Starting in the seventh grade, Justin Kelly would pray every night that the feelings he had for other boys would “go away”.
“I thought maybe it could be something that no one noticed,” he recalls. Growing up in a military family in Greenville, Mississippi, Kelly felt under pressure to deny who he really was. He hid his sexual identity through his years at Mississippi College, a Christian school whose student code of conduct prohibits premarital or extramarital sex and “homosexual activities, or other sexual expression that may conflict with the Christian identity or faith mission” of the school.
In 2011, by then an army sergeant deployed in Iraq, Kelly learned his father had died after a short bout with brain cancer. He then decided that he was only going to live once, and that he had to start being who he was.
Fast-forward four years, and Kelly has come out again. He is part of a 30-second ad – itself part of a larger campaign called All God’s Children – organized by the Human Rights Campaign. Its aim is to build stronger relationships between Mississippians and LGBT people in their communities through TV ads, online stories, direct mail and billboards.
Kelly has been surprised by the mostly positive responses he has received for his participation in the campaign – including from colleagues at work. “I was afraid I would get fired,” he said. Family members in other parts of the country have sent him emails and texts applauding his courage. And although he doesn’t currently have a partner, he has also changed his mindset about public displays of affection. “Holding hands in public is important, because it exposes people to being gay,” he said.
All God’s Children is part of a larger HRC program that includes the states of Arkansas and Alabama. It is one of several projects aimed at changing the social and cultural landscape of the south.
The idea behind these efforts is to “move the cultural needle,” says Zeke Stokes, vice-president of programs at GLAAD, a LGBT media advocacy organization. The group has recently launched Southern Stories, an online campaign featuring LGBT southerners and their families and supporters. Stokes says that even while, legally and legislatively, the LGBT rights landscape has dramatically changed since he was a child 25 years ago in the small town of Bishopville, South Carolina, a cultural gap still exists. Although his birth state, as well as neighboring North Carolina, have become the first deep south states to legalize same-sex marriage, gender and sexual-preference minorities are often not accepted or tolerated in day-to-day life, he says.
With Southern Stories, Stokes hopes to change hearts and minds about what it means to be LGBT and to have an impact on workplace and housing protection legislation.
The efforts have not been without pushback. Although Mississippi-based nonprofit organization the American Family Association would not comment, the group issued a press release in November about All God’s Children. Titled Human Rights Campaign Declares War on Christians, it included this comment by AFA president Tim Wildmon: “[We] will not be fooled by this campaign to normalize homosexuality in the southern states ... And we hope others won’t be fooled either.”
Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council, said the campaigns “reflect a misconception about people’s opposition to homosexuality. It’s not about whether they’re good citizens, or good family members, or good neighbors – it’s ... whether the sexual relations they engage in are appropriate or not.” Also, he said, while the efforts may appeal to some people’s emotions, “I don’t think they will succeed with Biblically literate Christians.”
Reverend David Gushee, director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Atlanta’s Mercer University, says, “the national gay rights organizations are aware that the south presents the most challenging environment in which to live – not just the legal environment; it’s the cultural, and especially the religious environment.”
Gushee, who is a Baptist minister, says that “southern Protestants – especially southern evangelicals – remain the most resistant to gay rights and inclusion.” And this population anchors the region: the Southern Baptist Convention alone accounts for one in eight of the nation’s Protestants. For many southerners, he adds, when it comes to accepting LGBT family or neighbors, “laws don’t matter as much as Biblical texts.”
That’s why Gushee hopes to convince fellow evangelicals to reinterpret the Bible with his most recent book, Changing Our Mind: A Call from America’s Leading Evangelical Ethics Scholar for Full Acceptance of LGBT Christians in the Church. The title was released just three months ago, but since then the theologian – who has written and lectured on such diverse topics as torture, the Holocaust and climate change – says that “everyone wants to talk to me about this”. Although some speaking engagements have been cancelled as a result, many more have been offered, he adds.
Of course, the south is a large place, and some of the region’s cities have gradually attracted more diverse populations with more tolerant beliefs. Atlanta may be the best example of this. Last fall, Sage Lovell, who grew up in Marietta, a suburb about 20 miles north-west of downtown Atlanta, became the state of Georgia’s first transgender woman to be chosen for homecoming court, an annual celebration including alumni, and usually, a football game.
Now 17 and a junior, Lovell’s family has supported her as she went from thinking she was gay in 9th grade to identifying with being a woman.
Lovell not only received enough votes from her classmates to represent her school at the court celebration, she also says her peers have been very supportive of her coming out as transgender. At the same time, her parents, Joseph and Maureen, say the family isn’t heavily involved in any church, and so hasn’t experienced any pushback from religious peers.
Still, her father says, “If we would’ve been in the rural south, we would’ve had less understanding.” Lovell thinks other people’s understanding of LGBT people will increase the more they are exposed to them. That’s why she and her family decided to participate in GLAAD’s campaign. The idea, says Maureen Lovell, is for people to see that “we’re a pretty traditional, run-of-the-mill family.”
Sitting in the Lovell living room, with its couch, easy chair, two dogs, bookshelves and flatscreen TV, a recent art class homework assignment strewn across a nearby counter and, through the windows, a view of the wooded suburbs of Atlanta beyond, it’s hard to see them in any other way.
Brian Harrison has devoted the last six years to researching what he calls “shared identities.” A visiting fellow at the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale University, he is the co-author of the forthcoming, Listen, We Need to Talk: Facilitating Political Communication Through Strategic Identity Priming.
Harrison’s research shows that campaigns successful in convincing people of the importance of LGBT rights “have to persuade [those] people they have something in common” with the group whose rights they reject. All people have multiple identities in the social world, the researcher says – the same person can be a father, employee and churchgoer, for example.
“For centuries,” he continues, “LGBT people have been seen as outsiders. But these campaigns say, ‘I’m LGBT, but I also share identities with you. I’m southern, I’m a churchgoer.’ They focus on identities they have in common with others, rather than ones they don’t.” He thinks such efforts plant a seed, leading to gradual social and cultural change, which in turn creates change in the legal and political arenas.
Until that happens, people like Brian K Martin will keep on telling their stories. The 47-year-old telecommunications executive has lived in Atlanta for 17 years. Although he has identified as gay since his early 20s, he “passed” as heterosexual at work for decades, wary of standing out for being black and gay in an executive world where neither was common. He decided to end the charade in his 40s, only for upper management to respond by telling him to wear a tutu to an executive lunch. When he was fired, Martin filed a lawsuit and complaints with the city of Atlanta and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Since then, he has become a manager at another area company.
This is a struggle partly shared by Blossom Brown, now 28. She says she “always knew [she] was different”. In kindergarten, she didn’t tell the teacher her birth name, Kentravis, and instead insisted it was “Brittany”. Still bearing the identity of a boy, she would use crayons to color her nails.
As she grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, she struggled to figure out who she was. In high school, feeling attracted to other boys made her think she was gay. Several years later, still living at home and attending Holmes Community College, she realized she was born to be female. She would leave the house with what she calls “girl clothes” and makeup in her bag and change in the car. At school, others would point at her. Brown, standing at 6ft 3½in, is hard to miss.
She now is the first transgender female student at Mississippi University for Women (a co-ed institution, despite its name). She has also appeared on TV in one of the All God’s Children spots. Since then, dozens of people have approached her on the street and in local stores. “People say, ‘You made us think different,’” she says.
At the same time, Brown has seen a local Christian pastor call her “trash” on Facebook, after the Columbus Dispatch published a story about her involvement with the campaign. The campaign gave her the opportunity to travel to Washington DC, where HRC is based. “I felt at home,” she says, noting that on the street,“I didn’t have to worry about strange stares, or feeling uncomfortable.”
As for her future, Brown is studying public health, and would like to help other transgender people. At times, incidents like the Facebook comments make her think, “Eventually, I might have to leave the south. But then I think, ‘You were born here in Mississippi. Why would you run away from your turf?’”