I’m from Mississippi, and I have a love/hate relationship with my home-state. There. I’ve said it.
I grew up in a small town with a population of about 5,000. It’s the biggest town in the county, so when I say small, I mean very small. There was little to do in my town. There was a movie theater until the early 1990’s, and then it closed. There are few things for youngsters to do: a few city league sports, Friday night high school football, and making loops around town, stopping to hang out in a parking lot or to sneak a few beers while someone’s parents were gone.
I moved away when I was 18, went to college in a slightly larger city but a small university (Mississippi University for Women). But even that slightly larger place had a greater diversity than my tiny town. Universities attract students from multiple states and even countries; although MUW is small, there’s a decent amount of diversity in its student population. In particular, the nursing and culinary arts departments are big draws for the university, as they are well-regarded. I learned more about people my freshman year of college than I did about academics.
And then I moved to Hattiesburg, several years later, to work on a graduate degree. It was even more diverse, as USM is a larger school with a much larger student body. But then I had to go back to Waynesboro, a newly divorced single mother and PhD student. My mom was retired, and it was easier to save rent and daycare bills and drive the 1 hour back and forth, especially given that I’d sometimes be at the university for upwards of 8 hours. I was and am grateful for the assistance my parents gave me. I wouldn’t be nearly as far along on this degree, if I were working on it at all, without the 2 years that they allowed me to live in their home and provided a safe, free, loving, and stable place for a preemie toddler to stay while his mom was taking classes, reading novels, and writing essays.
Still, I hated living in the town. There were few people that I knew who lived there, aside from family, as most of my friends had moved away. I’d been living elsewhere for about 9 years. I missed coffee shops, movie theaters, clothing stores, restaurants, and the university population. I missed being closer to all that New Orleans had to offer in the way of culture. Waynesboro was where I grew up–it’s where I learned to drive, made the best friend I’ll ever have, and where my family lived on acres of land, peaceful and beautiful in its own way. But it wasn’t home anymore. It felt smaller than it ever had.
I sit here today, having learned about Mississippi’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. I cringe. I know kind, wonderful people from Mississippi. But a lump in my throat forms when I think of my best friend and her very-soon-to-be-wife who cannot legally get married in their home-state, and who now are in a position to be hurt by yet another discriminatory piece of legislation. I’m so happy that they’re getting married in 2 days. But I’m sad that the world doesn’t always recognize their love, and that sometimes it’s condemned. I think of other friends and family members, some who aren’t out because of how our state, our other friends and family, our nation would treat them. I remember that we live in a world where LGBT people are victimized daily just for their identity.
Living in New Orleans means that I live in a blue spot in a red sea. It also means that I live in one of the more gay-friendly places in the South, a place full of music, food, theater, festivals, museums, and a diverse population. I’m still making my peace with the city. I’m not overly fond of driving here–narrow, one-way streets and lots of no-left-turns; crime rates are a real concern; and for someone who, aside from spending a month in London, has never lived in a city instead of a town, things seem big and scary at times.
One of my pet peeves is the idea that the South is a homogeneous land of discrimination and bigots. I’ve lived in the South for my entire life, and I’ve managed to become a liberal woman with a graduate degree. There are many of us here who aren’t getting behind acts like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. We’re trying to make our voices heard. There’s a protest planned at the Mississippi Capitol Building on March 26. My social media accounts have been abuzz with petitions and awareness about the detriment this bill could cause.
Change isn’t happening overnight. In fact, it seems like we’re on a see-saw, a scale that just cannot balance itself. But we’re working on it. Even if it was by a small margin, the Proposition 26 Amendment (Personhood) didn’t pass by popular vote. Hattiesburg just recently passed a law, similar to one that passed in Starkville, affirming diversity inclusion. We’re working on it. And that’s a large reason that I won’t leave the South. I cannot. I have a responsibility to help make it a better place.