The truth is, Kentucky Kicks Ass – that’s actually our official, unofficial state slogan – and not just because Jennifer Lawrence is from here. (Okay, a lot because J. Law is from here.) But also because we’re a group of four million diverse, interesting, weird, fun, and welcoming people who say “y’all,” get obsessed with basketball, worship horses, and love the beautiful state we call home. In case you’re wondering, I’m wearing some super cool shoes right now and haven’t eaten KFC since 8th grade when my whole family went vegetarian.
But what’s it like being a gay family in Kentucky? It really depends. Our state is traditionally conservative, but we’re also home to Vicco, the smallest town in the country with an LGBT Fairness Ordinance – which you can check out in an awesome Stephen Colbert report here: http://gawker.com/stephen-colberts-best-segment-ever-will-make-you-fee-1150255944. I go to the most liberal school in the most liberal city in Kentucky, so I was terrified when I went to the Governor’s Scholars Program this summer where I’d spend five weeks with high school seniors from all over the state, who I was sure would be less accepting than my own classmates. I was totally right and also totally wrong. There were way more kids there who didn’t believe in gay marriage, but no one was directly mean to me about having gay parents. (If they said stuff behind my back I didn’t hear it.) Actually, at the first talent show, twenty girls from my hall performed “Same Love” with one of our RAs – even girls who said their parents wouldn’t approve of it. Most Kentucky teens, like 75% of Millennials, are in favor of marriage equality, even if their families aren’t.
More than once, before people knew about my family, I did hear “Well it’s against my beliefs, but I won’t judge gay people on Earth because God will punish them in Hell.” Near the end of the program I gave a speech to the entire group about addressing that comment with honesty instead of just staying silent and safe. The response was overwhelmingly positive; that speech was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, but I am so incredibly glad I did it. It’s not like I made all 350, mostly Christian and Republican kids want to hang rainbow flags as soon as they got home, but I do think I opened their minds, even if I didn’t change them. And the most important thing is, I’m an example. Now, if they hear about a law that hurts gay families, it’s not hurting strangers, it’s hurting their friend. I’ll say that again, “their friend.” This summer was the first time in my life when I have known people who openly opposed marriage equality, and I still genuinely did consider them my friends. I still genuinely considered them good people; good people who had been raised in a totally different community than mine, with different values and accepted truths. Their religion which made them less open to gay people also made many of them donate hundreds of hours to charity, refuse to drink or use drugs, and believe their life could serve a higher purpose – all which make me like them more and make them have more things in common with me.
Overall, I don’t think my personal experience has been considerably worse because I live in Kentucky. Most people “out in the state” spend way more time hating the Louisville basketball team than they do hating gay people. I have friends who strongly reject evolution, fervently support the NRA, vote red every time…and still think my family rocks. The most negative thing anyone has ever said to me about anything LGBT actually came from a guy who’s bisexual himself, who called me a “breeder” and said I wasn’t really helpful to the movement because as a straight girl I didn’t get it since I’ve never literally had to fight for my rights. I told him he was being an asshole, but also took to heart the truth in what – I think – he was trying to say.
The bottom line is, I will never be stared at or insulted for walking down the street holding hands with a man I love. And in finding that man, I get to work with 45% of the population instead of 5%. If I misjudge who’s in that 45% and flirt with a gay guy, he’ll probably laugh and we’ll end up talking about how hot Ryan Gosling is. If my gay friends flirt with a straight guy, well, Matthew Shepard died for it.
So on a fundamental level, my life IS easier than a gay person’s, no matter where I live, because I’m still part of the 90%. I might face more discrimination than the average straight person because of my family and passionate involvement with the LGBT rights movement, but it’s still not the same. I get that. I’m writing a mostly positive review of Kentucky in order to give its citizens the credit I think they deserve, not in any way to discount the horribly difficult and unfair prejudice that so many gay people face, especially in the most rural areas of our state. My friend Chris Hartman, the director of the Fairness Campaign in Louisville, has had his car vandalized and his house broken into and robbed, just within the past year. I recognize and deeply appreciate Chris and many others like him who risk their own physical safety every day in order to make our state and world a better place.
The sad thing about Kentucky is, the people who most frequently stereotype and discriminate against gay people are in a demographic hugely stereotyped themselves. They know how insulting and ridiculous it is when people ask, “Do you wear shoes?” or “Do your neighbors still have all their teeth?” They know how frustrating it is for people to automatically think they’re less intelligent just because of the way they talk. “Country hick,” and “redneck” have hurt them just as much as “faggot” and “dyke” have hurt gay people.
No matter where we come from, we all are limited by some stereotype – and we all hold stereotypes about other people, whether we intend to or not. Our society will never totally get rid of our assumptions about each other; they can be useful, sometimes, in helping us navigate social situations, avoid conflict, or find other people with similar interests. If you see someone with a Duck Dynasty poster, you might assume they like the show and not admit you think Santa’s the only person who looks good with a beard that long. (Don’t worry, Phil Robertson, I’ll be coming back to you later.) If you read nothing else I ever write, read this: the stereotypes we put on others are just as flawed as the ones put on us. Maybe if everyone understood that, my parents could get married, and people would stop suggesting I marry my cousin.