On being Southern and trying not to hate it

The author, her wife Donna, and their son, Read

“What do you really think about this bathroom bill?” my 85-year-old mother asked me this morning. I was talking to her from my car, in the parking lot where I was waiting for Donna to finish a doctor’s appointment.

How could I even begin to tell her what I really think about this bill? Let’s see. I’m embarrassed to live in this state. I’m scared that in some parts of the state my family could be thrown out of a restaurant or, worse, refused medical care.

Is it even worth explaining that at the college where I work we have already heard from parents who are afraid to send their kids to this backwards state, or who don’t want to send their hard-earned money to a state that supports discrimination? Or that a recruiter from a graduate program that is a perfect fit for many of our students has cancelled her trip to our college because her state has banned all travel to this state?

My mom is a yellow-dog democrat, and she loves my family even if it has been a challenge for her to adjust her expectations of me. The truth is, although she would have preferred an Ozzie and Harriet life for me, she and the rest of my family have embraced us. It helps that we are “the good gays.” We are, at least, Harriet and Harriet. I work a heavy full-time job; Donna works a fulfilling part-time job; Read rocks the second grade; and we all live a peaceful, drama-free life in Asheville. One of my former bosses said that Donna and I could both pass as “doctors’ wives,” and by that she meant we could pass for straight—the “doctors” she had in mind were clearly men. Although it sickened me at the time, my boss meant it as a supreme compliment.

It’s true that to some extent Donna and I both conform to traditional female gender identities even as we both fully embrace less traditional sexual identities as lesbians. To some extent, that means we are not targets of the inflammatory rhetoric that has accompanied HB2 in North Carolina and HB1523 in Mississippi, the two states to which we have the closest ties at the moment.

But that is small solace when we hear the kinds of things being said about us, our families, and many of our friends; we are not immune to the ways LGBTQ people are being characterized in these discussions, and we certainly are not immune to fears that we could be humiliated or, worse yet, that our innocent eight-year-old son could be humiliated by being refused service, all in the name of religious freedom. It’s that last part, that this could all be in the name of religion, that is particularly hurtful for this preacher’s daughter.

So I don’t tell my mother everything that I think about this situation.

“Mom, you have already used a public bathroom in a stall next to someone who has transitioned to a woman,” I try to emphasize. “That’s not really what HB2 is about. It’s only a little about bathrooms. It’s also about allowing people to refuse service to LGBTQ people based on religious beliefs—including to me,” I tell her. “And the worst part is, they aren’t even required to post signs that would warn me that they’re bigots,” I add, knowing that she remembers all too well the racist signs from earlier civil rights fights.

Silence. I have ventured too far into the subject, it seems. My mother raised the issue with me because I’m the only one of her four offspring who has remained on the left in politics. Even if I’m further to the left than she is, at least we can talk about most issues. She will not discuss politics with my Republican brothers.

“Well, I like Bruce Springsteen, but I don’t want to use the bathroom with him,” she quips. And with that, our conversation is over. I cannot tell whether she is blurring some of the facts about Bruce’s choice to cancel his show in North Carolina—given her hearing this is entirely possible—or whether she is just trying to be funny. Regardless, we are finished with our morning civics lesson.

It’s getting a little warm, so I go on inside to wait for Donna. She is getting an MRI, and her back pain is such that we both felt it was safer if I drove her. Her orthopedist is very kind to her and to me. I don’t know and don’t much care about his politics, but he has taken very good care of her, and I have always felt that he welcomed me into her appointments. He talked directly with me after her surgery and seemed to recognize me fully as Donna’s spouse in all of the ways it matters when a loved one is in the hospital. So we didn’t think twice about my going to the doctor with her, and I probably wouldn’t have again except that someone waiting on another patient is on the phone across the waiting room.

“You should hear Tim talk about what’s going on at his college,” she practically shouts into the phone. “He says some students say they are gender fluid. Gender fluid. I said, gender fluid. He says that students want to decide which gender they are on which days, and they want Tusculum [College, in Tennessee] to let them use whichever bathroom they feel like using.” She’s scoffing. This is her morning comedy routine.

Somehow her conversation turns to another acquaintance. “Well, that house is in both of their names. They can get married now if they want to in North Carolina. Don’t that just beat all?” This isn’t the rhetoric that is threatening to me. If anything, I am more amused by the fact that she is talking through all of this in a doctor’s waiting room where everyone else can hear her. What is startling to me, though, is that it never occurs to her that what she is saying might be offensive to anyone else in the room. Even more startling, as I meet eyes with her to at least try to suggest that she could lower her voice, it’s clear to me that she doesn’t care.

On some level, the reality of HB2 sinks in for me in moments like these. It’s not that there will be an issue for me with which bathroom to use. It’s not likely that in Asheville I’m going to be thrown out of a restaurant. But these laws, and all of the painful rhetoric around them, do begin to wear on me.

They remind me that I am and have been on this roller coaster for far too long. We lived in Jackson, Mississippi, in 2004, when the state overwhelmingly passed an amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriage. We held our own commitment ceremony in 2006 in the home of dear friends, surrounded by more than a hundred friends who voiced their support for us. In 2007, we moved from Mississippi as we were trying to conceive because we believed that North Carolina would keep us close to our families—hers in Mississippi and mine in South Carolina—but give us a bit more breathing room. We were certain that North Carolina would give us greater protections and that our little family would be less of a talking point here. Indeed, our work, our doctors, our neighborhood, even Read’s barber seem unconcerned with our lives. Yet, somehow, this remains a political issue, and our state became a battleground again.

When our son was five, North Carolina passed an amendment to its constitution banning same-sex marriage. He was growing fast, we had to figure out things like childcare, preschool, and learning differences, so we were too busy living our lives to worry too much about how other people viewed them. Fast forward to the summer of 2013, and we were visiting our best friend in Jackson, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Edie Windsor in United States vs. Windsor, striking down parts of the Defense of Marriage Act and cancelling Edie’s tax debt on the home she shared with her longtime wife, Thea. We were stunned that the court seemed to have taken our side, and we were anxious to see how this would change our lives in North Carolina. More than a year later, in the fall of 2014, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to hear an appeal on a prior court’s decision rendering the state’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Our marriage in New York from the previous summer would now stand in North Carolina. We celebrated, but we did so briefly because we quickly recognized that our friends in Mississippi were still waiting. They didn’t wait long, and we celebrated with them just a month later when a ruling came down from the District Court of Southern Mississippi. Then that decision was stayed, pending an appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Then the Supreme Court ruled on Obergefell v. Hodges, and finally last summer we began to believe that our rights would be recognized along with the rights of our friends. We thought the insults, the confusion, the bigotry were coming to an end. We thought that Obergefell was our Loving v. Virginia. And now this.

Our North Carolina governor signed House Bill 2 immediately after it was sent to him. The outcry began as soon as he’d signed it. Mississippi’s governor, Phil Bryant, supposedly considered his own state’s bill before signing it, so the outcry in Mississippi built up as the state waited and then exploded when the bill became law. Daily, other states ban travel to North Carolina and Mississippi; musicians cancel concerts; organizations cancel conferences; and businesses cancel plans to open shop. Although I appreciate their positions, I also find myself worried about the penalties all of us in these Southern states will be made to pay because our governors and our legislators adopted such bigotry. The tax base that is now leaving North Carolina—in solidarity with LGBTQ folks but nevertheless hurting real LGBTQ people who need the jobs or need the taxes to support our children in schools—is hard not to experience as insult to injury.

The truth is that I feel stuck between the bigotry of the laws both North Carolina and Mississippi have adopted and the sense of place I have as a child of the South, a sense that underwrites my love of the rich culture and the people. I do not want to be thrown out of a restaurant because an owner’s religion somehow tells her not to feed me. But I also don’t want to be characterized as an ignorant, bigoted Southerner by the rest of the country and, recently, more than a few other countries. The ironies for me in recent weeks have been priceless. Mississippi’s tourism magazine came out just days after the new law. Out, Black, lesbian newscaster, Robin Roberts, is on the cover welcoming tourists to Mississippi. When same-sex marriage was argued in the Fifth Circuit of Appeals, it was argued in the John Minor Wisdom building, a fact noted by attorney Roberta Kaplan when she cited the proud civil rights history of Judge Wisdom. And when Judge Carlton Reeves issued his ruling, finding the Mississippi same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional, he did so making connections with racial history in the state. He even quoted William Faulkner’s famous line in his ruling: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Other lines from Faulkner come to life for me when I try to make sense of the past few weeks of bathroom bills and increased bigotry. I’ve understood the conversation from Absalom, Absalom! for a long time now, but I’m not sure these lines have resonated as fully for me until now:

“‘Tell me about the South,’ said Shreve McCannon. ‘What do they do there? How do they live there? Why do they? Tell me one more thing. Why do you hate the South?’

‘I don’t hate it,’ Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately; ‘I don’t hate it,’ he said. ‘I don’t hate it. . . . I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!’”

Quentin’s defensiveness suggests that he may not be telling the whole truth. Fact is, it’s still hard for Southerners to tell that whole truth: That we can love these places dearly even as they disappoint, anger, and hurt us—that the South is a richer place than either these bigots or their non-Southern critics understand—that we can stick up for the South we know (and its people) even as we work to reform and reimagine it.

Which is to say: I don’t hate the South. But God knows I’d also like my legislature to stop giving me reasons to.