On the uneasiness of living in a Bible Belt state

—Bernadette Barton

Some possible outcomes for the upcoming Supreme Court rulings.

Like many gay Americans, I am waiting, slightly breathless for the Supreme Court rulings on DOMA and Prop 8.  The Human Rights Campaign recently laid out an elegant graphic explaining all the potential outcomes of the cases.  As a resident of Kentucky, a state which passed an anti-gay marriage amendment in 2004 and still lacks statewide employment and housing non-discrimination protections even though “83% of Kentuckians believe that gay and transgender people should be protected from discrimination in the workplace, in housing, and in public accommodations” according to a 2011 telephone survey, the only way I will be personally affected is if Prop 8 is ruled unconstitutional and the court also overturns all the state marriage bans.

A native of Massachusetts, I have lived in Kentucky for the past 21 years.  From 2006-2012, I researched and wrote Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays, a book that explores the intersection of conservative Christianity and homosexuality from the perspective of gay people from Bible Belt.  In addition to collecting the stories of Bible Belt gays, I had many personal encounters with conservative Christians and experienced first-hand their influence in the region.  For example, I joined a Curves in 2003 and battled weekly whether or not to ask the manager to change the Christian music playlist during my work-outs.

While writing Pray the Gay Away I never doubted my choice to live in Kentucky.  Faculty jobs were scarce and becoming scarcer, and the university community seemed to me to be comparably progressive across the United States.  Bible Belt gays are often framed as victims, a myth I work hard to dispel in Pray the Gay Away, and a common question interviewers ask me is: “Why don’t they move?”  The assumption underlying this question is that certain geographic areas (the rural, the southern, the red) are uniformly hostile to sexual minorities, and the obvious answer to this is for such folks to move.  But, the rural, the southern, and the red states are more complex than such an assumption allows, and the ties keeping a Bible Belt gay in a region lacking institutional protections are numerous –family roots, partners, jobs, not to mention many folks’ personal preferences simply to live in less crowded, hectic areas.

Over the past several years, completely immersed in understanding the lives of Bible Belt gays and portraying them with compassion, I noted gay marriage victories trickle down in other places: Massachusetts (2004), Connecticut (2008), Iowa (2009), New Hampshire and Vermont (2009).  Then, in 2012, as I was wrapping up Pray the Gay Away, the first sitting president, Barack Obama, announced his support of same-sex marriage and several other states (Maryland, Maine, Minnesota and Delaware) legalized same-sex marriage.

Watching all this rapid change from my home in Kentucky, my world began to feel a little bleaker.  While issues of rights for gay Kentuckians had not exactly gone backwards (though the Kentucky General Assembly did pass a “Freedom of Religion” Bill in the Spring of 2013 that may undermine civil rights protections for gay people), our line of progress has flattened.  At the same time, for gay people in other parts of the country, the line is peaking rapidly.  Thus, the gap between these lines – for example, institutional rights and protections for gay people living in Minnesota versus Kentucky – is sharply widening, and this makes me feel a little uneasy about my choice to live in the Bible Belt.

So I wait for the Supreme Court decisions, and wonder how the outcome will shape the landscape of gay rights.  Will we become even more fixedly two Americas for gay people: one that supports its gay residents, and one that continues to push gay people into the toxic closet?  If so, have I chosen the wrong America? I poke at my uneasiness like picking a scab.  On the one hand, I appreciate being on the front lines of social change, and believe my voice is useful serving first generation college students from Eastern Kentucky.  On the other, I contemplate the possibility that, relative to my gay peers in other places, I am living in a less hospitable place and this observation sits uncomfortably upon me.

Bernadette Barton is Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky. She is the author of Stripped: Inside the Lives of Exotic Dancers (NYU Press, 2006) and Pray the Gay Away: The Extraordinary Lives of Bible Belt Gays, (NYU Press, 2012).

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