Conservative, religious white people scare me. I live in a constant state of fear.
I'm a law school student in Louisiana. Why? It's cheap. It's also where I grew up and where my family has lived for the past two centuries. The state is full of history, culture, food and nature. For the five years before I moved back to Louisiana in 2012, I had studied for a master's degree in London and worked for a civil rights advocacy group in New York City. I love the city, but I thought it would be good to come down from the ivory tower for a while.
When I left New York, I was empowered and inspired. I really thought change here in Louisiana was possible and should come from within. Being away from the state for five years, however, had softened my perspective.
But it's hard to ignore bigotry in your own backyard. So here I am, halfway through law school, stuck in the state of Duck Dynasty.
I'm absorbing the reaction to Phil Robertson's racist, homophobic rants, and I'm worried. America, you seem to be writing him off as just another racist, homophobic redneck. Maybe for those of us who are living or have lived on the coasts, it's easier to write off bigots as holdovers from days long past than to consider that they are very much products of the present. I'm here to tell you that the rise of gay marriage does not mean the decline of gay hate.
Phil is not just some redneck who got rich and made it on television. He's the rule here in Louisiana, not the exception.
Phil Robertson and like-minded conservative whites believe gays like me are "full of murder, envy, strife, hatred. They are insolent, arrogant, God-haters. They are heartless, they are faithless, they are senseless, they are ruthless."
In truth, we gay Louisianans are full of fear.
Imagine living day-to-day among people who think you are a murderous, hateful, ruthless villain. Now, imagine that life in a state with firearms in every other home, the highest rate of homicide using those firearms, and virtually no gun laws. All those guns are owned by people who got upset when they learned the state is only in the top quarter of all states when ranked by levels of alcohol consumption. Needless to say, Louisiana is a pressure cooker. Just speaking out about gay rights in Louisiana makes one a target for hate crimes. The mix of guns, hate and alcohol all but guarantee a tragic outcome.
It's not just the bigoted public we fear down here. It's the government too.
Imagine living in what you thought was a relatively modern city, except in 2012, the sheriff's office operated undercover sting operations in public parks to enforce a gay sex ban long-ago struck down by the United States Supreme Court.
What follows is not a bad movie pitch. Sadly, it happened more than a dozen times from 2011 to 2013 in East Baton Rouge Parish, home to Louisiana's capital, two major universities, and the law school I attend.
An undercover male deputy stakes out a public park at 10 a.m. An old man pulls in and they start talking, then carry the conversation to a picnic table at the park. The undercover cop suggests the two go back to his place for "some drinks and some fun," and the old man agrees. The two never discuss or exchange money. It's the same scenario that plays out at bars in every college town in America. But here, when the old man gets to the apartment with the undercover cop, he's welcomed with handcuffs for a single count of attempted crime against nature.
In the state of Duck Dynasty, it is illegal to engage in "unnatural carnal copulation by a human being with another of the same sex or opposite sex." Here, sheriffs say they are "charged with enforcing the laws passed by our Louisiana Legislature," even if those laws are unconstitutional in the United States of America. If you want to have gay sex without the fear of being arrested, you should probably head north to Arkansas.
The dozen men who were arrested in East Baton Rouge Parish were never prosecuted, because the District Attorney's office could find no real crimes the men committed. But according to the District Attorney himself, "The Sheriff's Office's intentions are all good." Never mind that when the Supreme Court struck down anti-sodomy laws in 2003, one of its concerns was that arresting gay people for their sexual conduct was "state-sponsored condemnation," and that in the United States, government cannot "demean [gays'] existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime."
Maybe John Edwards is right. Maybe there are two Americas. In one of them, simply living as a gay man is illegal; in much of the other, I can marry another man. My plea is that we not simply write off Phil Robertson as a backward redneck. What's much harder but necessary is working to coax the state of Duck Dynasty back into the United States.
It's scary in here, but for now, I put on my brave face, because they can smell fear. If I stand really still, don't open my mouth, and am wearing some butch clothes, they may not even know I'm gay. I hope to see the day when they won't care. Help me get us there.
On second thought, maybe I should have gone to law school at the University of Michigan after all.