The past few weeks have been huge for marriage equality. As I write this, it has just been announced that Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett will not appeal the ruling that brought marriage equality to his state. Marriage has come to Oregon and rulings have invalidated bans in such deep red strongholds as Idaho, Utah and Oklahoma, though those marriages are on hold pending appeals. And, of course, though the ruling is stayed, a court in Arkansas invalidated the state’s marriage ban, and same sex couples rushed to courthouses in Little Rock, Fayetteville and Eureka Springs to legally marry for the first time in the South.
Standing on the banks of the Misssissippi River in Memphis last week, at the Memphis In May World Championship Barbecue Contest, I looked across the river and remarked with a bit of wonder, “I can see marriage equality from here.” I don’t know why it hit this lifelong Southerner so hard, as I’ve been active in the LGBT rights movement for a while now. Perhaps it’s just that it’s more real now. Over the last ten years, as more liberal states have embraced equality, people down here have been fighting to get simple nondiscrimination ordinances passed, and still are in cities all over the region. State legislatures continue to push bills to ban teaching kids any real information about the existence of LGBT people. Mississippi recently passed a sweeping bill, purportedly to protect the “religious freedom” of anti-gay wingnuts to deny service to the LGBT population at will.
But, in significant ways, just under the surface, the times are a-changin’. Recent polling suggests that the South has reached its tipping point, with the population evenly split on the freedom to marry. Of course, this region has a history of being dragged into modernity kicking and screaming at the back of the line, and our landscape still bears deep wounds from the days of slavery and Jim Crow, with racism still playing an unfortunately large role in politics and daily life. Indeed, long after full equality for LGBT people has been won, this region will still be struggling with race.
The South is a funny place, though. A strong desire to live and let live peacefully coexists with a strong desire to be as much up in everybody’s business as is humanly possible. For the most part, it’s not intended unkindly, but rather just nosy. Sense of family is strong, and people are often much more concerned with whether you’ve had enough to eat than who you brought to Thanksgiving. Of course, religious right influence is strong, and it is the primary reason why it’s taken this long to reach this tipping point. The American Family Association hate group in Tupelo, Mississippi, has spread its tentacles throughout the area, broadcasting hate speech on a daily basis through their radio programs, and mega-churches breathing fire and brimstone dot suburban landscapes. The adage about going back ten years with every ten miles you drive out of a major city still rings very true. Indeed, in many places, it’s still very, very unsafe for LGBT adults and teens.
But something has changed. LGBT Southerners are visible like never before, and, aside from far right conservatives with a prurient obsession with judging gay people, the live and let live mentality seems to be slowly taking over. When ABC’s “What Would You Do?” visited Birmingham, Alabama, six years ago, viewers and producers were a bit stunned to find that many onlookers and passersby were supportive upon seeing a gay couple in the park being affectionate. One woman, of course, called 911, but didn’t get very far with her concerns. That could still happen today, but seeing gay and lesbian couples acting like couples in public is becoming more and more common. And more and more, people are shrugging their shoulders.
Southern churches are starting to have difficult conversations too. I grew up, at least partially, in a very conservative Presbyterian church in Memphis, one that is doctrinally very, very anti-gay. That policy hasn’t changed, but over drinks with an old friend from that church recently, I asked how their young people are on gay issues these days. “Nuanced,” was the reply. “They’re having thoughtful conversations that weren’t being had a decade ago.”
I argued recently that just as the majority of conservative Christians today conveniently ignore the fact that the founders of their movement were segregationists, acting as if they’ve always had their doors open to black folks, so too will many of them one day marry gay couples and baptize their children as if that’s how it’s always been. The damning truth for the religious right is that, aside from some hardcore true believers, most people just don’t care that much anymore. In 2004, banning same-sex marriage got people to the polls. In 2014, it’s no longer an easy sell.
Will Southerners vote for marriage equality? Eventually, if it comes to that. The Supreme Court will likely rule broadly on the issue in the near future, and states like Alabama and Mississippi will once again be dragged into treating people justly by the United States Constitution, and for a time, there will be a backlash among those extreme religious conservatives. But I predict that once the dust settles, most Southerners will get over it pretty fast. A funny thing about marriage equality is that, the longer a state or nation has it, the more that people support it. Hate groups like the Family Research Council and the AFA rely on people’s fears of the unknown. When it’s “those gays” in San Francisco, it’s easier to demonize us. But as otherwise anti-gay people in Jackson, Birmingham, Little Rock and all over the South are increasingly being forced to confront the fact that “those gays” are more accurately described as “our neighbors, that married couple with those two sweet kids,” that fear of the unknown is falling away. It’s hard to sell “they’re trying to recruit your kids!” when “they” are your friends and family, woven into the fabric of your churches, neighborhoods and communities. Southerners will, for the most part, eventually shrug their shoulders, drop a few well-timed “bless their hearts,” and just move on.
And a time will come when the only question left will simply be, “have you had enough to eat, honey?”