Erin Davies and her VW Beetle tour the country as she collects interviews for a documentary on homophobia.
Erin Davies is like many other people. She wakes up in the morning, runs her errands, spends time with her loved ones and has the word “fAg” (sic) spray painted on her car. Wait? What?
A native of New York state, Davies is from a place where various phobias are more likely to be marginalized than the people who are the target of those phobias. She was aware that some still resisted accepting various minorities, but had never really confronted such bold-faced, anonymous hatred. She woke up one morning to find that someone was provoked enough by her rainbow bumper sticker to leave her a lasting message.
Rather than let her insurance company fix the damage to her car, Davies decided to make her experience visible and to make people aware of the homophobia that bubbles up plainly in American culture, even in the blue states. She took out a loan from her father, set up a series of pit stops, and hit the road. She will be visiting many states during her summer tour, and is talking to everyone along the way.
Davies made it a point to be passing through South Carolina when a vigil for hate-crime victim Sean Kennedy was held in Columbia. She contacted Elke Parker, Kennedy’s mother, and arranged a three-day visit. Davies attended the vigil and stayed with the victim’s family in order to document their thoughts and reactions. She also visited Myrtle Beach and Florence. While in Florence she had a meeting with LGBT students from a local college at the new Starbucks and spent the entire day collecting interviews.
Davies found out very quickly how complicated the South can actually be. Outsiders regard the region as full of ignorant bumpkins who have a simplistic culture based on cow-tipping, lynching and cornbread. In fact, we have an enormously complicated social structure based on the dichotomy that exists within the acceptance/rejection matrix of Christianity. Davies saw firsthand how hospitality and hatred mesh together seamlessly in a complicated collage of polarities and tensions. Say what you want about Southerners — we’re anything but simple.
While interviewing and bonding with Sean Kennedy’s family, Davies was slapped in the face with one of the most difficult struggles imbedded in Southern culture: to nurture or reject one’s gay child.
On the one hand, she was immediately embraced and welcomed by Parker and many of Kennedy’s closest friends and family members. Indeed, Davies told me very specifically in a phone interview that she feels she will be in contact with these new friends for the rest of her life.
On the other hand, Davies saw how Jacob, Kennedy’s former lover, was still completely cut off from his family after coming out five years ago. Despite the violent loss of someone very close to him, Jacob’s mother will not speak to him until he comes back to the church. The divergence these two mothers embody are a living testament to the complexity and range of the expression of fervent spirituality that is ubiquitous in the Carolinas.
Another example of conservative versus liberal occurred at the Starbucks in Florence. Throughout the day the manager of the coffee shop repeatedly made it clear to the LGBT group that they were welcome. Just when Davies was beginning to think South Carolina wasn’t so conservative after all, she met two brothers, one of whom reminded her why she was making her trip in the first place.
At first she didn’t realize the two were brothers. Evidently they didn’t look alike and their attitudes couldn’t have been more different. The conservative brother wouldn’t give an interview to support gays and lesbians. Davies explained that she wanted to hear everyone’s perspective, and then he relented.
The man went on to embarrass his liberal brother with questions such as, “Have you ever had sexual relations with a man?” “How do you know you’re gay if you haven’t?” “Aren’t all gay people promiscuous drug addicts?” “Don’t you want to have children?” “How would it work in court if two women that had children got a separation?”
Davies calmly responded that she hadn’t slept with a man, she was quite sure she wasn’t interested in trying, she had only one partner (of nearly two years) and wasn’t a druggy, they did want children, many straight people aren’t married when they breed indiscriminately, and the issue of custody (should it even come up) would probably be decided in much the same way as for anyone else. The liberal brother constantly shook his head and apologized for his sibling’s insensitivity.
Davies was pleasantly surprised when the conservative brother wished her well, but was then immediately served a heaping helping of “bless your heart” a moment later when, as he was leaving, the conservative brother benevolently and passionately said, “I hope you find a man that will make you happy one day.”
Davies’ experience brings the focus to an interesting distinction concerning homophobia in the South. There really are different types of ignorance here. One is based on a willfully malevolent desire to force others to agree or be punished, while on another is more innocent. Lack of experience, rather than outright revulsion, can also fuel misconceptions. Davies is confident that her conversation with the brothers has changed them all for the better.
Finally, one last observation. People have repeatedly told Davies various ways to remove the graffiti from her car. They can’t bear to look at it. She said that many people are offended by having to see such raw, naked hatred and that she experienced everything from indignation (both toward and for her) to sympathy.
My question is this: If seeing homophobia in action is offensive, then why is subscribing to it not? I wonder at people who aren’t directly assaulted by homophobia, see how hurtful it is, but then continue to practice it. I fear there is a double-edged blade here: not only should LGBT people be invisible, but so should the actions that oppress them. Of course one doesn’t lay one’s roach traps out in plain sight — that would imply there are roaches about. Better to put the traps on the bottom shelf of the pantry at the very back, so as not to alarm people. Out of sight, out of mind. This is the best way to completely erase an entire people and every trace of them.