We’ve come a long way, baby.
As the Supreme Court weighs two high-profile cases that could potentially legalize same-sex marriage across the country, committed gay couples in the Deep South say they’ve witnessed a remarkable evolution in acceptance in the region, even if discrimination still remains beneath the surface—and on the books.
Chris McCary and John Sullivan live in Anniston, Ala., a small city even by Alabama standards. In 2004, they became the first out-of-state couple to get hitched in Massachusetts, gaining them national media coverage and, along with it, a measure of local notoriety.
They had no idea what to expect when they got back—this is a state that two years later passed a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Some of McCary’s colleagues didn’t even know he was gay. “A friend called me while we were in Massachusetts,” he remembers now, “and asked me, ‘What the heck are you doing? You’re all over the TV. Have you forgotten you’re from Alabama?’”
But the reception was more benign than they had feared. “A conservative judge—an older, Republican, conservative judge—shook my hand and said congratulations, said he was proud to know me,” says McCary. “Some of my clients brought their teenage children to my office because they wanted to meet me.” Their community, says Sullivan, now treats them as they would any other couple. “Our neighbors were proud of us, and proud to be able to celebrate with us that part of our lives,” he says.
Of course, in the South, face-to-face interactions are almost always pleasant, even if people gossip behind your back. The bigotry that McCary and Sullivan faced was often faceless. Listening to the radio one day, Sullivan found himself being discussed on a local talk show. “People were saying nasty things, like ‘those stupid fags shouldn’t get married,’ and all that stuff,” he says. So he called in. He told the DJs that his marriage would in no way affect theirs, that he wanted nothing to do with their marriages. “It’s easy to be a bigot to someone you don’t know or don’t have to face,” he says. “When you have to deal as one human being to another, things change.”
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