Right after I launched Left South last week with a line of Pride t-shirts, I started receiving "Didn't know you were gay" texts from my southern friends. They were kidding (I think), but the texts illuminated a real issue. Not only is it difficult to be openly lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in the South, it's difficult to be an open supporter of LGBT rights.
For the past four years, I've lived in New York, where I have attended Pride Parades and have made dozens of gay and lesbian friends. I don't have to think twice about publicly supporting LGBT rights. But for my first 22 years, I lived in Mississippi, where, without even realizing it, I participated in the anti-gay social inertia that permeates like humidity. "Gay," "homo," and "faggot" were regular locker room slurs, and my friends and I often speculated whether certain guys were gay. This wasn't done casually. We wanted to root them out. I participated in, or at least condoned, these mildly homophobic rituals despite my progressive leanings. Instead of being brave and saying, "So what if he's gay?" I said, "So, what if he's gay?"
About half of all southerners and two-thirds of southern Millennials support gay marriage –– a steep rise from a decade ago. But those who oppose gay rights still exert enough social pressure to keep supporters like myself silent. It's our silence that helped allow extremists in the North Carolina and Mississippi legislatures to pass sweeping anti-LGBT bills this spring. Fortunately, there has been strong national backlash, and Mississippi's version was recently struck down. Still, the anti-LGBT movement shows no signs of slowing down. So, on this day after July 4th, as we recover from overdoses of Budweiser and stuff our red, white and blue apparel back in the closet, we ought to keep in mind that there are still lots of Americans whose freedoms are not fully guaranteed.
I designed the Southern Pride collection because I realize that I and many other progressive southerners have been silent on this issue for far too long. It's not enough to be a private ally. Let's not forget that black civil rights activists in the South were still being murdered at a time when a majority of whites in the country supported civil rights. Today, members of the LGBT community across the South are being threatened, bullied and made to feel lesser simply because of how they choose to identify or whom they choose to love. It's time we all show a little more southern pride.
"We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." - Elie Wiesel (1928-2016)