Living Queer in a Red State

My family and I sat down to play the Game of Life one holiday weekend. In the game, players move a little car around the board and work their way through “achievements”: completing college, getting a job, getting married, buying a house, having kids, and eventually retiring, hopefully at “Millionaire Estates.”

I dutifully went through the first levels of the game, obtaining my college degree and finding myself a nice high-paying job. Then the marriage goal came. As she was fishing out a blue “husband” peg for me, my cousin turned to me and asked, “Or would you like a wife? We could be very modern about this!”

I froze.

I’d come out as queer to my mother about six weeks before, but hadn’t told the rest of my family yet. No one else knew, to my knowledge, except a few select friends. I didn’t know what to do or say, so I just nervously laughed it off and took the little blue husband she handed me.

I live in South Dakota, in the city I grew up in. I’m a two-minute drive from where I went to high school. It’s not unusual for me to run into former professors and classmates from my (also local) Christian undergraduate college. With every one of them I see, I wonder if they’ve seen my blog posts, if they know who I’ve become.

I moved back here in August after leaving my job in Chicago and deciding to pursue a career as a freelance writer and author. The cost of living is lower here, and the lack of state income tax makes it a much better for me, financially, than the high city and state taxes in the Chicago area. But by leaving a major urban center for a town that is 221 miles from the nearest Ikea (I counted), I knew I was taking a risk—a risk that I would lose access to a queer community. What I didn’t expect was that my own state government would start to push to decide that I am not a person worth protecting, that I am not deserving of dignity.

Recently, South Dakota was one of several states to floated an anti-gay bill in its legislature—the others being Arizona, Kansas, and now Georgia. (Arizona’s bill made it all the way to Gov. Jan Brewer’s desk before being vetoed this week.) These bills, all very similar, reveal a coordinated effort on the part of conservatives to find new ways to punish people for being queer. In its manifestation in South Dakota—SB 128, which was deferred to the judiciary and essentially killed—the bill would have made it illegal for a gay individual to sue a business for refusing to provide service on the basis of sexual orientation. This legalized discrimination was, according to the opening section of the one-page bill, intended to protect the “freedom of speech” of religious people. The bill was deliberately inflammatory, with language specifically stating that federal anti-discrimination laws did not apply within the geographical borders of the state.

South Dakota has only one out member in our legislature. Sen. Angie Buhl (D-Sioux Falls) is a bisexual woman who was elected from one of South Dakota’s most liberal districts in 2011. While doing her part to fight these kinds of anti-gay bills on behalf of queer South Dakotans, she is only one woman in a sea of white, heterosexual, cisgender men. Queer people do what we can, but we can’t do it alone, especially when we’re not represented in the larger political structure.

In many ways, my struggle is no different than friends who live in more contentiously divided and hostile areas; arguably, it’s easier. In Sioux Falls, I can slip into the background noise. I have the advantage of being a queer woman who, thus far, has only dated men, so I’ve yet to know what the reaction would be if I walked down the street holding hands with another woman. I’m still flying under the radar in terms of the queer visibility in my state.

In a recent piece for Bitch magazine, I wrote about how South Dakota is a large state that functions like a small town—if I don’t know someone directly, I know someone who knows them. Our population is still less than one million people, barely qualifying us for our one congressional representative. Frequently, this small population makes political issues and political discussions easier, surprisingly, because you often know someone who is directly affected by the law. This causes a lot of people to meet in the middle.

And we do meet in the middle, on a lot of issues. But on queer issues, meeting in the middle requires an acceptance of an imbalance of power. I must out myself to my neighbors and to my family in discussing my opposition to these discriminatory laws. The stakes are far higher, and no one but the person involved can make the decision to come out.

In South Dakota, despite having a bisexual legislator and a Democratic Party that fiercely supports LGBT issues, queer visibility is still quite low. Legislators considering SB 128 never stopped to think that both religious and queer identity can and do exist within the same person (as in myself). Queer people are forever on the outside, assumed to be a troublesome threat from the liberal elites, rather than born and raised South Dakotans.

I am working, inevitably, in a hostile environment when it comes to my queer identity. It is hard to find people like me, and I know that my state legislature will not support me in the event of violence or discrimination. By outing myself as a queer Christian, in particular, I place myself in a position where I have no local church because LGBT-affirming churches are few and far between here. (There are, to my knowledge, only two affirming churches in a city of 200,000.)

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to a nearby city to meet with a friend who was speaking in the area. We’re both feminist Christian writers, and it was great to be able to reconnect with her after not seeing her for a while. We sat in a local coffee shop and talked about everything under the sun. Eventually, the conversation turned to LGBT issues. I found myself looking around the coffee shop to see who was in earshot before saying, “As a queer woman … ”

This sort of paranoia is built into how we queer people have to function in red states. I’m very careful about how I talk about myself and how I present myself in public, because after all, Matthew Shepard died just one state over. I was 12 years old at the time. It was only within the last few years that national hate crime legislation was signed into law. And state legislatures are still trying to depersonalize and dehumanize our identities.

There’s a lot of talk among liberal, coastal elites about how we should just let the red states secede, how we should cut Florida off the map and give Texas back to Mexico. There’s also a lot of talk within the queer community that being queer and Christian is a contradiction in terms. As a queer Christian living in a red state, it’s hard not to feel totally abandoned by my allies who happen to live in blue states.

Telling me I deserve what I got because I chose to live in a red state is not only unhelpful—it is destructive. Part of making LGBT rights a priority means that we don’t abandon LGBT people to the whims of legislatures that don’t see them as human.

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  • Karinna

    I graduated high school from a town in SD, and most of my family of origin still lives there. I know what the author means, and I’m sadly a little hesitant to share the article, because of the small-town feel of the state. I don’t know who knows someone who knows someone, etc.

  • shy guy

    Disclaimer: I grew up in Texas and currently live in Oklahoma Life happens and we do not always get to choose what we wand but do what we need and sadly not every one has the means to up and move. The slurry of “Religious Freedom/Protection” laws have made me more determined more than ever to move out of this state

    I still cannot wrap my head around the concept of an LGBT person wanting to live in a “Red State” of their own free will much less voluntarily move to one…..Where its guaranteed the elected officials are going to do everything in their power to strip you of your rights and make you a second class citizen.

  • BigSofty

    Gay is the new Black.

  • AdmiralTubington

    I must admit, it was naive to return to South Dakota. No, you don’t “deserve” what you’re getting there and we should absolutely work to increase acceptance everywhere, but you “didn’t expect” the state legislature to do what it’s done? Really?

  • blazintommyd

    There has to be reasonably well adjusted human beings that live in Southern States. I for example was born into upstate NY, luckily have property here but it is also an ultra right wing State even tho the MSM might report it differently. For example there was only one Black person that was even allowed into the Village where I live and that was to wash windows. They still blow the 6 o’clock curfew sirens. There is virtually zero dif between D(s) and r(s) here. R(s) run for judgeships unopposed. The demographics of the USA as reported by the MSM is entirely for electoral purposes and it is the Democratic Party that preserves these attempts at State cultural hegemony or at least the appearance of it as reported in “the news” and as long as that continues well I am one of those persons asking why anyone prevented them from succession. It’s merely political speech and I’m a Communist and therefor the only real outsider. The problem is that few people realize that the Democratic-republican Party (founded by Thomas Jefferson) is a Southern State Party and it’s actually one party. The easiest way to see that is to start denouncing Democratics and the 1st thing you hear is well you’re going to be ruled by republicans then so they have no intention for anything to change they like it the way things are. The only reason Blacks are considered human beings is so that Irish people, who are about the same % of the population as Blacks can appear to be 95% of the population by how many offices they hold; and it does indeed create that impression. So they make coalitions for that purpose – viz., to get elected to both parties and maintain or increaee their numbers. Imagine if every office holder in the USA was Black instead of Irish. I can tell you 1st hand that NYS would be in a race war and it would be led by the Democratic Party