America’s south embraces bigotry of the past, but a new coalition is fighting back

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Southern states are reinforcing the remnants of prejudice with new laws that open the door to discrimination against LGBT citizens

The date was a watershed for all Americans. But 26 June 2015 was an especially important day for LGBT citizens like me. The US supreme court ruled 5-4 that same-sex marriage was the law of the land. A major civil rights issue, nearly 50 years and millions of dollars in the making, had come to a victorious conclusion. Yet as soon as the rainbow and American flags were unfurled, so too were plans for a backlash.

The backlash was centred in the so-called red states, mostly socially conservative areas with a history of voting for those likely to maintain traditional values, including the suppression of open acknowledgment of non-heterosexual orientations as healthy, socially acceptable and normal.

The south of today is not, to quote its most historically famous critic HL Mencken, the Sahara of the Bozart. Despite the fact there have always been anti-intellectual, progress-resistant, or socially oppressive and repressive elements within southern culture, the south is not to be defined by its lowest common denominator. It is arguably the most important cultural region in the story of the US. Southerners are beloved for our humour, our food, our forthright view of life, our sporty verve and a relationship with the English language that is unparalleled, not just because of the output of Faulkner, Welty, Williams, Gaines and Walker, but because that tradition moved with the descendants of southerners in migration and exile from the prose of Toni Morrison to the poetry of Merle Haggard to Truman Capote and James Baldwin.

We are also a people respected for our relationship to faith, even when people disagree with how some of us practise it. Strong elements of southern folk culture continue to influence American and world civilisation in ways out of proportion to other US regions, in part due to the souths strong role in relation to African Americans and migratory whites.

All of this pride comes with a caveat. We are a people whose cultural achievements have come at great human cost from Native removal and genocide to racially defined chattel slavery and segregation and terrorism, to the devaluation of womens rights, to bodily and mental self-determination and the consistent prioritising of an imagined superior leisurely class (mostly white, mostly male, mostly oppressive) over others. The south cannot brag that much of its best was produced in a golden age for all but rather despite it, in the midst of hell.

And yet we stand at a moment when national and regional strides in civil and human rights are set to be pushed back further, when the agreement with hell has been given an extension. The same south that has seen a reversal in the fortunes of the marginalised and oppressed, despite its past, still flirts with the insanity of repeating elements of its unforgivable past.

Bruce
Bruce Springsteen is among the US music celebrities refusing to play in states with so-called freedom laws Photograph: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

The pushback against LGBT rights and protections and the attempt to codify them into how citizens interact has been decidedly placed in a bundle of resistance against a newer new south. Just as the North Carolina law is bundled with suppression of wage increases, it comes on the heels of agenda-based law that has sought to suppress the African-American vote, tighten the vice on women and their bodies and, in essence, keep a large part of southern society in a very old, familiar and unfortunate place.

Look at any series of maps detailing what ails the US and the south is likely to stand out with an almost solid belt that tells the story of the consequences of socio-cultural oppression. From race- and class-based environmental pollution to childhood obesity, teen pregnancy and the consumption of addictive substances, the south repeatedly comes out on top, while on progressive achievement, positive economic growth and education it continues to lag behind.

You cannot help but notice the overlay of slavery and its traditional power base against the belts of shame that the south continues to wear into the 21st century. This is not just about the legacy of old oppressions it is about perpetuating the mindset that produced them and creating a further lag for what could be an even greater and more significant American region.

The words I have for the south are clear and unapologetically centred in social justice and resistance: Let my people go. For too long we have lived in the shadow of hypocritical narratives of a moral majority, hiding beneath the crinoline hoop skirt of false pretences of moral and ethical purity, despite a godless world. The elected officials that seem to feel called to defend the honour of their faith, family and their self-defined helpless and innocent citizens are reinforcing a homophobia and intolerance in a region that, at one time, looked the other way while countless African American families were broken up, thousands of black women were raped and forced to bear the children of their slaveholders and others, and many other injustices were forged in the name of not only religious authority, but state sovereignty and the expressed will of a privileged class.

The south of today is no less hypocritically puritanical, as anyone riding down a southern highway can attest to: one side of the road might have three crosses and billboards pointing the way to heaven; while the other side advertises the nearest adult media centre and strip club.

Governor Pat McCrory, of North Carolina, wears the same smug smile of the segregationists of old, even as he claims to seek to protect the women and children of his state. Mississippis governor, Phil Bryant, declares a month-long celebration of Confederate Heritage and signed into law a decidedly harsher anti-LGBT law, and other states such as Tennessee and Georgia are moving to follow suit all in the name of religious freedom and, you guessed it, states rights. A casual listen to a public radio programme in Mississippi even had a state legislator suggesting that corporate and celebrity pushback and boycotts were a clear example of people from up there unfairly telling the people down here what to do and how to live their lives. From Kentucky to Tennessee, a poison is spreading and only moral suasion and an appeal to common values of fairness, equality and unity can be the antidote.

Its this cyclical insanity, built around repeating the worst parts of its past, that will doom the south to its old incarnation if projects such as the Moral Monday, led by the Rev William Barber in North Carolina, and the Project One America initiative, through the Human Rights Campaign, do not succeed. Efforts such as these might be the souths last stand against a recurring pattern of legalised discrimination with infinitesimal consequences.

The issue here isnt conservative versus liberal the souths growing liberal and progressive wing is meeting minds with more moderate and conservative elements to redefine socio-cultural priorities. Many of the souths youth will simply not carry the same attitudes about LGBT people into the future and perhaps thats what the politicians are afraid of.

The south is also becoming more politically and culturally diverse. As Georgia and North Carolina become more attractive to people from other parts of the US, those people bring with them more than just words and dietary preferences, they bring different social mores. Southern schools in larger metropolitan areas retain students from other parts of the country who like the warmer climate and lower cost of living. Corporate offices and businesses, such as the film industry, also bring people relocating to the south for work.

African-American reverse migration and greater political engagement among blacks, as well as the growing Latino presence, means much of the red south may be going purple at a rate with which the old guard cant keep up. The new laws serve as a checkpoint to discourage an influx of people from all walks of life who might otherwise use their power, influence, presence and money to remake the south in the image of a more self-actualised region, fully aware of the strength in diversity of its people.

Yet, at the end of the day, this is not just about not repeating the past. This is about the millions of LGBT people who live within the borders of the census south, most of whom profoundly value the culture and history and people of our region. Many of them live in communities where the pain and isolation of being told you are different from houses of worship to schools and even your kitchen table means a lack of familial support in a place where family is central to survival.

The lack of health and social resources contribute to the staggering rise of sexually transmitted infections and HIV, which disproportionately affect LGBT people, especially those of colour. The coalition building between clergy of colour and white evangelicals to promote homophobia and discrimination also has the consequence of further harming the relationship between activists across a wide spectrum of issues and furthering old racial divides. And yet the LGBT people of the south endure, as they always have, and create, as they always have, a world of their own both in plain sight and hidden in the heart.

It is critical that we celebrate the fact that many southerners are standing up and having their voices heard: This isnt us; Not my state. I can only hope this tide of engagement will one day include the words Not my south. Its time to take our region back. If we do not, we will not see a cultural flowering as in the past as people resist, as they did before, but a wilting as they reconcile themselves to a stagnant pain and the death of the American dream.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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