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Living in Mississippi Can Be Tough if You're Black and Queer

With the passing of the state's new anti-LGBT legislation, life just got even tougher for queer people of color in the Magnolia State.
May 5, 2016, 1:44pm

Collage by Frances Smith

Mississippi is a difficult state for anyone to live in. With nearly a quarter of its residents living under the poverty line, the Magnolia State is the poorest in the nation.

While life may be difficult for many of its residents, life in the state just got even tougher for queer people.

In April, the state government passed a law essentially making it legal to discriminate against LGBT people. House Bill 1523, known as the "Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act," allows businesses to deny service to LGBT customers based on their "sincerely held religious beliefs." It means that employers can terminate their workers simply based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, with a blessing from the government. It even means that an organization can deny housing to a same-sex couple.

It is, however, especially challenging to live in Mississippi as a black queer person. In 2013, Marco McMillian became the first openly gay man of color to run for political office in Mississippi. His campaign would not last long: That March, McMillian's murdered body was discovered near a river. During the subsequent trial, his killer, Lawrence Reed, would use a "gay panic" defense, alleging that McMillian had tried to sexually assault him. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

As Salon's Irin Carmon reported in 2011, the state has the highest rate of HIV infection in the country. Of metropolitan areas in the nation, Jackson ranks fourth in new HIV cases. This rate disproportionately affects the state's African-American community, who are nearly eight times as likely to contract HIV as their white peers. Five years ago, the Human Rights Watch maintained that blame for the epidemic should be laid at the steps of the state capitol: "Mississippi laws and policies promote prejudice and discrimination against those vulnerable, and perceived to be vulnerable, to HIV, thereby contributing to the problem."

I traveled to the state to speak to Mississippians about what it's like to live there as a queer person of color, especially in the shadow of HB 1523. If queer black people were already marginalized, despite the fact that the state is 37 percent African-American, this discriminatory legislation only reinforces how unequal life in Mississippi really is.

Related: The Feds Just Told North Carolina to Stop Discriminating Against LGBT People

Soon after arriving, I met with Kells Randle, a junior at North Jackson's Millsaps college. We met at a Koinonia Coffee House in West Jackson. In the majority black neighborhood the establishment calls home, weathered houses teetered on the edge of collapse, one strong breeze from caving in. Other homes were boarded up, suggesting they were abandoned, but many had trucks parked in their driveways. These buildings weren't condemned. Their owners just couldn't afford to fix them.

Life in Jackson can be as harsh as the state is beautiful. Throughout the city, the roads are cracked and broken, due to decades of underfunding and mismanagement. There are potholes in West Jackson, which is predominantly populated by people of color, so large that on days after it rains, they look like concrete lakes in the middle of the street. In 2015, Jackson mayor Tony Yarber came up with a novel solution to the problem: He advised residents to pray the potholes away.

Against this backdrop Randle, 20, who identifies as genderfluid and uses gender-neutral pronouns, cut a striking figure wearing an Afrocentric headwrap and dark shades. Randle was born in Kosciusko, a small town located almost directly in the center of the state. Like Mississippi as a whole, their hometown has been defined by decades of segregation, even after the laws of the Jim Crow-era South were struck down. You had the parks in Kosciusko where the white people went, Randle explained, and the ones black people went to. There's one common denominator in the town: Southern Baptism, which Randle said "takes over the whole city."

Although Randle now identifies as queer, they first came out as a lesbian in middle school. Randle describes their peers as supportive; it's the adults who were the problem. Randle recalled that they were seen by other students as being a leader, so when they began wearing men's clothing to school, others followed. Their female friends even started to explore their own sexuality, much to their parents' disapproval. Outraged adults came to their mother, blaming Randle for the behavior. "Your daughter is influencing my child," they claimed.

Randle says the reaction from faculty was similar. According to Randle, they were forced by administrators to see the school counselor, after teachers observed the 14-year-old becoming close to another female student. The counselor, Randle says, sat the students down and gave them a speech about what the Bible preaches about homosexuality. "She gave us the example of Adam and Eve and told us that how two male frogs do not mate together, two female frogs do not mate together," Randle recalled.

Randle describes their college, in contrast, as a queer-friendly bubble in a conservative state—if a treacherously porous one. In February, the college held a "Black Cele-gay-tion" as part of its Black History Month programming. Per the name, the event was intended to honor the school's black queer student population. However, Randle and other students I spoke to say posters for the gathering were torn down, and on the monthly programming board where the event was listed, the word "gay" was repeatedly erased off the calendar.

When you're living in Mississippi, it's difficult to find places to hide, even in more tolerant, welcoming areas. Millsaps is adjacent to Fondren, a historic neighborhood where The Help was filmed. Fondren is known as a liberal enclave, called the "Brooklyn of Mississippi." It's also where Randle claims that they were all but refused service by a female shop owner, after visiting her store with their black, queer friends. According to Randle, the proprietor refused to speak to them or even acknowledge them. But when a group of white kids came in, Randle says, "She just glowed up talking to them."

In these situations, Chaz Curry, who serves as the president of Jackson State's queer student group, says that it's impossible to know why you're being discriminated against. "I get looks when I stop in a small town for gas," the 26-year-old said. "I don't know if it's because I'm not from around there, I'm black, or I'm a lesbian."

"If you're black, you're a second-class citizen," Curry explained. "Being LGBT, you're a third-class citizen. Being female, you're a fourth-class citizen."

Johnny Robinson, a 19-year-old student at Tougaloo College, said that these intersecting oppressions force black queer people to be very careful about their environment. "If we're not in spaces we created for ourselves, we have to be conservative... about how we express our personalities for the fear of being attacked or having racial slurs hurled at us," he said. In public, Robinson attempts to tone down or suppress any behaviors that might be perceived as "gay"—wearing more traditionally masculine clothing, lowering his voice, and not using hand gestures.

Katherine Day, a 34-year-old trans performer said living in Jackson can be difficult and lonely. But in order to survive, she's made peace with her surroundings. "I don't have a whole lot of friends here, and I'm really OK with that," she said. "I've learned to live my life whether people are there to support me or not."

Nat Offiah, a youth organizer for the Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition, argued that Jackson's LGBT community is radiant and diverse, even in the face of harsh discrimination. Struggle is only a part of its story. "I don't think there's a single defining word that sums up the queer community in Jackson," Offiah said. "It's broad, it's vast, and it's in every facet of being a Jacksonian. It's not a community that's closed off. These people are your neighbors. They're your barbers. They're your cake makers and your beauticians. They're your post office workers."

In communities fighting for visibility and equality, Iihsaa-Milés Wrenn Jones sees a great potential for education. Jones, who identifies as genderfluid and uses gender-neutral pronouns, moved to Jackson from New Orleans four years ago. While the threat of violence is always a consideration, the 24-year-old believes that existing as a queer person in a conservative state can be a radical act. Jones said, "To be young and to be genderqueer here is to have moments like helping someone with groceries and the first comment will be, 'Oh, thank you young man' or 'Thank you young lady' and then I can say, 'I'm just a young person. I'm beyond gender.'"

Nat Offiah adds that following the passage of HB 1523, things are changing in Mississippi—if slowly. While the bill legalized discrimination in the state, its passage also signaled what she called an "activation period" for local activism: The kinds of people who would have never joined a picket line are suddenly becoming part of the movement to repeal the bill. "People are upset, people are angry, and people are ready to do something about it," Offiah said.

After the signing of HB 1523, outraged residents rallied outside the governor's mansion in Jackson to protest the legislation, holding signs that said "No Hate in My State." Katherine Day sees this moment as a ray of hope. "Some people find it easier to look at Mississippi as a locked door that they're beating on to open," Day said. "But life has taught me that when one door closes, another door opens—or just go through the window. When you lock yourself out of the house, you have to reach through the doggy door and hope your arms are long enough."

For black, queer people fighting decades of oppression in Mississippi, they may not have another choice.

Follow Nico Lang on Twitter.