Below The Belt: 15 Days In The Queer South

Let’s go for a ride.

It’s been more than five years since I last lived south of the Mason-Dixon Line, but even still, some nights — if it’s hot enough outside, if I leave my bedroom window open, if a firefly drifts by on a breeze, my dreams loan my Southern accent back to me. My Texas drawl returns. The G’s and D’s on the ends of my words dissolve faster than sugar in a pitcher of sweet tea. The “o” sounds round themselves out. And the word “y’all” has room enough for all of us.

“Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition,” James Baldwin famously wrote in Giovanni’s Room. I’m inclined to agree. Being born in Tennessee, raised in Texas, and college-educated in Kentucky with a brief detour through Georgia, it’s not lost on me that the condition now known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was once simply referred to, by Civil War–era physicians, as “nostalgia.”

What I’m saying is, current San Francisco zip code be damned, I’m a Southerner — kind of.

As I’ve written before, I left the South because I saw no way to be my absolute self while living there. Like so many legendary children, I headed for New York City as soon as I could afford it. Five years and myriad lessons learned later, I don’t regret my decision. I do, however, regret the lack of nuance. When I left the South, I did so because I hated it — all of it. “The South” was a monolith, a singular horrifying terrain and idea. But places are just as complicated as people. The tendency to write entire states or regions off because of virulent social politics — Hello, Texas! Hi there, Virginia! — strikes me now not only as immature but cold.

Last year, North Carolina voted by a margin of 61%–39% to pass a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage (which was already prohibited in the state). I followed the news, hoping against hope that President Obama would speak out in favor of marriage equality before the vote. (He did not.) The only thing that stung worse than the sheer embarrassment of watching another state write hate into its law books was reading the deluge of tweets like these in response…

Sure, we could wave aside these comments as stray examples of foolishness from outliers with nothing of value to contribute. I’d argue, though, that extreme as they may be, these statements are only a little further down the continuum of our national tendency to mock, red-wash and, ultimately, ignore the South and its complexity. The jokes about wanting Texas to finally go ahead and secede, the rolled eyes and cynicism in response to yet another frustrating story out of Florida or Mississippi. Why would anyone bother living “down there” in the first place?

In regard to coverage of LGBT life in the South, most major outlets ignore queer life in the region almost entirely — except when tragedy has struck. “Be quiet,” goes the subtext, “unless you plan on offering further confirmation of why you deserve to be other-ed.” Why, it’s almost as if a anti-gay law, gay slur, or anti-trans hate crime has never occurred north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Discrimination against LGBT people isn’t a Southern problem; it’s an American problem. And anyway, ignoring the South also means cutting ourselves off from the amazing people, places, and stories — such stories! — the Queer South has to offer us.

So, let’s go for a ride. A 15-day road trip, in fact. Houston, New Orleans, Atlanta, Charlotte, Richmond, and, just in time for the Supreme Court’s decision on DOMA and Prop 8, Washington, D.C. The gay bar scene in Houston is booming, the queer rappers in New Orleans are legendary, and hell, I might even Holy Ghost stomp with the church queens in Atlanta. I am so excited to go on this journey and for you to come along with me.

There will be a page set up soon featuring a map that tracks my route and tweets (#QueerSouth) from the road. If you know about interesting people, places, and events I should look into covering, email me a tip at saeed.jones@buzzfeed.com. The trip starts on Saturday, June 15. Buckle up, y’all. Saeed is at the wheel!

Houston, Texas - June 15

New Orleans, Louisiana - June 19

Atlanta, Georgia - June 23

Charlotte, North Carolina - June 25

Richmond, Virginia - June 27

Washington, D.C. - June 28

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