A few years ago, an older lesbian neighbor reminded me that I live in Mississippi when she told me that she had got married and then said, “I hope nobody minds.” Although she and her wife have lived together for more than twenty years, she was admitting that the most important relationship of her life depended on the tolerance of her straight neighbors.
It took me a while to take in what my lesbian neighbor had just said. Part of why I reacted slowly was it was so out of character for her. A successful business woman, she often came across to people in this small southern town as cold and tough. Yet she did not look tough when speaking about her wedding. She smiled broadly, and her blue eyes twinkled. When I asked her what was new, she looked around the room to make sure no one was listening and then said, “J____ and I got married last weekend up North. I hope nobody minds.” Her confession remains vivid in my memory. She taught me that I could hope for nothing more than tolerance as a gay man in Mississippi.
By contrast, young people in Mississippi, straight as well as LGBTQ, are increasingly calling for LGBTQ equality. For example, a student on my campus, Becky Bickett, was one of the plaintiffs in the same-sex marriage case in Mississippi. She illustrates how younger LGBT people have different expectations than older folks like my neighbor or myself. While older LGBTQ people hope straight people will tolerate them, younger LGBTQ people expect straight people to treat them as equals. In an interview about her case with the Hattiesburg American, Becky said, “This is not a cause to be fought. It is a right we should have.” Since Becky won her case and got married, I think it is fair to ask whether LGBTQ residents in the Mississippi can stop asking for tolerance and start demanding equality.
Generational change has already had an impact because Millennials are much more likely than their elders to support LGBTQ equality. Consequently, the state should reach a tipping point on attitudes towards LGBTQ people when enough old people die. Perhaps older folks like me should be content to know that the next generation will have it better than I did. However, in the spirit of Becky Bickett, I will end by arguing that the price of waiting for LGBT equality is too high. Let me illustrate my point with a story that Rob Leary, young gay man from McComb, Mississippi told about his grandfather for the I’m from Driftwood Project <link>.
Rob’s grandfather was gay, but Rob did not learn that fact until he was sixteen-years old, even though he was named after his grandfather’s male partner. Despite the fact that his grandfather and “Uncle Bob” spent all their time together and slept in the same room every night, Rob thought nothing of it. After all, he said, children spend the night in each other’s room at night, and it doesn’t mean anything. When he was sixteen, his cousin told him that he had heard noises coming from the room where their grandfather and Uncle Bob slept, and the two boys finally understood that their grandfather was gay.
They confronted their parents, who said they thought the boys were old enough to know the truth. Their grandfather had come out to their grandmother after their fifth child was born. While their parents came to love Uncle Bob, they had been embarrassed when they were growing up in a conservative, small town. That must have been why they never told their gay son that he was named after his grandfather’s partner. Rob’s parents tolerated his grandfather and Uncle Bob, but his parents did not treat them as equals whose relationship could be discussed in polite company.
Just think about it; if his grandfather and Uncle Bob had been a little quieter, Rob might not have learned the truth for several more years. And that would have deprived him of an adult role model when he was coming out. Rob said he admired his grandfather because it must have been tough to be openly gay back then. In my opinion, the toughest part must have been that his grandfather’s long-term relationship was invisible to straight people even though his grandfather and his partner were out in plain sight. That is the price of relying on tolerance. Until Mississippi treats its LGBTQ people as the equals of straight people, LGBTQ residents of the state will have to keep hoping, as my lesbian neighbor did, that nobody will mind them being there.
By Douglas Bristol
Image Credit: This vintage portrait of a woman is done in black and white pastels. It is for sale at https://www.etsy.com/listing/220718746/vintage-60s-southern-lady-woman-original?ref=related-1