They tell me of a (up)land where no one’s gay
I love, love this story by John D. Sutter, human rights and social change columnist for CNN Opinion, captures in words an emotional portrait of what it is to live as an lgbt person in rural religious America. Although he’s sketching Franklin County in southwest Mississippi, he might as well have been talking about gay life in Upland, Indiana.
“There are great incentives for a gay person to be invisible,” Sutter says, citing the lack of legal protections for lgbt persons in the state. “In addition to allowing gays and lesbians to be fired because of who they are, Mississippi is also gracious enough to let landlords evict gay residents.” (Indiana, too, on both counts, as I know by personal experience.)
Sutter says a knowing denial that characterizes county residents. This sounds so familiar. In rural religious America there’s an unspoken social contract that calls for an echoing silence regarding gay people. (It can be broken in church, by the preacher who’s free to rail against the sin of Sodom; kids at school and in the backyard can throw around gay slurs with abandon.)
Even if lgbt people are out to others—often in small town America everybody knows everybody’s business—their sexuality often remains an open secret, something not discussed directly. Makes people uncomfortable. Puts them off. Better to ignore it. Bury the truth of their lives under layers of silence.
Sutter references the open-but-shut closet Franklin County’s gay people live in: “Straight people don’t dare look in. And gays fear stepping out and being seen plainly. Both parties tolerate each other at a comfortable distance, with angst, hatred, ignorance and fear simmering just below the surface — unspoken but always understood.”
Violence—verbal and physical—is always a threat, sometimes a reality. Sutter offers examples from the lgbt people he interviewed. I can offer examples from my own experiences.
Gay people make various accommodations to their surroundings. Sutter: “I met a 56-year-old artist who said he is trying to distance himself from ‘the lifestyle’ because it conflicts with his religious beliefs.
“‘You can’t subtract your upbringing,’ he said.”
Another man he met plans to die—alone—because his having a partner would not pass muster with his neighbors. That’s Mississippi, but I’ve seen this same dynamic among gay friends in Upland.
We lgbt people stay—some of us, anyway—because this is our home. Because we’re comfortable in this land and landscape, in the rural way of life. Sutter summarizes this neatly:
“‘These are like profiles in American courage,’ an Atlanta gay rights attorney, Greg Nevins, said when we were discussing rural, gay life.
“For all the talk of a ‘watershed’ moment in the gay rights movement — a time when states vote to approve same-sex marriage, when a president equates Stonewall with Selma, and when anti-gay NFL players are quickly and sternly rebuked —- there are still plenty of places like Franklin County, where being gay is seen as shadowy and sinful but where people . . . continue to live their lives, just the same.
“They’re the real heroes of the LGBT rights movement.”
Nice, to think of myself and my friends as heroes. Nicer if there were no reason to do so. If societal acceptance and embrace would scoop us all up in welcoming arms.
photo credit: Travis Gray