The South is not a “new frontier” to be explored and conquered by special interest groups, no matter how good the individuals’ intentions may be or how often this storyline is repeated in mainstream news sources.
It is certainly easy to become doe-eyed when national and even international organizations open offices in or direct resources toward Southern states like Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. It is tempting to adhere to this ubiquitous storyline when those organizations are working on progressive issues such as LGBTQ rights, where these states lag behind their counterparts on the East and West Coasts.
In fact, the “new frontier” narrative is so pervasive that we would even go so far as to call it “mouthwatering” to journalists and activists alike. So much so that most don’t stop for a moment to consider the toxic ingredients baked inside before taking that first juicy bite.
If you need evidence that this is how our story is framed, just read, “Dealt a Victory in Court, Advocates for Gay Rights Focus on a New Frontier,” which appeared October 8 in The New York Times. It tells the story of local queer advocates who have been hosting meetings to talk about their personal experiences in the context of the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear marriage cases from Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
See also, “Gay Rights Group, After Recent Victories, Turns to a New Frontier: The South,” a lengthy Washington Post story from September 10 about the Human Rights Campaign’s new office in Mississippi as part of its Project One America campaign.
These national spotlight pieces rarely, if ever, discuss the organizations and coalitions that already exist in the South and have for some time. These pieces miss the work put in by LGBTQ-affirming religious coalitions, safe schools coalitions, and state equality groups to slowly but surely change their communities, their places of worship, and their state and local policies. It seems that more national news is made highlighting the blatant and egregious examples of bigotry that happen in our region.
We can count on these examples to be highlighted as if they define the South and its response to its LGBTQ people in its entirety. Southerners on New Ground, the first pride parade in Tuscaloosa, or LGBTQ people happily thriving don’t make the news because they don’t fit the narrative of the South being backward.
Do not mistake this constructive criticism as contrarianism. For starters, the folks sharing their stories are heroes, whether it’s a dozen people chatting over pizza, a trans woman boldly coming out to her entire state, a bi activist challenging the local government to take action, or a gay man holding a humorous protest sign. But there is no reason to infantilize them or their communities, and doing so is a disservice to the hard work that many of them have been doing for decades before this “new frontier” was discovered. In fact, there is no new frontier. There is only our doorstep. And we’re happy to invite you in when you knock.
This is a difficult conversation to have, because we Southern progressives do want groups like HRC here to do good work. And we would love to tell our tales to publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post. Please do visit our cities, experience our legendary hospitality, and savor our cuisine. We welcome you to join our conversations and march beside us in our movements.
But let’s be honest about the elephant in the room. One conspicuous reason the South is so far behind on issues like LGBTQ rights is precisely because we have been infantilized by national media and viewed as terrifying uncharted territory by advocacy groups.
For instance, Alabama receives an average of 1.6 cents in grant funding per LGBTQ person for every dollar New York City receives. The disparity in per capita spending is absolutely not because LGBTQ Southerners do not exist or that they do not need protections. Indeed, Mississippi is home to the highest percentage of same-sex couples raising children.
The Magnolia State also has the nation’s highest poverty rate, at over 20 percent. Now consider that the Williams Institute found that LGBTQ adults with kids are three times more likely to live near the poverty line than their straight peers.
The need is surely obvious, yet repeating stereotypes about the South, and more seriously, its people, is counterproductive and serves only to leave us further behind in the big picture push toward progress. The truth is scores of Southerners have been working toward progressive ideals for decades, work that is difficult no matter when or what part of the country it is undertaken.
Our aspirations are bold and broad: a South where lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and queer individuals are no longer bullied, marginalized, and rejected by friends, family, the church, and elected officials. It is tiresome for our homeland to be incessantly described as foreign, hostile, or any number of common Southern-state descriptors.
A challenge that has always faced queer activists is the tension between assimilation and liberation. And there are strengths to both sides of that debate. But one that often goes missing is the nuance of individual lives. Most people I know want both. The freedom to be oneself should never be at odds with the desire to be accepted, included, and loved. In fact, the two are inseparable. And so it is with the South too.
Those of us living in places like Alabama are often asked why we don’t just leave. The underlying assumption is the pernicious meme that the Deep South is a dreadful place for young queer activists to live and to prosper. We all answer in our own way, depending on who asked the question and why, but many of us say the same thing: We live here because we love it here, and we don’t need to justify that to anyone. The South is our home, our roots run deep here, and asking why we don’t leave reinforces the notion that one cannot be all of who they are and also Southern. This simply is not true.
The heroes who tell their stories to the press deserve better, whether their story is featured on the front page of The New York Times or hidden in the lifestyle section of the local ledger. We have to do better, or this tired trope will continue to perpetuate itself for generations to come.
History tells of a violent and dangerous legacy that happens on frontiers: a pattern of assimilation and cultural extermination. The South is not a new frontier for those of us who live and agitate for change here. Framing it as such shows just how out of touch the rest of the nation has been with us, not the other way around.
SARAH YOUNG is a social work doctoral student at the University of Alabama and an LGBTQ community organizer living in Tuscaloosa, Ala. She cofounded the Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition and is a former Equality Alabama board member.
MICHAEL HANSON is a communications consultant and LGBTQ rights activist living in Birmingham, Ala. He is a former Equality Alabama board member.