Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Deep South is what it is, probably always will be

MONTGOMERY, AL – A recent visit to the Deep South showed me just how much people and places can change  -- or not -- as we grow older.

I first drove into Montgomery in 1992 when I moved there from Dallas to start work for the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group headed by the legendary lawyer Morris Dees. The native Southerner made an internationally-known name for himself by filing and winning lawsuits against Ku Klux Klan groups and other White Supremacist organizations. I was thrilled to join his Klanwatch team as a writer and researcher.

When I arrived in Montgomery and started looking for a place to live I was more than a little surprised to encounter a woman who obviously rejected me as a tenant for a little house she owned because of where I would be working. “Why do you want to go to work there?” she asked.

It was a sign of things to come, and I quickly learned the majority of white people seemed to fear violence evolving from the presence of the law center in their city and to resent the work its staff did. It also didn’t take me long to realize that in many people’s minds the Old South and the New South hadn’t changed much at all as regards racial division between whites and blacks from the perspective of both sides.

The conversation at the first dinner party I attended where all of the guests were gay white men left me stunned. Although everyone one at the table knew where I had just gone to work, they made no effort to hide their derisive opinions of the law center and its work.

As a result of that it would be at times an uncomfortable two years I spent in Alabama working for the law center, but I loved my work. I also came in time to bond with a small group of gay people I met at Montgomery’s Metropolitan Community Church, where I became a member.

One of my favorite memories is of us all piling into a van for a trip to Washington, D.C. for the March on Washington in 1993. I also fondly recall traveling with them to other parts of Alabama for gay rights marches and associated meetings.

My work at the law center was rewarding in part because I was able to become active assisting gay and lesbian rights activists in the state, in effect lending them the support of one of the most powerful civil rights groups in the nation. Gay rights had always been on the law center’s radar, but Dees and the other managing directors of the organization gave me the financial and moral support to take my gay rights activism as far as I wanted.

As it happened, I only stayed in Montgomery working at the law center for a little over two years. I missed my old friends in Dallas and the more progressive lifestyle the city offered. I also felt overwhelmed by the daily exposure I received to the news of violent hate crimes and the ugly rhetoric of white supremacists.

I always regretted leaving because I realized there was so much work that needed to be done in Alabama in terms of LGBT rights and motivating people to action, which the law center continues to do and has even expanded. The percentage of people willing to live openly gay in the city was tiny, even though the city had a large LGBT population.

Just last week I drove back to Montgomery to see an old friend with whom I have maintained contact, and I spent an enjoyable few days of sightseeing and visiting with people.

There’s been a lot of change in Montgomery in terms of new buildings being built downtown, and the city looked prettier than I remembered it. Even the law center has a magnificent new building that dwarfs the old building across the street where I once worked. Klanwatch is now known as the Intelligence Project.

Unfortunately I was unable to arrange a visit inside the new fortress, even though I once worked for the organization. With its growth in size and security, the law center has become less accessible, I gather. I did manage to talk with someone I knew on the phone who promised to call me back about getting together, but he never did. That’s understandable, considering how busy law center officials are, and that the anniversary of the 1965 “We Shall Overcome” march from Selma to Montgomery had just occurred.

As far as obvious signs of gay life, there is still just one gay bar in downtown Montgomery. Unfortunately, the one that operates there today appears to be about half the size of the one that I frequented in the early 1990s.
I left Montgomery to return home the day before the Tuesday Republican Primary Election so I got an earful about the Republican candidates and President Barrack Obama before I left.

The remarks of one white gay man, who oddly has a good friend who is a gay black man, seemed to confirm what I suspected was an accurate portrayal of the sympathies among most white LGBT people living in Montgomery. He said, “I don’t know who to vote for, but I sure don’t want the Democrats to win. I guess I’m going to vote for the one I think will do the least harm rather than the most good. I don’t like any of them.” He later added that he would consider voting for a Democrat in local and state elections, but not President Obama, whose economic agenda runs contrary to his own.

A friend of the gay man, a straight woman with whom he spends most of his time in public, added, “The only white people who will vote for Obama are transplants.”

Their comments confirmed to me that only the skyline has changed in Montgomery. The attitudes apparently remain the same.

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