‘Everyone’s Story Deserves to Be Told’: Seeking Solidarity for LGBTQ+ Southern Students

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Illustration by Laura Renfroe

As contemporary censorships further prove research that LGBTQ+ Southerners endure the highest level of victimization based on their sexual orientation than any other United States region, a critical question emerges of how to escalate inclusivity in schools and public spaces.

Laura Renfroe, Staff Writer

Thinking of the South, people may picture honey-warm sunshine stretching and spilling over the expanses of trees, flowers, and close-knit communities. But here’s an eye-opening fact: the pleasant flora and the drawling accents of the South are home to approximately 32% of our nation’s LGBTQ+ population, according to a 2020 report.

Despite the biotic beauty of Mississippi and the South, a grim truth towers above our marginalized communities, painting the region in bold “unwelcome” lettering. In striking numbers, the Movement Advancement Project, the Campaign for Southern Equality and the Equality Federation reported that 93% of LGBTQ+ Southerners live in states with low or negative equality rankings.

Same-sex marriage was legalized in all states on June 26, 2015, a herculean hallmark for Southern queer. Regardless of this progressive and hopeful reform, gay rights are still being actively fought for in Mississippi and many other Southern states. 

Society has generally become much more accepting of all communities; however, the divided culture in the South has proven continuously harmful. Research demonstrates that many LGBTQ+ students in Mississippi are facing hostile environments in community climates, wherein relatable resources are depleted and safe spaces are denied by Southern authorities.

In a recent occurrence, a local mayor withheld $110,000 worth of funding from the Madison County Library System on the grounds of religious beliefs. Mayor Gene McGee demanded a purge of all “homosexual materials” from the Mississippi library system. After being told the library served the community, the mayor followed up by stating that “he only serves the great Lord above.”

The library system released an official statement after a surge of public support, expressing on January 26, 2022, “Censorship has no place here in Madison County Library System. Our library is for everyone. We stand behind the board-approved policies that allow us to meet the needs and interests of all the communities we serve.”

This harrowing incident has proven the importance of prioritizing well-being and inclusivity for LGBTQ+ students and youth in our Southern states. As our area continues to transform, a religious rift only distends the solidarity we seek to institute.

Representation matters, and when Southern authorities breathe crippling censorship into public, safe settings such as schools and libraries, LGBTQ+ students feel ostracized from society, and their validity is internally questioned. 

Banning and censoring books (including hiding them away so others don’t have to be offended by just seeing them) sends a clear message – you are not welcome here, your story shouldn’t be told, you are ‘less than.’ Everyone’s story deserves to be told and no one should be made to feel ‘less than.’ Community spaces should be safe places where everyone is welcome,” Madison County Library System Executive Director Tonja Johnson expressed to me in an interview.

“Diverse and inclusive representation is important for all of us. ‘Mirrors and doors’ is the best way I have seen it expressed lately (and I’m sorry I can’t recall who to attribute that to right now). We all need to read and see stories that reflect our own lives for a shared sense of belonging, to know we are not alone and that others have walked this path before us, and to even understand and know ourselves,” Johnson continued.

“But we also need to read and see stories that open doors to the lives of others. We don’t live in a bubble – everyone’s life experience is not the same. Seeing and knowing that [reality] fosters empathy and understanding. We need to see ourselves as the hero, but we also need to know that others are heroes, too.”

An important question emerges from the entrenched depths of current-day homophobia and censorship: do our Mississippi schools and communities cater only to the voices who are the loudest? What about the communities who want their voices heard, or at the very least, included? How do we unroot these deep-set biases and attitudes against queer Southerners?

What can we do as individuals to empower our multifaceted LGBTQ+ community and ultimately make the South a more inclusive place for all? It’s a question that needs to be answered. “This is the million-dollar question. My first thought is we need to let people tell their stories and listen when they do. We should search their stories for the things that truly matter and bind us together, not for the things that might drive us apart. Kindness, grace, compassion, respect, love. These are things we all deserve and [are] where we can find common ground,” Johnson pondered.

Alongside affirming representation for our students in the literature and media they intake, there is urgency for Southern schools to uplift, not restrict, their queer student body. Due to constant misgendering and harmful jokes in numerous school settings, many LGBTQ+ students have expressed stories of residual anxiety around coming out due to unsympathetic school environments.

“There’s a stereotype that Southern schools are hostile to LGBTQ+ students and faculty, and in some cases that is true – but it’s also true that some Southern school districts have passed some of the most LGBTQ+ inclusive policies in the country. If school districts, administrators, and staff do not create inclusive and supportive environments for all their students, then they are absolutely promoting unwelcoming and hostile environments for everyone involved, not just LGBTQ+ students. This also applies to other students who might not ‘fit in’ with some traditional Southern norms,” Abby Shuler, Supportive Schools Research Associate for the Campaign for Southern Equality, stated. 

According to the 2019 GLSEN school climate survey, 81% of LGBTQ+ teens in the South have heard the word “gay” used negatively, and 60% have been subject to other homophobic slurs and remarks.

Of those surveyed, only 12% said they had positive LGTBQ+ curriculum inclusion, and 16% reported representation in textbooks or other assigned readings. 

Nationally, over 56% of LGBTQ+ adolescents never reported malicious incidents to school staff, and only 29% reported “supportive administration.”

Overall, LGBTQ+ students from the South experience higher levels of victimization as well as anti-LGBTQ+ discriminatory school policies and practices than those in all other regions of the United States. Southerners were the least likely to record having access to LGBTQ+ resources and support within their learning environment.

“Especially for LGBTQ+ students, who statistically have less emotional support from their families and teachers, learning in an environment where they don’t feel safe can be detrimental to their mental and physical wellbeing and development,” Shuler went on. “In addition, every student in the United States is legally protected from hostile and discriminatory environments at school, under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. If schools do not support their students’ wellbeing, they might be breaking civil rights laws, as well as actively harming the population they agreed to serve – youth.”

So, how do we make a difference? How do we work to make schools and other public spaces safe and inclusive? LGBTQ+ victimization is often glossed over in the Southern schools, so discussion as to what consequential advocacy should look like is crucial. 

To uplift and heal our queer communities, educating others and speaking up about misgendering and censorship, whether furtive or overt, will ultimately lead to change. Following the topic being broached, supportive resources and inclusion in education and public spaces can be a colossal step to empowering LGBTQ+ teens. 

“There are so many ways Southern people and schools can fight harmful stereotypes and anti-LGBTQ sentiment, as well as empower LBGTQ+ students and communities. For one, teachers and students can stop harassment when they see it. People who bully others simply feel scared and threatened, and if you don’t stop bullies when you see them, you are also promoting similar emotional and physical harm. At school, even a smile in the hallway and a simple ‘how are you doing?’ can go a long way,” Shuler noted.

“Teachers, in addition to stopping harassment and sticking up for all their students, can also positively reinforce a school culture of acceptance by congratulating the students who speak up for others, supporting student clubs like the GSA [Gender and Sexuality Alliances], and showing their acceptance and support for all of their students by displaying art and symbols (like the diversity flag) in their classroom. Schools should also include important historical figures, artists, authors, and fictional characters who identify as LGBTQ+ in their curriculum.” 

Shuler also discussed how individuals can be of assistance in a region where LGBTQ+ oppression festers even within local legislation and government authorities who vow to protect and serve the people. 

“There is a lot of ‘harassment legislation’ being introduced in our state governments, which are laws that are proposed in order to harm others and gain political support. These laws are built on discriminatory stereotypes that aren’t true. Everyone across the South can support and empower the LGBTQ+ community by contacting these politicians who are using their power to harm families, as well as stop and educate friends and family members who say something that is homophobic and/discriminatory. We do not have to let discriminatory policies and outdated stereotypes dictate the future of our beautiful South. If every one of us pushes for the acceptance of all people in our schools and communities, we will have the power to decide what we want to see in our future,” the research associate asserted.

Southern society must reflect on internalized homophobia and strive for schools and communities to become more responsive and welcoming to the needs of our queer teens to amplify inclusivity and positive change. 

Despite the obvious divisions in the South, one unshakable truth remains: LGBTQ+ Southerners are sublimely resilient and just as worthy of all the natural rights granted to us as human beings. Our youth should not be shunned or censored for whom they love. To deny one of the right to love is to deny decency and humanity.

We must band together to unitedly make our beautiful, nature-rich Mississippi a place where all people are worthy of dreaming, dwelling, and thriving.