I need to tell you all a story. A story about why I can’t go home again, thanks to the outbreak of laws enabling religiously-based discrimination, and laws about transgendered bathroom use.
Kentucky is the state where I was born, but I haven’t been back there since my grandmother died in 2011. And before that, my and Dara’s visits had already grown few and far between. There are times I regret this, because it’s meant that I haven’t gotten to see my brother’s children grow up, or my sister’s. What little contact I’ve had with my family members has been online or via occasional emails or text messages.
But by and large, there are reasons I have decided not to go home again. Reasons that involve how it is straight-out not safe for Dara and me to be there.
Kentucky and a lot of the other states in the Midwest and the South have been spending the last several years already deciding that the right to religious-based bigotry trumps the right for LGBT American citizens to be treated equally under the law. It was, after all, in Kentucky where county clerk Kim Davis became infamous for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses because of her religious beliefs.
Y’know what Dara and I are? A same-sex couple.
Kim Davis is not alone in the South. She’s not alone in Kentucky either. Davis and others like her are the reason why we now have this plague of laws allowing religious-based discrimination breaking out all over those states. And let me tell you what those laws are to Dara and me, should I have another reason to need to visit my family: a threat.
If Dara or I made it to Kentucky but were somehow separated from our travel supplies of meds, a pharmacist could get away with refusing to sell us prescriptions.
We would have to be very, very careful about any public displays of affection that might get us thrown out of restaurants, if we were to go out to dinner with any of my relatives or our local friends. And by public displays of affection, I don’t even mean public kissing. I mean gestures as simple as holding my wife’s hand. Or putting an arm around her. Or resting my head on her shoulder. And we’d have to doublecheck doors of restaurants or stores in general, in case owners or managers felt the need to post any public signs about how WE DON’T SERVE GAY PEOPLE HERE.
If, gods forbid, something were to happen to either of us to land us in need of emergency care, a doctor or a nurse could get away with refusing to treat us.
And to make it worse, now there’s an additional plague of laws to try to keep transgendered persons out of bathrooms that correspond to their self-identified genders. Some places have even encouraged bounties for people who spot others who they perceive to be in the “wrong” bathrooms.
This has already threatened a cisgendered woman who had to sue a restaurant when its security threw her out of the ladies’ room–because they thought she looked too masculine, so clearly she had to be a man. And this was a cisgendered woman. Who got confronted and threatened because she looked too butch.
Y’know what I am? A cisgendered, heavy-set woman with large, hairy legs and a face that gets hairy too if I avoid my razor for more than two days running. Whose hair is now short, now that I’ve got my summer haircut, and whose preferred style of dress is decidedly unfeminine. We’re talking jeans, T-shirts, hiking boots, and unisex hoodies and sweatshirts here, people. My typical idea of fashion is “do my socks match? Is my shirt clean? Do I have my hat? Fantastic, I’m fit to go outside.”
So the possibility that I could get confronted in a ladies’ room in Kentucky because I don’t match somebody’s perceived notions of “what a woman should look like” are greater than zero.
And I’m not even transgendered.
This doesn’t even begin to touch the problem of how transgendered people who want to do nothing more than go to the freggin’ bathroom when they need to are screwed either way, thanks to these laws. If they try to use the bathroom that matches their self-identified genders, they are at risk of arrest and physical confrontation. If they try to use the bathroom that matches their birth genders, they are still at risk of being assaulted. Or killed.
I personally know too many transgendered people who have told me their stories to not believe them when they tell me what kind of risks threaten them on a daily basis–not only physical threats, but cultural and media ones as well. Threats that impact adults and children alike, and which put transgendered children at risk of bullying and emotional trauma that could drive them into suicide. But even past the people I specifically know, all too many stories and stats are out there if you care enough about this to educate yourselves. Go look them up. I’ll wait.
Suffice to say, when I look at the state where I was born and the states around it, I see an environment that has grown actively toxic and hostile to queer people. And black people–because the South is now an environment where a mixed-race couple can be thrown out of a trailer park just because the husband happens to be black. And Muslims–because you don’t need to look any further than the current Republican presidential campaigns to see evidence of hostility towards anyone who has the temerity to be non-Christian and brown.
I see an environment I don’t dare to visit, because I cannot put myself and my wife at that kind of risk.
It breaks my heart, because it means that even if I want to, I can’t go see my blood relations.
And it means that I respond to Newfoundland and Quebecois traditional music so strongly because I’ve seen the musicians who play it celebrating their musical heritage–and part of me really envies that even as I know I can’t have it. Because while Kentucky has musical heritage of its own, and while I have sometimes felt that as a Kentucky girl it would behoove me to try to learn more about it, Kentucky and the states around it have made it patently clear that they do not welcome people like Dara and me. They don’t want our presence. They don’t want our money. They don’t want us to even exist.
So I can only conclude that they wouldn’t want me playing their music either. And I’m left with part of my heart and soul hollowed out, a part of me eased but never entirely filled when I sing along with Quebecois turluttes or sea shanties from Newfoundland. A part of me that I reach best whenever I sing along with Elvis, but not even Elvis can quite close this hole.
I know that there are people in the South who don’t share these beliefs. That there are Southerners who reject racism and sexism, and who, even if they personally are Christians, also reject the notion that their God might require them to hate people who aren’t exactly like them. If you’re one of those Southerners, I urge you: make your voice heard. Write letters to your legislators. Find them on social media and let them have it. Reject this toxicity that will only serve to hurt innocent people. Innocent children.
Because until this poison is cleared out of the South, no, I can’t sing “Kentucky Rain” with a clear heart. And I can’t go home again.