There’s a lot I love about my home state of Mississippi. I love the friendliness and the courtesy of the people, how everyone assumes they know someone in your family. I love the ceremoniousness of the Delta and the irreverence of the country. I love late night visits to the Waffle House. But I don’t love how the validity of my relationship is still, in most circles, a matter of opinion. The Mississippi House of Representatives recently approved House Bill 1523, the so-called Religious Liberty Accommodations Act, which would allow officials not to issue same-sex marriage licenses, and would also allow discrimination based on gender identity for businesses, foster care agencies, employers and landlords.
“Well, it’s the law. But I don’t agree with it.”
I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect when I told my 83-year-old grandmother I was marrying a man. I’d run through the scenarios in my head, from absolute rejection and cries of hellfire to Hallmark-movie tears and “I’ve been waiting years for you to tell me” declarations of support. I wasn’t expecting legalese and a shrug, and I received it with equal parts relief and disappointment. I’d built up the moment so much in my head that I felt certain everything would be different between us afterwards, irrevocably changed, but our relationship carried on exactly the same as before. She loved me, but she couldn’t support me. At least not how I wanted her to. It was up to me to accept that or see our relationship suffer.
As an out actor and filmmaker, I feel a responsibility to live my life as an activist; I’ve campaigned for LGBT causes, written think pieces, gotten into pointless arguments on Facebook, and made sure to mention my partner in every interview I can, because I know firsthand how important visibility is for young people who feel isolated. I couldn’t be more open about being gay if I walked around holding a rainbow flag, but it wasn’t until an article was coming out about my engagement in the local newspaper that I felt compelled to break the news to my grandmother. Initially I had been afraid; I knew she was very religious and would have trouble accepting it. Both sides of my family are conservative, with roots dating back to the Civil War, and my radical departure from tradition didn’t make for polite dinner conversation. As time went on, my fear turned to resentment, and I told myself I didn’t owe anyone a coming-out talk at 30. Maybe I was just a chickenshit hypocrite, but I felt like people could either support me implicitly or get out of my life.
Recently, I got lunch with a friend of mine in Mississippi who had just come out to his best friend. It didn’t go well; after much cussing and yelling, his “friend” told him they could still be friends, but he’d never support gay marriage or consider those relationships equal to his own heterosexual ones. My friend hadn’t yet told his parents, who have only recently adopted a “love the sinner, hate the sin” mantra in political discussions (a particularly condescending catchphrase that has always driven me a special kind of crazy). He knew they would never fully accept him, but he hoped they could still have a relationship after he came out.
When I was younger, “tolerance” wouldn’t have been enough for me. I used to think it was martyrdom to maintain ties with people who don’t fully accept you. When I left Mississippi as a teenager, I had no patience with casual homophobia. A straight friend of mine in college had no issues with me being gay, but he thought there was nothing more hilarious than telling “faggot” jokes in front of me. I told him I thought it would be hilarious if I tossed a glass of water in his face the next time the word left his mouth. This story ends with him soaking wet, threatening to beat the shit out of me, and me laughing and begging him to hit me so I could get him kicked out of school. I’m not proud of acting like a reality TV character or of losing a friend, but I felt like I had to stand up for myself, because for so many years I wasn’t able to.
Growing up, my nickname was “gay kid.” I got the title from a group of senior jocks who took offense at me trying to start a student-run theater freshman year. The more I stood up to them, the worse it got; there were way more people that thought I deserved to be tormented for my perceived gayness than people willing to defend me, including a few of the teachers. My friends and I were regularly pelted with rocks during lunch, and no one lifted a finger — it just seemed like a fact of life to me. From the hostile environment at school to hateful, homophobic sermons at church, I felt cornered. I fell into a deep depression and withdrew at home.
When I was 16, my parents confronted me about my homosexuality. They weren’t angry, but they were afraid for me and the path mylife might take living as an openly gay man. There weren’t many examples of happy gay men in our community. That summer, I auditioned for a performing arts boarding school in Michigan, packed my bags, and became an expatriate. I can honestly say that going away for school pulled me out of a profound depression and saved my relationship with my parents — we missed each other too much to start resenting our differences. I am incredibly fortunate that they had the means and the open-mindedness to let me go, and can only imagine how terrified they must have been at the time, given their initial fears for what life might hold for a person like me. Art school led me to New York for college, where I met a handsome Minnesotan whose nickname growing up had been “gay boy,” who I am now incredibly grateful to call my fiancé — and none of it would have been possible without my parents’ support. I know how lucky I am, and I’m thankful to have been born into a loving family.
Last week my parents threw an engagement party for me and John and invited the extended family. Not only did my grandmother come, she bought a new outfit and baked a coconut cake (and her famous brownies). We had cheese straws and Bloody Marys, and my mom nearly blew her hand off by lighting the short fuse on a pack of Black Cats. My grandmother hugged John and his parents and told my mother she thought he was a very nice man. A close relative of mine who had previously asked that John introduce himself as my “friend” traveled hours to be at our engagement party and support us. My 86-year-old great uncle came to the party, shook our hands and told us in his thick Delta drawl that he was so happy we could finally get married. We may have different beliefs, but my extended family’s actions made it clear that they love and support me. When I was younger, that might not have been enough for me, but looking back on the last 30 years, I can appreciate just how significant their support is. Sometimes having patience and faith in the people you love is rewarded.
The last few months have taught me that it’s important to allow people to surprise you, and to understand that not everyone is capable of immediately relating to your experience. Some people may never come around, but the people that love you will hopefully still love you after they find out who you really are — because you’re still the exact same person you were before. I wish I had been more patient with my roommate, although I still think it was kind of hilarious, and I sincerely hope that my friend’s homophobic community will come around. I think it’s safe to say that if there’s a key to unlocking their hearts, it’s him. The outpouring of love and support my family has shown me and John has certainly unlocked mine.
KIT WILLIAMSON is an actor, filmmaker, and activist living in New York City. He best known for playing the role of Ed Gifford on Mad Men and creating the LGBT series EastSiders, which is available on Vimeo On Demand.
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