Guest Post: Why we stand up for the freedom to marry in the south

Editors' Note: This post was written by Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, the executive director for The Campaign for Southern Equality, based in Asheville, N.C., and a minister in the United Church of Christ. The Campaign for Southern Equality is in the middle of a five-city tour through Mississippi for the WE DO campaign, where committed same-sex couples from southern states request marriage licenses and provoke denials to demonstrate what it looks like when discriminatory marriage laws are enforced. Today, the WE DO campaign hits Tupelo, Mississippi, just miles away from the headquarters of the anti-gay so-called American Family Association, which issued a statement about the action today. 

The streets of downtown Tupelo, Mississippi are quiet, mid-July heat blasting the sidewalks. A memorial to local residents who took part in the Civil Rights Movement gleams in the freshly-mowed lawn of the county courthouse. Faded images of native son Elvis Presley punctuate store fronts. A few miles away is the office-park headquarters of the American Family Association (AFA), a fundamentalist Christian organization that is one of the driving forces in national efforts to prohibit same-sex marriage and has been listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

A veil of silence surrounds LGBT life here. According to Census data 125 same-sex couples live in this county, a quarter of whom are raising kids; statistics aren’t available for the total LGBT population. LGBT people go to school here, work here, raise families, age and die here – all as second-class citizens.

This veil will be lifted on Thursday morning when two local gay couples request marriage licenses at the Lee County Circuit Clerk’s office, surrounded by friends, family and clergy. Tupelo is the fifth Mississippi town where we’ve taken such action in the past week through the WE DO Campaign

To walk down the street holding your partners hand in Tupelo – or all but a small handful of Southern towns – is an act of courage. To approach a marriage license counter that you’ve been told your whole life you do not belong at is similarly brave. That such simple acts could be so charged speaks to the social and political climate we live in, all against the backdrop of national progress around LGBT rights that is, at times, breathtaking.

People ask why we do this work in small Southern towns, knowing that laws will not immediately change. Why apply for marriage licenses knowing you will be denied? 

Strategically, we are targeting discriminatory state laws in the moment of their enforcement, when they go from being invisible to visible and in which their full harms are on display. In this way, we are drawing on a long lineage of civil rights organizing, in our country and globally, that puts pressure on persecuting systems by provoking them to behave the way they are designed to.

But the human answer is more urgent. We know exactly what is at stake if we fail to act here in the South. 

It is not easy to be LGBT in the South, and it’s harder if you are also a racial minority, or transgender, or living in poverty. It is also hard if you are young and growing up in the shadow of the AFA, one of the last bulwarks of the national anti-gay movement. The AFA is explicit in their position on homosexuality: “Though there may be many influences in a person's life, the root of homosexuality is a sinful heart. Therefore, homosexuals have only one hope of being reconciled to God and rejecting their sinful behavior - faith in Jesus Christ alone.” Fueled by a $16 million dollar annual budget and a national network of Christian radio stations, this message travels far and wide into the homes of America.

As we travel, I meet many people who carry deep wounds from such spiritual violence; nowhere has that been more true than in Mississippi.

Yet as a minister, I believe that the most potent salve for those wounds is faith itself – faith in a loving God who equips us with the strength we need to live by the teachings of Christ which instruct us to seek justice, love our neighbors and to find a way to love your enemies as well. There may be no harder spiritual work in our lifetime than this final task, and yet we are called to do just this.

But what of the kid growing up in Tupelo right now who hears these words from the AFA and fears they are true?

Last week, the AFA urged its national membership to take action supporting a federal Constitutional Amendment banning marriage between same-sex couples. On Wednesday, one of the largest Baptist churches in Tupelo announced they will no longer sponsor a local Boy Scout troop because of the new policy allowing openly gay scouts to participate.

We have to find a way to reach LGBT kids in towns like Tupelo with different stories. When we act publicly to express the fundamental truths of our lives in the towns we call home, we create a way to both show and tell youth that there are people who believe in their inherent equality and dignity, who have their backs and who will not stop fighting for their rights.

Research would suggest that there are gay kids in Tupelo right now who are contemplating suicide. Just as it suggests that most of us, by which I mean LGBT adults, went through this as kids. We know how harrowing those years can be and, in our hearts, we each know the combination of experiences and relationships that helped us survive.

That we got through means we are the ones who must stand up against the dangerously entangled systems of discriminatory laws and violent theologies that condemn us. And so we will walk through the streets of Tupelo Thursday morning, telling a new story about LGBT life in the South.

Learn more about the Campaign for Southern Equality HERE