Two of my friends in Tennessee (along with some other people) have started a colony of the queer/allied fraternity Sigma Phi Beta at Middle Tennessee State University. This has been an ongoing project and they've spent an extraordinary amount of time and effort trying to start a chapter of the fraternity. Needless to say, southern states in general and Tennessee in particular can be incredibly hostile toward LGBT people and our allies. LGBT organizations in the state and in the South have been pushing back against this all-out assault on our people for a long time, and we can't win every fight, but we've scored some victories.
Having that sort of presence in a college in conservative Tennessee will be yet another advancement in the continuing fight. The Tennessean reports on the efforts of my friends Michael and Brandon:
MTSU’s club for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, called Lambda, isn’t a substitute for Greek life, and the 28 existing fraternities and sororities aren’t always welcoming, the students say.
“For so long queer people buy into this notion that we have one club and that’s enough,” argued senior Brandon Thomas, spearheading the effort. “It’s important because it gives queer men a safe place ... where we can be ourselves.”
Michael Finch, one of the five MTSU students and a 2008 graduate of Hume-Fogg Magnet High School in Nashville, said students on campus ask why they need their own fraternity.Having seen the things they've experienced in trying to get this fraternity started, it's clear that there is still a ton of resistance in the state to change and to acceptance of differences in people. Trying to promote LGBT rights in the south always seems so much more difficult than on the national stage, but it's nonetheless necessary because this is where we live. It's not the best place, but this is our home - my friends in Tennessee and myself in Alabama - and it's worth trying to make it more welcoming. If not for us, then it's worth it just so kids who might be gay or transgender or whatever else might not have to grow up within quite the same bleak and hopeless atmosphere as I did.
“They would like to believe those fraternities are accepting, but some aren’t,” said Finch, who was born female but identifies as male. “I feel like even if people were accepted into other fraternities, I don’t know if they could be themselves entirely.
“The benefit is being in a brotherhood of similar experiences.”
Even more frustrating is the fact that people who fight for LGBT rights in places like this often get ignored or pushed aside in favor of bigger cities or states. Many of the problems faced by LGBT people in Tennessee - and all of them in Alabama - have been totally ignored by mainstream organizations and national media. And the ability to actually score a victory in a place like this is certainly deserving of praise and discussion. We do a lot of hard work pretty much all on our own and we mostly lose battles. So then those of us fighting and the people we're fighting for rarely get noticed or heard from. In conservative states we don't have a lot of safe spaces. It's not just the ridiculous amount of anti-LGBT legislation proposed on an almost-weekly basis. In Alabama, we have no antidiscrimination protections in employment or in any other segment of society. We have no state hate crimes protections on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. We have no safe schools law. In fact, in Alabama our "sodomy law" which is unconstitutional under Lawrence v. Texas is still on the books in the state, and our sex education law currently tells teachers that they have to remind students that gay sex is illegal in the state. In this type of environment, you could imagine how good it must feel to be productive in any way in our attempts to protect our fellow LGBT brothers and sisters and create safer environments for them.
And then we're reminded via the comments on the article that we still have a long way to go in the South. My good friends, two great activists and strong fighters, after being interviewed and quoted by that state newspaper, faced these comments:
They could name their new little fraternity "pax alotta krappa". These nasty little sexual deviants make normal people want to vomit.Not to be outdone, someone "cleverly" followed up:
Or how about "Sippa Kuppa Kum"?And then there's the obvious conflation of sexual orientation and gender identity, because who can have a conversation about LGBT people without calling gay guys 'women' and attacking both gays and transgender or gender non-conforming people?
If it is for “gays”…wouldn’t it be a SORORITY? :O)This is a perfect illustration of why we fight and what we're up against. This is the type of utter nonsense that goes unchecked in the South, the type of hatred you rarely see anyone fight against. But it's also why every small victory matters, especially in this region. Showing up to the fight was never going to be easy but it's necessary if we want to make sure opinions like this are seen as what they truly are: ignorance on a profound level.
The shift in the South is slow-going but change is happening: Tennessee is pressing on with city ordinances in Knoxville; Tuscaloosa, Alabama will allow same-sex couples to go to prom, we have at least a real shot at defeating an anti-gay amendment in North Carolina on May 8, along with other steps. It's a long-term project.