “out gay” factor to the already difficult “woman” factor and we were struggling financially in spite of our pretty impressive educational pedigrees. But we also just no longer felt like we could protect our kids enough to keep them safe there. They had wonderful schools but after a couple different two-mom-family friends had to deal with bullying incidents, we realized the risk of staying just wasn’t worth it for us.

Courtesy of Joce Pritchett

How do we go about changing hearts and minds of people in the South? Are there specific strategies that need to be used in the South as opposed to other places?

Relationships are important in the South. Family and church and community are central to our way of life. I think the strategy that works best is encouraging and empowering LGBT people to come out. The more people come out and live visibly open lives, the more allies we gain.

What do you think the new generation of LGBT activists can learn from the generations before?

I’m more familiar with the African American Civil Rights movement than I am with the LGBT civil rights movement. And I’ve seen a lot of parallels there as to what worked. Dr. King’s dream, marching and becoming visible, peaceful demonstration even in the face of extreme intolerance, lovingly demanding equality and using the court system appropriately seem to be what works.

Looking towards the future, what does an American South where LGBT people are liberated and free look like to you?

When we got married at the Portland Head Light in Maine, people were walking by and congratulating us. Carla commented how strange it was that they weren’t staring or looking down their noses at us. I think an American South where people are liberated and free would look a lot like Maine. Minus the snow.

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 and Councilwoman LaWana Mayfield.

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