Is The South Really So Bigoted?


Constance McMillen‘s high school (and its fake prom) made Mississippi look pretty bad in terms of gay rights. But there’s good evidence that the South as a whole is less narrow-minded than a few assholes make it seem.

Slate‘s Margaret Wheeler Johnson argues that McMillen’s mistreatment is not yet another example of institutionalized Southern bigotry, but “an anomaly.” She points out that Southern courts have in recent years begun to uphold the rights of gay students like McMillen, including their right to take same-sex dates to prom. She also notes that McMillen’s mother has also lived as an openly gay woman in Mississippi since her twenties, apparently happily. And she argues that both McMillen and her girlfriend are fully integrated into Southern culture, not outsiders:

[…] Constance herself is the kind of young woman a state entirely mired in bigotry can’t produce. Though she doesn’t belong to a church, McMillen describes herself as an “open-minded Christian” and a strong believer in monogamy, which she expresses in a distinctly evangelical way. “Actually, I have a promise ring from my girlfriend, and I’m pretty sure that within the next year she’s going to propose. Of course, we wouldn’t get married until she’s 18.” One male student once asked McMillen’s girlfriend, “How can you be redneck and gay at the same time?” which seems tantamount to proof that the woman in front of him had that figured out. McMillen would like to live in Los Angeles when she gets older, but that is due in part to many, many hours spent watching the L Word. Her girlfriend says she doesn’t want to come because she can’t hunt there.

Obviously none of this cancels out the injustice of canceling the prom rather than letting McMillen bring her girlfriend, then holding a secret prom while she and disabled students went to a decoy event. The fact that this could happen at all suggests that prejudice is still alive in Mississippi, at least in McMillen’s town. But just because the South still has problems doesn’t mean we should write it off as a backwater that gay teens — and those with socially liberal views — should leave as soon as possible. Especially since McMillen’s girlfriend doesn’t seem to want to.

People on the coasts sometimes respond to bad news out of the South, whether it’s abortion restrictions or homophobia, with exhortations that right-thinking people get the hell out, or even boycott the area if they don’t live there. This happens with Midwestern states too — but both regions are also full of people who support women’s rights and gay rights, and women and gay people who love aspects of their regional culture and would never want to leave. And it’s not like there’s no prejudice on the coasts. When I lived in Iowa, my home state of California passed Proposition 8. Meanwhile, Iowa legalized gay marriage.

Every area has its troubles, but when we dismiss whole swathes of the country as backward, we play into the hands of people like Sarah Palin who want to divide us up into “coastal elites” and “real Americans.” It is possible to be a redneck and gay, to be a lesbian who hunts, and, unfortunately, to be a Californian and a bigot. We shouldn’t assume that Southern culture is incompatible with respect for human rights, or that everyone has to live like Californians or New Yorkers (who all live differently, anyway) in order to live morally.

Southern Belle [Slate]

Earlier: Lesbian Teen Sent To Decoy Prom While Other Kids Party At Real One

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