In the southern United States, there have long been efforts to erase the existence and identities of gay and queer people. However, the reality is that our presence is global, and that we occupy the same spaces as everybody else. From coffee shops to grocery stores, hospitals to courts, to that one friend that always sits next to you in class, we are everywhere. My name is Malik Jamileh. I am 5’8 with brown curly hair, mixed complexion, big brown eyes, and I am a student at Holmes Community College in Ridgeland, MS. I spent years to be awarded a black belt, I write for the local newspaper at Holmes, and I hold a position in an honor society. However, these are not the variables that position me as an outlier in my community. What performs the distinction is my identity as a gay man. I have spent my whole life in an environment that has worked tirelessly to make me feel nefarious and undignified because of my sexuality.
“When did you know you were gay?” I have received this question countless times throughout my lifetime, usually by cisgender straight men. However, the question seems incorrectly worded. To ask me such a question is the same as if I were to ask people who identify as heterosexual, "When did you know you were straight?” I was taught the concept of love around third grade and started to associate it with things like toys, food, my parents, and boys. I knew from an early age that my attraction to boys was present, but I never had a label. I just called it love. For that I was ostracized and a lack of solidarity from my peers has long promoted self-hate in my life.
William Miller Harrison, a 20-year-old student at Loyola University of New Orleans, shares some insight: “There is definitely a lack of out-of-the-closet gay people in the South, and, of course, you can guess the impact that has on the incoming generations. Mississippi is dominated by conservative ideology, which has shaped our social norms. So, regarding homosexuality, people don’t tend to reach out to the LGBTQ+ community. Rather, they are used as a scapegoat for anger and hostility. This manifests as physical and mental abuse, from people of all ages.”
Mississippi is one of the few states that has passed discriminatory laws against gay and queer people in recent years. Two years ago, Governor Phil Bryant signed off on a law that would allow businesses to openly discriminate and deny service to gays. Discrimination tolerated or encouraged on a legal level is a clear demonstration of the ways in which I am viewed by my very own neighbors. It’s not difficult to attest to this as I—as well as thousands of other children in the South—have suffered at the hand of bullying and gossip, merely for the way we speak or express ourselves nonverbally. We are laughed at, snickered about, pointed at, gossiped about, excluded, and expelled from society simply for existing.
Sabrina Zhao, an 18-year-old student at Woodward Academy of Georgia, shares her experiences as a bisexual in the South. “Being bisexual means that I get rejected twice as much. Bisexuality and homosexuality are different struggles, so I don’t feel comfortable saying one has it worse than the other. With bisexuality, there is still the likelihood of violence, erasure, and ostracism within the LGBT community. But gays have been heavily persecuted even today for who they love…” Sabrina clarified, “The most common question I receive is whether or not I will join a threesome. Honestly, it is extremely disrespectful to be sexualized and objectified like that. Plus, I don’t want to have sex with your dusty significant other either, lol.”
Growing up gay in the South absolutely has its challenges, but being a gay racial minority in the South helped Sabrina discover herself: “Being queer and Chinese definitely gives me a strong sense of identity that I can draw on. I have a lot of pride in my heritage. Being a part of multiple marginalized groups brings me closer to people who are like me and learning about myself has given me a sense of empathy and solidarity that I didn’t have growing up.”
I also interviewed Angelo Redd, 21-years-old, who is currently attending Hinds Community College in Jackson, Mississippi. Angelo had one role model who helped him when he was struggling with his sexuality. Angelo shared, “If anybody helped me in my journey out of the closet, it would have to be YouTube star Todrick Hall…He grew up in a church, I grew up in a church. He was in the choir at a very young age, and so was I. In my middle school and early high school ages, I would always watch his YouTube videos and related so strongly to them because I felt that the both of us have been through similar struggles. I felt that if it got better for him, it could also get better for me.”
My story is only representative of my experience, but it offers a glimpse into the world of struggle faced by LGBTQ+ kids in the southern United States. “It’s repetitive, but it’s the truth, it gets better. Life when you’re younger feels like it lasts forever. Time heals everything, including prejudice. The world is becoming a safer place for kids to be freely themselves. That doesn’t disregard the stigma toward the gay community,” says Will Harrison. From coffee shops, to grocery stores, to hospitals, to courts, to your friend that sits next to you in class, we are everywhere. My name is Malik Jamileh, and this is our story.