Wednesday, May 9, 2012

In Defense of the South.

As everyone who is not living under a rock now knows, two big gay things have happened within the last 24 hours.

1) North Carolina was all, "Listen, gay marriage is already illegal in this here state, but we're gonna make it SUPER DUPER ILLEGAL now y'all, along with a bunch of other shitty things."

At this point, you may be a little gay-marriage-discussion-ed out. I don't blame you, although I would maybe urge you to take a look at this flyer from Lambda Legal. If you're too lazy to click on that, I'll just tell you--it gives you a number for the rights legal marriage actually does grant you. It's 1,138. So, yeah. It is that important.

And while Obama's statement is just that--a statement, not a law, not an amendment, not something binding--it does matter. It matters immensely. And if you think it was just a political move--uh, so what? He still said it. Who cares about anything else. If it is a political move, it's finally the right one, and we need even more like it.

But moving beyond the major triumph of the day, I have something to say about the disappointment of the day, the yin to the yang of this gay 24 hours. And it's something that I feel like I haven't heard enough since Amendment One passed. And actually, it's more than just one thing. So here I go.

While I have never lived in North Carolina, Kathy was born and raised there, so over the almost eight years we have been together, I have spent a considerable amount of time there. We plan on one day returning to her homestate and raising children. I would like to say that I have hope that the constitutional amendment passed last night could be overturned by the time we live there, years from now, but I really don't know. Accordingly, this particular fight stung just a little deeper than normal.

Still, after reading too many “Shame on you, North Carolina”s in my Twitter feed to count, I started to feel a deep, more complex reaction to the situation. There is much shame to be had, on those who drafted Amendment One and those who supported it. There is genuine heartbreak for those who live there, genuine anger, disappointment, and rage within the whole community. I feel all those things, too. I really, really do. This bill was a particularly senselessly crafted one, harming a wide number of people in a variety of ways. And anyway, voting on human rights, on minority rights, isn’t even a thing that should happen.

But after a while, the burden of language always hangs on me, and it seems unfair to write off an entire state as being shameful. I perhaps would have been dispelling my own “Shame on you, North Carolina,” if I didn’t know so many good North Carolinians who did vote against Amendment One, who spent the day urging others to do the same; if I didn’t know there were so many people who worked so hard in the Tarheel State to fight this fight, and who are deserving of no shame at all.

But this is what we have always done, haven’t we? Written off the South as being too backwards and far behind the times for equality, or for almost anything that requires any sort of justice or logic. Having grown up above the Mason-Dixon line, I know I did. In fact, when I first met Kathy, I quipped that I would love to live anywhere in the country except for the South—because I mean, ugh, right? She raised her eyebrows in an “Oh, really?” sort of way. We often hold opinions that make no sense. I was lucky she thought I was adorable enough that she looked past my unfounded prejudice towards the place that had groomed her wonderful heart.

But here’s the thing. Nearly 40% of voters in North Carolina voted against Amendment One. That is thousands of people. Had this battle been waged even just ten years ago, I think the triumph of hate would have been far more resounding and final. You might be thinking, “What do the numbers matter when hate still won?” But I think they do. Because 40% is better than 30%, better than 20%, better than zero. It means that next time, when the next battle comes in North Carolina—well, we might lose then, too. But the time after that? Then, then we might win.

I later learned that Kathy’s public high school in North Carolina was far more progressive and gay-friendly than my small-town high school in Pennsylvania ever was. (My old high school still refuses to sponsor a GSA/QSA. Although please tell me if I'm wrong, PA folks.) It reminds me of when I reviewed The Miseducation of Cameron Post for After Ellen last month, and I described the setting of the novel in small-town Montana as one of the worst places possible to be young and gay. Thankfully, a commenter politely corrected me, stating: I'm a young lesbian in Montana.  And I have to say, in real life Montana's not that a bad a place to be gay.” And on the other, yet similar, hand, Oregon, where I live now, is often seen as a bastion of liberalism to the rest of the country, but I’ve seen and heard worse prejudices here than I have in other places I've lived. 

My point is this. Places—places like towns, and cities, and states, and regions, and countries—are so wonderfully complex. There are awful people everywhere, but it normally turns out, there are great people everywhere, too.

The history of the South, and the reality of the South now, is not to be ignored. I am not ignoring it. And since I have not lived in the reality of the South, I don't have a lot of authority to speak to it. But I have met so many wonderful, excited people from the South, read so many stories about progressive, neat Southern towns doing good things, places where I in fact would like to live, that I feel so strongly that we cannot give up on it. We owe it to all the beautiful people that live there, and we can't afford to give up on any anywhere

Let’s remember that on January 1, 2013, gay couples in Maryland—just below the Mason-Dixon line, but still below the Mason-Dixon line!—can happily gay marry to their hearts’ content. (And also that North Carolina and Virginia--Virginia!--went blue in a sea of red during the last presidential election.) There are changes happening in the South. Do not be fooled: a big, gay seed is taking root in America and blooming like never before.

Will the South get there more slowly than the Northeast corridor? Of course. Will there be parts of the South that never get there? Maybe. Will it be in our lifetimes? Who knows. But, most of it will get there.

Perhaps I feel this so strongly because of the day in 2006 when I got to sit on the floor of the Massachusetts State Capitol building, listening to debates during one of the many failed attempts to appeal that state’s same-sex marriage ruling, the first same-sex marriage legalization in the country. There were Republican state senators who had voted against same-sex marriage multiple times in the past during previous appeals, who broke down and admitted that they couldn’t do it anymore. That they had seen with their own eyes that love hadn’t ruined their state. After the final victorious vote count, all of us who were sitting out in the hall cheered, and then we sang the Star Spangled Banner. I have never had a more moving and powerful experience as an American citizen.

I know Massachusetts isn't North Carolina, but these changes of heart are happening everywhere. I can’t find video of the speeches I saw that day, but there is this one:

And more recently, this one:

There are probably more, and there will be more. The reason that politicians normally end up crying during these speeches is because it is an enormous and courageous thing to change the way one sees. The problem with my hometown, the problem with 60% of North Carolina voters, is only partly hatred, only partly misdirected religious vitriol. I think the larger portion is a lot of good people who just haven’t seen. They may literally have not known a gay person--and I mean truly known, and seen, and loved, as a person, not just as the token gay person in the room, the token gay person on the TV screen. They have not seen how love works in the same ways—meaning, in the twisted, unfathomable, unique, glorious ways love works—across all borders and boundaries. It is one of the most basic human instincts to fear what one doesn’t know. Maybe that sounds naive, but it's what I feel. Because when I think about my hometown, I think, A lot of those people could change their minds, if they just got to know me and Kathy. I think a lot of them already are changing their minds. State by state, more and more people are going to slowly start to see, and know. 

And to get there, we have to get there together—even when a portion of a population somewhere makes disappointing choices. We can be angry—we can be angry as hell—but we still have to cheer on the portion of the population that didn’t make that choice. Another basic human instinct is that after a valiant effort fails, after someone falls, the number one thing they need is someone to reach out their hand and tell them to keep going.

The Tweet that rang truest to me last night was this one.

The ignorant & fearful yelled louder. The ignorant and fearful tend to do that. It is hurtful, and infuriating, each time. But eventually, victory by victory, we will get louder. Some of the ignorant and fearful will start to be less ignorant and fearful. 

And we will win.

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