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Lithium Growing up queer in the South

Sep. 6, 2019
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I will never forget the first time I went to New York City. It was June, which meant the whole city was draped in pride flags. No one claimed that Pride Month was inappropriate or unnecessary; I saw my life and history displayed publicly and proudly. For the first time ever, I didn’t feel scared to walk down the street with a rainbow pin on my jacket. Growing up in Alabama, I knew to keep my head down, to not flaunt my identity. My mother always told me not to hold hands with my friends, just in case someone “got the wrong idea.” The world I stepped into when I exited Penn Station seemed like paradise compared to what I’d left. So when I returned home, I was determined to present myself as I am.

My little slice of Alabama is one of the better places to be LGBT. Huntsville is a growing, diverse place, full of people from all over the country. For the most part, you won’t be openly harassed, and there are a few resources for adult LGBT people. Considering the more rural parts of my state, things really could’ve been much worse. But in New York, I learned the difference between tolerance and acceptance, the space between a disgusted stare and a silent acknowledgment. 

There are 17 churches on one road in my hometown, and the population is mostly comprised of conservative Christians. Even if the discrimination isn’t outright, there’s always a chance that someone might say something, that someone might see. Upon finding out I was gay, several of my friends’ parents banned me from their houses. Anything I wrote involving sexuality or gay history was heavily censored. TLDR: in my state, you can be gay as long as you’re quiet about it. LGBT people face discrimination everywhere, but the South has a unique relationship with the community. Here’s what it’s really like for queer kids in the South. 

Immense pressure is placed on young gay people to educate and inform their peers.

When one gay person comes out, everyone looks to them for answers. In many well-meaning communities, people ask LGBT youth to explain everything there is to know about sexuality and the spectrum of fluidity—especially invasive questions about sex, relationships, and anatomy. Anna, 17, recounted how her mother asked, “What do you mean, you have a crush on a girl? Explain. Go into extreme detail about why you think you’re not straight. Did you want to kiss her?” For many kids, their first exposure to the LGBT community is through one of their peers—they have no knowledge of sexuality from pop culture or their parents. “All I knew was what I was taught in church,” says Cara, a friend of mine in the same community. “I had no clue that it was just loving someone of the same gender until I met you.” What little diversity lies in books and TV shows is heavily censored by parents, leaving it up to chance for their children to discover what “LGBT” really means.

...And those in religious groups. 

One of the biggest struggles for southern LGBT kids is the impact that religion has on their lives, including their relationships with parents, internalized homophobia, and faith. There are plenty of gay Christians both inside my area and out, but there’s a reason gay people so often leave the church—they’re disillusioned. Forced out. “God’s gonna give me a man or a woman who loves me. Even if I have a girlfriend, my faith isn’t going to falter,” says Camila. “I want to come out to my family and bring my girlfriend to church, but I can’t do that.” This is the wedge that drives itself between families: the feeling of losing someone because of their prejudice. It falls to the younger generations to correct decades upon decades of ignorance and discrimination. Even then, their efforts are usually for naught. 

We do have small, tight-knit, welcoming communities! 

It’s not all bad! Though our circles are small, they are loving and long-lasting. Especially in cities and suburban towns, gays of a feather flock together. It can be hard to find these spaces initially, but once you’ve been in an area for a while, you’ll likely find the other queer people in town. “I’ve found there to be a tight-knit community of LGBT youth in more heavily populated towns and cities,” says Audrey, a college student. As for high schools in the South, there’s a pretty distinct social hierarchy, but the good news is queer kids can easily find one another without coming out to the whole student body. For people with less traditionally “gay” interests, like science or sports, that community is much harder to find. “Ever since I’ve moved to Alabama, there’s been an LGBT community, even if it’s very small or not well-known,” says Anna. “In Texas, there were more people who felt comfortable questioning their sexuality and openly experimenting. It was a lot less hidden.” 

...But little to no resources. 

There are also fewer resources available to LGBT kids, especially those that are transgender. High school bullying is inescapable, even from teachers. There are whispers about the trans girls who try to use the girls’ locker room, the trans boys who don’t feel comfortable going to the bathroom. Adults that are supposed to be trustworthy often join in on the teasing. GSAs exist, but they can only do so much; many of the people who need them don’t have the means to seek them out. “The male community here is very ‘no homo,’” says Morgan, 16. “Even the more liberal, respectful guys I know are not receptive to gay boys. I think it’s that way here more than anywhere else.” Elsewhere in the U.S., there has been more pushback against restrictive binaries that prohibit LGBT kids from getting the assistance they need. “Health forms in the [northern] state I reside in now are much more inclusive and comprehensive than any that I’ve seen in Virginia,” says Audrey, who has lived in both environments. “I sometimes sense more of a willingness to adapt and learn here, and the changes to health forms really actualized that for me.” 

People aren’t always closeted because of shame or danger.

There’s a stereotype that most people in the South are closeted, especially in the Bible Belt—largely because of the threat of abuse or disownment. While that is the case for some people, many are closeted for more introspective reasons. “I don’t actively hide it,” says Alex, a high school senior. “It’s not burdening my soul. If you’re a person I trust, then I’ll absolutely tell you...but it’s also not anyone’s business.” Many of us don’t view our sexuality as a defining characteristic. If we’re closeted to some people, it’s because we simply don’t feel the need to tell them. For others, staying closeted is a way to preserve their relationships with their family. They would still be understanding, but such a deep-rooted change is daunting to face. Christine, a college student from New York, shares a similar sentiment: “I’m lucky because I know they will accept me, but…I’m afraid that being bi will become my most dominant character trait in their eyes. I will no longer be Christine, but Bi Christine.”

Internalized, subtle homophobia is worse than the aggressive kind. 

Because so many people are closeted for privacy reasons, direct, aggressive homophobia is rare. Instead, it’s an internalized struggle, a battle against the slurs and hateful comments people use because they have never known anything else. “I’ve had a few arguments with homophobic white boys,” says Morgan. “The hate isn’t directed at me, it’s just directed at gay people in general.” In environments where the ability to love who you want is massively controversial, it’s hard to stay positive—even when the homophobia is never leveled directly at you. So much can be said in a dirty look or a just-within-earshot comment. For Christine, even acknowledging attraction was a difficult beast to tackle: “I still struggle to imagine myself in a long-term relationship with a woman… Frankly, it feels wrong. I’ve been working to overcome that.”

No matter where you live, being LGBT is difficult. There’s no one place that’s completely devoid of discrimination, or completely devoid of acceptance. Even in typically conversative areas, there are some bright pockets—and vice versa. No one experience is universal, and the pain we face and fight every day is entirely relative. One thing that’s certain is that we will always stand together. When I went to New York City, I was envious of the openness with which people could express themselves—but I realized the community there was just as strong as the one here. Solidarity is something we’ll always have.