Sexuality And The South

Exploring sexuality and queerness in the Deep South

By Rochelle Skodi, Amelia Mannino, and Alex Behan

The LGBT Center on Bull Street in Savannah, Georgia

Between differing regions of the world, the word sexuality reveals multiple connotations in conversation. In a more scientific and professional setting, it revolves around the concept of complex desires, behaviors, and beliefs in regards to physical and cultural contact, mostly including the morality of what is correct versus what is natural. With a societal and commutative setting, it involves the idea of physical attraction and deep bonds within relationships, as well as labeling an orientation for community purposes. In addition, labels on romantic orientation become more common within the spectrum of asexuality, or the lack of sexual desire.

In recent years, the social climate in regards to sexuality has changed drastically; the introduction of same-sex marriage becoming legalized in June 2015, Pride festivities in a majority of cities becoming increasingly common, and a social media presence informing more and more people are all attributing to this change. The topic of sexuality has been somewhat of a cultural taboo in the United States since the countries’ beginnings. However, over the passage of time, through the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, and through years of campaigns for the rights of the LGBT community, the topic of sexuality has become something that Americans discuss far more openly. Of course a person’s perception of sexuality within the states is often highly dependent on where they are from regionally. Those within the North have different opinions than the West and the South, and likely due to additional aspects of gender, race, religion, and political sphere, those within the region of the Deep South reveal less inclusive reactions to the ideas of sexuality other than strictly heterosexual.

Showing pride to the world

Within the Western sphere, society commonly sorts sexuality into one of four categories: heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, and asexual, though the LGBT community also adds in the sections of pansexual and demisexual. These six sexualities are commonplace within Pride festivities, which are held in many metropolitan cities across the globe. While controversy arises within each, the major concept is that the LGBT community should be a place of welcoming those who do not suit the “normal” sexuality or gender set by most societies today.

““I’m fortunate to come from a really accepting family, but I know a lot of other people who have had really awful experiences coming to terms with their sexuality and sharing it with their conservative, religious family members. There’s a lot of stigma around being gay in the south because people here are so religious and aren’t even open to having a conversation about sexuality let alone being tolerant or supportive of people who identify as anything other than straight. And I’m not saying there aren’t intolerant people everywhere, it’s just very concentrated in the south-especially in smaller towns. It’s getting better though, a lot of southern cities are starting to celebrate pride and more people are openly talking about sexuality, especially younger people.” — Brailey Penny

The most common type of sexuality is heterosexuality, which is generally defined as attraction to someone with a sex different from one’s own. Most scientific definitions do not accurately portray the variety of sex, let alone gender, as it is known for being male and female relationships only. In a similar vein, homosexuality relates to attraction to someone of the same sex, such as male and male or female and female relationships.

What is not included, usually, is the existence of transgender people within these two labels specifically. For instance, a relationship including an AMAB (assigned male at birth) and trans male is still a homosexual relationship, regardless of what sex was assigned when someone was born. There are also people with chromosomes and genitals not aligning with the binary; these people are generally known under the intersex umbrella terminology.

In addition to the one-or-other terminology, the vocabulary of bisexual and pansexual are close in their definition, though not inherently the same. Some decide to use pansexual over bisexual, and vice versa; no one is incorrect in their use over another term, as long as it applies to them. Bisexuality, scientifically, describes the attraction to both sexes; in communal terminology, it refers to attraction to two or more genders, which can be one’s own or another. Similarly, pansexuality refers to attraction to all genders, regardless of sex. The distinction can be created from the numerical values at play- two or more versus all. Some bisexuals may not feel attraction to non-binary gender or intersex people, some might. It is this technicality that allows the pansexual label to exist and further specify preferences in orientation.

Lastly, while most of the other terms describe an attraction, both asexuality and demisexuality revolve around the lack thereof in attraction. Asexuality refers to the lack of sexual attraction to another person, while demisexuality describes an attraction to the secondary personality aspects, which usually include a deeper, personal connection to the person before any physical attraction manifests. In addition, types of romantic orientations can be used to identify what those on the asexual spectrum seek in relationships, without the ideas of sexual activity involved.

“It’s something you keep to yourself. Ask don’t tell. It’s not anyone’s business but your own.” — Margaret Grace Popken

The first person we interviewed is a 23 year old woman from the middle of Georgia, a prime state within the Deep South and a good place to begin our analysis. By the name of Margaret Popken, she has identified as non-heterosexual for several years now, has attended Pride festivals, and leads her life outside of the SCAD and Savannah community.

Q: What is your full name, and where are you from?

A: Margaret Grace Popken! I’m from middle Georgia.I Grew up in Warner Robins and now live in a small town called Hawkinsville.

Q: How would you define sexuality, personally?

A: Sexuality is exactly what it sounds like. It controls or says what kind of person you’re into sexually. What kind of person you’d be into having sex with. Homosexuality is only being attracted slash into people of the same gender, for instance.

Q: How would you define your own sexuality?

A: Demisexual! which basically means I only feel sexual love or attraction to someone after I’ve made a deep connection slash bond with them. it’s on the asexual spectrum. It means usually I have no interest in sex unless I’m connected emotionally with the person. I don’t even find other people hot slash sexy most of the time.

Q: What do you believe is the general opinion on sexuality in the South?

A: Anything not heterosexual is odd slash not of the norm. Sometimes outright despised too in certain settings, but for the most part, It’s something you keep to yourself. Ask don’t tell. It’s not anyone’s business but your own.

Q: Do you believe the southern mindset has changed from 20–30 years ago?

A: I do! I think in bigger cities we’re getting a lot better. I think in general we’re improving and even though people still think anything not heterosexual is odd or not “normal”, they tolerate it and don’t outright hate or attack people for it as much. I think social media has helped this too.

Q: What do you think can be changed to better the mindset?

A: Diversity! Small towns need more people in them. Better connections to the world outside their small bubble. People need to be able to meet people not like themselves and just connect with others. More diversity on TV and in media too! Show people it’s normal!

“ Figure out a way to teach homosexuality in religion that isn’t biased in the wording.” — Natalie Meredith Welch

The second person interviewed is a 19 year old woman from central Tennessee, a state that isn’t quite Deep South, but still well within the Bible Belt. From what she told us, her family is rather conservative, which is quite common within the region, and looks down upon those outside of the societal norms. This leads into the fact she has yet to come out to her family in regards to sexuality, as it gives a sense of fear that many closeted youth face.

Q: What is your full name, and where are you from?

A: Natalie Meredith Welch, and from Franklin, Tennessee, and born in Nashville, Tennessee.

Q: How would you define sexuality, personally?

A: Sexuality is definitely more of a spectrum, I guess, but you have to go out and experience what you’re into and what is or is not okay.

Q: How would you define your own sexuality?

A: I’ve had the more “Straight” experience; I haven’t had an experience with a lady, yet, or anyone that isn’t a cis male. I grew up in a household where anything that wasn’t straight was “forbidden” and generally, others would be disgusted by it. I personally identify as pansexual, which means I can seek out relationships regardless of gender.

Q: What do you believe is the general opinion on sexuality in the South?

A: I guess they’re a bit more accepting of people, but you’re less likely to find them at religious places. Not the best, but it’s getting better. We’re making progress, and that’s what counts. Heterosexual is the most expected sexuality, it’s like- you’re usually expected to be straight, unless something happens and it leads into others thinking, maybe something is different.

Q: Do you believe the southern mindset has changed from 20–30 years ago? If so, how?

A: I would say, yes, it has changed. From stories of my dad, there were times he would make fun of gay people, calling them “fag” and such. He’s more old fashioned, but I can tell, with the younger generation, there is more acceptance.

Q: What do you think can be changed to better the mindset?

A: I guess more education and less religious intolerance would work. Stop telling people in Bible schools that the gays would burn in hell- that sort of thing. Teach them that God is more forgiving; that’s the base of our religion (Christianity), that he’s not going to smite anyone just because they’re not straight. Figure out a way to teach homosexuality in religion that isn’t biased in the wording.

“ I just think of it as who you love. It’s whatever you want it to be” — Robin Maaya

The last person we interviewed, was SCAD student Robin Maaya. She has lived between Florida and Mississippi her whole life and has experienced the different attitudes towards sexuality based on region first hand. Robin identifies as a lesbian and has been an active advocate for the LGBT community for much of her life.

Q: What is your full name, and where are you from?

A: My name is Robin Maaya and I am from Orlando, Florida

Q: How would you define sexuality, personally?

A: Sexuality can be a big part of a person’s identity, it’s definitely a big part of mine. Basically though, I just think of it as who you love. It’s whatever you want it to be

Q: How would you define your own sexuality?

A: Gay, very gay, I identify as a lesbian and I’m pretty much exclusively attracted to girls. It’s not entirely about biological parts to me either, I tend to fall in love with people’s personalities

Q: What do you believe is the general opinion on sexuality in the south?

A: I don’t have any personal experiences with homophobia myself, but the South definitely treats sexuality differently because of the bible belt. I’ve seen my cousin and friends struggle with their families over the issue of religious values. The south tends to be more conservative and very christian, and a lot of queer people either hide that part of their identity or come out and risk backlash from their community and even their own families, which is true for any place in America but you see it the most in the bible belt.

Q: Do you believe the southern mindset has changed from 20–30 years ago?

A: Oh definitely! More people have become accepting as the community has become more prevalent. More people feel comfortable enough to come out, I feel like there’s always been this many gay people buy now more of us have the courage to come out and show our true colors. More LGBT people are coming out to their families and friends and starting those conversations that lead to someone who may not have had any experience with the community before to become more educated and tolerant about it.

Q: What do you think can be changed to better the mindset?

A: I think the biggest change would be to educate people who are ignorant of the LGBT community and scared of what they don’t know. People need to have conversations with each other and have discussions about what they don’t understand. Also having more support systems in place in schools would be a good way for younger queer people to feel more comfortable in their societies, especially in the South.

The American Deep South is a region that runs heavily on conservative ideals, Judeo-Christian values, and patriarchal traditions. It is a place where the ideas of homosexuality are generally looked down upon and as such, many gay or queer people feel they have to hide their identities out of fear of persecution. However, times are changing; LGBT presence in mainstream media is on the rise, the presence of queer communities is on the rise in small southern towns, and more people are having conversations and learning to accept their differences. As pride and vocality grows in the LGBT community, the perspective of the South has begun to shift from one of aversion, to one of acceptance and support. It is another welcome sign that our society is changing for the better.