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I was walking through one of Savannah's elegant squares when I heard the news. The Georgia Senate passed House Bill 757 -- a combination of two antigay bills, the absurd Pastor Protection Act and the First Amendment Defense Act.
My friends and I had been on alert. Some had even journeyed to the capitol in Atlanta to protest. If it passes in the Republican-led House, it will go to Gov. Nathan Deal, who will gleefully sign it into law (Deal made his views of LGBT people very clear during his run for governor in 2010). In one fell swoop, we will become second-class citizens in our home state.
Haven't we been here before? Jim Crow was not that long ago. Georgia's dark history is marked with the legal discrimination of a specific minority group. Atlanta's monuments to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. should be adequate reminders to not let history repeat itself, yet here we are. We've been here, Georgia. Haven't we moved on from hate?
Apparently not. With one text message, I was transported back to high school, sitting in my bedroom at my family's farm in north Georgia, listening to my dad recite Bible verses. I pretended to memorize them -- 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13 -- as I quietly calculated how I would escape. After school, drive as far away as you can. Ditch the car at a gas station. Throw away the license plate. Hitchhike the rest of the way to San Francisco. Never return.
At one point, this was a nightly ritual. But then I went to college in Savannah -- that weird port city at the lower right edge of Georgia -- and discovered that gay people lived outside San Francisco and New York. Savannah's vibrant, off-kilter, and surprisingly diverse LGBT community was composed of people from all over the world who, for various reasons, called this gorgeous, kitschy city their home.
Several years later, I was sitting in one of Savannah's two gay establishments drinking a whiskey-soda with a friend and discussing the concept of leaving. A disco ball hung from the low ceiling, casting light on the faces gathered at the bar -- exes, lovers, and friends. Everyone in the room knew my name.
My friend said gay people should stay in small towns like Savannah, that the South would only change if we stuck around and moved the social landscape forward. I fiercely disagreed: "There's a reason why gay people flock to big cities outside the South," I said. "We're not welcome here. Why should the Bible Belt benefit from us staying? Why should we give them our dollars and our business? Georgia will always be populated by homophobes. Let's leave and let them rot in the detritus of history."
I remember saying those words -- "the detritus of history." This conversation took place before my attempted relocation to San Francisco, which went badly, then my half-year stay in Los Angeles. After my sojourns in California, I returned to Georgia feeling something I wasn't expecting: being home.
I missed the balmy air and the pinewoods. I even missed that dingy gay club that every homo in Savannah got drunk in. I missed walking in the door and having everyone hug me and fill me in on the latest gossip. I missed the leather guys in Atlanta and the East Atlanta queer scene, the radical drag at Mary's and Heretic, two of Atlanta's alternative gay bars.
Atlanta's kinky, gender-nonconforming queer scene proved to be more evolved than West Hollywood and filled with more political activism than the Castro. Perhaps that's what happens by necessity in the South's largest gay mecca: You have to be involved and hawk policy changes at the state and federal level because you're not in California. As wild as my bacchanal nights in Atlanta were, I never forgot that only a few miles outside the city, in that wooded nothingness between the capital and Savannah on the coast, gay kids were reciting verses and ministers were preaching hate.
The thriving LGBT population of Atlanta makes the passage of 757 in a downtown building all the more glaring. The bill will allow businesses across the state to discriminate against LGBT people, women, and unconventional families under the guise of "religious freedom." The Senate has been hemming and hawing over this for days, assuring everyone that the bill is not antigay, that it is not a license to discriminate, that it is not Jim Crow 2.0.
These are lies. HB 757 will allow any business in Georgia -- from a roadside mom-and-pop store to a large corporation -- that deems itself a religious organization to post signs saying who they will not serve. We can anticipate how this will play out: Right-wing, Southern Baptist business owners will suddenly decide that their businesses are built on religious ideals, meaning they don't have to serve those nasty gays down the street. Same-sex couples will effectively be pushed out of the adoption market, and the bill will severely undermine any existing LGBT nondiscrimination policies in public accommodations, housing, and employment. It will make my life and the lives of my friends harder in the place we call home.
I love Georgia. I can say that now. I returned to Savannah, stumbled home from that same gay bar, and realized I will always keep part of my heart here.
But I can always leave again. I would like to kindly remind Georgia lawmakers that the LGBT citizens of this state who will be legally discriminated against with the passage of this bill are business owners and industry leaders. If Indiana is any precedent, Georgia industry will suffer and businesses will leave. We have stuck it out here and given this state the opportunity to progress alongside the rest of the United States, and now you are punishing us for it. You are showing your true colors to the country, Georgia, and they are ugly.
LGBT Georgians: Do not stand for this. Protest antigay legislation and urge Georgia businesses like Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines to do the same. While I am fortunate to spend my time in areas where businesses are less likely to discriminate -- less likely, but they will be legally protected to do so if they choose -- many LGBT Georgians do not live in Savannah or Atlanta.
Many live in that expanse between the two; down dirt roads, on farms, and in small towns like the one I grew up in. Their dignity as Georgians and as human beings will be ripped from them the minute they are refused service or turned away from a business that claims they are an attack on "religious freedom." LGBT Georgians have been bullied and abused by right-wing Christians for generations, and I will not abide my state protecting this abuse under law. Let it rot in the detritus of history.
ALEXANDER CHEVES has written articles on sex, dating, and relationships for The Advocate,Pride, and Plus, and is a regular volunteer for Savannah Pride in Savannah, Ga. Follow his blog, The Beastly Ex-Boyfriend.