I was 18 the first time I fell in love with another guy. He lived in Cleveland, Mississippi. It was about two hours from Madison, the polished upper-middle class city just north of Jackson where I lived with my mom and stepdad.
One weekend, when my parents were away visiting family in Chicago, I drove the two hours to see him. The span of highway that cut through the Delta was like exploring a terrain that had not been touched by modern society. I write that with the utmost admiration. It exemplified the calm beauty of the state that raised me. I may have recently succumbed to the rush of New York City life, but I often still long for two-lane highways of Mississippi. It's an escape with a view.
In Jackson, there was a borderline dilapidated building on a block of Roach Street that was on the verge of revival. A friend from high school, who exuded an exceptional confidence, brought me one weekend. Friday and Saturday nights it opened to a local crowd of outcasts. Gay men, lesbians, trans people, and the friends who loved them came in for a drink, a game of pool, and whatever Ke$ha had released that week. (She spelled it with a dollar sign then.)
For everyone else, it was a place to be themselves. For me, it was a place to find myself. It was where I came of age. It was where I got drunk off Smirnoff Ice out of water bottles. It was where I made friends who convinced me to face my fear of public dancing. It was where I had a few of those truly earth-shattering kisses that you can only experience when you’re naïve enough to believe in things like love at first sight.
A view of the historic Hotel King Edward from the parking lot of a borderline dilapidated gay bar on Roach Street.
Outside those four walls, it took time to come into my own. I came out to my family after I graduated high school, and they made an effort to accept it. The few friends I kept touch with from high school began to diminish one by one. Some I lost to the casual conclusion that takes place with most adolescent comraderies. Others showed their true colors when I embraced mine.
When I left home the first time, it seemed like the only option. There was nothing in Mississippi for me anymore. I had to know what was out there to appreciate what I had.
People in the South have a way about them. Things move slower, but they don’t stand still. If you look at the surface, you only see this image of southern ignorance, a police state notorious for racist and anti-LGBT attitudes. What you don’t see are the queer kids defying tradition to change the future, the adults who’ve abandoned their generation’s outdated moral codes, and the numerous business owners with rainbow stickers in their windows welcoming all customers. You miss out on the entire community of people who balance a southern style of warm, laidback hospitality with a progressive approach to the state they’ve known their whole lives. They vote at every local election and even wave flags outside the governor’s mansion when he neglects his people.
Mississippi may never produce a positive national headline in my lifetime. As long as men with limited views of the world hold power, they’ll wield it in the only direction they know. But that doesn’t mean they aptly represent their people. Some politicians are so out of touch, they don’t even know how to represent their family—as if the possibility of a gay son was unheard of for a God fearing Christian or the governor of a red state.
I recently returned home for an extended stay to figure out my next step in life. The dilapidated gay bar I visited as a teenager is now just a vacant building, and the friends I used to dance with are now just people I occasionally say hello to on Facebook. Although I've kept in touch with my first love from the Delta, he belongs to another state and another boy. It's humbling to return to the place you thought you’d left behind.
But what I didn’t expect to find was how people could actually change. Old friends had regained touch and made amends with me. My family seemed genuinely interested in my life. The community I’d grown up in had become a place where LGBT people could achieve as much as straight people without hiding who they were.
I go home and I don’t see hate. I don’t deny that it’s there because I know it is—I was just fortunate enough to avoid the worst of it. But it’s the love that speaks volumes and gives me hope. It may not be present in the governor’s mansion, but it’s growing in the people he claims to represent, and soon they will outnumber the religious freedom riders of Mississippi.
Tweet your love for the people of Mississippi @glenntgarner.