We have a scattering of bumper stickers on the back of our silver car: two LGBT-related, some political, and one proclaiming solidarity for survivors of sexual abuse and assault. In many places, these stickers would not raise an eyebrow. But we do not live in most places. We live in Mississippi.
Ah, Mississippi. The big, shiny belt buckle of the Bible Belt. The black vortex of heart disease, diabetes, teen pregnancy, 100-foot crosses, and an assumed belief, not only in God, but in the God-of-the-Holy-Bible-and-His-Son-Jesus-Christ. To be a liberal atheist in Mississippi is almost an experiment. It is almost as if we are aliens visiting from another world, poking around a foreign planet, seeing how far we can go, how much we can be ourselves before we are sent away.
Last week at work, a patron came up to me and began grilling me about my bumper stickers. The rant included the usual “are you serious with those stickers?” guffaw and, of course, the Southern rhetoric of “Obama is a terrible president, not because he’s black of course, no siree, but because of this and this and this…” This came from the same man who informed my boss that white men are now the most discriminated group of people in this country.
A few weeks before that, the topic of prayer in school was being discussed in the work-room. The legality of it, the ways that teachers find loopholes, how students meet in hallways and hold hands, defying the government, the persecution of their faith, etc. I could only quietly inform my coworkers that prayer is legal in school as long as it is student-led. A few “yeah, buts” later, I resigned myself to my work as their conversation continued.
Instances like this have accumulated in my brain since I first came out as an atheist about four years ago. It is hard sometimes (most of the time) to live in a state like Mississippi. And it is hard all of the time to justify staying here when it would be easy to move somewhere with more like-minded people.
And that is still a possibility.
As our governor uses his platform to be a preacher rather than a politician, as a bill that may discriminate against LGBT individuals is signed into law, as the only access to safe abortions in this state faces the possibility of closure, as atheists cannot legally hold office in this state even in the year 2014, and as abstinence-only sex education is often pushed as the only option (despite our rate of teen-pregnancy), I would sometimes like nothing more than to pack up my family and leave Mississippi the way it is.
But on other days, when the warmth of the Mississippi sun is just right, when a stranger smiles and asks me sincerely how I am doing, I think of staying. When, last year, we rallied around two same-sex couples as they applied for marriage licenses, only to be denied but greeted with our song of support, I felt a sense of community and possibility. In the same library where I was met with the angry patron, I see a spark of recognition in a young man’s face as he leans in close and asks, “Is that your car our there? The one with all the stickers?” I nod, waiting for his reaction. He thrusts his hand out to shake mine.
“It’s nice to know I’m not the only one!” he says. He gathers his books and strides out into the Mississippi sunlight, holding himself tall. And I find myself standing a bit taller as well, thinking that maybe I can stay here and make a difference after all.