Another View From Mississippi

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.



About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • jamessweet

    I’m from the North, but I feel similarly when somebody makes a comment along the lines of, “We should just get rid of Texas/Mississipi/the entire South/etc. and let them be their own screwed up country.” Um, okay, that’s fine for us Northerners, but there are real people who are suffering under these awful policies and social conditions. “Then they should just leave.” Yeah, it’s exactly that easy. Gay kids getting pummeled in dodge ball should just run away from home, right? People with families should just turn their backs on them, right? If you have kids to support and can’t find a good job up north, you should just live in poverty, right?

    We should no more turn our back on the South than we should turn our back on people who are suffering in other countries. The worthiness of social justice does not change depending on your geography.

  • Alex Songe

    As a native under-the-South person (I’m in the Catholic/Cajun pocket in Southern Louisiana that sits underneath the Bible Belt), I’m always torn with portrayals like this. I’ve surrounded myself with positive examples from the area, and in many ways I love the culture I grew up in. But then there is the fact that a sizable number of these types of people exist. In the atheist group that I run, we have atheists from small towns as close as 15 miles away who have a vastly different daily experience. One of my members has about 2/3rds of his extended family in the KKK. Another helped his gay brother get through life in a small town. While none of these people are in my immediate family or circle of friends, we need to support the people who still interact with them on some level. That’s how change actually happens. Gawking at the freak show is something of a guilty pleasure for me sometimes, but you’re right in that it only leads to giving yourself a smug attitude.

    Also, I’m very glad that you didn’t become an apologist for the south. We should never whitewash what it’s like here. Sometimes I hear people making excuses, like you’ll never meet people like in these interviews. But frankly, you will if you leave the cities and university towns…and you don’t have to go very far at all. Being from the South (or in my case, a variant thereof) is complicated.

  • Brian F

    Zack, I’m glad you found a way to make it work. I’m glade there are some open minded people around you and I’m especially glad your family puts their love for you above any regional prejudices they may have had had you not been their son. But, every time I hear an argument like the one you make it reminds me of someone saying “He ain’t so bad, he don’t beat his wife very often”. That’s not good enough. I’m sure there are many great people in the South. I know some of them, but what they all seem to have in common is that they know they are swimming against the tide. “Red States” aren’t Red States for no reason. From hyper-religiosity, to anti-intellectualism to racial bigotry, the South has more than a proportional share of the unpleasant people.

  • shelbyward

    I’m a native Mississippian and I’m proud to call this my home state. I came out to my friends and family at the age of 21.I was with my partner for 18 yeaars. He passed away in Febuary of 2011.

  • Zach

    Brian: Please spell my name correctly. And did you read the argument I made? I’m not being dismissive of the South’s flaws at all. I’m saying that one-sided, incomplete portrayals like Ms. Pelosi’s are not helpful, and that you can improve the South by working on behalf of and with people who are already trying to make things better here. You do care about making things better, right? Writing us off as a hopeless case Red State makes things easy for you, but not a bit better for us.

  • Brian M

    I agree that the video in question is a paragon of somewhat repellant smugness. Not denying these attitudes exist, but the way the film is put together and edited allows coastal people and big city residents to sneer at southern rural whites. I’ll admit that I join in this sneering.

    But you know what? Some of the attitudes of liberal, educated city folks can be pretty repellant, too. And, these kinds of attitudes are not limited to the south. Heck, I live 45 miles from the central Bay Area and some of the racism and reactionary political beliefs are amazing here. They are not as dominant, but they are here.

    Smugness just makes it more difficult to reach out to people and explain where one is coming from. Why would these people even listen to coastal liberals who despise them?