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Mississippi has for a long time been known as a state full of worsts: illiteracy, obesity, teen pregnancy rates, immense racism, attacks on women's rights, and extreme inequalities for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. I read stories daily about instances of hate and new acts of ignorance from our state government. As a native Mississippian, I've got to say, it's quite embarrassing. When I tell people I am from Mississipp,i I often feel that I am instantly being judged.
The reality is there are many folks here who hold views that are the polar opposite of those for which Mississippi has become known. Over the last few weeks, I have been proud to be a gay man in the state of Mississippi.
In September, members of GetEqual, Omega MS, and Walk Fellowship came together to organize a rally of love and acceptance as a counteraction against a three-day conference promoting "ex-gay therapy" hosted by Lakeside Baptist Church in Hattiesburg. While our first day was seamless, the second day was a little more dramatic.
After being told by the local sheriff's department that we did not need a permit for our location, a yet-to-be-identified person called state park rangers with a slur-laden message about our meeting. To make a long story short, we were forced to relocate. We understood the rangers were just doing their jobs, but it was unfortunate that an anonymous person's complaint trumped our right to remain in this place.
While I know the state had to remain neutral in situations like this, I still had to ask myself, How is the state remaining neutral if they are kicking us off of state property? Despite our less-than-desirable location, the third night of the rally was by far the most moving. LGBT and allied Mississippians came together to deliver messages of hope to the folks attending the conference, and the messages were coming from all over the United States and Canada.
Later the same week, Walk Fellowship hosted a candlelight vigil to remember and honor those who are no longer with us due to various forms of homophobia. During this tearful, yet reverent vigil, everyone participating called out a name of someone they were there to remember. Names like Matthew Shepard, Asher Brown, Tyler Clementi, and several others.
Dustin Wactor, a native Mississippian who attended the vigil, said he was moved by the event.
"I was going through a very tumultuous time in my life, and stopping to remember those who were taken from us so early in life in an environment surrounded by people that I consider to be family was such a blessing. In a way, being part of the vigil helped me to realize that whatever I may be going through, I am surrounded by people who love me just the way I am."
The following day, Walk Fellowship hosted a question-and-answer session titled "What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality," where the most common Bible verses used to condemn LGBT people were examined in context.
Just when I thought we were going to get a little time to rest, events unfolded at the University of Mississippi (commonly referred to as "Ole Miss") that caused another stir. During a performance of The Laramie Project -- a play describing the events surrounding the death of Matthew Shepard -- audience members began booing, calling out slurs, and otherwise harassing the actors.
Those onstage were devastated by the display of antigay sentiment in the audience, and we immediately reached out to the only openly gay actor in the cast to see whether we could help, and how. GetEqual launched an online petition calling on Ole Miss chancellor Daniel Jones and dean of students Thomas Reardon to personally review all university policies and to ensure that students, staff, and faculty are fully protected against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This was an attempt to take a really horrible experience and create very clear policy progress that will impact thousands of people at Ole Miss. A contact at the university told us the administration is meeting this week and throughout the month to review and revise the current policies to accommodate this request. More than 97,000 people have signed the petition, and GetEqual will continue to monitor the situation to ensure that the policies do indeed change to meet the needs of LGBT students, faculty, and staff of the university.
As a teen, I experienced discrimination even before I knew I was gay. It wasn't from a peer, but from the parent of a friend. My best friend's father told my friend that he and I could no longer be friends because he, the father, suspected I might be gay. I was 15. That night, I attempted suicide. Luckily, I did not succeed. At 17, I became a homeless teenager because I was gay. The exact words of my parents were, "You can live here until you are 50 as long as you are straight, but if you're gay, you have to go."
My passion in life is to be a resource to the LGBT community, especially teens, because I know from experience how hard life can be. Thankfully, I have been able to use the negative circumstances I faced as a teen and young adult as fuel to fight for what I believe is right: equality for all.
These last few weeks have been so uplifting and have given me great hope in a state in which hope is hard for LGBT people to come by. Mississippi is such an important state to focus on, because if we can make change happen here, I have no doubt the rest of the country will follow suit. Like I said, Mississippi has a reputation of being known for a lot of negative things, and I don't believe any state wants to be passed up by us on the equality spectrum. I have news for the rest of the country: Mississippi, for the LGBT population that lives here, is our state too. We will continue to build a coalition that is unstoppable. In the words of Miley Cyrus, "We can't stop. We won't stop." It is our obligation to keep fighting to make Mississippi, and the United States, a better place for all people. To everyone reading this, get ready, because until we reach the goal of full equality, we will continue to get out, get active, and GetEqual!
ZACH MAGEE is the Mississippi State Lead for GetEqual, a national grassroots social justice organization fighting for full federal equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans. Zach is a graduate of William Carey University and is currently pursuing a master's degree in social work at the University of Southern Mississippi.