By Jennifer Miracle
Prepare a thirty-minute presentation about the role of an LGBT Resource Center at a flagship, research institution in the South. Five years ago that is what stood between my dream job, as a director of such a center and me. Although it seemed like a daunting task at the time, in retrospect, it was a question to which even the people asking it did not necessarily have an answer. Apparently, the answer I provided them was sufficient as I was offered the job the next day and within three weeks was headed to the Bible Belt – as everyone kept reminding me – to do LGBT education, programming and advocacy work at one of the most revered universities in the country.
What I would come to learn is that, I’m not sure the answer would have been all that different had the question been about an institution in the Midwest, or Mid-Atlantic, or New England or the Northwest. While there are certainly differences, and some things that are more specific to the South than other regions of the country, we are certainly more alike than we are different. LGBT resource professionals in higher education deal with bureaucracy and politics regardless of the kind of institution they are working for or where they are in the country.
The variety of bureaucracy and politics that I experienced in the South was of polite, well-mannered, highly gendered, highly religious, conservatism. There is a thing called Southern Hospitality, which can be described in a lot of different ways, most of them fabulous. However, it’s based on politeness and manners and therefore, one cannot necessarily always count on people to be completely forthcoming. I often found myself, especially when I first started doing this work in the South, feeling like I was not necessarily sure exactly who I could trust. While everyone seemed nice enough…I also could never be sure if someone was truly supportive of queer people and the work I was doing, or just being nice in that moment for the sake of being polite.
In the South, football is like a religion! If you have never been to an SEC game, honey, you ain’t seen nothin! I’m talking all the women in sundresses and heels, the men in seersucker suits and loafers, all decked out in the colors of their respective teams. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since. Which brings me to the highly gendered aspect of the South. Southerners tend to subscribe to pretty strong, rigid gender roles. Visitors to the South will almost immediately notice that everyone is addressed as ma’am or sir. Likewise, people are often referred to as Ms. or Mr. followed by their first name. In particular, this is taught as a respectful way to address your elders. One can imagine the kind of discomfort this can potentially create for those of us who don’t necessarily fit nicely into the gender binary.
Perhaps the highly religious aspect of the South needs no explanation. I mean, it’s known as the Bible Belt for a reason. While religion seems to be a common obstacle for LGBT people in general, I think what makes the South different is that religion – particularly conservative religion – is so pervasive throughout the region. I have found it to be a general assumption in the South that everyone goes to church and it’s not uncommon for “What church do you attend?” to be one of the first 5-8 questions someone asks a perfect stranger when getting to know them. In fact, most of the large-scale ceremonial events and/or meals that I attended while working in the South, began with a blessing or prayer…at a public institution. Indeed, religion was often the context within which we found ourselves discussing gender and sexuality…whether we wanted to or not.
So, while bureaucracy and politics can vary by region in terms of what LGBT resource professionals deal with, as with most things, our struggles are likely more alike than they are different.