Queer Flight: Why Queers Leave the South

Illustration by Niki Jakson

Illustration by Niki Jakson


Maybe it’s the weather. Maybe it’s being a red state no matter what. Maybe it’s a certain culture and bitter side of Southern hospitality. There are many reasons as to why queers leave the South.

As rights are won and legislation written, new pockets and cities labeled as “progressive” and “queer meccas” pop into consciousness: Austin, Portland, Seattle, Bushwick, Oakland, New Orleans, etc. And just as quickly, queers here in  Atlanta and the Deep South in general are quick to flock to cities with modern values, jobs, and opportunities. This isn’t a read in the leastI highly support queer folx following their gut feelings even if it drives them out of the Bible Belt. However, the reasons why they move are telltale signs of the current queer climate and attitudes. I reached out to a couple of queer folx who I admire and felt the absence of once they left Atlanta to see what made them move.

 

Introduce yourself.
Jamal T. Lewis, 25, He/She/He-She/They/Them (change it up as much as possible).

Where in the South did you originate? Where do you currently reside?
I'm originally from Atlanta, GA, and am currently residing in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

What do you do?
Multidisciplinary Artist, Cultural and Body Worker and Writer.

What drove you to move from the South?
I left the south to move north for accessibility and mobility reasons, and to also pursue graduate study. I don't know how to drive, so living here, with a train that runs twenty-four hours, though slow, is very helpful.

Is there a difference between the South and where you currently reside? (Socially speaking in terms of progression, political treatment of queer and trans folx.)
To be honest, the only difference is the resources and services provided; I will not ever paint the South as wayward and less progressive because there is a reasonin fact, many reasonswhy it is regarded in that way.

 

 


Introduce yourself.
Edric Figueroa, 26, he/him/his.

Where in the South did you originate? Where do you currently reside?
I’ve lived the majority of my life in Atlanta and the metro area. Currently, I'm in Seattle.

What do you do?
Currently, I'm the bilingual community care advocate for the Northwest Network of Bisexual, Trans, Lesbian & Gay Survivors of Abuse. In Atlanta, I had the privilege of being a program coordinator for AID Atlanta and an organizer for MondoHomo and Glitterbomb. Today, I'm also a mentor with a youth organization, the Service Board, and loving every moment of it.

What drove you to move out of the South?
It was a combination of a number of things. Progress is slow in Atlanta, and certainly not invested in by the existing social and political climate. I wanted to live in a city that at the very least pretends to care about the disenfranchised; be it with dollar bills or intentional policies that try to protect/respect the dignity of individuals, decision makers in the south keep moving backwards.

I grew up in Cherokee County, Georgia; like many Southerners, the legacy of colonization and slavery were all around meit just takes a certain consciousness to really fathom it all.
My first-generation queer brown ass experienced the impacts and lost a lot (including family and friends) to the hands of institutional racism, classism, and heteropatriarchy before I even had the words to name such things.

I don’t think I can separate my decision to leave the South from the deep grief and crazy-making that comes from the struggle.  POC, queers, immigrants, and all of us at the intersections are constantly being told “there is no room for your full-self at this table,” whilst simultaneously being sold a false dream of meritocracythat “if I can make it, anyone can” nonsense. While this experience isn’t exclusive to the South, it’s certainly more abundant there because of the ways oppression and violence have been normalized. Most working class southerners can’t see their exploitation; or worse, their own power to change/improve conditions.  I don’t say this with any judgement for mi gente, this message comes with love and an understanding that shifting your focus from surviving to thriving just isn’t feasible for some.

For me the decision to the leave South came with the internal agreement to always claim it as home. As my identity and politicization was forged in the deep humidity of its abundant stratification and I learned to raise my fist and shake my hips with a love and honor as sweet as the flapjacks at Ria’s Bluebird Cafe.    


Is there a difference between the South and where you currently reside?
Absolutely. It’s day and night. The city of Seattle has a gay mayor, I get paid a living wage for the nonprofit work I do, and there is just an overall investment in the culture and government towards progress. Beyond gay marriage, the city of Seattle has approved an all gendered- restroom ordinance and continues to surprise me in their efforts. . . My first year here, I helped write and pass a city-wide proclamation for National Youth HIV & AIDS Day, witnessed many of the youth lead workshops on everything from slut shaming to police brutality, and an open socialist, Kshama Sawant, was elected in the city council.

That’s not to say that there aren’t any problems here or that the impacts of oppression aren’t felt.  The culture of the Northwest manifests racism and other isms in more subtle ways. “Micro-aggression” culture and passive aggressiveness when it comes to having real interpersonal conversations challenging others is real. I once overheard a white person on the bus here say, “We live in Seattle, and there is no racism.” I think this is the perfect testament to how insidious the façade of progress can be. . . I definitely would say that I felt more connected to a queer community in Atlanta and I think it’s because down South we didn’t have the privilege of not needing one anotherwe are all valuable. I miss that sense of beloved community.
 

 


Introduce yourself.
Jesse Perrin (formerly Durty South/formerly Morgan). 28 years old. He/him/his pronouns. Queer.
 

Where in the South did you originate? Where do you currently reside?
I was born and raised in rural Georgia until I was eighteen years old in a town (population 2,000) called Metter. Living in that town was definitely traumatic and I recognized moving to a larger city would be my saving grace. When I was in high school, I was visiting Atlanta and knew in my gut that the city could provide me those things and so many more opportunities. I spent over eight years in Atlanta and I actually believe that’s where I grew up–Atlanta was the home that liberated the way I see the world and gave me a queer politic. I am now living in Seattle.


What do you do?
My work looks somewhat different but the way I see the world and my true passions are still the same. My current job is as a legislative aid for a Seattle city council-member. I manage and research issue areas including human services, public health, neighborhood engagement, labor, and gender equity. When I’m not at work, I’m usually dabbling in queer politics or solidarity work in other issue-based movements. The feminist mantra of the “the personal is political” will always reign true and so being political will always be a natural piece of me.  And y’all know me, social justice will always be my personal, political, and professional commitment.


What drove you to move out of the South?
That’s such a complicated question for me. And my answer when I moved away might have been different than my answer today. Ultimately, I wanted to continue growing and I recognized to do that I needed new challenges. I had so many outstanding opportunities learning in Atlanta through community organizing efforts but I definitely hit what I saw was a roadblock and made the decision to pursue graduate school. I found many macro-social work programs that taught both community organizers and policy practitioners and was confident that was the type of training I wanted to pursue. The Master of Social Work program at the University of Washington had the reputation for being the most radical. So I knew that was the program for me. It’s really amazing remembering the political complexities Atlanta taught me in Dr. Maura Ryan’s class, at Mary’s with Kiki Carr, over (too much) tequila with Charone Pagett, and Ida travels with Lauren Macdonald, and then bringing all of those pieces to Seattle. You could say I brought the durty, durty South to the squeaky clean Pacific Northwest. And I have no idea if I’ll return to Atlanta. But I do know that Atlanta will always be home.


Is there a difference between the South and where you currently reside?
This is a question that I have been confronted with many, many times. From the moment I arrived in Seattle, there was this thought that everyone in the South is conservative, racist, homophobic, transphobic, and “backwards.” What this does is completely erases the identities and strengths of so many of the communities I identified with and knew to be so powerful.  There is this misconception that the South is not a place saturated with power to the people. It is true, though, that Seattle and its region houses some extremely progressive elected officials and that the policy responses from governmental institutions seem far better for queer and trans communities. I mean, the state of Washington voted to support gay marriage and we have a gay mayor in Seattle. And the statewide attempts for “bathroom bills” were defeated. But our rents are also skyrocketing, displacing entire communities. And the police have been placed under a consent decree from the Department of Justice because of excessive force. This January, we counted over 4,000 people living without shelter while our city economy booms with an influx of technology.

So yes, we have made advancements for queer and trans folks, but the reality is that communities of color, poor people, and other oppressed folks have the same negative outcomes as everywhere else. But conversations of change are happening. And I don’t want to present Seattle as not being liberal. There are components of Seattle that prove its progressive reputation. I definitely feel my local government shares many of my values. My council-member's office has written a resolution calling for the end of youth incarceration, we compost and recycle (a lot), and have tremendous labor union power. The city of Seattle was the first to champion the fight for $15/hr and we got the raise. These are the socially just policies that make Seattle a progressive paradise. And I don’t think my job experiences or organizing efforts would have warranted me a similar work position in Atlanta. I am able to bring my radical, queer politic into work every day. That is extremely important. I made the decision in graduate school that I wanted the opportunity to influence change inside the system. And that might not be possible for me to do in Atlanta. But the brilliance of queers and trans folks doing social justice inside communities is possible in Atlanta. And that’s where liberation is going to happen.
 

 


As you can see, there’s a lot that goes into the decision process of moving out the South. The mentality of there being no community or radical vibrance in the South is silencing and destructive. Job opportunities and resources that are progressive and have radical potential are major draws for hungry queers who want to feel like their work will be welcomed. Maybe queers will fly and be fulfilled in the South if we didn’t clip their wings first.

TAYLOR ALXNDR

No-nonsense non-binary. Queer performance artist, community organizer. Co-founder of Southern Fried Queer Pride. Host of SWEET TEA, a queer variety show.