Bittersweet Home Alabama

February 11, 2015

On July 4, 1999, I left Alabama, the state I had called home for my entire life. Since the moment that I pulled away from my childhood home in a car packed to the gills, I have considered that day my own personal Independence Day. I was leaving a place that, despite the love and acceptance of certain friends and coworkers, had ceased to feel welcoming. Rejection by family, church, and unkind strangers sent me on the search for a new home outside of the South.

While I never moved back to Alabama, in my work with Equality Federation I’ve formed relationships with people working on the ground with groups like Equality Alabama, the Human Rights Campaign, and One Alabama. I admire their commitment to creating a state in which young queer folks don’t have to pack up a car and drive north to find a home.

On Monday, I was overjoyed to see pictures and to read stories of gay and lesbian couples in my home state getting married. To risk sounding cliche, I’ll say that I never thought I would see this day in my lifetime. But to be realistic, if I had imagined this day, I imagined it to be as chaotic and contested as it was.

Amid the joy and progress, Alabama's Chief Justice Roy Moore stood as a roadblock, facilitating the refusal of marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples in a majority of counties. Some probate judges just stopped issuing licenses to anyone, gay or straight. This tactic reminded me of one from when I was younger -- instead of letting high schools form Gay Straight Alliances, some schools canceled all student clubs. I was upset to see this scheme being used once again. 

Even though I have since left my home state, I am still from there -- and I don’t appreciate the jokes I’ve seen calling Alabama backwards, bigoted, or redneck. It’s not like that, not as a matter of course. Instead, in my experience, it is a place where tradition and conservative Christian values are woven into every aspect of people’s lives.

Change is hard for Alabama, but I believe that with time it will happen. I’ve seen people in my life move from rejection to “hating the sin” to loving acceptance over the course of several decades. Often people are puzzled that I came from an environment like that, but I am proud to say that my parents’ Christian values are the very ones that laid the foundation for me to work on immigration, poverty, homelessness, and, of course, LGBTQ equality. I learned to care about justice, the condition of others, and to treat people the way I’d want to be treated.

I dream that over time, and with the work being done by advocates on the ground, these foundational values that I share with other Alabamians will allow the open hostility that LGBTQ people there face to subside and for acceptance and inclusion to prevail.

If ever we have a case that proves there is much to be done after marriage, it is Alabama. Because as the Federation's Executive Director Rebecca Isaacs wrote for the Advocate last year, despite its many positive effects, marriage “will not keep LGBT young people in their homes and loved by their families. It will not ensure transgender people access to accurate identity documents or critical healthcare services. It will not make our streets and our communities safe and free from violence.

Based on the state’s legal and cultural reaction to marriage, this is especially true in Alabama, where a win on marriage has not yet brought the freedom to marry to most places in the state. Marriage is an important milestone for Alabama and for our country as a whole, but we have so much work left to do to ensure that LGBTQ people in Alabama, the South, and beyond experience freedom, acceptance, and love in the communities they call home.

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