On Jan. 21, 2014, the Starkville Board of Aldermen took a historic step making our city the first municipality in Mississippi to pass a resolution showing support for its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents.
The passage of this resolution brings hope to the LGBT community of Starkville, as we struggle daily with claiming our basic civil rights. I’m not talking about the currently sought-after right of marriage. That is an important topic, but at the very core of the issue there is an even more basic right that has been stolen from our community: the right to be treated as human.
Mississippi is one of 29 states in which I could be legally fired for being gay. Just give that a second to soak in … I could legally be fired for being gay. My employer would need no other reason than my sexual orientation to terminate my employment. It doesn’t matter what the quality of my work is, what skills I bring to the table or how strong my work ethic is. I could still be fired just because my partner happens to have the same genitalia as me.
Fortunately, my employer has taken steps to prevent this. A few years ago, Mississippi State University chose to protect and support its LGBT students, faculty and staff by including sexual orientation and gender identity in its anti-discrimination policy. Many of my friends are not so lucky. They go to work every day, fearing their livelihoods would be taken away if someone discovered, or even suspected, their sexual orientation.
It’s not easy being gay in the Deep South. Like many in the Bible Belt, I was raised in a very conservative church. It wasn’t unusual to hear a sermon on the “evils” of “the homosexual agenda” and how it would undermine Christian family values. Bigotry and hatred wrapped in the guise of religion was, and still is, the language of oppression in my hometown.
After two years of community college, I transferred to MSU. In Starkville I found a safe haven. I found friends. I found community. To my surprise, I even found a church.
I started attending University Baptist Church during my senior year. It was a refreshing change of pace from the typical churches I had experienced over the years. For a girl with a mohawk and an affinity for wearing ties, walking into any church can be slightly terrifying. However, at UBC I have found a family of believers who accept and love me unconditionally.
Even with that love and acceptance, it is still not easy to be gay in Mississippi. Unfortunately, the Mississippi stereotype of prejudice and intolerance is all too often true. My job requires quite a bit of travel, and there have been times when I have feared for my safety. This danger is ever-present in my mind, because I know there are those who would choose to physically harm me merely because I “look gay.”
Most of us have longed for a place where we are loved and respected regardless of who we are or what we look like. Being gay does not define me, but it is a part of me. I am thankful I can be a Christian and be gay. I am thankful for a community of believers who don’t believe the two are mutually exclusive.
There are those who have reacted to the Aldermen’s actions by questioning what effect this resolution will actually have for Starkville. Perhaps it is not the perfect solution to the problem, but it’s a start. No government can legislate tolerance and acceptance, let alone the love we should be showing for one another as Christians.
In a world full of darkness, though, even the dimmest shimmer of light can be a beacon of hope for the wounded and oppressed, the exiled and hated. Last Tuesday, the Starkville Board of Aldermen became that beacon for the LGBT community, not only within Starkville, but to the entire state. I would even argue they became a beacon to the entire country. After all, if it can happen in Mississippi, a state plagued by a history of bigotry and hatred, the rest of the country has no excuse.
Melissa Grimes is a graduate (and now employee) of Mississippi State University, and a resident of Starkville, MS. She is involved with Spectrum, the LGBTQ group on campus, and an active member of University Baptist Church. You can reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.