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The South Needs Your Compassion, Not Derision

Mason Dixon Line

When North Carolina, Mississippi, and Tennessee passed their anti-LGBT bills, I, like many, groaned and shook my head in disgust. It was clearly another shameful act in the South's long history of discrimination and segregation that in the end will do more damage than any sort of supposed benefit is was supposed to bring, which honestly was none. Of course many think pieces, letters to the editor, YouTube videos, and angry hashtags were born from the actions, and most of them are not wrong. These laws are shameful, disgraceful, hateful, and ultimately a stain on our culture. A few of these articles, letters, and hashtags. though … well, let’s talk.

I was born in a small Mississippi town and lived in the state most of my life. That little town I still consider my home, and I wouldn’t mind someday going back and living a quiet life, sitting on my porch in a rocking chair, drinking sweet tea, listening to the cicadas, and taking in the warm humid air while shaded by a tree older than most of the gentrified neighborhoods people pay way too much to live in. I love the South, I love that town, I love Mississippi. I’m a damn proud Southerner. That last part must confuse and perplex many of you; how can I be proud of being from a place full of ignorant rednecks and Bible thumpers? Easy. I know my home state sucks.

Yes, we have the lowest scores in education, we’re the fattest state, we’re poor, we’re crazy-pants religious, and we’re racist. Racist as hell. We know this. We know this because you won’t stop reminding us. Every time we crush the tinfoil on the coathanger on the back of the TV to watch a show that isn’t The Dukes of Hazzard, we see shows where Southerners are portrayed as menacing tobacco-chewing cousin-humpers out to find a gay or black person to harass and assault. We’re the butt of jokes all the time. When I was in the Army, people were shocked that I was from Mississippi because I didn’t act like I grew up barefoot on some pig farm. I quoted Eastern philosophers like Lao Tzu and Basho, watched films like Citizen Kane, and listened to music like Charlie Parker and Brian Transeau. It honestly shocked people that I didn’t think all gay people were going to hell, that black people were criminals, and that women should be barefoot in the kitchen. And frankly, the fact that people thought that was what I was supposed to be like pissed me the hell off.

It angers me because that’s what people think of me just because I was born some place. It pisses me off because anytime something terrible happens in the South, Yankees just shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, what do you expect? It’s the South. They’re all rednecks down there.” It pisses me off that people can call Southerners “rednecks” and it's seen as descriptive, but we can’t call you “Yankees” in response without sounding like, yes, a damn redneck. We’re seen as a monolithic entity of bigotry and ignorance, and whenever we go and screw up again it’s seen as typical, but when I hear about something homophobic or anti-trans in California, New York City, or Chicago, there is all the moralizing hand-wringing and excuses of “that's just a few bad folks.” 

That’s garbage. I learned a long time ago that the only difference between a Yankee and a redneck is that the redneck doesn’t check to see if the coast is clear before telling the bigoted joke at the party. I’ve sat here and watched people in New York City go into a panic when they get reminded that their police department has spied on mosques to hunt down terrorists and still racially profiles people of color for stop-and-frisks, and seen New Yorkers not even bat an eye when entire minority neighborhoods are gobbled up for more cronut places. In California, where they actually love the fact they’re called the “Left Coast” and are so open-minded, they overturned marriage equality — after it was already in effect.

Sure, you could call these petty retorts and a case of tu quoque logic, but you would only be right about the pettiness because I don’t deny our flaws. I just have to wonder about everyone else’s. The South has had a lot to overcome in its history. We were the states that owned slaves, we are the states that have been known for gay-bashing and restricting a woman’s right to choose. The South is backwards and constantly on the wrong side of history, but when it's forever playing catch-up it's always going to be that way. But what is your excuse? Why is it that just about every host on Fox News who fools no one in hiding their racism, sexism, hate of LGBT people, and Muslims is from a Northern state? Why is it that Donald Trump, a blatant bigot and a New Yorker, is winning the Republican nomination right now? No, we’re not perfect down South, but neither are other parts of the country.

Whenever the South inevitably shows its ignorance and backwardness, I see comments about how we should just be tossed aside and given up as a lost cause. Gee, thanks. I used to see people complaining about how their tax dollars ended up being spent in the South because we're poor and dumb and you didn’t want it spent down there anymore, even though those tax dollars were being spent to make us less poor and dumb. Now I see people up North and on the West Coast practically begging Bernie Sanders to tax the crap out of them so that there will be fewer poor and dumb people in America, so we can all have a level playing field. Guess where all that tax money is gonna get spent? Not on your student loan debt. It’s gonna go where it went before, where all the poor and dumb people are: the South. Hey, we need grade schools that function before you get your free college. I guess you only care about redistribution of wealth when that income gap shows up above the Mason-Dixon Line? 

When marriage equality was established nationally last year, I knew what was going to happen, because I’ve seen it happen before. After the Civil War the North declared victory and left black people to suffer under Jim Crow and sharecropping. After the Civil Rights Act, progressives declared victory and the Freedom Summer volunteers disappeared. After same-sex marriage won, gays declared victory and started planning their weddings while trans (and LGB) people were still being discriminated against and lawmakers started plotting. People forgot there was still work to be done. Well, that’s been the South for over a century. People have come down and helped us from time to time, but they have always declared a George W. Bush style “Mission Accomplished” and walked away, leaving us to struggle for what we do accomplish on our own.

I know someone who works in women’s issues down South. She’s been invited to conferences all over the country, she’s respected in her field, but she’s never going to leave the South, because fighting for women’s causes is far more important here than in New England or California. There are plenty of LGBT people who haven’t left home but stuck around and fought tooth and nail for every safe space they have. After the 1960s, the NAACP didn’t close the office and retire; they’re still out there fighting. The progressives of the South never stopped fighting; we just wonder where our friends from out of state went.

It’s easy to lament the tragedies and injustices you see in North Carolina and Mississippi. I’m sure more than one discussion about how glad you were that you didn’t live there was had over mimosas at Sunday brunch. It’s also really easy to sit back, mock and laugh, and judge us as less worthy. It’s hard as hell to do something to help, though. We do want your help. We want to have you do more than just shake your head in disappointment and cheer when pop stars cancel their concerts. Pledging not to spend your tourist dollars here is meaningless when you weren’t going to come anyway. Cheering for corporations that withdraw jobs isn’t going to help us in the long run because being poor and unable to fund our schools is part of the problem. Help us. Fund our lobbyists. Fund our charities. Support our schools and expand your businesses here. Help us break the backs of these fundamentalist lunatics who control our state legislatures. Make the South a better, smarter, more open place, and quit forgetting about us once you get a symbolic victory. Once these laws are crushed in court, I have that gut feeling a bunch of television pundits and blog writers are gonna call it a win and go off to celebrate, while the South is right back where it was before. 

These laws are a symptom, not the disease, and honestly, we’re not going to get much better without your help. If you’re not willing to help us or you’re just going to sit back and judge us, well I’m sure some of you know enough about Southern culture to know what I mean when I say, “Bless your heart.”

AMANDA KERRI is a comedian and writer based in Oklahoma City.

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