Courtesy of Glenn Garner
I was 18 the first time I fell in love with another guy. He lived in Cleveland, Miss. It was about two hours from Madison, the polished upper-middle-class city just north of Jackson where I lived with my mom and stepdad.
One weekend, when my parents were away visiting family in Chicago, I drove the two hours to see him. The span of highway that cut through the Delta was terrain that felt untouched by modern society. It exemplified the calm beauty of the state that raised me. I may have recently succumbed to the rush of New York City life, but I often still long for the two-lane highways of Mississippi. It’s an escape with a view.
In Jackson, there was a borderline-dilapidated building on a block of Roach Street that was on the verge of revival. A friend from high school, who exuded an exceptional confidence, brought me one weekend. Friday and Saturday nights it opened to a local crowd of outcasts. Gay men, lesbians, trans people, and the friends who loved them came in for a drink, a game of pool, and whatever Ke$ha had released that week.
For everyone else, it was a place to be themselves. For me, it was a place to find myself. It was where I came of age. It was where I got drunk off Smirnoff Ice out of water bottles and faced my fear of public dancing. It was where I had a few of those truly earth-shattering kisses that you can experience only when you’re naive enough to believe in things like love at first sight.
Outside those four walls, it took time for me to come into my own. I came out to my family after I graduated from high school, and they made an effort to accept it. The few friends I kept in touch with from high school began to diminish one by one. Some I lost to the casual conclusion that takes place with most adolescent comraderies. Others showed their true colors when I embraced mine.
When I left home the first time, it seemed like the only option. There was nothing in Mississippi for me anymore. I had to know what was out there to appreciate what I had.
In the South things move slower, but they don’t stand still. If you look at the surface, you only see this image of Southern ignorance, a police state notorious for racist and anti-LGBT attitudes. What you don’t see are the queer kids defying tradition to change the future, the adults who’ve abandoned their generation’s outdated moral codes, and the numerous business owners with rainbow stickers in their windows welcoming all customers. You miss out on the entire community of people who balance a Southern style of warm, laid-back hospitality with a progressive approach to the state they’ve known their whole lives. They vote at every local election and even wave flags outside the governor’s mansion when he neglects his people.
Mississippi may never produce a positive national headline in my lifetime. As long as men with limited views of the world hold power, they’ll wield it in the only direction they know. But that doesn’t mean they aptly represent their people. Some politicians are so out of touch, they don’t even know how to represent their family — as if the possibility of a gay son were unheard of for a God-fearing Christian or the governor of a red state.
I recently returned home for an extended stay to figure out my next step in life. The dilapidated gay bar I visited as a teenager is now just a vacant building, and the friends I used to dance with are now just people I occasionally say hello to on Facebook. Although I’ve kept in touch with my first love from the Delta, he belongs to another state and another boy.
What I didn’t expect to find was how people could actually change. Old friends had regained touch and made amends. My family seemed genuinely interested in my life. The community I’d grown up in had become a place where LGBT people could achieve as much as straight people without hiding who they were.
I go home and I don’t see hate. I don’t deny that it’s there, because I know it is — I was just fortunate enough to avoid the worst of it. But it’s the love that speaks volumes and gives me hope. It may not be present in the governor’s mansion, but it’s growing in the people he claims to represent, and soon they will outnumber the religious-freedom riders of Mississippi.