Being Gay in the South–Uncle Poodle Is Beside the Point

I wish to take a few minutes, in the spirit of civility, to respond to Jonathan Capehart’s Washington Post columns (in spite of the condescension and the personal barbs) which have taken aim at my New York Times op-ed “We’re Here, We’re Queer, Y’all.”  For the record, the idea of using Uncle Poodle’s appearance on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo as a hook (not an argument) was not my own, but that of an editor. The real argument was based on my own personal experience.  I could have shared dozens of stories, because as he learned from my friend Helen, both she and I and all the other gays and lesbians I know living in the South are indeed consequential and not because we were or were not raised in an urban environment.  I made it clear in my editorial that there was a real limit to acceptance in the region.  The point was that being gay in the South should not be seen in black or white, all or nothing, because there are clearly shades of grey.

What I saw coming out of Capehart’s columns and also some messages I received was a disagreement with me for countering the narrative about the South as a cold, angry, place where gay people could not possibly want to live and would set out for New York, DC or San Francisco as soon as they got the chance.  Some of them surely have, but many others have not.  And the decision to leave may have to do with the limits of acceptance, and maybe not. Perhaps they simply want to experience a different part of the country. The decision to stay, however, is often (in my personal experience) that they don’t want to leave their families or communities.  If they leave the small town South, they often move to larger cities in the South.  New Orleans, Dallas, Atlanta, even Charlotte.

As this map shows, New Jersey had the highest hate crime rate in the nation in 2008–more than any other southern state, including Texas. For more recent statistics from the FBI see: http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/hate-crime/2010/tables/table-12-agency-hate-crime-reporting-by-state-2010.xls

Capehart used the case of the gay Texas couple who was recently harassed by the local minister and received threatening messages from his followers to make his point “that this says more about the South than ‘Uncle Poodle’ ever will.” Really?  Is this a southern phenomenon?  To read his piece, you’d think it is.  I know that it was timely in that it fit his argument, but hate crimes take place in the urban North (New York, DC, Minneapolis, etc) that don’t receive nearly the same amount of media attention. Yet when it takes place in the South, the national media makes hay of it, because it supports the narrative of a sinister South where such things must only happen here.  This does not mean that I don’t condemn what happened to the couple in Texas because I absolutely do.

The Uncle Poodle reference–again, an editorial decision–was used because of it’s pop culture relevance, but is beside the point.  I have lived a very rich and wonderful life in the South and wouldn’t choose to leave.  Has it always been easy? No, but I could have said this had I been raised in another region of the country.  Are there problems still? Yes, and here in my own state of North Carolina I voted against the marriage amendment and will support Equality NC in its efforts to derail it. I’d also have to do this in several other states, not all of which are in the South.  However, neither that amendment nor a hateful evangelical minister (there is one who proselytizes in the free speech zone on the campus of UNCC with some regularity) is enough to make me flee because this is my home.

In the end, and despite the criticism, I am pleased that my editorial ignited a conversation about the South as a place where LGBT people can and do live happily, work, and have families, etc. because it’s a much more complicated and nuanced region than it’s given credit for being.

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