By Felicia Blow
My first trip with the Campaign for Southern Equality and my first trip to the Deep South were one and the same. Although I’ve lived in the South all my life, I’ve never ventured farther than North Georgia (well, Florida, technically, but I wouldn’t consider Disney World the Deep South), and making the drive to Hattiesburg, Mississippi earlier this month was daunting for a couple reasons: I get carsick and restless on long drives, and I was a newcomer to CSE where the staff has built strong connections and relationships with Hattiesburg locals. I wasn’t really sure what to expect.
My awesome coworkers Chloe and Ivy, right before we hit the road!
As we packed up the car, I volunteered to take the first shift driving to keep occupied. I marked each border we crossed – city limits, county, state – as the highway wound us back and forth out of the mountains. We had a short, but sweet stopover in Birmingham for the night, where we ate at a delicious Asian food truck with extremely generous portions. It was an unexpected find and reminded me of something I’d see back in Asheville, with its love of fusion food and novelty eats. I dove into the heaping plate of pork eggrolls, grateful for good food and a break from the car ride, and by then I’d started to feel settled into the trip. There are few better ways to get comfortable with a group of people than by traveling together. We jammed to Top 40 in the car and crammed into a hotel room on the outskirts of downtown, Ivy taking one for the team, sleeping on a stiff, squeaky sofa bed.
I would have regretted the short amount of time we spent there if I hadn’t known we’d be returning in a month for Birmingham’s own convening. So the next morning, we arrived in Hattiesburg and immediately got to work, shopping for snacks and setting up the space for the next day’s convening at the Spectrum Center, a fairly recently opened LGBT community center – and the only one in Hattiesburg – run by Sara and LB Bell, longtime leaders in CSE.
We had a late night and an early start the next morning to get the food set up and tie up loose ends before people started arriving, so I downed some coffee and we were off and running. I had to do some public speaking at the start of the convening, which is never my first choice, and I characteristically rushed through it, but since I started in August, the whole staff has been great at getting me to do things I’d usually shy away from. I got through it and spent the rest of the day in a picture-taking frenzy, uploading things to Facebook and Twitter, inviting people to come out.
As it was, we had an amazing turnout; there was barely enough room for everyone to sit in the small house-turned-center. It always energizes me to be in a space full of folks who are engaged – with the work and with each other – and who are committed to learning, working, and making change. There’s something undeniable about it, and dropping in on sessions throughout the day showed me how much people were taking away from this event that I’d had an, admittedly small, hand in helping to create in the last month and a half.
Awesome attendees after a great day of learning and connecting.
There’s something exciting and warming about bearing witness to a sense of community among others; I’m always glad to be invited into those spaces, and in this one I felt immediately welcome. It’s something I love about the South, and it’s more than just run-of-the-mill Southern hospitality. For some, the notion of Southern Pride might seem like a paradox in and of itself, but those of us from these states know there is reason to be proud, both of where we come from and of who we are. The next day at Southern Fried Pride, Hattiesburg’s first ever Pride celebration, it was evident how many people had banded together to make this possible. How much love, and, as it soon became clear, how much courage and conviction it took.
Nationwide, tensions are high around rights and safety for LGBT folks and people of color, and day after day there is news of another mass shooting. Two had taken place just the day before. So when protesters arrived, their intentions unclear and their affiliations muddled – Christian, Confederate, Klan – I was terrified for a moment. Even with the local police presence and relatively small number of protesters, the fact remained that we were a group of people of all kinds of racial, sexual, and gender identities, and the cause for concern was not unwarranted. A few weeks later one of the protesters was arrested for bombing a Wal-Mart in Tupelo, Mississippi after the store’s decision to discontinue selling confederate flags. Sometimes that gut feeling just can’t be ignored.
But as the day wore on, it seemed their only goals were intimidation and attention. Some of them set up in camper chairs and took selfies with their flags (I can only imagine how one would caption that), and ultimately, after entering the parade through downtown – some trailing behind, some directly inserting themselves, rubbing shoulders with us – they packed up early and headed home.
There were four hours left in the day for Pridegoers to celebrate unopposed, but the contrast between the great hospitality I experienced and the sharp hostility of their presence stuck with me. I knew I’d be back to this region again in a month’s time, in Birmingham, and wondered if we’d face similar resistance there. It’s a fearful and confusing time to be living in, but it’s important to hold that tension and uncertainty while we figure it out.