I was born and raised in Kentucky. And while I’m not from the foothills of Appalachia in eastern Kentucky, I’ve been there enough—even to Rowan County—to know what it’s like.
It’s poor. People live in trailer parks and small wood frame houses. Kids entertain themselves on Friday nights in the parking lot of the local shopping center. A night out is a trip to McDonald’s or maybe the local Chinese restaurant. People are in church not only on Sunday mornings, but Sunday nights and Wednesday evenings as well.
Although Rowan County is the home to Morehead State University, about sixty percent of its residents over the age of twenty-five have attained a high school diploma or less. Most people who have a decent job work for the county or the university. There’s more religion than education in these parts; more piety than opportunity.
It’s always surprising to see some little rural town that you know personally on the national news, but it’s not surprising the currents of the culture war around marriage equality clash in a place like this. It was bound to happen in some forgotten hamlet that hadn’t gotten the news the world had changed. Why else would we remember Dayton, Tennessee or Selma, Alabama?
The scenes on the news of opposing protesters outside the Rowan County courthouse brought out feelings of both affection and frustration in me. One side made up of holy rollers shouting in their Kentucky twang, “We love Jesus, yes we do! We love Jesus, how ‘bout you!” The other side made up of mountain lesbians singing, “I Will Survive.” I turned to my husband Fred and said with a sigh, “My people.”
And so, Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, with no makeup or jewelry and long, straight untrimmed hair that marks her as a Pentecostal (Baptist women can wear bling and “tease it to Jesus”) finds herself in a moral bind between God and the oath she took to uphold the Constitution.
The video of David Ermold and David Moore confronting Davis in the County Clerk’s office was ugly. When Davis told the couple she was not issuing marriage licenses, they asked, “Under whose authority?” Davis, who had worn a bureaucrat’s mask up to that point, became defiant, “Under God’s authority.”
Ermold then resorted to the “I pay your salary” line. (I doubt he pays much of it.) He then mentioned that he had been with his partner for seventeen years, and just to twist the knife, added, “What’s the longest you’ve been married to somebody?”
Davis’ marriage history has become one of the points of debate in this conflict. She is on her second marriage to her current husband, and has been married to two other men.
In an interview on MSNBC, Seattle gay commentator Dan Savage remarked that her statement through her lawyer was particularly ironic: “I never imagined a day like this would come,” Davis said, “where I would be asked to violate a central teaching of Scripture and of Jesus Himself regarding marriage.” See, Jesus condemned divorce but never condemned same-sex marriage.
Fred remarked that she reminded him of the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in John 4, who was living with her sixth man after five husbands.
Of course the point of that story was how Jesus treated the woman as a human being, addressing her as an equal even though she was of a despised ethnicity, and a woman, and apparently, a serial monogamist.
It was kind of disgusting to see Savage, a nationally-syndicated sex columnist, denouncing Davis for having children out of wedlock and being on her fourth marriage. His point was that she is a hypocrite, and in Savage’s judgment, was planning to make money off her own martyrdom:
“I think Kim Davis is waiting to cash in,” Savage said. “I predicted from the beginning that she would defy all the court orders, defy the Supreme Court, she would ultimately be held in contempt of court, lose her job, perhaps go to prison for a short amount of time. And then she will have written for her, ghost written books. She will go on the right-wing lecture circuit and she’ll never have to do an honest day’s work ever again in her life.”
Even if this is true, and I’m not sure Davis has thought that far ahead, what then? Will she have “won?” A woman who has lived in a backwater her whole life and maybe just got her life together by turning it over to Jesus and is now having her personal life dissected on national TV because she’s somehow oppressed Dan Savage?
Liberals, it is time to admit that we can be vicious people.
We sit in our enclaves judging Kim Davis and people like her as useful idiots for our causes. We zing them with our hashtags and slogans, and mock them on The Daily Show. But the culture is changing at a rate faster than their education and values have trained them to accept. That in itself is a form of oppression—to neglect some people from educational and economic opportunity, then judge them when they can’t get on board with the agenda of the more progressive element of society.
I’m not defending Davis’ actions. If she can’t do the job she was elected to do for the people of Rowan County, she should resign. That would be a true act of conscience—not to indulge in the martyr’s status of being sent to prison or fined, not to benefit in any way financially from this ruckus, but simply to step aside.
But we have to remember that the point of being progressives is we’re supposed to be for people. We’re supposed to be able to see through the lies of the overlords that divide people who should be standing together. The point is to create a more just and equitable society for everyone, not just the people who can spout the right political catchphrases, or can demonstrate an advanced critical analysis of race, class, sexuality, and gender.
We may welcome the changes that are happening to our society—the demographic and technological uprisings that have led to newly-invigorated movements for LGBTQ equality, an end to the oppression of women, and the dismantling of white supremacy. Indeed for many of us, these changes are a matter of life and death.
But somebody needs to find a way to explain all this to the Kim Davises of the world. In words she can understand. The operative emotion we should have for those that feel the world is leaving them behind is compassion, not contempt.