North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia—where do these states get their morals? It is often said that they get them from their religion—this is, after all, the Bible Belt, which has been, in itself, enough to drive many of the rest of us entirely away from that region and that religion. Even the religions that don’t seem to be very racist or homophobic today, like the Episcopal Church, have been weak and ineffectual until very recently in fighting against those who are racist and homophobic.
On April 7, two days ago, I was reading Talking Points Memo, drinking my coffee, and counted four articles, here and here and here and here, all posted on that day on TPM, on the politics of religion in the South and the fertile soil it provides for racists and homophobes and on the backlash in the South against recent advances in LGBTQ civil rights. On April 7 were also articles on Huffington Post and elsewhere on the same subject. See here and here and here and here. The South seems to be going crazy, and the national press is noticing.
I was born in Columbia, South Carolina in 1939, and I lived there until September 1957, when I went away to a school in Tennessee, which, I realized years later, was just like Columbia when I was growing up. I understood certainly by the time I was sixteen that my culture was racist, but it was another ten or fifteen years before I realized that it was also homophobic, that what it said about being gay was a result of societal hatred, and it was even longer before I began to understand that the root of all this was the religion just about everybody shared. Christianity.
About ten years ago, I was invited to read from Ceremonies—which is about the response of gay people to the murder of a young gay man by three homophobic teenagers—to a gathering of my classmates from Dreher High School, in Columbia. I did, and afterward a man I had once known in high school said, “I had planned to buy one of your books, but then I found out it was about gay people, so I’m not going to.” There were about twenty people there, and two or three men and women told me afterward, privately, that they had gay children. They spoke of the religious people in the group of our classmates. These religious people were people to be feared, they said. One non-religious person said, “I would never let any of these [religious] people know I have a gay child.”
Later, there was what I came to call “the Ceremonies wars,” which was a series of emails started by one of my classmates who said something like “homosexuality is unnatural, and that’s non-negotiable,” prompting more emails over the next several months. Five or six people wrote in support of my book, and several in opposition. Most kept silent. I did OK, defending myself and my book, and the only constraint I felt was my early training, which mistakenly led me to want to be polite, to temper my responses to my classmates and to show respect to them. Reading them over now, I see I could have been more rude and more brutal in defending myself. I was too polite.
In the South, bigotry acts like the tide. It comes in and drowns everything, then it recedes back down the beach and exposes hard sand, then it comes back in and drowns everything again. But it never goes entirely away, and it is always going to come back. Even when it is way down the beach and exposing all that white sand, it is gathering force to come back in and drown every fucking thing.
In another post on the same day, in the Washington Post, Sarah Kaplan reports on anthropological research into the connection between human sacrifice and highly stratified societies and concludes, “Among the 27 highly stratified cultures, where inherited class differences were strictly enforced with little opportunity for social mobility, a whopping 65 percent committed ritual killings.” Let there be no mistake here. The purpose of homophobic laws is to stigmatize a population, to make them less than, other than, fundamentally different from the population that has access to the full benefits of the culture. The laws being passed in the South are only more modern versions of the human sacrifices performed in early stratified societies. “The victims were almost always of low social status, and the more stratified the culture was, the more prevalent ritual killings were likely to be.” So, Bernie Sanders’ argument about our economic inequality is now associated with our society’s treatment of queers. Here is the connection that we have always surmised was there but found difficult to describe. Here is the connection between the lynching of black people like the murder of Emmett Till and the queer bashing and murder of Charles Howard or Matthew Shepard. To address questions of homophobia, we have to simultaneously address all those factors that prevent our culture from being egalitarian. And religion is a signifier of inequality.
Michelangelo Signorile writes on Huffington Post, also on April 7, that looking at one particular victory for the LGBTQ community—say, the Obergefell decision from SCOTUS—is to miss the fact that the war for our lives is still going on, and the proof of that is in the other nine articles published on the web that day. Here is Signorile:
Tenneseee and South Carolina are now moving to pass bills determining what public rest room transgender people must use. Kansas passed its own sweeping anti-LGBT “religious freedom” law, with almost no one noticing, two weeks ago. Missouri is moving ahead with one, as are other states across the country, all part of a full-blown assault. It’s great to see businesses standing up, and to see mayors and governors from cities and states across the country that support LGBT rights banning official travel to the anti-LGBT states.
But this is still about what LGBT citizens and activists do, and how we approach this assault. Hopefully we’re realizing — and the seemingly misdirected LGBT leadership is realizing — that the enemies of equality will not stop. And hopefully we’re realizing that, through trial and error, those opposed to LGBT equality will come up with ever more ugly and successful campaigns — like “bathroom panic“ — to strip us of our rights. Because, after them, our biggest enemy is our own complacency.
The enemy is inequality. The solution is in us. The tactic is clear and has been proven effective. It is to fight.