Southern Fried Pride: What Hattiesburg’s First Pride Means in the Deep South
Note: An earlier version of this piece appeared in Deep South Daily in October 2015.
As a queer person in the South, you keep your antenna up. It’s just instinct, something you’ve always done. You don’t want to get yourself in trouble and you don’t want to get anyone else in trouble either, by starting a conversation in the wrong place, in front of the wrong people. All of this happens in the flash of a second, as you walk into a gas station or stop for lunch. I was keenly aware of those reflexes when, a few weeks ago, I visited Marengo County, Alabama (population 20,155).
I was in Marengo County and neighboring Clarke County because both counties shuttered their marriage license offices earlier this year rather than serve same-sex couples. With my work at the Campaign for Southern Equality, I’ve traveled across the South since 2011 to call for marriage equality and to talk about the realities of being LGBT in the South. Most of our work has been in small towns, like Petal, Mississippi or Wilson, North Carolina, places LGBT people are proud to call home and where there is little or no infrastructure to address the needs of the LGBT community or promote equality.
Across Alabama, somewhere between 9 and 13 counties — among the state’s 67 total — are shut down; we’re uncertain of the exact number because it’s hard to get a clear answer from some clerks. Staff at one county told me recently that they “issue licenses when their software is working but you never know when it’s going to go down.” These are the only counties in the country that are not yet complying with the Supreme Court marriage ruling.
I was in Marengo and Clarke Counties to talk with people and to understand more about the local climate. I also wanted to visit the Probate Court offices themselves, to see what it was like at one of the closed marriage license offices. Sometimes with organizing in the South, this is how the work starts: show up in a place and see who will give you the time of day, and who won’t.
What I found was a racially-diverse county in which winding rural roads spotted with the occasional body shop lead you into classically charming Southern downtowns that close up by 5, if not earlier. Freshly-mowed laws were dotted with yard signs supporting the local high school football team and, less often, candidates for sheriff. All of this, set along two rivers that each year light up with a nautical Christmas parade that is, I was told, like nothing you’ve ever seen.
I stopped in coffee shops, newspaper offices, lunch spots, antique shops, a salon, and an art center and talked with anyone who looked like they might indulge a short conversation with a stranger. As best I could tell, there is no public conversation happening about LGBT life in Marengo County. That was clear in every conversation I had, from the wary look of a clerk at the courthouse to the septuagenarian newspaper editor who, when I explained that I was a minister who worked for LGBT equality, responded by inquiring if I was the minister of a cult. When he asked about the tattoo on my arm and then expounded upon his sexual preferences for women without tattoos, I knew it was time to leave his cramped office.
LGBT people and families live in Marengo County — we know this because of basic common sense and also because of Census Data. But ask a stranger if they know a LGBT person and Southern small chat will grind to a halt, an awkward silence will ensue, a wave of guardedness spread across their face. Here, there is no LGBT community center, no local advocacy group, no affirming church. It remains illegal to talk about homosexuality in Alabama schools.
At the Marengo County Probate Court, the judge was out for the day. The clerk I spoke with said that no couples — gay or straight — ever come in to get a marriage license. “Not even one?” I pressed. “Not while I’m here,” she said. So what are people doing, I asked. “I don’t know,” she said.
Left to my own devices, I wandered around the public archives. Marriage records from the 19th century through the 1980’s were on display, including this book from 1878 which held marriage licenses for couples who were “Freedmen” — or recently freed slaves:
Scanning the shelves, I saw that the practice of segregating marriage license records continued for another century, well into the 1980’s:
These records are an unambiguous public record of the insidious legacy of slavery, segregation and institutional racism. This legacy is rearing its head in the decision to close marriage license offices in 2015: Check out this message from the Clarke County Probate Judges, citing the a state law that says she “may” issue licenses but, she argues, does not require her to do so:
The marriage law she cites passed in the Jim Crow era to provide Probate Judges with a way to refuse to marry interracial couples. Laws driven by animus are always flawed in both their conception and their implementation. But, as history and the present shows, that doesn’t mean they won’t get passed and then cited as justification for discriminatory practices. When I asked the Clarke County Probate Judge if any gay couples had come into the office she said no, not a one. When I asked if she ever planned to issue marriage licenses again, she smiled, cocked her head and again said no.
If you wanted to marry your partner and lived in Clarke County, how would you feel if you showed up at the Probate Court office and were met with this sign? What would you do if you had to use the Probate Court for another legal matter?
This twinning of religious-based animus and political power creates a palpable chill and climate of hostility. Understanding this climate is a precondition to working in the South — particularly the rural and small town South. With it must come an understanding of both the resiliency and the vulnerabilities of LGBT people who call these towns home.
As the hours progressed and conversations like this mounted in number, I felt a shift within myself. I felt anxious and watched; it took a little longer to summon the energy for each new conversation. I also started stress eating, ordering red velvet cake or lemon pie every time I stopped at a new place. Delicious, yes, but with all of this came an old, familiar sadness and self-consciousness, feelings I remembered from being a closeted high schooler in North Carolina in the 90's; or being 20 and living in Jackson, Mississippi for a semester during college, going back into the closet because, still newly-out then, I had no idea how to be who I was in a place where — it was made so clear — that was not welcome.
And this, it seemed, was the heart of the matter: when hostility is palpable in public life — because of a deafening silence, because of a sign posted on a public office — it sends a clear, unmistakable message: don’t come out, and if you do, we can’t promise that you’ll be safe, or keep your job, or be invited to Thanksgiving this year, or ever again.
This much was equally clear — the next chapter of equality work in the South will happen on the front lines of small towns and rural areas — places where the law has changed, but hearts and minds are slower to, places where it still feels safer to live in the shadows than openly, places where there is not a single advocacy group or support group or friendly sanctuary.
I told myself I’d try one more time before heading to Hattiesburg, where co-workers and friends were already gathered and getting ready for Southern Fried Pride, the first ever Pride festival in Hattiesburg. My gas tank was empty and I rolled into the small gravel lot of a gas station situated at a crossroads. I took a deep breath before heading inside to pre-pay and, I pushed open the door, I saw a woman leaning casually against the counter. Still in her work uniform, she was talking to the cashier in the otherwise empty convenience store. Gaydar is real (if, at least for me, not always reliable) and in that first moment of recognition, a shift occurs, a realignment of the invisible currents of social dynamics that draw us to, or repel us from, strangers.
Out in the parking lot, we started talking and she talked about what it’s like to be gay in Clarke County. “People accept me because I’m family,” she said. “But if I wasn’t family…” she trailed off. It didn’t require further explanation.
When I asked if she knew about Hattiesburg Pride, she looked at me skeptically. “You should come,” I said. “I might,” she replied. “I’ve never been to a Pride before.”
In Hattiesburg, a group of local leaders, including LB and Sara Bell, have opened The Spectrum Center, a one-story house in a residential neighborhood which offers free HIV testing, houses a trans support groups, and hosts a monthly movie night. It’s also where Joshua Generation, a fast-growing affirming MCC church, got it start, holding services in the living room of the house. The congregation is growing so quickly now that they have had to relocate twice more to accommodate the Sunday crowd.
We were kicking off Pride weekend with a day-long convening of organizers from across the Gulf Coast, focused on LGBT health issues ranging from HIV prevention (the Deep South has one of the highest rates of new infections in the country) to compiling lists of trans-friendly medical providers. Again and again during these workshops, the challenge of limited resources came up.
The South as a whole gets less than 8 percent of all funding in the LGBT movement, but the vast majority of this funding goes to large metro areas. When you’re talking about the Gulf Coast, almost no funding is coming in for LGBT advocacy and services. Bootstrapping, creativity, sacrifice and an ability to stretch a dollar are making incredible work possible. But you have to ask, when the needs are so acute and the potential so profound, why is it such a struggle? Nationally, the LGBT movement needs to reckon with this question, which is both moral and strategic in nature.
The next morning, we headed to a public park in downtown Hattiesburg to start set up for Pride. In other parts of the country, Pride celebrations have morphed into something new, not unlike annual holiday parades with heavy civic and corporate participation. But at Southern Fried Pride, you had a sense of what Pride is all about, what it means for LGBT people and families to — for the first time — fill a public park and march down the streets of their hometown and say, this is who we are, this is our home. A man in his 70s pulled me aside and said he’d never thought he’d see this happen here.
It was hard to contain my emotions as the parade started. I thought about the people who had made this happen — Sara, LB, Kaylee, Susan and so many others — about the sheer effort and, honestly, the courage that was required. It was incredible to look around and see people walking through the streets of their hometown, celebrating who they are, being who they are in their hometown.
It wasn’t quite that simple, though. Throughout the morning, before the parade began, as hundreds of people streamed into the park, protesters also showed up, encamping across the street. They numbered only about 15 and waved Confederate flags, some marked with Klan affiliations, and Christian flags.
We are used to protests. But something was different here — this was not members of a local church who showed up with hand-lettered signs quoting Romans. These protesters, via their social media profiles, profess sympathy with militias and express feeling under attack as white, Southern Christians. One cannot draw firm conclusions from these affiliations, but in their convergence, there is a palpable quality of menace. The legacy of the Confederacy and the Klan are defined by systemic racial violence and terror; to invoke these legacies is chilling.
The point wasn’t that we outnumbered them 20 to 1. The point was that their intention was not clear. You have to think about safety. This is an age of mass shootings — from the massacre in a Charleston church that was explicitly racially-motivated, to the series of shootings at school across the country that happened in the days preceding, inflicted by people who were themselves broken, who had easy access to guns and who were driven by a devastating combination of pathology and hatred.
In the South, this is a complex, dynamic moment. As the Confederate flag (finally) falls in some places, it is being raised with strident conviction in others. I’ve seen more Confederate flags on display in the last year than I ever have in my life, from my hometown of Asheville, to upstate South Carolina, to Tennessee and across the Deep South. On a national political stage we see that Donald Trump’s rhetoric is exciting a base — densely represented in pockets of the South — who longs to say what he does, but feels they are being muzzled; in the unexpected but undeniable viability of his candidacy, this base is flexing its power.
As the parade began, the protesters joined in, something I had never seen before. I spent the parade walking next to a man holding a 12 foot flag pole, featuring a Confederate flag, an American flag and a Tea Party flag. He grew heated when I asked him to give people a little more breathing room. I walked next to him, along with a few other peacekeepers. He seemed mostly intent on waving his flags and asserting his presence. But it also never felt like I could let my guard down. In the absence of clarity about a stranger’s intent, you can neither assume the best nor the worst. You try to find a middle ground.
As we arrived back at the park, the man who I’d marched next to lowered his flagpole and told me he was going home to watch the LSU game. (A few weeks later one of the counter protesters was arrested and charged with bombing a Walmart in northern Mississippi to protest their decision to cease selling Confederate flags).
People kept arriving for the Festival as the late afternoon sun blasted down and, while Pride was still going strong, the woman I’d met at that gas station showed up. I’d already left by then, headed back to North Carolina with my co-worker, Ivy. But another co-worker sent a picture of all them smiling. The woman sent me a text, “I felt comfortable,” she said.
This is the South right now. Bias nakedly expressed rather than hidden, a spring loaded tension in public life. People and communities that are full of promise, full of hope. New leaders doing incredible work, changing this place, starting new public conversations. The change that is possible will come from the South, from Southern leaders who know and understand this place, who call it home, who have no plans to leave.
If we believe that our public lives matter, that the ghosts of the past co-mingle with the new realities we create, then Hattiesburg changed on October 10. LGBT people became, in a new way, part of the the city’s public life.
Two hours to the west, in Marengo and Clarke Counties, the silence continued.
Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara is executive director of The Campaign of Southern Equality, based in Asheville, N.C., and a minister in the United Church of Christ.