We’ve come a long way, baby.
As the Supreme Court weighs two high-profile cases that could potentially legalize same-sex marriage across the country, committed gay couples in the Deep South say they’ve witnessed a remarkable evolution in acceptance in the region, even if discrimination still remains beneath the surface—and on the books.
Chris McCary and John Sullivan live in Anniston, Ala., a small city even by Alabama standards. In 2004, they became the first out-of-state couple to get hitched in Massachusetts, gaining them national media coverage and, along with it, a measure of local notoriety.
They had no idea what to expect when they got back—this is a state that two years later passed a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Some of McCary’s colleagues didn’t even know he was gay. “A friend called me while we were in Massachusetts,” he remembers now, “and asked me, ‘What the heck are you doing? You’re all over the TV. Have you forgotten you’re from Alabama?’”
But the reception was more benign than they had feared. “A conservative judge—an older, Republican, conservative judge—shook my hand and said congratulations, said he was proud to know me,” says McCary. “Some of my clients brought their teenage children to my office because they wanted to meet me.” Their community, says Sullivan, now treats them as they would any other couple. “Our neighbors were proud of us, and proud to be able to celebrate with us that part of our lives,” he says.
Of course, in the South, face-to-face interactions are almost always pleasant, even if people gossip behind your back. The bigotry that McCary and Sullivan faced was often faceless. Listening to the radio one day, Sullivan found himself being discussed on a local talk show. “People were saying nasty things, like ‘those stupid fags shouldn’t get married,’ and all that stuff,” he says. So he called in. He told the DJs that his marriage would in no way affect theirs, that he wanted nothing to do with their marriages. “It’s easy to be a bigot to someone you don’t know or don’t have to face,” he says. “When you have to deal as one human being to another, things change.”
A ruling that strikes down the Defense of Marriage Act would lead to Sullivan and McCary’s marriage being recognized at the federal level, even if it continues to be invalid in their state. “It would save us thousands of dollars in taxes,” Sullivan says.
But they didn’t get married for tangible benefits. “We weren’t trying to make a political statement,” Sullivan continues. “We did it just for ourselves. We wanted that acknowledgment that we are a couple, that we are committed, that this is for life.” McCary, a divorce lawyer, had learned something about what makes relationships work and what breaks them. “Having the support and respect of other people makes your relationship stronger. Being married changes how people relate to you, how they treat you as a couple.”
Respect is a cornerstone value in the South, says David Hollis of Hattiesburg, Miss. “It’s in our upbringing—we’re taught to be respectful to our neighbors and be nice to everyone.” David and his partner, Charles Griffith, have been together 16 years. They met when they were living in Shreveport, La., in the mid-1990s, and by 1997 they were living together. Charles, a doctor, did his residency in Florida, and they moved there as a couple in 1999. They settled in Mississippi in 2002, and have been out of the closet from the beginning.
“We live as a gay couple,” says Hollis. “Everyone knows us socially as Charles and David. We’ve never used the word ‘roommate’ or ‘friend.’” He points out that “things have changed dramatically” since they started dating. “It doesn’t seem like public opinion against it is as strong, or maybe it’s just that the voices of people who are OK with gay people being in relationships have gotten louder.”
This acceptance and the changes he has seen in society have emboldened Hollis at a personal level. “I no longer put up with discrimination,” he says. But that doesn’t mean there is no bigotry left in the South. “Just yesterday at the gym,” he says, “I heard a man make a derogatory comment about a woman on TV because she happens to be a lesbian.” Still, his and Griffith’s day-to-day lives are not greatly affected by this—they feel very much a part of their community. They are both Christian, raised Methodist, and they have never felt unwelcome at their church. They are treated the same as other couples in the congregation, and Hollis is on the board of the Children Outreach Ministry, working with kids living in public housing.
Back in Alabama, a third couple feels a little less comfortable being open. A man named Tim, who asked me not to use his last name, and his partner, whom I’ll call Mike, live in Montgomery, the capital of the civil-rights movement. They will celebrate their 20th anniversary this Saturday, and yet Tim has never met Mike’s parents because they refuse to acknowledge the fact that their son is gay. Mike is also a high-school teacher and is so concerned about being outed at work that he asked me not to use his real name.
When they first started dating, Tim was as much in the closet as Mike. “The degree to which we’re out has changed,” he says, pointing out he is now “completely out” himself. He made the decision a few years ago to have a talk with his parents, and ask them to welcome Mike as part of the family. They are religious and conservative, but they yielded to their son’s wishes. Mike now spends holidays with Tim’s family, and he is welcome at all functions. For Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, though, he still drives out to visit his own parents—they just don’t talk about his personal life. “I think they know I live with a man,” says Mike, “but we never talk about it.”
At work, Mike has noticed great changes during his almost 30-year tenure as a teacher, particularly in the last decade. He says there are now openly gay students. “I’ve seen girls kiss each other in the hallway, and last year on the National Day of Silence, there were kids at school wearing tape over their mouths.”
This makes him and Tim hopeful for the future. Their optimism is shared by the other couples I interviewed, especially because opposition to gay rights generally splits among generational lines. “Persistent bigotry is quite literally dying out,” Sullivan says.
When it comes to marriage, what matters most to these men is the need to feel, as Hollis put it, “like full-fledged citizens of this country.” He and his partner have spent thousands of dollars on legal documents in order to make sure they have access to at least some of the protections straight couples are granted by signing a marriage license. McCary and Sullivan have done the same, in spite of their legal marriage in Massachusetts, but worry that not even those documents are enough. “We want to share a long life, and grow old together,” says McCary, “and even with all these documents, there’s still going to be a lot of steps, a lot of paperwork we’ll have to do if, God forbid, one of us passes. We’re young enough that we’d be able to take care of things now, but what about when we’re old and feeble? One of the promises of marriage is that you’ll look after each other in your old age, and it is so sad, so stressful to think that one of us might end up having to do all of this alone. If our marriage were recognized, everything would be more simple.”