I know a lot about the south. I lived there for 25 years. I've heard all the jokes (I've even made them myself), and I lived there through some of the best times, and some not so good times, of my life. What I don't know is what other people think about the south -- or at least I don't know why they think what they think. So, I listened. I wasn't shocked by what I heard, but it did show me that the south is not the only place where prejudice exists.
Here are some things I heard while I lived in the south:
"I don't mind black people. I have plenty of black friends."
"Gay marriage is like global warming -- something the government made up to make money."
"If the Bible says it, it's true. It doesn't matter what scientists say."
"If you think like us, you can stay. If you don't you oughta move on."
I moved to New York City three years ago, and here are some things I have heard here:
"You have all your teeth?"
"You mean, you wear shoes?"
"Do you really have paved roads down there?"
"Don't they hate black people?"
"Did you ever see the KKK?"
"You're gay, right? That must have been hard!"
I'm from Hueytown, Alabama. It's smack dab in the middle of Dixie, so it's fine if I say something about the south -- it's part of me. But these loaded questions from people who've never been there -- where do these ideas come from?
The truth is, I do have all my teeth. I wear shoes (almost) on a daily basis. The south has paved roads including the busiest tractor-trailer route in the country, Highway 78. The south has a sordid past, but no -- to set the record straight, southerners don't hate black people. Though there are still pockets of the south where the KKK resides, I never saw them in person. I am gay, and I couldn't have picked a better place to grow up than Hueytown.
Now, I realize that there's a reason people perceive the south the way that they do. For most of my life, I lived in fear. Mortal fear. The kind of fear that you get when you're deep in a nightmare and you wake up screaming. I thought, "If I tell anyone that I'm gay, I'll die." I cried many nights until I had no tears left. My heart was broken not because I lost love but because I thought I could never love at all.
It's true -- there are people in the south that hate black people and gay people. Those people live everywhere. Proof? Here are things that have recently happened to me:
This past weekend, I visited Boston. As I de-boarded the bus, I walked confidently into South Station. I donned my leather overnight bag, my purple button up shirt, and my blue cardigan with the large wooden buttons. My jeans were rolled up and my gray shoes stopped just below my bare ankle. Clearly, I was dressed the part. If I were not gay, I would be missing a great opportunity. So, as I walked towards the exit, this man passed me and hit my shoulder. I made eye contact with him. "You're fucking gay!" he screamed. It startled the entire station, and without breaking eye contact, he shuffles on his way. That was in Boston, Massachusetts.
About a week ago, I was holding hands with my boyfriend. I was walking at the top of the West Village. I was basically in Chelsea. As if from the sky, this woman swoops in. "Men," she says as she looks at our clasped hands. "Be careful. God is the judge. He will judge you, and he will judge me." Then she simply walked away. That was in Manhattan, New York City.
Just two days ago, my roommate was approached on the train. Vulgarities screamed in his direction, and then two punches landed square on his face. With a black and blue lip, he described the man's appearance to detectives that visited our apartment the next day. The assailant still hasn't been caught. That was in Brooklyn, New York.
When I moved to New York, I assumed that the tolerance and diversity here were big enough and strong enough to keep out the hate and cruelty that people assume is so rampant in the south. However, a few short weeks ago, in the shadow of Stonewall -- the bar where much of the gay liberation fight took place -- a 32-year-old man was followed, assailed with homophobic slurs, and fatally shot in the face. Why?
I was never accosted, threatened, or harassed in Alabama. I understand that some were and some people still are, but it's not a southern exclusivity. If it happens in Boston and New York City, it can happen anywhere.
Good always triumphs over evil. It's time to start telling the story of the good guys. It's time to start heralding the positive reactions and the stories of equality.
When I came out, I thought that I'd be ostracized and ridiculed. However, I had friends that welcomed the real me with open arms. My dear friend Emilie was amongst the first people I ever told. It was that moment of truth that has allowed us to remain such good friends to this day (almost ten years -- and I thought everyone would hate me).
I also told Cliff Simon -- my college professor and several decades my senior. He kissed my cheek and told me that I was a blessing to the world.
I told my parents, and they are still wrapping their minds around it -- but that's okay. Though they are supportive in their own way, for some it takes time.
Kindness isn't exclusive to the south either. I have met a plethora of friendly people here -- some, like me, are young, gay men. Some, like Ken and Joann, have invited me into their lives and made me feel so welcome in The Big Apple. All of them are just regular, nice people.
Also, we can't forget that most of this part of the country is open to change. Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont have all passed marriage equality laws.
I think when we're separated (by region or race or class or sexual orientation or whatever) we can create realities that aren't real at all.
I don't know what to do, but I do hope that the questions I am asked start sounding lots less like "Do you hate black people?"
Are we doing a disservice to the south by propagating the idea that everyone that lives in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Florida, Virginia, and Alabama is a little less intelligent, a little less tolerant, a little less globally minded?
The south that exists today is not the south of my grandmother's generation. The people there today are people with which we all want to be friends. So don't hate the south because of preconceived notions or realities we've built that aren't real at all -- it's time to reexamine the south and start hating prejudice no matter where it lives.