It’s HokiePRIDE week here at Virginia Tech and I am looking forward to participating when I can during this jam-packed week of activities and engagement at the university. This week, and in recent weeks, I’ve been thinking very hard about inclusion and acceptance. (Radical acceptance, really.) I am writing this post this week because I wanted to share some of the experiences of the people where I am from and to show a glimpse of the climate in Mississippi towards equal rights.
I haven’t always been in places where the community was so supportive of and encouraging to people who identify as LGBTQ+. I haven’t lived in Virginia long, but at least at Virginia Tech, I feel like the culture is at least heading in the right direction (despite the struggles at times.) I know the work towards equality and protecting human rights will probably never be over. I am glad that in my lifetime, I have witnessed my country go from a culture of silence and hate to one that is open and understanding. I do not mean to suggest that it is not one hell of a fight for those who identify LGBTQ+, because I know that it is and for many, the issue is life and death. In my home state of Mississippi, the temperature and political climate tends to run HOT or COLD depending on where you are. The metropolitan areas tend to be more welcoming and accepting, but even in these places, there are people who are still resistant to love thy neighbor, despite the fact that Mississippi is the shiny brass buckle on the Bible Belt.
If you’re not familiar with the reference, the bible verse I am referring to goes like this:
 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. – Matthew 22 (37-40)
So in a place where the 10 Commandments can be viewed relatively frequently across the landscape as monuments and placards posted on manicured lawns, it is often lacking in love and understanding for the differences and diversity of identity and culture that make our country what it is.
In the state of Mississippi, HB-1523, the Religious Liberty Accommodations Act was signed into law by Governor Phil Bryant on April 5, 2016 and went into effect on July 1, 2016. This piece of legislation allows business owners to refuse to serve people with religious or personal affiliations/preferences/identities/etc. that they do not deal with. It may sound harmless at first, but it essentially enables the discrimination of LGBTQ or other religious groups by business owners who do not want to serve them. I realize that there is room in this debate to talk about the legality of public vs private business–but for me, the bottom line is that discrimination of any kind is inherently wrong and I don’t agree with the moral implications of this law. The world needs more compassion, radical acceptance, and communication. This is not a law that the state of Mississippi should have passed.
So there has been a lot of media attention surrounding this legislation. And in response to the developing policy (before the official “Yes” vote), stickers were developed for businesses to display at their entrances that encouraged ANY and ALL people to know they were welcome. They were used as a way to show support to the community and to let the world know the stance of that particular owner. Today, you can see these in a lot of businesses–but not everywhere. There have been many, many articles covering the issue–primarily from the Clarion Ledger (Mississippi’s largest newspaper), and many of them have been syndicated at the national level to reach a wider audience.
You see, this is a troubling issue that I have been aware of for as long as I can remember. And the more I pay attention to the issues and learn the history of the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights, I am even more amazed and proud of my resilient brothers and sisters–despite the hatred and lifelong conflict that many of them have at times lived.
I finished high school at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science (MSMS), a wonderful public institution that accepts students from across the state to come and study in a college setting. It was here at MSMS that I met (to my knowledge) my first LGBTQ friends and have had the pleasure of continuing friendships with those amazing people to this day. One of the things that struck me about (finally) meeting people who openly identified this way, is that their stories were often very similar: because they were smart and had a chance to go to MSMS, they leaped at the opportunity because it meant they could finally be themselves in an environment that would accept them, support them, and help them achieve a meaningful future. (As in, back home it was oppressive, negative, and toxic–MSMS offered the best alternative: freedom and acceptance.) So for the better part of the last two decades, I have been an open ally of LGBTQ+ rights and inclusion. I have watched as the times have changed (and not changed) and I am excited about the future because despite the slow progress at times, there is still progress, and with every passing year comes more social change.
Well, except for Mississippi in 2016.
One thing to get excited about, though, is that despite HB 1523 and despite the uphill battle ahead of us for equality, there are moments when communities in the state of Mississippi shine bright and push back against hate.
Just 2 weeks ago in Starkville, MS, (March 24, 2018) a record was broken/made. The first annual PRIDE parade drew over 3,000 people from across the country to come participate in a demonstration of love and tolerance. I am beyond proud of my home state and the little college town I once called home: they made history and set an awesome precedent.
The original article is here at the Commercial Dispatch: No Shortage of Pride. It was later picked up by the big Mississippi Paper, the Clarion Ledger and then nationally from NBC News. The link to the Clarion Ledger (Mississippi Newspaper) is here: LGBT Pride Parade Held in Starkville, City that Initially Denied Permit. The link to the NBC News article is here: Gay Pride Parade Held in Mississippi City that Initially Denied Permit.
A good friend of mine, Luisa Porter of The Commercial Dispatch was there, photographing the event and I am proud to know her and excited now to share with you some of the great moments she captured from the First Annual Pride Parade in Starkville, MS.
What’s special about this for me is that in these photographs, I see a town alive and electric, supporting love and equal rights. That’s not something I’ve ever witnessed or even remotely heard about happening in that town before. I see people that I know and love in those photographs. I see strangers. I see haters. I see brave men and women shielding the crowd from toxic speech. And I see love. Because of all of this, I see hope. I am PROUD of my favorite town in MS. I am so excited that things are starting to change.
So this week, at Virginia Tech, as HokiePRIDE is being celebrated, I am grateful to be a part of a community that has so many opportunities for support and inclusion. The work ahead of us is not done yet, but our voices are loud and our solidarity is strong. For more information on HokiePRIDE, visit the LGBTQ+ Resource Center website or visit them in person at the Cultural Community Center in the Squires Student Center.