Relationships don’t look like they used to (and that’s a good thing). But what does it honestly take to make a modern romance work? As part of Committed, we’re exploring partnerships ranging from a textbook marriage between high-school sweethearts to a gay couple creating a life together in the conservative deep South.
My wife, Lindsay, grew up on the Massachusetts south shore. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, all rocky beaches and moored sailboats, old growth hardwoods and colonial houses built before the founding of the country. Visiting her hometown was like walking into an L.L. Bean catalog.
As a child, I spent a lot of time memorizing photographs in magazines and catalogs, tracing the contours of unfamiliar landscapes, wanting to file these images in my imagination, to remind myself that the entire world wasn’t the Mississippi Delta.
To describe the Delta, to really explain the intricacies of rural Southern life and geographical isolation, would take days. To approximate the tourist experience of the Delta, listen to Charley Patton’s High Water Everywhere while flipping through photographer William Eggleston’s The Democratic Forest. But if you can’t do that, just imagine the flattest, muddiest land possible. Then picture little towns, houses huddled together, in a sea of endless, clear-cut farmland. It’s the poorest, most isolated part of one of the poorest and most isolated states, and it is extreme in all things: weather, religion, politics, foodstuffs.
Basically, Lindsay and I grew up in opposite universes, and we probably never would’ve met, but luckily, the recession basically forced us both into graduate school. And I can honestly say that the best thing about getting a PdD was marrying Lindsay.
We were married in the city hall annex beneath the Bank of America in Tallahassee, Florida. Gay marriage had become legal in Florida by default a few months earlier, but the Federal Supreme Court ruling was still forthcoming, which meant that our marriage paperwork bore the labels Bride and Groom. So technically, Lindsay may be my husband.
“I can finally pronounce you… married,” said Bob, city clerk, skipping over the gendered language in his civil ceremony script. It’s not how I imagined my wedding, because I never imagined my wedding. And even though we were in a basement room with a fake, backlit stained glass window, no family or friends, on the Tuesday after I turned in my dissertation, our wedding really was everything the magazines say: The Most Important Day of Our Lives.
And then the rest of life happens.
I graduated, and when neither us landed a full time job, we decided to move to the Hudson Valley. We wanted to be somewhere other than Florida, somewhere with mountains. There were plenty of colleges within commuting distance—so many, in fact, that we had to turn down adjunct work because our schedules were full.
But to condense a very long story, it’s practically impossible to make enough money adjunct teaching to survive in New York, even if you teach at three different schools and work 18 hours a day. We spent the year uninsured and too poor to buy food. When the spring semester ended, unable to make rent on our crappy apartment, we were also homeless.
So like the many millennials, Lindsay and I were forced to move back in with mom and dad. My mom and dad, specifically, which meant that we became a married lesbian couple living in Mississippi, a state that was scheduled to enact HB 1523,”The Religious Liberty Accommodations Act,” legislation aimed at not only de-legitimizing our marriage, but also supporting (if not outright encouraging) public discrimination against all LGBTQ individuals.
So last June, on Lindsay’s 31st birthday, we moved into my childhood bedroom in Indianola, Mississippi.
I left the Delta for school when I was 16, half a lifetime ago, and my old bedroom was exactly as I had left it: glow-in-the-dark ceiling stars, a Lisa Loeb poster, and dozens of plastic ponies lining the bookshelves, their eyes staring downward.
In Mississippi, I started to become my teenage self again. I was moody and irritable. I ate deep-fried food filled with preservatives. I sweated when I was nervous. (Or maybe that was because it was 105 degrees outside.) Worst of all, the internalized Bible Belt homophobia that I’d spent years in therapy trying to dissipate reemerged with a vengeance.
In all the time we’d been married, Lindsay and I had the luxury of thinking of ourselves as another boring married couple. We lived in progressive cities, and neither of us were the kind of people who woke up in the morning thinking, I’m gay! But suddenly, we lived in a place where we were constantly reminded of our gayness.
“You don’t touch me in public anymore,” Lindsay said. I was busy rifling through our suitcases, looking for something to wear that was neither plaid nor baggy, or in any way “masculine”—my mother’s term.
“We just can’t do that here!” I heard myself say, and in that moment, I felt completely defeated, because it felt so true. Then I’m sure I cried.
We spent most of the time crying, those first weeks in Mississippi, which is one of the reasons we decided to go Pride. Though we’d both been to various Gay Pride events in New York, California, and even in Florida, neither of us is the kind of person who likes big, drunk crowds or assless chaps. Pride always seemed like a party I’d rather avoid, but I still thought of it as that—a party.
Last summer, Mississippi held its first-ever official Pride celebration. There was originally supposed to be a parade, but in the wake of the Orlando shooting, organizers (or maybe law enforcement) decided that it would be safer to barricade a tiny park in downtown Jackson and surround the entire event with armed policemen. We weren’t surprised by the security, though I assumed it was unnecessary. The event was tiny: half a dozen tents and folding tables, four food trucks, and a single beer line. When we arrived, there may have been 100 people there.
Then the protesters arrived.
We’ve all seen pictures of backward-looking hicks holding “God Hates Fags” signs, but this was in 2016. Weren’t we past this?
Lindsay and I were sitting on the grass, watching drag queens sashay in the noonday sun, when the chanting started. A man with a megaphone buzzed in the background while someone born with a penis danced to “I’m Every Woman” while wearing a sequined evening gown in the 100-degree heat. Restless queer people, the novelty of outdoor, daytime drag wearing thin, began to drift toward the barricades to see the real, live protestors.
Lindsay and I were curious too, so we joined the crowd. The protesters were mostly overweight, middle-aged people in sweaty t-shirts. The queer people were also mostly overweight, middle-aged people in sweaty t-shirts. Without the signage, you’d hardly be able to tell the two groups apart. Good thing there was a chain-link fence and a bunch of people with guns between us. Otherwise we might get mixed up.
I reached out and took Lindsay’s hand. I pulled her close and kissed her there, a few feet from the screaming, sweaty face of a homophobe wearing a sandwich board. I finally realized that Pride isn’t a party, and you can’t show up fashionably late. In Mississippi, Pride is still a protest.
By the end of the summer, I managed to get a full-time academic job half an hour from my hometown, and Lindsay got a two-book deal for her novels, so we were able to move out of my parents’ house. But we still live in the Mississippi Delta.
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The week before the election, Lindsay was walking our dogs on the campus where we teach, when a boy in a pickup truck, probably a student, pulled up next to her and yelled “dyke!” from the window. When she told me about it, she was almost laughing through her tears because it seemed so ridiculous. But then the same day, not 20 miles away, an African-American church was burned, and the words “Vote Trump” were spray-painted on the charred shell. After that, of course, more and more incidents like these were reported throughout the country.
Now, I make a point to hold Lindsay’s hand whenever we are in the grocery store or walking around town.
It’s February, and though most Deltans have taken down their Christmas decorations by now, many Trump yard signs have yet to be retired. I’m not sure if America’s future will look like the Mississippi of today, but I know that Lindsay and I won’t keep our marriage behind the barricades anymore. We will march down the sidewalk-less streets of the Mississippi Delta, a two-woman Pride parade, until there really is no more need for protest.
Kilby Allen’s work has appeared in CutBank, Day One, Nashville Review, and elsewhere. Her tiny book, The Feral Syllables of Affection (In Short Publishing) will soon be available in train station vending machines throughout Australia. Find her at kilbyallen.com.