I was born and raised in the Southeast — rural Georgia, to be precise. I like my teas to be sweet, biscuits with cane syrup, hearts to be blessed, and summers that are hot. Not a day goes by that I don’t say “y’all.” I spent many days as a child walking around barefoot in the grass. It’s a regular practice for me to smile at strangers and ask them “how you doing?” All of these things have been staples of my life living in the South, even if they are often depicted in stereotypes of Southern life.
Growing up and continuing to live in the South has impacted all parts of my culture, identity, and livelihood. However, it’s only recently that I’ve begun to verbalize my Southern identity. And now that I’m in a space to comfortably verbalize this identity, I’ve begun to unpack and process my reasons for not doing it before.
As a child, I developed a love affair with the idea of living in New York City. I grew up in a town with a population of less than 200. The local county high school had about 400 students and most of us grew up together. When I envisioned my future as an adult, I saw myself trading my small town upbringing for bright lights and city life! Shows like Sex and the City made me believe everyone was happy and living their dreams.
I thought if I was ever going to make it in life, I would have to move to the North. So I quickly learned how to code switch and did my best to not develop a thick Southern accent. Even back then, I understood the way you talk was important to how people perceived you.
As I got older and grew more into my identity as a queer person, I began to believe that for my safety, I couldn’t remain in the South. I thought if I was ever going to have a life where I could openly be myself, I would have to move to New York or California.
Even though the South had always felt like my home and it was the place that I held close relationships with family, both blood and chosen, I had internalized these ideas that made me believe the South was a horrible place that I needed to leave.
I developed this idea that my happiness was contingent upon me leaving the Southeast. When I graduated high school I made the decision to go to a school in Atlanta to save costs and to save money to move when I was finished with college. Three years since my last day of undergrad, I’m still living in Atlanta, and I can honestly say it’s been my choice to remain here.
A big reason I’ve chosen to stay is connected to safety. While I know the violence that people of color, LGBTQQ+, gender non-conforming folks, and other folks face in the South is real and can be at higher rates than other geographical areas of the contiguous US, I also know that the entire nation isn’t that safe for those same people.
A few years ago, I visited the Bay area for the first time. I just knew that I was going to fall in love, based on television portrayals and the stories from friends. But that was far from the truth for me.
In San Francisco, I felt very isolated. The amount of anti-blackness I was experiencing overwhelmed me more than anything I had felt in the South. I felt happiest when I was alone with my girlfriend doing cheesy, tourist activities with little to no interaction with others. I was in the place that others consider “Gay Mecca” (which is problematic as hell) and would much rather have been in the South.This experience forced me to be honest with myself about something: as a Black, queer woman, there are far too few cities that are safe for me. I felt no more safe interacting with people in San Francisco than I did in rural Georgia.
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There’s a belief that the South is inherently worse than the rest of the nation because of its history. But in my opinion, the South is as bad as the rest of the nation has allowed it to be.
When thinking about governmental interventions, the government is much less likely to intervene in the racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic policies and actions of the South than it is to surveil or intervene in the actions of POC, women, and LGBTQQ+ folks in the South. And why do people try to act like the Westboro Baptist Church isn’t based in the Midwest and like there aren’t KKK chapters in the Pacific Northwest? The South isn’t an outlier; it’s just bold and loud about what this whole nation stands for.
In choosing to remain in the South, I’ve also had to work through the correlation of being Southern with being white. The stereotypical depictions of Southerners (i.e. the Redneck, the Hillbilly, the Good Ole Boy, the Southern Belle) have equated them with whiteness, which is total erasure of the people of color who live in the South. As a Black woman, I know that most of the U.S.’s Black population lives in the South and my own family has been here dating back before 1910. I’m a Southerner and that cannot be challenged.
I want to stay here to challenge ideas that the South is a barren wasteland that should just be left. I want to build a better South. I don’t need people from other parts of the country telling me what’s worthy (or not) about my home. I know the South is capable of change; however, it needs the proper resources. I refuse to leave my home based on the ill-informed and biased beliefs of others. I’m building a happy and “safe” life for myself and others right here in the South and I know other folks in the South are too.
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I don’t believe everyone who is born and raised in the South should stay here to spite the rest of the nation. But I do believe that the choice to stay or leave is a personal choice that shouldn’t be swayed by misconceptions or Northern white liberalism. If we love our homes, we shouldn’t be isolated in those feelings. We should be empowered in that decision and provided with what we need to safely thrive.
So if you’re a Southerner who feels like me and wants to fight like hell to make our home the place we envision it to be, let’s connect, because at the end of the day, “there’s no place like home.”
[Feature Image: photo of a Black person with short, closely-cropped dark hair and gold dangling statement earrings standing in front of a charcoal wall. The person stares ahead with a serious, pondering look on their face.]