Coming Out Gay In The South
It’s not always easy being a member of the LGBT community, and many factors go in to how difficult it is to get by. Having a family that supports you is a big one, but time and location also take their toll. It was a lot more challenging thirty, or even twenty, years ago to be an open LGBT person in most parts of America. But some of those same struggles exist, and I can attest to having grown up in Texas’ Bible Belt.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, the area dubbed as the Bible Belt is a swath of the South that’s known for its religious conservatism. We had prayer in school and before football games, chastity dances and sex simply didn’t happen before you were married. It’s a bit of an understatement to say that homosexuality was not tolerated.
But there are a lot of rules in this kind of culture, largely unspoken, and if you haven’t grown up there it can be hard to suss them all out. Blessed or cursed with that particular origin, I’m aware of one of the core rules of any Southern group: you don’t air your dirty laundry in public.
Appearances are very important, you see. Everyone can gossip about how you’re a gossip but as long as no one does or says anything directly to you, face is saved. We can all smile and talk and act like friends and then go back to being cattily passive aggressive after the fact. Essentially you don’t want to be caught as the one making a scene, making things awkward for other people or making a mess. That stereotype about Southern politeness and hospitality is absolutely true, and it rules over all levels of society.
That was the real conundrum. Having come out in 1999, making an announcement in a social group like this was certain to cause waves. Even people who may have been otherwise supportive would have found it distasteful. So I thought about it for a while and finally came up with a way to use Southern society rules against itself.
I was at work one day and we were all in the break room chatting about our weekend. It was two of the men from our tax department and one of the front desk secretaries, all of whom were well known conservative church going types. The secretary mentions that she and her husband had gone to see a movie that weekend and really enjoyed it. I saw my opening and took it.
“Oh, I’ve been trying to get my girlfriend to see that with me for a week! How’d you talk him into it?” There was a half beat pause. Because you see, now if anyone said anything about homosexuality being disgusting, or making a big deal about me having a girlfriend, they’d be making a fuss. Causing a scene. Causing problems. The kind of thing that goes against absolutely every rule we unconsciously have.
The conversation resumed and the atmosphere lifted. It’s a method I’ve used my entire life now. Rather than making it seem like my information is dramatic enough to warrant a loud announcement, I put that burden on them. I treat it like something that should be accepted, should be normal, and if they think otherwise it’s on them to stop and make a big dramatic announcement. And no one wants that.
So apparently, all it takes to come out in the South is to know the rules.