Being from Texas, I feel for others who are in states or regions constantly being used to score cheap laughs in the media. However, when it comes to being behind the times, Mississippi is further back than... Well, everyone else. And the state is probably going to have be dragged kicking and screaming towards the rest of the country's updated views on LGBT+ issues.
It's easy to take potshots at Mississippi. It's really easy. This is, after all, the state that continues, be it for pride or prejudice, to retain a state flag which since 1894 has prominently displayed the Stars and Bars battle flag of the slavery defending Confederate States of America, soundly refusing in 2001 to change the flag. Oh, and then apparently realised it "forgot" to abolish that same institution of slavery until last year!
This is the state which has the lowest median income and the highest rate of poverty in the United States. The Magnolia state has the highest rate of obesity. It is the second to worst place to be a kid after New Mexico after twenty-three years of holding the bottom spot. And the list goes on. Life expectancy? Lowest. Education? Fourth from the bottom. Election transparency and efficacy? Worst.
(But to just to be fair to Mississippian readers, my own beloved Texas is one of the worst places to live if you are a woman, and also one of the worst places to be a child. Both of those rankings are partly because Texas has the worst healthcare services of any state).
But... Let's get something out of the way here before we continue: as easy as it is to take humorous potshots at Mississippi, when it comes to how overtly hostile the state is to LGBT+ individuals, there really isn't any humor to be had. Mississippi has been in some legal hot water and in the media in recent years over one school which refused to publish a yearbook photo of a young woman in a tuxedo and another which banned a lesbian student from taking her female date to a prom or wearing a tuxedo (Jesus, folks, what is it about tuxedos on women that y'all got a problem with?). The culture informs the politics, the politics inform the law, and the law maintains the culture.
It's bad, folks. Really bad. Mississippians may want to turn and point to neighbors in Alabama, but for two reasons, they can't do this: first because it is illegal for same-sex couples to adopt in Mississippi, but not illegal in Alabama, and second, because the general attitude in Mississippi is demonstrably worse. So much so, that even predictive models place Alabama passing marriage equality at least one year if not more ahead of Mississippi (which is dead last).
For all of the day to day bigotry that LGBT+ (or even just gender non-conforming) Mississippians face, it is this legal landscape which is unlikely to be changed until there is federal level intervention. If it were left up to the states to decide on these issues (rather unlikely, as more and more lawsuits work their way through the courts with some of them destined for the Supreme Court of the United States), Mississippi would most likely be the last state to make significant changes. If it avoids this fate, it will only be because federal decisions force all states to comply with constitutional protections of LGBT+ rights.
Constance Gordon, youth advocacy coordinator for ACLU of Mississippi, expressed her own view of her home state's propensity to end up last or worst by nearly every metric applied to it while attending a rally for LGBT+ rights and recognition in Jackson at the end of March.
Mississippi is usually last for everything. We will not be the last to get equality. I will work hard for that.
Unfortunately for Gordon, I'm afraid I cannot agree with her. The rally she attended was denied a permit in 2012, and that seems to be representative of the general feelings in Mississippi. Of course, where there are feelings, there are polls. And where there are polls, there are numbers. And frankly, the numbers simply don't add up to any significant movement in the Magnolia state's culture.
Ten years ago, Mississippi voters turned out to support a state constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between one man and one woman. It was approved by 86 percent. Once again, Mississippi edges out Alabama, where the approval for a nearly identical amendment in that state's constitution was 81 percent. While the Mississippian-on-the-street's opinion of marriage equality has become somewhat more favorable (moving from 18% in 2004 to 34% now), there has been no matching move amongst legislators. In any case, 34% is not nearly enough to repeal the amendment. If left up the electorate, demographics wouldn't change for many years, at least a decade if you believe polling wunderkind Nate Silver.
This is a state where its current governor, Republican Phil Bryant, decried the racism of a predominantly white church refusing to allow a black couple to wed in its sanctuary claiming it doesn't represent the way Mississippi has "in fact" "changed" by saying...
As hard as we work to try to convince the rest of the world that Mississippi has changed — and, in fact, we have — to see an unfortunate situation like that occur is very disappointing...Look, when people want to get married, we ought to let them get married … I want to make every opportunity I can for any couple that wants to, to go get married.
...but then completely failing to see the irony in his negative response when asked about whether "any couple" includes gay couples:
I wouldn't say gay couples, no. I'd say a man and a woman. Let me make sure, let's get that right. When I say couples, I automatically assume it's a man and a woman.
That's right folks, gay couples aren't couples according to Bryant. I mean, that's linguistically possible to construct, but it's inherently contradictory.
Not that we should be surprised, as this is the same governor who signed a recent (as in now, as in 2014) bill supported by some leaders of evangelical Christian denominations and passed by the legislature called the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The law, which comes into effect July 1, doesn't mention LGBT+ individuals at all, but just says the government cannot put a "substantial burden on religious practices" without a "compelling reason." Problem is, the whole thing is probably "a pointless and unconstitutional charade." If anything, it seems like Mississippi is hellbent on codifying the very kind of discrimination the rest of the country is trying to put behind it.
There is some good news. Well. A little good news. Governing boards in seven cities, Bay St. Louis, Greenville, Hattiesburg, Magnolia, Oxford, Starkville, and Waveland, have adopted resolutions that celebrate diversity, including those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, and calls for respecting the dignity of all people. Unfortunately, it really just isn't clear what kind of effect these "resolutions" are going to have. They do not, apparently, have the force of law. They're not anti-discrimination ordinances. And, in fact, there is additional bad news, the same Human Rights Campaign that backed the above resolutions also found that Jackson, MS only scored 8 out of 100 on its 2012 Municipality Equality Index. But hey, Mississippi, at least you beat a city in Alabama: Montgomery had a rating of zero (tied with Frankfurt, Kentucky).
The deep entrenchment of homophobia and transphobia—culturally, politically, and legally (which includes but goes beyond other Dixie standards like lack of marriage equality, lack of hate crimes legislation recognition for gender identity and sexual orientation, and lack of workplace protections)—in nearly all parts of Mississippi makes the state the last battleground for rights and recognition.
And also the worst on yet another list.
Images via Shutterstock and AP Images.