3 Reasons Why the Gulf Coast LGBT+ Pride Day Mattered More Than HB 1523

3 Reasons Why the Gulf Coast LGBT+ Pride Day Mattered More Than HB 1523
  1. Because LGBT people on the Gulf Coast responded to this hateful law by coming together.

LGBT people in Mississippi have a long history of surviving by remaining divided in small groups and living in the shadows.  Their thinking was if there were not too many of them and they remained out of sight, straight Mississippians would not mind their presence. Before you dismiss that assessment, you should consult John Howard’s excellent book, Men Like That: A Southern Queer History, which is about Mississippi from the 1950s through the 1980s.

Instead of remaining true to our closeted tradition, hundreds of people of all ages, genders, and races came together to say they were proud of our community.  And they turned out just two days after HB 1523 became the law in Mississippi.  That means the LGBT community has new started new traditions.

  1. Because Pride Day gave older folks hope and made younger people feel normal.

I talked to several LGBT folks over 50 who told me they never thought a gathering like the one on June 24 in Biloxi’s Point Cadet Park would ever happen in their lifetimes. I am 52, have lived on the Gulf Coast for 14 years, and wish I could say I thought differently.  But I did not.  Speaking for my generation, Pride Day changed my sense of what is possible.

By contrast, people under 30 who came out to Cadet Park acted like it was just another of the Gulf Coast’s many festivals, which it was.  They could read about Pride celebrations this month throughout the nation on social media.  And this year, they also had one where they lived.  Hopefully, this will make them stay on the Gulf Coast and not join the exodus of talented LGBT people from Mississippi.

  1. Because anti-gay protestors at the Pride Day showed conservatives are taking LGBT rights seriously

I talked to a big, tall lesbian friend at Pride day who is normally fearless, but she was concerned about the religious protestor as the entrance to Point Cadet Park.  Having grown up in the Pentecostal Church, she worried about disapproval of LGBT people from religious authorities.  I told her it was good that the protestor was there.  It meant that conservative in Mississippi are taking the LGBT rights movement seriously because we are changing the status quo.

We need to remember that HB 1523 was passed in response to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that Americans have a constitutional right to marry someone of the same sex.  Since I teach Mississippi History, I can tell you this is the first time that the conservative elite has taken our movement seriously enough to pass legislation.  We need to remember that, after the first Wade-Ins in 1959 protesting segregation on the Gulf Coast beaches, the Mississippi legislature passed a law against protests on the beach.  Well, the beaches have been integrated for some time now, and Pride Day was the beginning of the end of LGBT people being second-class citizens in Mississippi. Although there were no political speeches at the Pride Day in Point Cadet, the presence of a wide cross-section of the LGBT community sent a message that was loud and clear.

Please also see Justin Mitchell’s excellent column in the Sun Herald on how to respond to HB 1523:  “Don’t leave, LGBTQ people. Mississippi needs you now more than ever.”

By Douglas Bristol


Lesson from a One-Year-Old

Lesson from a One-Year-Old

This morning, as I dropped my kids off at daycare, I witnessed something that made me feel hope for our society. My son Matthew, without any acts of prejudice, or thoughts of judgement, ran over and reached up to one of the teachers, who is a wonderful African American lady. Matthew reminded me that prejudice is learned. Prejudice must be taught and instilled. A young child who has yet to be taught such lessons, does not know hate. It was a refreshing and reassuring site that had shown me that we can be better. Hopefully I will make contributions to the improvement of society, and perhaps Matthew will inherit a world that is a bit better. Perhaps we can all learn a lesson from a one-year-old child.

By Derrick Dyess, Executive Council member, Alliance for Equality, University of Southern Mississippi



I Hope Nobody Minds

I Hope Nobody Minds

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

Size Matters: Cities and the Future of LGBT Equality in the South

Size Matters: Cities and the Future of LGBT Equality in the South

What should LGBT Mississippians hope for after the end of the ban on same-sex marriage in Mississippi?  My concern is that same-sex marriage will make LGBT people more visible without giving them any legal protection from discrimination.  Currently, there are no state laws in Mississippi that protect LGBT citizens.  In the interest of full disclosure, I have a vested interest in the outcome.  I am an openly gay man in Mississippi, who is married to another man.  I am also the Chair of the Institutional Diversity Committee at the University of Southern Mississippi and the faculty advisor to the LGBT student organization on my campus, the Alliance for Equality. <http://www.usm.edu/gulfcoast/alliance-equality> That was why the 2014 Municipal Equality Index caught my attention when it was released by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).

Quite pragmatically, the HRC staff focuses on municipalities because officials at that level of government have done the best job of creating a patchwork of laws that ban LGBT discrimination.  As HRC President Chad Griffin said in his introduction to the report, cities “are ready to act on LGBT equality even as their states are lagging behind.” <http://www.hrc.org/campaigns/municipal-equality-index>.  (p. 4)  Perhaps Griffin is right, and cities will be the beachhead of LGBT equality in Mississippi.  However, when you look up Mississippi in the Index, the prospects look discouraging.  For starters, only five Mississippi cities are included.  The highest score, on a scale of 100, was 17 in Starkville, which is the home of Mississippi State University.  By contrast, eight cities in Massachusetts made the Index, and three of those cities, Boston, Cambridge, and Worcester, scored 100.  Since I live near Gulfport, Mississippi, I looked it up.  The second-largest city in Mississippi (71,012 in 2013) scored 10 points, which it received for reporting hate crime statistics to the Justice Department.  Gulfport had no ordinances protecting LGBT residents or city employees, it had no mechanism for recognizing same-sex unions, and it had no outreach to the LGBT community.

I also live near New Orleans, so I looked it up in the Index and discovered that metropolitan areas are light years ahead of smaller municipalities.  The Big Easy scored an 83.  The city has laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity for employment, housing, and public accommodations.  LGBT city employees are also protected from discrimination.   Moreover, there is a domestic partner registry.  Finally, LGBT city residents had input to the Human Rights Commission and anti-bullying policies.  Without further investigation, one might conclude that Louisianans are more enlightened than Mississippians.  HoHowever, none of the three other Louisiana cities in the Index followed the example of state’s largest city (343,829 residents).  Shreveport scored 47, and Baton Rouge scored a 22.  What amazed me was that Metarie, a suburb of New Orleans, only scored a 15.  So, while it is fair to say that Louisiana is more LGBT-friendly than Mississippi, the southern state does not begin to approach Massachusetts.  Nonetheless, at the municipal level, surprises abound.  New Orleans’ score of 83 beat the score of that liberal bastion, Amherst, Massachusetts (34,810 in 2010), which only received a 69.  The pattern of big cities surpassing smaller cities in protecting LGBT residents is also found in California and New York.  Evidently, size does matter when it comes to municipalities and LGBT equality.

To return to my original question about what is next for LGBT equality in Mississippi, can much progress be imagined for a largely rural state that does not have even one metropolitan statistical area?  If the size of municipalities determines the rate of progress, LGBT residents in the Magnolia state could be waiting for a long time.  My initial response is that I need to move to New Orleans and commute to work in Mississippi.  But there are three problems with that solution.  First, I like creature comforts like walk-in closets and could not afford a decent amount of space in New Orleans.  Second, I would be joining the stream of LGBT Mississippians who get fed up and move elsewhere, thereby depriving the state of its most vocal advocates.  Just think what might have happened if Apple CEO Tim Cook had stayed in Alabama instead of moving to Silicon Valley.  Finally, and most importantly, thinking of LGBT equality as a matter of whether or not you live in a big city lacks imagination.  Here is why.  Just because cities have lead the way in the past does not necessarily mean they will in the future.  I think we need to imagine a different future in which the U.S. Congress passes legislation to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Because I am a historian of the African American experience, I inevitably think of parallels between LGBT equality and the civil rights movement.  In the 1950s, African Americans living outside of the South relied on cities and states to enact a patchwork of laws prohibiting racial discrimination.  This was a big improvement over the Jim Crow South, but it did not represent equality for African Americans.  The problem was that white voters outside the South did not always support laws banning racial discrimination.  For example, in 1964 the majority of California voters approved Proposition 14, which overturned the recently enacted Rumford Fair Housing Act that had prohibited racial discrimination in housing.  The parallel I find to the LGBT equality movement is that heterosexual voters today cannot be relied upon to consistently support LGBT equality.  In 2008, the majority of California voters opposed prohibiting discrimination against LGBT residents by supporting Proposition 8.  The purpose of this amendment to the state’s constitution was to overturn the California Supreme Court’s ruling that the ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.  Going back to the civil rights story, it turns out that African American leaders throughout the U.S. began calling for the passage of national civil rights laws following World War II.  They had concluded that nothing less would guarantee black equality.  When the southern civil rights movement burst of the scene in the mid-1950s, Massive Resistance to desegregation provided both the rationale and the rallying point for passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

To round out the comparison, I think that nothing less than federal laws will guarantee LGBT equality and that the South will be crucial to the passage of such legislation.  Support for LGBT equality is growing dramatically in southern states like Mississippi, but it is unlikely that the state legislature or city councils will pass LGBT non-discrimination laws in the near future.  Rather than consigning LGBT supporters in Mississippi to public relations campaigns and a second-class status, I think the leaders of national LGBT organizations need to rally them to lobby for federal laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.  LGBT Southerners and their allies, because most of them have no legal protections, will make the best case for national legislation.  Just as Fannie Lou Hamer riveted television viewers with her testimony about discrimination in Mississippi at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, some as yet unknown LGBT resident of the state might well galvanize the nation to support LGBT equality.  Hopefully this comparison showed that we can imagine a brighter future with national legislation.

Of course, historical comparisons can be misleading because no two moments of history are exactly the same.  Mississippians might accept LGBT equality after all.  What is more likely is that LGBT leaders will continue to seek equality one city or state at a time.  Based on their track records, cities will still lead the way in pursuing inclusiveness in the future.  Eventually the nation’s cities would reach a tipping point, and most Americans would be covered by a patchwork of municipal and state laws.  That outcome will not represent equality for LGBT citizens.  And that outcome could take a very long time in Mississippi.  Maybe I can live without a walk-in closet.  Or, maybe LGBT leaders could imagine protection from discrimination that extends beyond the city limits to include all LGBT Americans, even those in the South.

By Douglas Bristol, Jr.