Last weekend, I took a quick trip Dallas from my home in Nashville to visit friends I made in Mississippi. Our dinner Saturday night felt more like an evening in Oxford than the Texas metropolis: everyone at our table in a crowded Tex-Mex restaurant had attended Ole Miss. As the evening progressed and our glasses emptied, the conversation took an unexpected turn – to House Bill 1523, which was almost on its way to Governor Bryant’s desk.
“Mississippi. God, I just don’t get the decision-making anymore,” one said.
“I know. This city just keeps getting bigger, and Nashville is exploding. And it feels like Jackson and almost every place there gets smaller and falls further behind,” another chimed in.
There were sighs of acknowledgment, followed by silence. Looks of contemplation and disappointment surrounded the table. After a few quiet moments, the conversation picked back up, but a sense of resignation lingered. We felt as if Mississippi was on a descending slope, and none of us – and no one else for that matter – could stop the slide.
You may be thinking this group was composed of liberals who have always nitpicked the state’s conservative politics, or perhaps a handful of LGBTQ expats who left the state to live openly because they couldn’t do so at home. To the contrary: the discussion I had was with a group of heterosexual males who have identified themselves as conservative for most of their lives.
They are about as ingrained in Southern culture as it gets. The conversation topics at our table ranged from baseball to pro wrestling to which church each family attended on Sunday mornings. These young professionals were all either originally born in Mississippi or lived there for a significant amount of time, and aside from the occasional Ole Miss football game, none of them have plans to return to the state.
Why is this seemingly insignificant dinner conversation important enough to document? These guys aren’t lawmakers. They aren’t leading economic voices. They aren’t even registered voters in Mississippi. And yet their disdain for the latest creation of the Legislature speaks volumes about the negative impact that such policies have on Mississippians’ emotional and physical connection with their home state.
The immediate harm is felt by the LGBTQ community, but the collateral damage is extensive. Exclusionary laws like HB 1523 are a key reason why my friends were having our dinner on Saturday night in a state not named Mississippi. We are hardly unique: thousands of young people leave Mississippi every year, and few who are born elsewhere consider the state an attractive destination.
Still, as much as I’d like to throw in the towel sometimes, I haven’t given up on Mississippi. I treasure the state for its rich cultural heritage and the phenomenal beauty of its nature and people. It was such a joy to it call home during my college years, and it has provided me many lasting friendships. Sexual orientation doesn’t make my ties to the state worth less than anyone else’s.
Ultimately, it is the personal stories that keep me invested. On our way out of the restaurant last Saturday, one of the guys pulled me aside to speak privately for a few moments. He told me of how his younger brother had recently moved to the West Coast, where he could live openly as gay without fear of discrimination. “I’m so glad he can just be himself now,” he said with a smile. I was happy for him, too, but disappointed that he could not yet do so in Mississippi. Many people do not have the opportunity to leave, nor should anyone be forced to do so.
The exodus of people from Mississippi over laws like this one is about so much more than fewer bodies to count in a future census. For every smart, talented person who departs the state, Mississippi loses a potential job creator, a valued employee, or a great thinker whose ideas can reinvigorate not just the state, but the entire world.They are why we must keep our towels outside the ring and pick ourselves and others back up.
HB 1523 is a major setback, but I don’t believe any court will be willing to let it stand. Legal challenges are already being prepared. The job now is to remind Mississippi’s LGBTQ community that they are loved. It can often feel lonely, but they are not alone. A growing number of Mississippians accept equality in their hearts and demand it in their laws. We must resist the temptation to become cynical. Social media jabs at the state and its leaders may satisfy our senses in the short-term, but love for Mississippi and its people is the only way that discrimination can be replaced with inclusion in the future.
This is part of a series called My Mississippi, in which Mississippians are invited to share narrative essays about their experiences in and relationship to the state of Mississippi. If you are interested in sharing your Mississippi story, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.