On National Coming Out Day, I think back on my own experience of coming out twenty years ago, the risks involved, and how much I both gained and lost. Many things have changed since then; there are more out public figures than I can count – ranging from U.S. Senators to movie stars to soccer players — and the movement for LGBT equality is unstoppable. I am sometimes tempted to think that coming out is no longer the act of courage that it once was. But then I think about Mississippi.
As a result of my work with Family Equality Council, I know that Mississippi has the greatest percentage of LGBT couples raising children in the U.S. At the same time, Mississippi provides absolutely no legal protections for its LGBT residents, not even through a single local ordinance. On top of that, the social climate in many communities is such that discrimination against LGBT people is open and encouraged. Just last week, the Southern Poverty Law Center was forced to bring suit against the town of Shannon, Mississippi because its mayor and board of aldermen refused to reconsider their blatantly discriminatory denial of zoning approval to a woman with all the necessary licenses to re-open a bar serving LGBT customers. The board cited a concern for “public health and safety,” although the opposition voiced at the meeting was clearly rooted in bias and religious objections to homosexuality, perpetuating and fostering a climate that is hostile to the LGBT families living in Mississippi. After all, when Town Hall is against you, it makes it so much easier for other people and institutions to deny acceptance – much less, equality – to you and your family. After attempts to educate and advocate, sometimes you have to litigate.
But even we lawyers know that litigation is ultimately not the way to change a deeply rooted anti-gay culture. It must come through education. And, sometimes, these moments of education are themselves a result of the underlying bias that exists in certain parts of our nation. An example of this is what happened at a production last week of “The Laramie Project” at The University of Mississippi (“Ole Miss”) in Oxford. Heckling students, hurling gay slurs, disrupted the play about Matthew Shepard (http://www.lgbtqnation.com/2013/10/ole-miss-students-football-team-disrupt-laramie-project-play-with-gay-slurs/). Even though the students involved (at least some of whom were required to attend for a class) could not be identified, the university has responded by requiring those in attendance to meet with the cast and receive training on sensitivity.
I was especially disheartened by this ugly incident on a university campus that is striving to create an atmosphere of inclusion and safety for all students. I know this because, representing Family Equality Council, I participated in a symposium at the University of Mississippi School of Law this past March sponsored by the law school’s LGBT student group, and we had a wonderful exchange of information and ideas about helping the LGBT community in Mississippi and supporting our families. At the time I took for granted that it was safe to be out in Oxford. But now I wonder.
There was an article published by CNN earlier this year that gave a close-up look at what it’s like to live as lesbian or gay in small town Mississippi (http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/24/opinion/sutter-franklin-county-mississippi-lgbt/index.html). It was a stark reminder to those of us who are out in all facets of our lives that we are privileged, and there are many LGBT couples and families throughout this country who do share that privilege. By becoming visible – even openly talking about their relationships – LGBT parents risk alienation from their family, their church, and their community, not to mention loss of employment, or worse. The impact this has on the children of these families cannot be overstated.
We cannot forget that many of our families are still caught in the same “Catch-22” that I first recognized years ago: if we come out, we risk everything; but only by coming out do we become visible to our families, our friends and neighbors, who can then understand the importance of acceptance and inclusion. The more of us who come out, the safer it will be for everyone to do so. Even in Mississippi.