I’ve often said that the south is made up of three Gs: God, Guns, and Georgia Football. If Georgia’s not your team, you could maybe swap that last one for grid-iron, or goals. If you’re not into sports, you can swap it for some other famous southern things, like gravy, or grease-laden fried foods. What you can’t swap it for, however, are things like gay, or genderqueer. So when I knelt before a bathroom mirror at the age of 5, praying to the first G that I’d wake up the next day with a boy’s body, I had no idea of the road that lay ahead of me.
I grew up in one of the largest cities in south Georgia. My sisters and I all attended a small, private Christian school sponsored by the largest church in town. My dad became a pastor when I was around six or seven, so to say that I was raised in church would be an understatement. I often wonder how much of my life would have been different if I’d not been raised in this way, but it never seemed like there was any other option. Like most of the south, the town I’m from has a fairly large church culture. I went to the church-sponsored school, I went to the Six-Flags-Over-Jesus sized church on Wednesday nights and Sunday nights, and I went to football and basketball games on Fridays, because that’s what kids did in my town. Church and sports. That was the scene.
So why didn’t I fit into it?
I learned to pray before I learned to read. I remember the day they taught us what prayer was, and that it meant we were talking to God. I was five, and learning that God existed and that I could just talk to Him whenever I wanted to was awesome. I remember coming home that day and rushing to the bathroom, kneeling on the plush maroon bath mat in front of the sink, and tentatively saying “God? When I wake up tomorrow, can you make me a boy?” Boys got to do fun things. They played harder, ran faster, were allowed to get dirty, and they got to chase girls. Their clothes were better, their hair was shorter, and no one ever made them wear Easter dresses with lace socks or buckle shoes. Not even if their dad was the preacher. Boys had the life, and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t have it.
By the time I’d reached sixth grade, I’d given up on God changing my outsides to match how I thought I felt on the inside. I embraced tomboy-hood and ran with it. Things were going great until suddenly puberty hit, and everything started shifting into focus. I started realizing why it was that all the other girls were talking about Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Devon Sawa, and why it was that I couldn’t care less. I was head over heels for a female classmate, and I immediately knew that the way I was feeling wasn’t OK. I did my best to hide it, to push it down deep inside of me where no one could find it, but I was so hopelessly in love with that girl that by eighth grade I started hearing people whisper the word for what I was behind my back: gay. Hushed tones, passed notes, the way you learn and share your first swear words—that’s the way I learned what I was. And I knew immediately that it was wrong, that it was dirty, that it was a sin. I knew from the way they talked about it, by the words I had to hear from my father’s own lips while he stood in a pulpit and I sank down in a pew. This wasn’t a thing that would ever be OK.
So, I resigned myself to that fact. I knew that how I felt was a deviation from anything our culture could ever and would ever accept. I knew that if I ever wanted to be happy, it would mean breaking everyone around me, and giving them all up in favor of my own selfishness. I knew that I couldn’t do that, so I made the decision not to. Then, I met my first girlfriend.
However, before we had ever done anything more than hold hands, a student told someone in the administration that they had “caught us” together in the bathroom. We weren’t that stupid, and we had definitely never done anything in the school bathroom, but that simple accusation almost got this straight-A, honor roll student expelled. EXPELLED. I’d never even received so much as a demerit beforehand.
It was then that I truly learned how horrible it was to be this “thing” that I was accused of, and how powerful a small set of words could be. Suddenly it didn’t matter how many games I went to, or that I was in church three times a week, or even that I was in show choir and yearbook and praise band. A small set of words could potentially alter the rest of my life.
Who would ever want that?
But it turns out that it didn’t matter if I wanted it or not. It was undeniably true. I was gay, I am gay, and those bathroom whispers haven’t ever stopped. It’s been a decade since I was in high school, answering for crimes I had yet to commit, and I still get looked at the same way the students in the hall stared at me the day they called my name over the intercom. Sure, it’s not like that everywhere, but simply walking down the street while holding my fiance’s hand is something that still gives me heart palpitations, depending on what town we’re in.
I shot a documentary short last year with some of my queer friends about what life is like outside of the closet here in the deep South. I asked them to choose five words to describe their experience, and every single person said “sad.” They also said things like happy, special, secret, triumphant, but the fact that each of them included that particular word speaks volumes to me. Sad, isolated, and lonely were part of each of their descriptions. There’s little to no queer community down here. The idea of going to a bar filled with people like us is simultaneously thrilling and terrifying, because it’s so far removed from how we live our daily lives. Sure, I have my tiny family of queer folk, but I owe it solely to being a theatre major. The fine arts department at my university was a haven for all alphabet kids. It’s where I met my first real, live homos, who showed me that it was okay to be who I was. Those people taught me that I was worth loving, and they helped me learn to love and accept myself. Maybe we couldn’t walk across campus waving our metaphorical pride flags, but we could flame on as much as we wanted to in our sacred space. We were, and are, a tiny pocket of super-queers adrift in a hyper-red sea where gay panic is still very real, and homophobia can be dangerously tangible.
My fiancée and I have been trying to plan our wedding, and that’s something that immediately reminds me that where I live is not a fan of who I am. We made a list of potential venues and vendors, and we had to work a disclaimer and permission request into every booking discussion. “Now, just so you know, this is going to be a same-sex wedding, and we just need to ask if your venue and staff is okay with that.” Family and friends had interesting reactions to the change in our relationship status, too. Almost every person asked the same question after their initial congratulations: “But how? How can you do that? Or, CAN you even do that?” And we have to sort of hang our heads each time and shrug, because we honestly don’t have an answer. I don’t know how we will do it, because I don’t know what the Supreme Court will decide this summer. Our state has yet to catch up to the rest of nation in terms of equal rights, but it’s my sincerest hope that they figure it out sooner rather than later. I’m tired of loving a place that doesn’t love me back.