Kenneth Burns, AB’93, AM’03, finds the South welcoming to him and his partner.
Shortly after my partner Ereck and I arrived at our new house in Knoxville, Tennessee, something unusual happened. As I was unloading the U-Haul, one of the guys across the street came over and asked if we would like to join him and his boyfriend for dinner. That made me say, hmm. I figured it was a fluke.
Later there was a knock at the door. The woman who lives in the next house over had come to offer a casserole. It was her way of welcoming us to the neighborhood. I was bewildered.
In the summer of 2012, Ereck and I moved to Knoxville so he could start a teaching job at the University of Tennessee. We came from Madison, Wisconsin, where he had just finished graduate school.
In the 13 years I lived in Madison, I moved seven times. Do you know how many times new neighbors welcomed me with hot food or an invitation? None.
We figured we had some adjusting to do. Yes, we already knew about Southern graciousness. He grew up near Knoxville, and I’m from Nashville. (We also knew that Southern graciousness isn’t always what it seems. There’s a reason the Southern saying “bless your heart” has multiple meanings, not all of them gracious.)
When I learned Ereck’s academic career would take us back home to Tennessee, I was apprehensive. The South isn’t famous for gay friendliness, and I didn’t know how we would be welcomed.
Throughout the South, state constitutions ban gay marriage. There are no state-level employment protections for LGBT people. I still shudder to recall an incident in Nashville years ago. I was walking alone downtown, late at night. A menacing-looking young man asked, slurring, if I was a queer. He didn’t seem to mean it in the friendly, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy sense.
I’m not proud to say I lied. “I just wanted to make sure,” he said.
Ereck and I weren’t openly gay when we were growing up in the South. We both left the region for college, and before we returned, we lived in gay-friendly cities like Chicago, San Francisco, and Madison, where we met.
Turns out, we’ve been welcomed warmly in our new hometown. We’re comfortable here. Mainly.
When we moved to Knoxville, we realized we were represented in the state legislature by Senator Stacey Campfield. We knew about him. About six months before we moved, he provoked ire when he told a radio host that the AIDS epidemic began after a gay man had sex with a monkey.
But we weren’t completely comfortable in Madison either. Like many college towns, the city has a well-deserved reputation for openness and acceptance. But what’s true in Knoxville was also true in Madison: Ereck and I never felt safe enough to hold hands in public there.
I didn’t necessarily feel at home in Madison’s gay community. As in a lot of cities, it centers to a substantial degree on bars and the activities they host. I don’t drink, I’m a terrible dancer, and after 13 happy years with Ereck, I’m not looking for new romance.
Gay marriage is illegal in Wisconsin. In 2006, voters there approved a constitutional amendment banning it. During the campaign, prominent Wisconsin activists likened homosexuality to the sexual abuse of children and animals. My ears burned when I heard these claims, and my ears burn when I think about them. Thanks in part to those people’s leadership, Wisconsin voters approved the amendment, 59 percent to 41 percent. It wasn’t close.
There’s a lot I miss about Madison, especially my friends and coworkers. I miss the excellent food and the robust bicycling infrastructure. I don’t miss the winters.
And, apprehensions aside, I was excited to return to Tennessee. I have deep connections here, including a piece of land in the Great Smoky Mountains that has been in the family since 1808. I love pulled pork barbecue, sweet iced tea, honeysuckle accents. A lifelong country music fan, I grew up listening to Hank Williams, Dolly Parton, and Willie Nelson. In fact, I worked for many years in Wisconsin as a country singer. Being a gay country singer put me in a very small musical subgenre.
After Ereck and I moved, I started looking for work. Early in the job-hunting process, I actually dithered over how open to be about my sexuality. I decided that getting passed over now for being gay is better than possibly getting fired later for being gay, so I was completely out during the job-hunting process. It wasn’t an issue. I found work I like very much in my field writing for the newspaper in Dolly Parton’s hometown, Sevierville, near Knoxville.
We still haven’t made many inroads into Knoxville’s gay scene. In general, cultivating social connections is getting harder as I veer into my mid-40s. But I see encouraging signs in Knoxville. Shortly before we moved, the gay magazine the Advocate named it one of America’s gayest cities—as a bit of a provocation, I suspect.
I’m an Episcopalian, and I am pleased that in 2012, George D. Young III, the Knoxville-based Episcopal bishop of East Tennessee, approved the church’s new same-sex blessing for local use. Madison’s bishop, Steven Miller of the Milwaukee diocese, chose not to authorize use of the rite.
I also see encouraging signs elsewhere in the South. Last year, Ereck and I traveled to Atlanta to visit friends, a gay couple who had just adopted a beautiful baby daughter. We met them at a diner on Father’s Day.
I have never seen love like the love showered on that family at a restaurant in the heart of the old Confederacy. Our booth was like the head of a receiving line. Strangers cooed over the baby. “Happy Father’s Day!” they told our friends. “Happy Father’s Day!”
I’m not claiming that compared to Madison, the South is a bastion of gay friendliness. Of course there is homophobia here. Just a few days after we moved back, demonstrators gathered at outlets of Chick-fil-A, the largely Southern fast food chain, in support of an executive who said gay marriage proponents were “inviting God’s judgment.”
But I’m not apprehensive anymore. Southern hospitality is real, and it even extends to a couple of gay Tennessee boys who found their way home. Maybe living openly and honestly, we’ve even changed a few people’s perceptions.
Kenneth Burns, AB’93, AM’03, is community news editor of the Sevierville, Tennessee, newspaper the Mountain Press and a senior contributor at Isthmus, the Madison, Wisconsin, alternative weekly.