I recently married my partner of nine years in California, and I wrote an essay for The Advocate about the love and support I felt from my extended family in Mississippi, many of whom I never imagined would ever accept my sexual orientation, let alone celebrate my marriage. My family has taught me that having patience and faith in the people you love can sometimes be rewarded.
But when it comes to the erosion of the rights of LGBT people in places like Mississippi, we can’t afford to be patient. We need to take swift, decisive action, to raise our voices together with our allies and condemn the hate propagated by laws like House Bill 1523, which strips LGBT people of any protections from discrimination under the auspices of protecting the “religious freedom” of bigots. As Nina Simone once sang, “Do things gradually, do it slow / But bring more tragedy, do it slow / Why don’t you see it? Why don’t you feel it? / I don’t know, I don’t know.”
The name of this essay is “Mississippi Goddam,” and I mean every word of it. I’m angry. I’m hurt. And I’m afraid. I’m not afraid for myself; I’m afraid for the kids growing up in my neighborhood, riding their bikes down to the stop sign on Belle Glade, playing baseball off Lakeland, driving out to the reservoir with their parents on the weekends for catfish. I’m afraid for the 4 percent of them who will identify as LGBT, and I’m afraid for the 96 percent who won’t. Because I know that so many of them are being raised to be afraid, to fear the possibility that they might some day be attracted to a member of the same gender or discover they were born in the wrong body. Because I know that those kids will try to stamp out that fear by lashing out at each other, by calling them faggots at Prep, by shoving them into lockers at Murrah, by throwing rocks at them in the courtyard at St. Andrew’s. Because some of them will grow up to be politicians like Republican Sen. Jenifer Branning, who backed the deplorable HB 1523, or Gov. Phil Bryant, who has indicated he will sign that bill.
History will remember these names. And I hope it will also remember politicians like Sen. Willie Simmons who had the bravery to empathize with LGBT people, asking his colleagues, “Can’t you see how some might look at this legislation as being discriminatory?” and noting, “This measure we have before us runs the risk of sending the wrong message not to us … but to the greater Mississippi and the larger world.” I would add that the message is already out there; this bill just confirms it for anyone who suspected gay people may not be entirely welcome in Mississippi.
Well, here is my message to all of the antigay bigots pushing forward this kind of transparent, discriminatory legislation: You can’t get rid of us that easily. You may have succeeded in making me into an expatriate at 16, when I left home in search of a community where I could be myself, but the next generation won’t be scared off so easily. Because they have access to more information than any generation before them, and knowledge makes them brave. They know they were born gay or bi or trans and that they were born beautiful. They won’t be shamed and marginalized as easily as I was, because they see you for what you are — a pack of cowards.
I know what it’s like to be afraid, but I will channel my fear not toward building walls between people but by tearing them down. You will have no choice but to accept us someday, because we will always be your neighbors, your parents, your brothers, your sisters. and your children. And in the meantime, I don’t care if you accept us, and your personal beliefs do not give you license to turn us into second-class citizens. I understand that you’re afraid of us, and I’m sure many of you will have to live with that fear for the rest of your lives. But in the words of Nina Simone, “You don’t have to live next to me / Just give me my equality.”