Guest Opinion: Navigating coming out of the closet in the South

  • by Kollyn Conrad
  • Wednesday October 26, 2022
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Kollyn Conrad. Photo: Courtesy Kollyn Conrad
Kollyn Conrad. Photo: Courtesy Kollyn Conrad

Growing up in the South as gay leaves one with the feeling of not merely being different, but undeserving of respect and, more recently, in danger. The South is rich with some of the most hospitable, loving people you would ever meet, but Southern culture is deeply rooted in uniformity. Those who are not intrinsically aligned with their way of life are automatically met with strife — and, in some cases, even prosecution. It is an extremely tough journey to overcome the torment of suppressing who you are. Trying to come out as queer in the South is a lot like playing slots at the casino; the odds are stacked against you.

I remember the thought of an untimely outing as gut-wrenching and terrifying; there were no safe spaces for exploration. Daily torment came in the form of mocking how I looked, spoke, and even carried myself. Merely stepping through the doors of my school was an act of bravery. For protection, I had to silence my feelings out of fear for my safety. While the South is often painted as kind-hearted, relaxed, and hospitable, the reality for queer individuals can be quite the opposite, especially for those wanting to come out.

The difficulty of being queer in the South

Evangelicalism is the driving force behind the South's value system, and the LGBTQ+ community is viewed as something that opposes those values. Incidents of discrimination and hate occur most often in schools, highlighted by examples of how Lee University restricted queer freedoms of identity, or when a Kentucky middle school asked kids in a homework assignment to discourage an imaginary friend from being gay. These moments make it even more difficult to live in the South as a queer person. Most of the time, closeted queer individuals are just trying to get through each day until they can find refuge.

Some LGBTQ+ people find ways to live in the South and stand proudly in their identity, like PJ and Thomas, who live in Cleveland, Tennessee — the same town Lee University calls home. While they provide a good example of how happy a gay couple in the South can be, their journey is not the norm. In 2020, Tennessee's governor passed a bill restricting LGBTQ+ couples' ability to adopt kids, preventing many couples from adopting children.

The South is a community that's extremely supportive but also one where the slightest act of divergence can be perceived as social hostility. It is a place where heteronormativity is all but forced upon you, which can force an internal interrogation and create a treacherous path for personal liberation. Wherever we are present, whether in public or in private, Southern society challenges the identities of the LGBTQ+ community merely due to discomfort that isn't ours to bare.

When you're trying to come out

Reflecting on my teenage years, I remind myself that owning my identity required the right timing. For those who are still trying to figure out when — or if — they want to come out of the closet, it's OK to be where you are. People need to understand that LGBTQ+ people growing up in the South are not only fighting an internal battle but also gathering the strength to face their community for daring to be their true selves.

For me, personally, I had to reclaim the labels placed on me; owning myself as a gay man took time beyond the initial hurdle of coming out. Although, with time, the pain of reconciling with the suppression of who I was settled, and I found how to live as my true self.

A few years after coming out to my family, I allowed myself to reflect upon my pain. I signed up for a self-love workshop, guided by a close friend, where we were given daily tasks for posting in a virtual forum. The directions were to purge all the wrong done to us. I dove into the exercise thinking I remembered my past clearly. Unknowingly, however, I had suppressed a traumatic memory of being sexually assaulted; the workshop had triggered this memory, showing me how my past had played such a large role in shaping my future. It granted my child self the understanding he sought for not being able to accept himself years prior, and allowed me to forgive myself for not being able to speak my truth.

Surviving in a less-than-accepting community

First and foremost, if you live in the South and are looking to come out as LGBTQ+, do whatever you need to do to stay safe and protect your mental and physical health. Concealing your true self from those who wouldn't make you feel safe is not a form of suppressing or denying who you are. It may not be ideal, but it's better than knowingly putting yourself in danger. Find a community who will accept you and support your mental health by providing a safe space for you to be yourself.

For allies, respect queer peoples' decision to remain silent about their identity. Don't challenge them to come out when they aren't ready. There are many reasons someone may not feel comfortable, so allow them the time to make the decision for themselves, and encourage them by shouldering their needs. Remember: you are not responsible for their mental health, but if they trust you to know who they really are, you should do your best to make them feel safe and accepted.

Kollyn Conrad is the founder and executive director of Publicly Private, a nonprofit organization offering supplies, support and empowerment to the LGBTQIA+ community. Publicly Private was inspired from Conrad's personal journey of growing up as a gay man in the South. He was always passionate about helping and befriending underserved individuals, so he combined his passion and his experience to create Publicly Private and aid LGBTQIA+ individuals in their lifelong journey.

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