Some people in the South usually do not get the gravity of being different unless they are actually different themselves or have been affected directly by someone's differences. Growing up in south Mississippi was really hard for me. People there don't empathize easily. It is a deep-rooted mentality, taught throughout life. Some children of these households are told that being different is weird. It usually “goes against their religion” and is looked down on.
It really doesn't matter what type of difference really, whether it is skin color, religion or sexual orientation.
Change comes very slowly in the South. For example, just a couple of weeks ago a town an hour away from where I grew up, after resisting for several decades, finally changed their Great Americans Day to Martin Luther King Day!
For me, as a teenager, learning that I wasn't like all the other boys was particularly difficult. I was a late bloomer and a pretty small and shy boy. I didn't like sports and I kept to myself mostly. I was often bullied about my differences. There is only so much that someone can take before they really start to question their purpose in life.
I was called gay before I even knew what gay meant. Over time, it really hurt me and would often break me down.
I’m sure all across this country – not just in the South – people are bullied, teased and hurt because they are different. It took years to really get over that part of my life. In a way, I was traumatized. My heart breaks when I hear other stories of people being bullied about being different, about being gay. There is something that happens to someone's confidence when they grow up in an environment such as I did.
Over time, as I grew up and as I moved away from Mississippi, I was able to put my childhood behind me. I was able to focus on the here and now and not dwell on my past. I feel that was the best thing I could have done as I started out in New Orleans on my own. I was able to move on, but I was not able to forget. As much as I wish I could and not be bothered by my past, sometimes it comes bubbling back up.
This really didn't happen until we had our beautiful baby, Alli Mae. She is the absolute light of our lives and I fall more in love with her every single day.
I don’t know what it is like being gay and having a child in New York or California, but in the South, it can be particularly difficult for me because of people’s judgment of our lives.
I feel like I probably read into things too much, or maybe I overthink things. It is hard for me to turn a blind eye to glares from onlookers. Just last year, Mississippi passed a freedom of religion law that allows any business to refuse service to customers that goes against their religion. Yes, in 2017, in my home state of Mississippi, my own family can be denied service because we are different from most people. My little girl's parents are gay, and because of that we can be turned away. It breaks my heart.
Erik and Alli Mae
Today however, I have to be a strong and confident gay papa. I cannot let my angel see that I am hurting. The last thing I would want to do is allow her to realize the pain that I am feeling because of society around us.
In public, we get looked at a lot. It doesn't matter if we are in a restaurant or at the grocery store. It actually brought me back to my childhood and really made me feel self-conscious and I didn’t like it. Fortunately, Douglas helped ease my mind recently.
"What if the people's glares were actually stares?" he asked. "This may be the first time straight people have ever seen a gay family. This may be the first time they have ever seen a baby be as happy as ours with two dads. This may be the time that we proved to them that gay people can be just as good of parents as traditional ones. We are even better than some. Everytime we go out, people stare because they may have never seen this before. Rather than being self-conscious about it, own it. Let it be a teaching experience for them. Don't read into their stares. Most likely they are staring with curiosity and not judgment.” He was adamant.
I think about those words every time I am in public now. I never realized that some people down here may have never seen or interacted with a gay family. We are, however, in the South, where openly gay men aren’t all that common. (Lesbian families seem to be a bit more prevalent.) Living in this small suburb of New Orleans, we may very well be the only gay dad family. So now, this actually excites me more than it scares me because I want them to see that we are like any other traditional family. I just need to remember to remain a confident papa.
One of my most favorite quotes really sums all of this up for me. Hellen Keller once said, "Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence."
Feature image photo credit: BSA Photography