With marriage equality now the law in North Carolina and 35 other states, it’s easy to assume that LGBT acceptance is a fait accompli. But even if the Supreme Court rules later this month in favor of same-sex couples’ right to marry, in 27 states gay people still can be fired simply because of their sexual orientation. And anti-LGBT bullying and violence are on the rise.
Nowhere is this differential more acute than in the South. GLAAD, a highly respected LGBT media advocacy organization, found that we Southerners are significantly more uncomfortable than other Americans with our LGBT friends, relatives and co-workers.
Look at Efland-Cheeks Elementary School in rural Orange County. At the end of April, third-grade teacher Omar Currie, 25, had a boy in his class who had been repeatedly bullied by another student who kept calling him “gay” and “a girl” – as in, “Hey, girl, throw me the ball.”
To deal with the bully, here’s what Currie decided to do. Rather than punish the kid, Currie read his class a book called “King and King,” which is described on its jacket as “a modern and merry fairy tale of living happily ever after.” Currie says his class got the message: “[They] told me that the book is about treating others the way they want to be treated.” More importantly, there hasn’t been any more bullying since Currie read it aloud.
But several family members protested the reading of the tale (which, incidentally, had been read at the school before without any problems), suggesting that Currie was attempting to indoctrinate children into “the homosexual agenda” and that they should have been notified ahead of time that the book would be read to their kids. On social media, it has been even worse, with “King and King” called “filth” and Currie, a “gay freak.”
Currie, for the record, is a remarkable young man. Back in St. Pauls, N.C., where he’s from, Currie endured persistent bullying in middle school but then went on to get the highest grades in his Robeson County high school’s history: “Every day I was called a faggot, without question, without fail,” he told me of his middle school years. By the time Currie was ready to graduate from high school, he knew he wanted to teach – “to figure out how we’re going to effect change.” He graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill and is finishing his second year at Efland-Cheeks as a prestigious N.C. Teaching Fellow.
Efland, meanwhile, is a deeply religious community,
and indeed institutionalized homophobia in many of our region’s churches is cited by GLAAD as a key reason why acceptance of LGBT people lags in the South. According to GLAAD’s CEO Sarah Kate Ellis, what’s happening at Efland-Cheeks is not an anomaly. As she told me, “I think it’s important to remember that [problem] is a common one, and that a lot of people – nearly 40 percent of Southerners – say they’re still uncomfortable with LGBT issues being addressed in the classroom.”
Unfortunately, what’s happening at Efland-Cheeks is but one story of the challenges facing LGBT people in the South. Last month news outlets reported on a Milledgeville, Georgia, church whose marquee sign read: “Homosexuality is a Death Worthy Crime.” In Nashville, a private school rejected prospective students because their parents are gay, the Tennessean reported.
Back here in North Carolina, all eyes are again on the state’s “religious freedom” law, which may survive a veto by Gov. Pat McCrory. The law would permit magistrates and registers of deeds to refuse to marry any couple whose union violates their “sincerely held religious” beliefs.
All of this is why GLAAD is kicking off its Southern Stories Tour, a traveling educational program that starts in Nashville later this week. It will wind its way through six states telling the stories of LGBT Southerners with the intention of helping open hearts and minds. Explains Jennifer Finley Boylan, co-chair of GLAAD’s board, “It’s impossible to hate anyone whose story you know.”
In Efland, Omar Currie shows up every day to do the hard work of teaching young children to read and write but also to be kind and respectful. Certainly this third-grader in Currie’s class understood the message of “King and King”: “People should be able to love whoever they want.”
Steven Petrow of Hillsborough writes the “Civilities” column for the Washington Post.