The South is the Cornerstone: Stories of Growing Up Queer in the South

“As the South goes, so does the rest of the country.”

Inspired by the words of W.E.B DuBois, this is the mantra that HRC Arkansas State Director Eric Reece (he/they) subscribes to at work. Born and raised in Arkansas, Reece knows that the South plays a pivotal role in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights. “I feel it's the cornerstone,” said Reece. “The South plays the key role because of deep-seeded oppressions. Those who are most impacted by that have always come together, resisted and moved forward, and they’ve always been from the South.”

The South has been notorious for radically racist, sexist and anti-LGBTQ+ policies and political leaders. But it's also been the birthplace of many social justice changemakers. Changemakers like Reece, who speak to the strength and community they still find in the South. Stories that can galvanize generational change.

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Reece’s family members were the founders of a prominent church in Little Rock, Arkansas. He grew up attending vacation bible school and playing instruments for the choir like many young southerners. “I’m a Bible Belt person, you know? I enjoyed that institution,” said Reece. For a lot of queer southerners, the church is a focal point in their stories that can steer the direction of their adolescence.

In the same vein, whatever queer community is available can alter the course of someone’s life. Reece was mentored by local drag queens from a young age, and they consider these relationships to be pivotal in discovering their sense of self. “They taught me how to be in community, taught me to just be me.”

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"Those who are most impacted by that have always come together, resisted and moved forward, and they’ve always been from the South."

- Eric Reece (he/they), HRC Arkansas State Director

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Similar to Reece, HRC Texas State Director Melodia Gutierrez’s (she/her/ella) family is Southern Baptist. But for Gutierrez, the experience was isolating and fraught. “It’s an extremely lonely experience. Your identity is based on your church and your family,” said Gutierrez. When it came time for college registration, she chose the less traditional path of becoming a flight attendant. “That experience made me see what life was like outside of those two spaces I had experienced.” She credits her period of self-actualization to being a flight attendant. “It showed me ways to find joy within your own community and create your own family.”

After her time in the skies, Gutierrez returned to her roots and with her chosen family, began a career in organizing. “I really feel like it was Black women, lesbian women, and gay men that helped me find my identity and start a career in political science to help those communities that I’m part of,” she says.

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“Represent, share your story, amplify your voice when you’re at a point where you feel safe to do it. When you do that you are saving somebody else’s life.”

- Melodia Gutierrez (she/her/ella), HRC Texas State Director

Above all else, it’s community that fuels the safety, self discovery and organization of queer southerners. Lore Lane (they/them) is the Impact Coordinator at Campaign For Southern Equality (CSE), an LGBTQ+ rights organization focused on improving the lives of LGBTQ+ Southerners, and they note the significance of community connection in their life. “I don't know where I would be without the people around me making me believe that I can do hard things,” said Lane.

This sentiment is felt throughout the South and across the country. In the face of an extremist assault on our rights and our personhood, we stand up together, fight back together and pull the world with us when they resist. CSE and HRC are both on the forefront of these fights, offering resources to aid those who may be in need and advocating for legal and social change.

Lane also emphasized the importance of supporting queer people in hostile states as they may not have the support or recognition from their legislature. “None of us are free until we’re all free,” said Lane, who also emphasizes that poor voting rights and disenfranchisement have led to where we are now “a few powerful bigots enforcing their will.”

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"None of us are free until we're all free."

- Lore Lane (they/them), Impact Coordinator at Campaign For Southern Equality

And while many adults are fleeing to less hostile places, young LGBTQ+ will always be in the South. Gutierrez advises young queer Southerns to “be wholly and boldly you … represent, share your story, amplify your voice when you’re at a point where you feel safe to do it. When you do that you are saving somebody else’s life.”

The reality is this: Most southerners love the South, and have hope and joy for the place they call home. The South has curated millions of stories, ones of resilience and community unlike anywhere else in the world, and it's why we must devote energy and resources towards amplifying them.

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Campaign For Southern Equality offers emergency resources and grants for trans southerners and families in hostile states. If you or someone you know is in need of emergency medical help, please see below.