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Last Friday, TheWashingtonPost reported that U.S. District Judge Carlton W. Reeves issued an injunction blocking House Bill 1523, an attempt by the Mississippi legislature to permit discrimination against LGBT people by private citizens and public officials alike on the basis of “sincere religious belief.” Supporters of the bill, including Governor Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and the bill’s author Philip Gunn have barely attempted to mask their bigotry, making no secret of the fact that their “sincere religious belief” is that they have both a right and a responsibility to make me a second class citizen in the name of God. This means I can be fired, evicted, and turned away from businesses and government agencies with no recourse.
It saddens me that so much hate has taken root in the state where I grew up, but I am also proud to have overcome it. I am proud of the brave LGBT people and allies in Mississippi who are standing up against it. And I am proud of our legal system for stepping in to protect us where our Democracy has failed.
Last weekend, I had the honor and privilege of returning to my hometown to emcee Mississippi Pride. This is the second year that Unity Mississippi has put on an official Pride celebration, and to my knowledge, no Pride celebrations took place when I was a kid. Growing up in Jackson, I was certain that I wouldn’t see gay marriage in my lifetime. I was certain I would never find a partner to share my life with. Shortly after realizing I was gay at ten years old, I vividly remember lying awake in bed, crossing possibilities off my list of childhood dreams. Could I become a politician like my grandfather? No one will vote for a pervert. A minister? Maybe in hell. An actor? Only in my dreams. It seemed like the only options available were to either stay miserable in the closet or live a broken life in exile. I immediately started plotting my escape, and hit the eject button at sixteen to go to boarding school. I couldn’t imagine a world where my family would accept me.
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Thirty years into my life, I may not be a church leader or a congressman, but I am an actor, I am married to the love of my life and I’m proud to say my marriage is recognized as equal under the law in Mississippi. My family not only accepts me, they celebrate me, and they all came out to support me at Pride. I am thrilled to be proven so thoroughly wrong about the world’s capacity to change, and I hope I am the last generation of Mississippians to grow up so pessimistic about the future.
Roberta Kaplan, the attorney who made the case against both HB 1523 and the recently overturned ban on gay adoptions (the final such ban to be overturned in this country), made reference to the state’s history of segregation and racism in her arguments, declaring “there can’t be separate but equal marriage” and likening the law to Jim Crow. Both Governor Phil Bryant and Judge Carlton W. Reeves came of age in the final days of segregation. Judge Reeves is African American, and grew up in Yazoo City, my father’s hometown. As a kid in Yazoo City, did he ever imagine he would be nominated to the bench by the nation’s first black president? Or did he lie in bed at night crossing dreams like that off his list?
At Mississippi Pride, I was blown away by the spirit of the crowd, even in the face of the 97 degree heat. There were a few protestors screaming themselves hoarse into megaphones on the other side of the barricades, but from where I was standing, I only encountered thoughtful, kind people coming together with their friends and families to celebrate our community.
We held a vigil for the victims of the Orlando shooting and I spoke with many activists, including Charlene Smith-Smathers, about their involvement in the struggle dating back to DOMA. It struck me that there was a community of Mississippians fighting for equality when I was a kid. Charlene saw my mother was with me and exclaimed that they had gone to high school — and charm school — together in Batesville. As challenging as my childhood was, I can only imagine the bravery it took to stay in Mississippi and fight for equality back then. I may not be proud to be from the same state as Governor Phil Bryant, but I am proud to be from the same state as Charlene Smith-Smathers. I am proud to be from the same state as Judge Carlton W. Reeves. And I hope to live my life in such a way that someday I might inspire other Mississippians to be proud of where they are from, and who they are.