Living Queer in a Red State

When I moved back to my hometown in South Dakota after leaving my job in Chicago, I knew I was taking a risk—a risk that I would lose access to a queer community. What I didn’t expect was that my own state government would start to push to decide that I am not a person worth protecting, that I am not deserving of dignity.

When I moved back to my hometown in South Dakota after leaving my job in Chicago, I knew I was taking a risk—a risk that I would lose access to a queer community. Rainbow via Shutterstock

My family and I sat down to play the Game of Life one holiday weekend. In the game, players move a little car around the board and work their way through “achievements”: completing college, getting a job, getting married, buying a house, having kids, and eventually retiring, hopefully at “Millionaire Estates.”

I dutifully went through the first levels of the game, obtaining my college degree and finding myself a nice high-paying job. Then the marriage goal came. As she was fishing out a blue “husband” peg for me, my cousin turned to me and asked, “Or would you like a wife? We could be very modern about this!”

I froze.

I’d come out as queer to my mother about six weeks before, but hadn’t told the rest of my family yet. No one else knew, to my knowledge, except a few select friends. I didn’t know what to do or say, so I just nervously laughed it off and took the little blue husband she handed me.

I live in South Dakota, in the city I grew up in. I’m a two-minute drive from where I went to high school. It’s not unusual for me to run into former professors and classmates from my (also local) Christian undergraduate college. With every one of them I see, I wonder if they’ve seen my blog posts, if they know who I’ve become.

I moved back here in August after leaving my job in Chicago and deciding to pursue a career as a freelance writer and author. The cost of living is lower here, and the lack of state income tax makes it a much better for me, financially, than the high city and state taxes in the Chicago area. But by leaving a major urban center for a town that is 221 miles from the nearest Ikea (I counted), I knew I was taking a risk—a risk that I would lose access to a queer community. What I didn’t expect was that my own state government would start to push to decide that I am not a person worth protecting, that I am not deserving of dignity.

Recently, South Dakota was one of several states to floated an anti-gay bill in its legislature—the others being Arizona, Kansas, and now Georgia. (Arizona’s bill made it all the way to Gov. Jan Brewer’s desk before being vetoed this week.) These bills, all very similar, reveal a coordinated effort on the part of conservatives to find new ways to punish people for being queer. In its manifestation in South Dakota—SB 128, which was deferred to the judiciary and essentially killed—the bill would have made it illegal for a gay individual to sue a business for refusing to provide service on the basis of sexual orientation. This legalized discrimination was, according to the opening section of the one-page bill, intended to protect the “freedom of speech” of religious people. The bill was deliberately inflammatory, with language specifically stating that federal anti-discrimination laws did not apply within the geographical borders of the state.

South Dakota has only one out member in our legislature. Sen. Angie Buhl (D-Sioux Falls) is a bisexual woman who was elected from one of South Dakota’s most liberal districts in 2011. While doing her part to fight these kinds of anti-gay bills on behalf of queer South Dakotans, she is only one woman in a sea of white, heterosexual, cisgender men. Queer people do what we can, but we can’t do it alone, especially when we’re not represented in the larger political structure.

In many ways, my struggle is no different than friends who live in more contentiously divided and hostile areas; arguably, it’s easier. In Sioux Falls, I can slip into the background noise. I have the advantage of being a queer woman who, thus far, has only dated men, so I’ve yet to know what the reaction would be if I walked down the street holding hands with another woman. I’m still flying under the radar in terms of the queer visibility in my state.

In a recent piece for Bitch magazine, I wrote about how South Dakota is a large state that functions like a small town—if I don’t know someone directly, I know someone who knows them. Our population is still less than one million people, barely qualifying us for our one congressional representative. Frequently, this small population makes political issues and political discussions easier, surprisingly, because you often know someone who is directly affected by the law. This causes a lot of people to meet in the middle.

And we do meet in the middle, on a lot of issues. But on queer issues, meeting in the middle requires an acceptance of an imbalance of power. I must out myself to my neighbors and to my family in discussing my opposition to these discriminatory laws. The stakes are far higher, and no one but the person involved can make the decision to come out.

In South Dakota, despite having a bisexual legislator and a Democratic Party that fiercely supports LGBT issues, queer visibility is still quite low. Legislators considering SB 128 never stopped to think that both religious and queer identity can and do exist within the same person (as in myself). Queer people are forever on the outside, assumed to be a troublesome threat from the liberal elites, rather than born and raised South Dakotans.

I am working, inevitably, in a hostile environment when it comes to my queer identity. It is hard to find people like me, and I know that my state legislature will not support me in the event of violence or discrimination. By outing myself as a queer Christian, in particular, I place myself in a position where I have no local church because LGBT-affirming churches are few and far between here. (There are, to my knowledge, only two affirming churches in a city of 200,000.)

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to a nearby city to meet with a friend who was speaking in the area. We’re both feminist Christian writers, and it was great to be able to reconnect with her after not seeing her for a while. We sat in a local coffee shop and talked about everything under the sun. Eventually, the conversation turned to LGBT issues. I found myself looking around the coffee shop to see who was in earshot before saying, “As a queer woman … ”

This sort of paranoia is built into how we queer people have to function in red states. I’m very careful about how I talk about myself and how I present myself in public, because after all, Matthew Shepard died just one state over. I was 12 years old at the time. It was only within the last few years that national hate crime legislation was signed into law. And state legislatures are still trying to depersonalize and dehumanize our identities.

There’s a lot of talk among liberal, coastal elites about how we should just let the red states secede, how we should cut Florida off the map and give Texas back to Mexico. There’s also a lot of talk within the queer community that being queer and Christian is a contradiction in terms. As a queer Christian living in a red state, it’s hard not to feel totally abandoned by my allies who happen to live in blue states.

Telling me I deserve what I got because I chose to live in a red state is not only unhelpful—it is destructive. Part of making LGBT rights a priority means that we don’t abandon LGBT people to the whims of legislatures that don’t see them as human.