Nicole and I are waiting for the bus in San Francisco. It is her last night before she heads back to Santa Barbara, so we are hitting up her favorite hole-in-the wall joint and really milking our last few hours together. “So do you think you’ll stay in Charleston?” she asks. I reply, “Actually, yeah,” and launch into a well-rehearsed defense of why I’m choosing to stay in South Carolina.
Beyond the usual reasons one might run screaming from the South, I identify as queer, and I look queer, so people often wonder why I haven’t escaped to New York City yet. In true best-friend form, Nicole is two steps ahead of me. She says, “I get it, being queer in the South is like being on a really small life raft. You gotta grab on and hold on.”
About a year ago, I was planning on being San Francisco bound by now — or Berlin or Austin, where, as one friend said, “Even the straight girls look like dykes.” As much as I loved Charleston, I didn’t know if I could bloom here. But then I got a message one day from a woman in Atlanta named Paulina asking me if we could meet up. When we later met, I found myself sitting across from her, awestruck as she told me about Southerners On New Ground. A Southern LGBTQ organization, SONG has a vision for justice that goes beyond just marriage equality. It works for the lives of people of color, poor people, undocumented immigrants, differently abled folks, women, and elders. I sputtered, “That’s exactly what we need here. We don’t have that.” I now work for SONG as a field organizer, and the work I have the privilege of doing has helped me anchor myself in a place that sometimes feels too hostile.
As queer Southerners, we often find ourselves isolated, excluded, pushed down, and locked out of our families, hometowns, and communities. We are told that to live happy gay lives we must move to the Big City. Whether implicit or explicit, the message rings loud and clear that we are expected to make the impossible choice between our homes and our dignity, our families and our freedom. It is a painful form of exile.
Queer people have been creatively problem solving around this for years. We build new families, we transform our understanding of home, we survive and even thrive. We build life rafts and pull as many of our friends and lovers onto them as we can. Many hands reach out to lift us up, make us stronger, hold us close. Not everyone makes it to a life raft, and we don’t forget that either. We try to remember the unnamed brave people who have fought to make our lives livable.
Fast forward to now. The beach at Sullivan’s Island is perfect today. Gracie and I are floating in the tidal pool, talking about her dad’s bakery and our roommate Emily’s new band. We talk about our immigrant families — hers Iranian, mine Lebanese — and their struggles to carve out an existence for us. We talk about the tattoos we are too scared to get. We talk about about what anchors us here, the fragile ties of love and commitment, of struggle and community. We’re queer, we’re here, and, at least for now, South Carolina is home.
Jenna Lyles is the S.C. field organizer for Southerners On New Ground and works with Girls Rock Charleston.