This is a guest post, written by Zach Booth.
Alexandra Pelosi, correspondent on Real Time with Bill Maher, recently brought mild infamy to the worldview of (allegedly) typical Mississippians that she ran across. Ms. Pelosi spoke with a Toyota employee about how President Obama is a Muslim. She also featured a man missing several teeth extolling his voting Republican and his receiving EBT benefits, with no sense of irony. Another man promised to go broke before abandoning his conservative Christian values. Are Mississippians really like that?
I’d like to offer a bit of perspective on the subject. First, it’s asking a lot of viewers to believe that she was completely unbiased in her selection of interviewees. White men tend to be more conservative in every state, and those were the only Mississippians we heard from in the video. There are plenty of women here, and the state’s population is nearly forty percent black. But Pelosi’s portrayal wasn’t totally off the mark. Mississippi’s government and culture still caters to the interests of the old boys’ club, and isn’t too shy about doing so. And Mississippi likes her boys white, Christian, conservative, and heterosexual.
I should know. I’m a native Mississippian, and I’ve lived here all my life. From the time I was very young, though, it was apparent that I wasn’t like other boys. I approached sports with little confidence or enthusiasm. Most of my friends were girls. I did theatre and took dance class. I had no idea why, but I knew without a doubt that I was different in some fundamental way. I was mercilessly picked on for all manifestations of this difference. Offenses ranged from being too quiet and attentive during class to being nice to overweight kids instead of making fun of them. When I was 12, I had the consolation of knowing why I was different at least: watching a friend change into his swim trunks was suddenly the most fascinating, beautiful thing I’d ever seen. At the same time, it was absolutely terrifying.
In high school, male classmates began to call me a fag regularly. Dodge ball was essentially a gym class-sanctioned round of smear the queer; I was immediately ganged up on and pelted as hard as possible (ninth-graders can throw harder than you’d imagine). A friendlier classmate nevertheless avowed his belief that God wanted all gays dead, and suggested we put them all on an island and then blow it up. One of my best friends lamented that gays were “everywhere now” and wished fervently for their conversion to the Southern Baptist Christianity. After I came out late in my junior year, a classmate texted me and told me that I would burn in hell unless I could “learn to eat pussy and like it.” Homophobia substantially impacted my life as far as the college application process. Some friends I had made at a summer program invited me to live with them in the dorm at USM, but their conservative parents forced them to retract the invitation, on the grounds that I might give them AIDS via the toilet seat. I was forced to room with strangers as a result.
These were not isolated events or out of pace with the overall temperament of Mississippi life. In 2004, Mississippians voted via ballot to ban recognition of gay marriage in our state. The margin in favor of the ban was 86%; there wasn’t even an organized campaign to oppose the ballot measure. One of my favorite teachers, a lesbian, had notes slipped under her door calling her a dyke, and she lost her second job as choir director at a local church after she signaled her willingness to start a gay-straight alliance at the public high school. Editorials appeared in our local paper decrying “the forces of Satan invading our high schools.” A friend has related to me his experience with a youth ministry in which gay youth were singled out for an altar call to rid them of their “homosexual devils.” And of course, Mississippi is home to the American Family Association, promoter of homophobia extraordinaire, whose radio stations reach across the entire state.
Despite all of this, Ms. Pelosi’s video bothered me quite a bit. I couldn’t have made it if there hadn’t been plenty of Mississippians around me who showed me humanity at its best. My mom, for example. When she wasn’t teaching me about how important manners were, she was making sure I knew that being different was okay, and that loving everyone was what Jesus wanted me to do. She is the kindest person I know. There was my grandma, who called black people “coloreds ” until the day she died, made cornbread every Sunday, watched Fox News incessantly, and took my coming out better than any other family member. She simply said that she had never thought about homosexuality much before, but now that family was involved, that was going to change. There’s my sister, who defends gay people whenever anyone dares make a homophobic comment in front of her. Before long, she was asking me whether I had any “friends” to introduce her to. There was an aspirant to the ministry who assured me that God loved me no matter what. There was a straight guy friend who came with me to my first gay bar. There was the community theatre, where I always felt accepted. There were the black straight guys ( total strangers) that hugged me the night Barack Obama was elected to the presidency. There have been countless best friends who knew and didn’t care. We have a Planned Parenthood here, where I volunteer. We have several great universities, including my alma mater. World-famous writers were born here, as was jazz music. When Hurricane Katrina hit, my private high school let in displaced students for free. Choosing to see only what’s wrong with the state ignores so much of what’s good about it.
I think social conservatives win, in a way, when the country sees videos like Ms. Pelosi’s. It doesn’t motivate non-southerners to change things, in my experience. They just shake their heads, enjoy the assurance that they’re better than all that, and go on with their lives. And it indulges the AFA types’ dearest fantasy that people like me don’t call this state home. That we’re not willing to challenge their perverted ideas about family and morality. That we’re not every bit as southern, and completely opposed to their worldview and philosophy. That we won’t come out in high school. That we won’t cast out members of our family for being gay. That we won’t stand up and call bullshit, by a 58% margin, when they try to foist a personhood amendment on us. Because we will. And we will especially if non-southerners do what they’ve done in the past: stand with the people of Mississippi who suffer most severely from the lingering injustices in our country.