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2:33 am
Wed August 20, 2014

Gay-Rights Movement Tackles Cultural Battle In The Deep South

Originally published on Wed August 20, 2014 3:04 pm

Mercedes Ricks may be the perfect candidate to help launch a new cultural push in Magnolia, Miss. The 50-year-old native of Colombia ended up in this tiny south Mississippi town by way of New Orleans nine years ago.

"I met these ladies from here," Ricks says after greeting guests in the barroom next to her Mariposa restaurant. "They invited me to come spend a weekend in Magnolia. We were going to go to the river and drink beer, and Katrina happened that weekend."

Ricks says the hurricane left her with nothing but a swimsuit and river shoes. It was the people in Magnolia who helped her start over. With a wide, mischievous grin, she explains how last year she ran for at-large city alderman and won.

"You tell me what is the chance of an immigrant lesbian in Mississippi?" Ricks says.

Summer Conversations

Gay-rights activists are winning a legal battle to overturn state laws prohibiting same-sex unions, most recently in Virginia. Now the gay-rights group Human Rights Campaign is opening a new front — a cultural campaign to win hearts and minds in a part of the country where they've met the strongest resistance: the Deep South.

Ricks hosts a small gathering where her friend Larry Best explains the grass-roots initiative, dubbed Project One America.

"Let's go to Arkansas, let's go to Mississippi, let's go to Alabama," Best says, "because if we can get equality there, then we've won America."

Human Rights Campaign has opened offices in those three states and is now sponsoring a series of "summer conversations" like this one.

"The approach in Mississippi has sort of been don't ask, don't tell," Best explains. "We're just not going to talk about it. Our straight friends and family don't talk about it. They may know we're gay, but nobody talks about it because we don't talk about such things in the South."

At least not in the towns where he grew up. Best says the more gay people talk about their lives, that stigma will fade.

Ricks shares her story with a couple who drove up from Kentwood, La.

"My partner and I, we've been [together] 17 years, and we thought about going somewheres and get married," Ricks says. "But in the same token, when we come back it's not valuable."

Mississippi has a ban on same-sex marriage and won't recognize unions performed in states where it is legal. The law is the same in Louisiana, Dave Travis says at Ricks' gathering. Travis and his husband, Bob Frey, traveled to Maine to marry.

"We've been together for 30 years," Travis says, "married less than a year. And what made us get married was we could file joint federal taxes."

Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, Travis says, it's time for similar barriers in the states to fall.

"We're like everybody else — we work, we pay taxes, we own property, we pay property taxes, we vote," Travis says. "I'm not asking for any special rights. I'm just asking for equality."

But Frey acknowledges that winning the cultural battle down South won't be easy.

"In Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, people grew up with a certain idea, and it's hard for them to break those ideas," Frey says.

The Definition Of Marriage

The Rev. Phillip Gandy is the senior pastor at Liberty Baptist Church in Waynesboro, Miss. He's also a Republican state senator and gained national attention last year as sponsor of the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Opponents say the law gives Mississippi businesses license to discriminate against gays and lesbians, but Gandy says that's not the intent.

"It was designed to draw some parameters for the government," says Gandy, "and say that if you're going to burden my right of religious expression, you have to have a compelling state interest to do that."

He says the state law is modeled after the federal statute that Hobby Lobby used recently in its victorious case against the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate and is a way to protect people who conduct business according to their faith.

As for the legal and cultural efforts to legalize gay marriage, Gandy says: "If you're a real Christian, a follower of Christ, you're going to love people. And you love people where they are. You may not agree with people, but that doesn't mean that we judge them and say you've got to be like we are. Some have asked what I thought of gay marriage. I don't really have a thought. Scripture has spoken on that. Marriage is between a man and a woman."

Gandy says for thousands of years — predating Christianity — society has functioned according to that traditional definition of marriage.

"Just like an athletic contest, if you're going to play football and you say, 'I don't like the boundaries, I don't like the sidelines, and I don't like the 10-yard markers and I don't like the goalposts.' What do you have? You have chaos," Gandy says.

When asked whether homosexuals who would want to be able to get married or have a family are being unfairly kept off the playing field, Gandy says, "They might say that, but would that hold up in historical precedence? Would it hold up?"

The argument has held up this year in more than 20 court rulings around the country that have found state same-sex-marriage bans unconstitutional. And a challenge is pending in Mississippi.

No matter the legal outcome, the question is whether a more frank dialogue can foster common ground.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Many people are keeping an eye on the U.S. Supreme Court today to see if the justices weigh in on same-sex marriage in Virginia.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

A lower court threw out that state's ban on gay marriage. If the Supreme Court doesn't act, same-sex couples in Virginia could start getting married as early as tomorrow.

GREENE: Now, this Virginia case is part of a legal strategy by gay-rights groups to overturn state bans on gay marriage.

MCEVERS: It's a battle they've been winning in courts across the country this year. And now LGBT activists are opening a new front - a cultural campaign to win hearts and minds in a part of the country where they've met pretty strong resistance - the deep South. NPR's Debbie Elliott has the story.

MERCEDES RICKS: Hey darling. How are you?

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Mercedes Ricks greets guests as they arrive in the barroom next to her Mariposa restaurant in Magnolia, Mississippi. The 50-year-old native of Colombia ended up in this tiny South Mississippi town by way of New Orleans 9 years ago.

RICKS: I met these ladies from here. They invited me to come and spend a weekend in Magnolia. We were going to go the river and drink beer, and Katrina happened that weekend.

ELLIOTT: The hurricane left her with nothing but a swimsuit and river shoes, Rick says. And people in Magnolia helped her start over.

RICKS: I think the Lord had a plan for me. We lost our home, our jobs. We start all over again.

ELLIOTT: With a wide, mischievous grin, she explains how last year she ran for at-large city alderman and won.

RICKS: Now, you tell me what is the chance an immigrant lesbian in Mississippi? And I won the elections with the Lord's help. And the rest is history.

ELLIOTT: That makes Ricks the perfect candidate to help launch a new cultural push in the deep south by the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign. She's hosting this small gathering where her friend, Larry Best, explains the grassroots initiative - dubbed Project One America.

LARRY BEST: Let's go to Arkansas, let's go to Mississippi, let's go to Alabama because if we can get equality there, then we've won America.

ELLIOTT: Human Rights Campaign has opened offices in those three states and is now sponsoring a series of summer conversations like this one.

BEST: The approach in Mississippi has sort of been don't ask don't tell. We're just not going to talk about it. Our straight friends and family don't talk about it. They may know we're gay, but nobody talks about it because we don't talk about such things in the South.

ELLIOTT: At least not in the towns where he grew up. Best says the more people talk about their lives, that stigma will fade. Mercedes Ricks shares her story with a couple who drove up from Kentwood, Louisiana.

RICKS: My partner and I, we've been 17 years and we've thought about going somewhere and get married. But in the same token, when we come back it's not valuable.

ELLIOTT: Mississippi has a ban on same-sex marriage and won't recognize unions performed in states where it is legal. The law is the same in Louisiana, Dave Travis tells her, so he and his partner Bob Frey travelled to Maine to marry.

DAVE TRAVIS: We've been together for 30 years.

RICKS: 30 years? Congratulations.

TRAVIS: Married less than a year. And what made us get married was we could file joint federal taxes. When we found that out, we said hey, that's great. Let's do that.

ELLIOTT: Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, Travis says it's time for similar barriers in the states to fall.

TRAVIS: We're like everybody else - we work, we pay taxes, we own property, we pay property taxes, we vote. I'm not asking for any special rights. I'm just asking for equality.

ELLIOTT: But his husband, Bob Frey, acknowledges that winning the cultural battle down South won't be easy.

BOB FREY: In Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas - people grew up with a certain idea, and it's hard for them to break those ideas.

ELLIOTT: Ideas that are long ingrained norms here in the Bible Belt.

REVEREND PHILLIP GANDY: It's so good to see you this morning. Aren't you glad to be in the house of the Lord? Amen. Well, let's stand together. We're going to worship and we're going to sing a little bit.

ELLIOTT: The congregation at Liberty Baptist Church in Waynesboro, Mississippi, opens worship this Sunday with a rousing traditional hymn.

LIBERTY BAPTIST CONGREGATION: (Singing) When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be. When we all see Jesus.

ELLIOTT: The Reverend Phillip Gandy is the senior pastor here. He's also a Republican State Senator and gained national attention last year as sponsor of the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Opponents say the law gives Mississippi businesses license to discriminate against gays and lesbians. But Gandy says that's not the intent.

GANDY: It was designed to draw some perimeters for the government and say that if you're going to burden my right of religious expression, you have to have a compelling state interest to do that.

ELLIOTT: He says the state law is modeled after the federal statute that Hobby Lobby used recently in its victorious case against the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate, and as a way to protect people who conduct business according to their faith. As for the legal and cultural efforts to legalize gay marriage...

GANDY: If you're a real Christian, a follower of Christ, you're going to love people. And you love people where they are. You might not agree with people, but that doesn't mean that we judge them and say well, you've got to be like we are. Some have asked me what I thought about gay marriage. I don't really have a thought, scripture's spoken on that - marriage is between a man and woman.

ELLIOTT: Gandy says for thousands of years, predating Christianity, society has functioned according to that traditional definition of marriage.

GANDY: Just like an athletic contest - if you're going to play football and you say I don't like the boundaries, I don't like the sidelines and I don't like the ten-yard markers and I don't like the goalposts - what's do you have? You have chaos.

ELLIOTT: I think that the gay-rights activists would tell you you are unfairly keeping them outside of the boundaries, that they want to be a family. They want to have a marriage and that it is discriminatory for you to keep them outside the playing field, right?

GANDY: They might say that. But would that hold up in historical precedents, would it hold up?

ELLIOTT: The argument has held up this year in more than 20 court rulings around the country that have found state same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional, and a challenge is pending in Mississippi.

GANDY: There's a chance that they will win some hearts and minds. But there's a chance that Christians will win some hearts and minds as well.

ELLIOTT: No matter the legal outcome, the question is whether a more frank dialogue can foster common ground. Debbie Elliott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.