A Southerner in a Strange Land by Josh Burford

I have spent my entire life in the Deep South living, working, and advocating as a Queer identified person.  It has always been a puzzle to me that some people seem to have such terrible impressions of the South and have used it as the bogeyman/yardstick to measure how much “better” life is in other parts of the country.  I think as a young person I truly believed the media that Queers in the South were destined to suffer in silence until such a time as they could work up the funds or the nerve to pick up and move to places that promised more acceptance.

In January, I attended the Creating Change Conference in Atlanta.  I was excited to attend this conference in the South as it is billed as the largest gathering of LGBTQA practitioners in the US.  The theoretical purpose of the conference is to be a place where people working in non-profits, higher education, community organizing, and Queer professional positions, can come together and share ideas to help connect and grow our diverse community.  The first year I attended this conference, I left feeling very good about my work in the South and got a lot of very helpful information to take back to my campus.  I have been working in the silo of higher education for 8 years and the chance to talk shop with other Queers is particularly lacking.  However, the tenor of the conference this year seemed much more fraught with problems, as if my rose colored glasses had lost their tint.

I looked all over the conference for the place where I could meet with other people working in the South to talk about our unique issues and found nothing.  It seemed that there was a gluttony of panels, speakers, and breakout sessions geared to the lives of a very specific bunch of Queers.  Nowhere in the room did I see the South represented, and when it did emerge the framework for discussion of the South sounded more like a well meaning relative lamenting the poor situation of a destitute relative instead of support for fellow social justice activists.  I heard over and over again about the great progress of Northeastern states and how the great equalizer of “marriage equality” was creating safer spaces for us all.  I heard many accolades being heaped on cities in the Pacific Northwest and the great work being done to create even more complex spaces for multiple identities.  Yet mention of the South (as miniscule as they were) was tinged with sad reflections of lacking resources, difficult roads to forge, and assurances that when things get sorted out (read: marriage equality) there would be time enough to “deal” with Southern problems.  I even overheard Queer professionals lamenting their travel to the South and the worried conversations they had with their students and partners about trying to ignore the racist language, people, and attitudes they were sure to encounter on this journey; implying that leaving the safe and progressive strongholds of the Northeast and Pacific Northwest was a necessary evil they had to endue in order to attend this conference.

This rhetoric was exemplified best for me in an exchange between an audience member and a Queer professional who was sitting on a panel discussion.  They were having an exchange about the application of law to queer adoption.  The response to the audience member’s question was “You should go down to your local LGBT Community Center and see how they can help you.”  The audience member’s response was, “I don’t live in a state that has these types of centers.” The panelist (representing the Northeast) had no response to the woman in the audience.  The panelist’s worldview could simply not encompass a place where access to these types of resources wasn’t easy and waiting to be used.  Its this attitude that is so emblematic of the disconnect between Queer people living in the South and the rest of the country.  The individuals leading our movement have bought totally and completely into the notion that Queer life only exists in large urban centers.  It’s the very thing that gives rise to many Queer identified people saying things like “when marriage equality is achieved, then what will be left to work on?”  I heard many young Queer people lamenting that the work of the movement is almost over, and they don’t know what they have left to work on.

It’s the urbanist obsession in our movement that has led us to this place.  Queer communities in urban centers have grown so visible and they are so well organized that there is simply no way for them to understand that their lives are not in fact typical for all Queers nationwide.  It’s a strange and difficult bubble that has been put in place that offers a few in our community access to resources and community, but we can only see in and they cannot see out.  Now I can already hear people saying, “But this seems more like an urban vs. rural conversation” and you are partially right.  It’s not like we don’t have urban centers in the South, its just that the national attitude about the South is that we are all living just on the side of Old McDonald’s farm.  We are being viewed through the lens of an increasingly white, wealthy group of Queers who don’t or can’t understand that many of us struggle with the bare minimum of resources. When wealthy privileged Queers imagine life in the South its more “Birth of a Nation” and less of the reality of hard working, intergenerational Queer identified people working diligently everyday to make the lives of our community better in the face of visible discrimination.  How are we supposed to do our work if we cannot turn to our peers for support?

A great deal of the blame for this disconnect is laid at the feet of Southern Queers.  We have silently sat by and gave donations to national organizations without thinking about our homes as places worth saving.  My new home in Charlotte, North Carolina, is proud that its HRC gala is the largest in the US outside of DC.  Yet while piles of money are being collected for national organizations, our own local agencies suffer as the money rarely makes its way back home to support our local efforts.  And yet everywhere I look in the South there are people working hard to queer up spaces and to increase the complexity and diversity of our lived experiences.  Southerners on New Ground, Lost-n-Found in Atlanta, the Tennessee Equality Project, the Alabama and Mississippi Safe Schools Coalitions, and many more places are working hard while significantly underfunded (and almost always alone). Southern Queers are beginning to understand that their lives are unique and their homes are worth protecting. Back in 2009, I did a performance piece for a fundraiser for a local Tuscaloosa, Alabama LGBT scholarship. I called the piece “The State of the Gay Union” and I spent some time reminding people that we were not orphans of the movement, abandoned to languish in queer cultural poverty.  When my speech concluded so many young queer people came up to me and said, “That is what I have been trying to say for a while.”  It’s this voice that is missing from every corner of the national movement.  We are watching these “progressive” places close their community centers, and pack up the movement because they “don’t need it anymore” while so many of us struggle. It is this lazy, shortsighted approach that will signal the derailment of the movement’s great work.

Another important block to our success is our desire to create a supposed “celebrity” status with activists in our movement.  If we replace activism with a new hierarchy of “gay” celebrities then we have moved down a path that will only recreate the very forces that we are trying to overcome.  Creating Change forced me to realize that our community has adopted a new caste system in order to parse out both knowledge and resources.  We have created a new “Gay” upper class that has as its only claim to fame the connection to very limited and specific geography.  We now put Queer identified “experts” on pedestals in order to reinforce a sense of “have” and “have-nots” and to make sure that a select few can squeeze as much relevance out of their lives as possible. This new system allows people to turn their noses up at those of us with less desirable addresses while at the same time spouting off the rhetoric of inclusivity and intersectionality.  This is nothing short of a movement that has lost its will to be radical in favor of a capitalist heavy, hierarchy of privilege that only drags out people of color or Trans* people (or the rest of us deviants) when its in vogue to do so.  I heard from a participant at the conference that they saw Kate Clinton at breakfast but they were too nervous about going up to her and talking.  I am certain that Ms. Clinton is not the unapproachable sort but the idea of her “celebrity” created this perceived barrier between her and a young Queer person who might have benefited from her knowledge and experience.  It’s a funny bit of irony that a community of outsiders would want to reenact a system of exclusion that made them feel excluded.

We are not so large a community that any of our experts should be perceived as unapproachable or nearing celebrity status.  The information that a few of us have access to should be shared as often as possible and we need a system in place that will call us out when we start to endow any of our leaders with status that promotes worship.  I see so many wonderful activists who spend copious amounts of time with local chapters of groups, or individual students because they have not lost a sense of the scope of the work.  I often think of the brilliant and amazing work that Mandy Carter is doing for our country here in North Carolina and how her influence is felt around the world.  I look up to her a great deal and want my work to emulate hers as much as possible.  When I start thinking of her too highly she always reminds me that she is a conduit for the work and not the object of the work.  Just recently, I was questioning the nature of my place in the movement and she took the time to Skype with me just to talk.   It’s this kind of personal, local (with a large scope) focus that is the key to the success of our struggle.  We must reject any form of social stratification that creates the artificiality of importance and seeks to further isolate and ignore the already hyper-disenfranchised members of our community.

The longer I live and work in the South the more I understand that instead of a wasteland of the free, the South has reached a tipping point where it can be a model of progress that could propel the Queer community into new areas of equality and freedom.  In a place where the work is still fresh and the basics of community outreach are still trying to be met, it is here that real progress in the 21st century can be achieved.  We must look to the national organizations, not to lead us but as examples of how easy it is to let ourselves get distracted by single issue politics, how destructive it is to segregate our communities, how dangerous it is to let unchecked privilege infect our spaces, of the dangers of letting personality and personal agenda take the place of a vision for our future, and the damage that is caused by replacing one hierarchy for another.  I am so tired of our lip service to difference while we watch whole sections of our community suffer.  I am tired of picking up the bad habits of Academia and letting pointless, masturbatory faux intellectualism replace the practicality of providing necessary resources for the full spectrum of Queer people.  I am determined to see that Southern Queer experience (in its full rainbowed glory) is celebrated and that our own history of race, class, sexuality, and gender allows us access to a new wave of community activism that sees the man behind the curtain and understands he no longer represents our best interests.  In fact he never did.

I have dedicated my life to the work of creating more progressive and radical spaces for all members of the Queer community and I understand for the first time that I CAN do this because I am a Southerner.  We have been left out of a conversation of what real equality looks like and as a result we have had to work in an old school grassroots style to keep our communities intact and safe.  Its time we took control of our own destinies and start looking to ourselves and our own communities for organization, strength, and support.

Josh is the Assistant Director for Sexual & Gender Diversity at UNC Charlotte.  Josh is a Queer activist, archivist, and educator who has spent the last 17 years working with Southern Queer communities.  Currently Josh is working on a LGBTQ Community Archive and history for Charlotte North Carolina and he can be reached at joshburford@outlook.com.

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