Dear, Damned Mississippi,
As you know, I parted ways with you 29 years ago next month. I was 23. I had been born on the Gulf Coast, and I had lived in you for all but a year and a half of my life. I knew at puberty that I had to leave you — you weren’t good for me; you suffocated me with more than your humidity — but I couldn’t yet pinpoint why I had to go. I understood instinctually that my survival depended on it, and to this day, I believe that I am alive because I left you.
Years ago, long after I had left but when my parents still lived in you, my mother used to try to shame me for our physical distance. I lived in Atlanta at the time, then in the Southwest. Families should stick together, she said. I should live closer, as other children of other parents did, in order to look after my parents as they aged. There is much more to this argument — my mother is very much like my motherland — but I told her, intending no melodrama, that if I had not left you, Mississippi, I would probably have been dead, a suicide, or (at best? at worst?) so deeply depressed that I might as well have been dead.
I stopped calling my parents’ house “home” while I still lived in you, Mississippi; I stopped calling the Gulf Coast “home,” too. If I returned for a visit to my parents or for a trip to the beach, I said I was going to the Coast. “Home” had become, for me, a conflict-ridden conundrum. It did not represent a specific place, and it certainly did not represent a place I was wanted, welcomed, or safe. “Home is where you are,” my friends and I used to say when I was working on my masters and still very much your captive, Mississippi. Home, by definition, became a place I carried with me, inside me, as if my skin were its husk, my ribcage its protector.
I never felt safe when I was in you, Mississippi. I still don’t. I haven’t been in you since October 2005, six weeks after Hurricane Katrina razed your shoreline for miles and miles inland. When I saw that destruction, I ached for you as I had never done before. You may have been cruel to me, you may have been a cruel warden and a cruel teacher, but I did not want to see cruelty done to you.
It is impossible for me to separate you from my family members, Mississippi, the ones I am related to by blood rather than by choice. In their house that was a prison, I tried to make myself small and secret. To be myself, to express myself — these were dangerous acts that met with punishment. The more overt the act, the more cruel and inhumane the punishment. I strived to be good, to be Christian and Christ-like; I strived for perfection in my studies and my work; I strived to be loving and proper. I strived not to be the other things I was; I hated what and whom I desired. I strived not to reveal myself but, rather, to put on a great performance. Most of the time it worked. I erased my truest, most authentic self.
What lurked hidden inside me did not go undetected. My family accused me of being gay. They punished me for being gay. And this was at a time I did not act on the feelings I tried to disguise and pray or hate away. Some classmates saw through me, accused me, bullied me. The worst among those bullies was also gay, loved in the ways I loved, and showed that love in the ways I showed that love.
This was in the late 1970s, the early 1980s. I went to college sixty miles from where I’d grown up, and though my mind expanded as my world expanded, the cage remained the same. Why am I telling you this? You know the story, Mississippi.
When I was born in you, you were already known for your racism. You were home to Beauvoir, the former estate of Jefferson Davis, the only president of the Confederacy. The Gulf Coast, where I was born, it was said, was your most progressive region. To call any of your regions “progressive” then was a lie. The country and I knew you for your racism. When I left you, at least 45 other states could point to you and assuredly say you were more racist than they. All 50 of you could bond in your hatred of gay people.
You made me hate myself. You made me believe I was the worst abomination on earth. The rest of the country supported you in espousing this hatred. By the time I left, the small, pure part of me that was a survivor had determined that I was good, that I was love-worthy, that I was kind, that I was these things and more at heart, no matter my flaws. I still had a long way to go in shedding the hatred you had taught me, though, too long a way, a longer way than I care to admit. You had gotten inside me.
Mississippi, I write about you. I set most of my stories in you. If I think about you deeply enough, I remember your beauty, the scents of honeysuckle, magnolias, and gardenias, the colors of all the azaleas, your rivers and creeks, your good food, your voice with its many dialects. Sometimes I want to defend you as too much maligned. Sometimes I want to justify your ways, your traditions and beliefs. Sometimes I want to describe your poverty. I know what it’s like to be from a particular place at a particular time. So do we all. Some of us live at a time in a place that is inhospitable to us. This was my childhood. This was my early adulthood. Mississippi, you tried to kill me or, at the very least, to make sure my life was miserable, a morass of despair. I got out. I lived. I don’t miss you.
Sometimes I think about the people like me who still live in you, Mississippi. Sometimes I think about the people like me who don’t have the means to leave you, Mississippi. The worst of my high school bullies still lives in you. I’ve learned from Facebook that she is married now, that her spouse is a wife. They look happy. I hope they are happy. Maybe they found a way to live in you and still be happy.
Your governor signed a bill into law yesterday, HB 1523. It’s the harshest piece of hate legislation currently in existence. I am 1200 miles away from you, nearly three decades removed from you, and I’m buckling under the weight of the hatred you consider “religious freedom.” Mississippi, I want to school you in what it means to be Christian and, beyond that, Christ-like, but I don’t think it will make a difference. You were the reason I came to consider Christian and Christ-like as antonyms.
I have always been ashamed of you, Mississippi. The only thing I’ve been proud about is getting out of you. If only I could get you as completely out of me. Even as I write of the particular form of oppression I suffered as your citizen, I am aware of my privilege. I am white. I come from a middle- to upper-middle-class family. I am educated. And though I am gay, I am nowhere near all of the many things you hate.
I remember too well a day in the mid-1990s when I drove from Georgia to the Gulf Coast to visit my parents. Crossing a long bridge, I saw puppies running alongside the median barrier. They’d been dumped there, unwanted. I was seeing them at the beginning and the end of their lives. I had a Honda Civic then. I’d put a rainbow sticker on the bumper, a small rectangle of colors, and knew it would not go unnoticed. I’d put it there because I’d wanted others like me not to feel alone, as I had when I was growing up. I am telling you this because, Mississippi, you have so much to be ashamed of, so much hatred and violence and abuse, and because I know you have people like me, people who are loving and good and flawed and who deserve a chance at a different sort of life.