Myths and Facts: LGBTQ in the South

One of the more interesting (and difficult) things about myths was summed up well by the late Joseph Campbell: myths “are not to be judged as true or false, but as effective or ineffective, maturative or pathogenic.”  It may seem like common sense to combat a disagreeable sentiment by using a retort about what is empirically true, but factual accuracy is not the function of or purpose for a myth.  Myths are designed to accomplish something, primarily to aid in having some aspect of life make sense to the people who create or embrace them. 

In my readings, I have encountered instance after instance of historians, scholars, and writers alluding to the Southerner’s need for “concreteness,” and there are few things less concrete than sexuality, gender, and identity. So, Southern culture has created and embraced a garden variety of myths to simplify the complex matters associated with people who don’t conform to a Western, Judeo-Christian, heteronormative standard.

Many of these beliefs and myths are rooted in the South’s penchant for Biblical literalism and for its reliance on the Old Testament as a source of wisdom. Whether it’s a conclusion that relies on interpretation, like the story of Ham and Noah in Genesis 9:20–27, or whether it’s a passage that contains outright condemnation, as in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Southerners who oppose same-sex relationships can find their supporting evidence in the Old Testament. Then, in the New Testament, though the Gospels don’t have Jesus even mentioning the subject, there are Paul’s admonitions in 1 Corinthians 6:9–10, 1 Timothy 1:10, and Romans 1:26–27.  These passages lead many Christians, not just Southerners, to claim that the Bible is “clear” on same-sex relationships.  (The flip side of the coin, however, are verses in the Gospels that tell Christians to love one another and not to judge, e.g. John 13:34 or Luke 6:37.)

It shouldn’t be surprising that the South’s conservative, patriarchal, heavily Protestant culture would foster beliefs that are anti-LGBTQ and underpin them with narratives supported by the passages from the Bible. However, in the five decades since the 1969 Stonewall Riot, America’s slow-growing disdain for anti-LGBTQ discrimination has occurred alongside the South’s slow-going assimilation into the wider nation. These simultaneous trends have put a microscope the South’s traditional ways and beliefs, among them a lack of acceptance of LGBTQ people and people with nonbinary gender identities.  

In a broad sense, the South has been traditionally intolerant, though recent studies show that a significant number of LGBTQ people live in the region.  A population map compiled by the Movement Advancement Project, an “independent, nonprofit think tank that provides rigorous research, insight and communications that help speed equality and opportunity for all,” offers some state-level estimates. Those numbers vary, ranging from nearly 100,000 in Arkansas and Mississippi to nearly half-million in Georgia, and almost 900,000 in Florida. UCLA Law School’s Williams Institute also has a map that shows percentages of the LGBTQ people among state populations; in Southern states, those figures are between 3% and 4.5%.  While that may seem like small proportion, raw numbers add up to around two million LGBTQ people living in the South. 

And the PBS program Prideland, which aired first in June 2020, zooms in on those broad statistical figures. The series’ tagline is “See how LGBTQ Americans are finding ways to live authentically in the modern South.” Prideland offers a 55-minute special, which is then broken into seven- to eight-minute episodes with subject matter ranging from adoption to healthcare. Among the first things that the host, actor Dyllón Burnside, explains to audiences is: there are more LGBTQ people living in the South than in any other part of the country, even though some of the nation’s most intolerant laws and practices exist in the region. Watching the special, one thing I noticed was the acknowledgment of the beliefs and myths that drive the policies.

This month is Pride Month, and though it’s still difficult to imagine Southerners with anti-LGBTQ beliefs taking time to learn more about the facts, the Movement Advancement Project’s data sets show us that, despite anyone’s beliefs, Southern life includes LGBTQ people. Prideland brings that fact into view by showing activists and ordinary people living day-to-day lives. Southern culture may have its intolerant (even hateful) beliefs and narratives, but Southerners are like people anywhere else: it’s harder to condemn or, worse, hate someone you know personally— someone you work with or live by, someone whose kids you see playing in the yard or at the ball field, someone whose actual life defies the negative assumptions. 

As the editor of a project about beliefs, myths, and narratives, I’m interested to receive essays about how these beliefs and situations affect real Southerners. Certainly, there are the dueling polemics: that homosexuality is sinful and that hate is wrong.  But real people meet and live and interact in the everyday space between those two positions. As an editor, I’m curious to know whether and how they are, as Campbell puts it, “maturative or pathogenic.” Please consider this an invitation to submit an essay about it.

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