Another Kind of Southern Pride: What we can all learn from the town of Vicco, KY

Facebook and Twitter were all aflutter this week about Vicco, Kentucky, thanks to a wonderful segment on The Colbert Report about “People Who Are Destroying America.” The segment zeroed in on Mayor Johnny Cummings, the openly gay major of Vicco, which also happens to be the smallest town in the country to pass an LGBT fairness ordinance.  In typical Colbert fashion, the segment exposes the hypocrisy of the idea that if the LGBT community is offered any kind of equality then we are all going to hell in a handbasket.

One would assume that Vicco, a coal-mining town in eastern Kentucky, would be repressive on such issues.  It’s in a conservative southern state and we all know that gays and lesbians cannot possibly live openly in the South–at least that’s what mainstream media usually tells us.  But as I argued in an op-ed in the New York Times last October, the South is far more nuanced about LGBT issues than its often given credit for. A few months later, the Times concurred with its own piece on Vicco from which the Colbert Report probably got the idea.

This is not to say there isn’t room for improvement.  Here, in North Carolina, citizens voted to amend the state constitution to make doubly sure that there would be no such thing as gay marriage in the Tarheel State.  It was already illegal, but conservatives felt the need to batten down the hatches in order to protect traditional marriage.

And yet, today marks the beginning of Charlotte Pride Week celebrating all things LGBT.  It will culminate with a two-day festival in Uptown, which last year attracted more than 20,000 people and is increasing its number of corporate sponsors.  This South exists, too.

We could all learn something from Johnny Cummings, his friends, and the town of Vicco–namely, that the South is not a monolith and while religious, right-wing zealots within the region may push their own agendas, they don’t always win.

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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.

Chick fil A and “The Gays”

Growing up in the South and having lived here my entire adult life, I have heard people who call themselves Christian say some of the most horrible things about their fellow man.    White southern Christians I have known have referred to African Americans as “the blacks,” or if of an older generation, “the coloreds,” followed by some horrific generalization.  Today, we might hear those same Christians say “the gays.”  As in, “the gays are trying to redefine marriage.”  Or worse. What I believe this reveals is that some Christians, including Chick fil A CEO Dan Cathy, see gays (like blacks before them) not as contributing members of their community, but as interlopers who are horning in on their sacred space and who they fundamentally do not respect.

Credit: Ted Kouklos’ artistic response to Chick fil A

My history with Chick fil A is a long one.  I admit to having enjoyed their chicken sandwiches since high school when my friends and I would go shopping at the Four Seasons Mall in Greensboro, NC, when malls were the only place where you could get a Chick fil A sandwich. ( I prefer not to think about the fried roach that came with my fries that one time.)

Later in life, when I lived in Washington, DC, and worked for a heritage marketing firm, I had the opportunity to see the inner workings of the company up close. I was sent on a research mission to Chick fil A headquarters in Atlanta to learn more about its history since the company I worked for developed corporate museums and exhibits.  I went there to review Chick fil A’s exhibit and consider ideas for updating the corporate narrative.

The company sent a car and driver to my hotel to take me to its headquarters. The car, like everything else Chick fil A, was branded with cows. (Imagine me sitting in the back seat, only instead of my head you see a Chick fil A cow head, appliqued over the window).  After I arrived, I went through the exhibit, ate lunch in the company cafeteria (yes, they serve from their menu), and then toured the test kitchen.  I eventually met Truett Cathy, the company’s founder, who I found to be a perfectly nice man.  I even scored a cool, cow beanie baby–a groovy, hippie cow that carried with it the message “Peece, Luv, Chikin,” as only cows can spell these things.

Peece and Luv, ya’ll

I also learned about Chick fil A’s college scholarship program for employees, and that its WinShape Foundation supported several foster homes in Georgia whose purpose was not to separate siblings.  Mr. Cathy’s foundation paid for their education, their clothing, and even paid salaries to couples who served as full-time parents in the home.  You know, doing good works that was consistent with the company’s Christian beliefs.

Still, I had this gnawing feeling about the company’s philosophy–tied to the fact that stores are closed on Sundays.  This, in and of itself, is nothing to criticize.  Yet in the materials I was given to read, the company wanted to convey that this was a day for employees to “worship as they saw fit.”  In other words, this was not necessarily about the company’s Christian values.  At least in theory.  But deep down, I knew that this was, indeed, part of a much more conservative philosophy tied to the founder’s evangelical Christian belief system.

Those beliefs, especially as expressed by company CEO Dan Cathy (Truett’s son), have been on full display this past week.  Cathy’s comments and his company’s support of the “biblical definition of marriage,” have resulted in a firestorm of negative media, backlash from cities outside of the South where the company has attempted to set up shop, and a soiled relationship with The Jim Henson Company.  Yes, he even ticked off the Muppets.

While Cathy’s comments on gay marriage have upset people, it is the company’s financial contributions to conservative, so-called “pro-family” organizations who actively lobby against gay rights, via the WinShape foundation, that many are questioning.  Last year, when that point was made by LGBT organizations, Cathy responded that Chick fil A was not “anti-anybody.”  His more recent comments suggest otherwise.

Companies and CEOs can believe what they want, but they operate in the marketplace where those beliefs are held up to public scrutiny.  Chick fil A has alienated many customers with its stance, and not just gay ones.  And why would any company, particularly in this economy, want to alienate customers?

As a southerner, a longtime Chick fil A customer myself, and one of “the gays,” it looks like I’m going to have to step away from the chicken sandwich and the waffle fries in hopes that the company might reconsider its stance. And while, for personal reasons, I’m no fan of the institution of marriage, I’m also not interested in supporting enterprises that seek to ban two loving people from legally formalizing their union.  Peace, Love, and Chicken, y’all.