Two years ago, a Mississippi high school made headlines when it banned Constance McMillen from taking her girlfriend to prom -- parents even organized a fake prom to keep her away from the real one. And this January, Tennessee teen Philip Parker committed suicide after suffering persistent anti-gay bullying. For gay teens, it can seem like growing up in a Southern state is a sure path to harassment. But some teens are fighting back against this narrative — I talked to the members of Gay-Straight Alliances at three southern high schools to find out what it's like to be out and active in a place that's not known for its tolerance. What I learned: it's hard, but it might be getting easier. And growing up in the South can actually increase teens' appetite for change.
Dohyun Ahn, now a student at Emory University, decided to start a Gay-Straight Alliance at Walton High School in Marietta, Georgia in 2009. After he came out, he says he discovered "there was no community to help those who were coming out or to let those who had come out feel safe and comfortable." He explains,
At first, I didn't know what I could do with all this conviction, but I met a friend who suggested the idea of creating a GSA at the school. At that moment, a light bulb went on in my head, and I knew that's what I had to do.
It wasn't easy. His classmate Anne Stillwagon, who helped Ahn found the GSA, says Assistant Principal Marla Hutton tried to quash the group: "when the club was proposed, she denied it without any consultation and was extremely hostile and rude to us." But Walton's principal found out the school was legally bound to recognize the club (the ACLU has successfully campaigned, and sometimes sued, on behalf of GSAs in the past). Once it was formed, Walton's GSA still had a lot to contend with. Says Ahn,
What is interesting about my school and community is that there were no (reported) physical violence against LGBTQ people. The violence was done through microaggressions, through the climate, through sheer ignorance, through the looks and stares of judgment. [...] My school was mostly self-avowed Republicans and deeply religious Southern Baptists. And not much friendliness or support was shown for LGBTQ students. There would be a few isolated from each other here and there, but it seems that the general climate of homophobia prevented them from coming together and forming a community. The ignorance forced the few LGBTQ students to basically justify their existence over and over again, and that is very tiring and sometimes frightening.
But the GSA did begin to change things. Ahn says the club "showed that a community could exist even in a hostile environment. Just by our existence, we let LGBTQ students feel more welcome and comfortable at their school." Teachers and straight-identified kids got involved too: "During our first Day of Silence, even some teachers participated, and the organized and widespread effort showed that there were far more people at the school were accepting than anyone previously realized." Ahn says this show of support might surprise anyone who views the South as uniformly homophobic:
[T]here are a lot more supportive people here than a northerner would expect to find. Much of the assumption from the North is that the whole of the South is this monolithically oppressive place full of rednecks and hillbillies who shoot gay people on sight. But it's really not that case. There are pockets of very supportive, loving people, allies and other LGBTQ people. And I'm very glad to have found and brought together those people at my high school.
Many current students I talked to said the same thing. The South isn't all anti-gay -- but a lot of the people there are. Ben, the current president of the Walton GSA (that's him with his eyes closed in the pic above), told me that while "there is definitely homophobia alive and breathing in the South," younger people are more open-minded. He explains, "my generation is the first that grew up with the internet -- the ability to gain any piece of information from any source at any times. This gives us an advantage to see what the world thinks, not just what our parents or communities think." Anna Turkett, who helped found the GSA at the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham, said her high school was actually a liberal haven, the first in Alabama to add sexual orientation to its non-discrimination policy. Before she started there, though, she went through a lot of "isolating comments" -- a boy made fun of her for having posters of girls in her locker, parents didn't want her around their kids. And at ASFA, she found that it was actually the younger kids who were least receptive to the GSA -- they'd come from a culture where it was okay to be discriminatory, and they hadn't yet learned that ASFA wasn't like that.
Not all schools are such havens. Says Mickie Elliott, a member of the Walton GSA, "unfortunately, a lot of teachers, administrators, and students at our school are not supportive of our club. Some students call our GSA the 'gay club' or feel weirded out when you say that you are part of the Gay-Straight Alliance." Stillwagon agrees -- she says Walton's actually "a lot less homophobic than many other places in the south," but still, "I never felt fully comfortable being out." She explains,
Anti-gay churches abound (particularly Johnson Ferry Baptist Church). Many students look down on homosexuality and and most on gender variance (if they're even aware of it). Queer students either stay in the closet or, if they're open about their orientation, are known as "that gay kid". There's a lot of ignorance in the community.
Ryan, who's part of the GSA at ASFA, is even more critical:
The South is really awful. It's not really easy anywhere, but it's particularly bad down here because of how thick the religious culture is. Church is expected of you, and if you don't go to church people sneer at you and start to gossip. I knew people in middle school who basically had to be in-the-closet atheists. So when a kid comes out, or at least tries to, the parents and teachers don't even have to tell the kid he's going to hell, because it's like they've trained their kids to say that in their place. It's pretty frightening, the religious conservatism. Obviously, not every Christian down here is evil, and there are a lot of gay Christians. It's just the militant and abusive Christians that make life for gay kids in public schools (no pun intended) hell.
For some kids, these are ample reasons to leave the South behind. Ryan says he plans to move to California for college and stay there: "One of the biggest reasons is because I'm trans, and there are practically no resources for me, either medical or personal." He adds, "It's not really a matter of if I want to stay down here. I just can't." Stillwagon feels the same:
I haven't even considered staying in the south long-term. For college I'll be going to a much more open and affirming town in Ohio. Though I've lived in the south my whole life, I don't feel like it's a part of me at all. I don't identify with Southern culture, and don't feel a connection. East Cobb is not my home, it's "the place I live."
But for others, growing up in the South actually made them more committed to activism. Ahn says his decision to stay in the area after high school was a tough one:
My final two choices for college were UCLA and Emory. I had a very difficult time deciding whether to just leave all of it behind and go to a pleasanter place, or to stay and continue the good fight. But ultimately, I felt that it is my duty to keep working to improve the lives of all LGBTQ people, and that I would be able to do the most good in the South. I did not want to simply run away, but to face the beast and fight it.
Ahn adds that "being a Southerner is actually a big part of my identity. I wouldn't say I'm proud of my state, but I do definitely consider myself a Georgian and a Southerner, taking part in the culture, the food, the accent. I consider it just as much a part of my heritage as the Korean part." Growing up Southern has been good for him, he says, "because it's put a real fire under me to change what I see."
Turkett, currently a student at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, says she decided to stay in the South for four more years to continue what she started in high school. She was the only out gay teen she knew of in Alabama whose parents were supportive -- meaning she could actually travel to out-of-school panels and events. "If I couldn't go to something," she says, "I didn't have anyone else to suggest." And "if I suddenly left, I didn’t know who was going to do that kind of work again." She added that "if everybody leaves, then there's no one left to be the liberal voice, the pro-LGBT voice."
Kaylin Turpin, who's part of the GSA at Pope High School in Marietta, says her Southern adolescence has also affected her:
I like to think that the south hasn't had any impact on me as a person, but now that I'm thinking about it, it certainly has. Without the generally negative outlook on the LGBT movement that the south has, I wouldn't be quite as active in trying to spread awareness and acceptance, and I wouldn't know what I do now about not expecting the worse out of people. Believing so strongly in a cause that isn't necessarily a popular one has made me stronger as a person.
Whether they plan to stay in the South or not, the kids I talked to had managed to build communities there. That didn't mean things were perfect -- some said life as a gay teen in the South was exactly as bad as disturbing news reports would lead you to expect. What it did mean was that, like Ahn, some kids were finding "pockets" of supportive people. And the discrimination they felt left some of them even more committed to creating and expanding pockets of their own. While the kids I talked to went to urban or suburban high schools, the pockets of support in rural areas are likely to be a lot smaller. But they may be growing. And as Ahn and his fellow GSA members get older, maybe they'll finally become the norm.