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Why I Can’t Live in the South

Why I Can’t Live in the South

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A decision many queers are making (if they can).

As many of my friends and family will tell you, I love the South. I’ve grown up in Kentucky with a deep appreciation for Southern culture — sweet tea, country music, and weekend barbecues made my childhood feel complete. At my midwestern college, I am the first to jump to the defense of the South in heated discussions about politics.

But I can’t live here anymore. Not out of choice, but because it’s too dangerous.

When Florida passed the Parental Rights in Education Act, also known as the "don’t say gay" bill, a war against queer people in Republican legislatures began. The bill itself outlawed discussions surrounding LGBTQ+ people in public schools — and, in the nearly year-and-a-half since it was signed into law, the situation for LGBTQ+ people in Florida has only gotten worse. Florida has since outlawed access to gender-affirming care for minors, and even restricted this life-saving medical care for transgender adults too.

Florida is far from the only state to pass laws attacking queer and trans people; as of June 2023, 20 states have passed laws limiting or outlawing access to gender-affirming care for minors. Among those is my home state of Kentucky, whose SB150 bill outlawed gender-affirming care for minors while also banning any discussions of LGBTQ+ people in schools. Not only does the bill threaten trans people, but it also threatens any meaningful discussion of queerness — instead punishing students for curiosity and learning.

When SB150 passed, I saw a wave of fear rush over my community. One of my friends who is transgender led a protest at their school, and I watched as they spoke bravely to local news channels about their identity. They tearfully explained that they would not be able to receive the care they deserved if the law passed, and the devastating impacts this would have on their mental health.

In Kentucky’s capital, State Senator Karen Berg argued against the bill, claiming that its passage would take the lives of transgender youth across the state. She spoke from experience — just two months before, Berg had lost her transgender son to suicide. Even before this bill passed, transgender people like Berg's son faced bullying and isolation; the bill meant trans youth would lose access to health care and find their existence erased in schools.

“I cannot bring my child back,” said Berg, “but I can help other families.” Her emotional testimony, pleading with her colleagues to reconsider the bill, went viral.

But none of this mattered to the Republican legislature. They watched her testimony with a blank, distant expression, and still chose to vote the bill into law. They ignored the protests outside the state capitol and the statistics blatantly stating that restricting gender-affirming healthcare would lead to spiking suicide rates. They did — and do — not care if queer children die. And so, SB150 passed and will go into effect later this month.

And so, with this, I now know that the South is no longer a safe space for me. Discussions of sexuality — or people like me — are now banned in schools. I cannot fathom the effect these laws would have had on me if I were still in the school system, and what the long-term impacts of suppressing queer identity will be for my generation.

I am far from the only person in this position. Gallup estimates that around 15 percent of Generation Z identifies as LGBTQ+, and many live in states affected by anti-queer legislation. As long as these bills continue to pass, the lives of these individuals are under fire.

When I applied for college back in the fall of 2021, my top priority was escaping a conservative area, fleeing from political persecution. I was aware of the discrimination I had been surrounded by for most of my upbringing and knew that I would not feel comfortable being myself if I continued to live in Kentucky. Many of my queer friends also fled to more progressive areas — and those who couldn’t afford it ended up in the most progressive spots in my state.

With laws today even worse than they were then, I cannot imagine considering staying in my home state for college if I were applying now. I love Kentucky and the community that raised me, but I cannot live here or in any other Republican-dominated state safely until these laws are overturned. These laws will cause an exodus of my generation from red states, robbing many parts of America of vital culture and diversity.

Not all hope is lost. If people take these bills seriously and recognize the long-term consequences they hold, then perhaps Republican legislators will be more willing to listen. If Republicans feel as though their authority is threatened, then maybe we can make progress toward a safer future for LGBTQ+ Americans.

But that means we have to act now — before LGBTQ+ people and those who love them decide they can't remain here. By listening to trans voices, and engaging in dialogue, allies of the LGBTQ+ community can advocate for queer people at the state level. By protesting, voting, and proudly speaking against these bills, the social tide could change to better ensure safety for the community.

I love the South; it’s my home. I hope someday I’ll be able to return and walk freely without feeling fear. My state does not deserve these laws, or the tyranny the Republican Party continues to assert on queer people. I hope that, with protest and time, I will be able to once again take pride in the place that fostered my queerness.

Molly Wilcoxson is currently a sophomore student at Grinnell College studying Anthropology. She is currently one of Campus Pride’s Summer 2023 Interns.

Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, equalpride.

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