Against the Grain: Being LGBT in Mississippi

They are our neighbors, sisters, brothers, co-workers, star athletes and mayors. But in society, they are many times pre-defined as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

"When I first came out, I was really, really scared," said Hattiesburg resident Eric Bass.

Although Bass has claimed Mississippi as home for all 25 years of his life, Mississippi does not claim him, at least when talking about human rights such as adoption, marriage or even divorce.

"There's really just no laws protecting us as people," said Hattiesburg resident Justin Bentley. "It's like we're aliens or something."

Mississippi joins 35 other states that ban same-sex marriage. According to a 2013 Gallup poll, 53 percent of Americans think it should be legal for the 3.5% part of the population that identifies as LGBT. But when looking at our own congressmen to pave that path, one of them has been vocal about being opposed to same-sex marriage. After Queen Latifah married both gay and straight couples at this year's Grammy's, Congressman Steven Palazzo posted the following status to his Facebook page: "Unfortunately, Hollywood doesn't value the same conservative beliefs we do in Mississippi." But Bass said he still has hope for his state.

"I think if we stick around instead of trying to run away from it, we can help further the state, and we can help change those views," said Bass. "Because people in my generation are progressing on that a lot, a lot more so than the older people are."

Bentley, who identifies as gender-queer, is also a drag queen.

"I just like to see people smile and be happy," said Bentley while preparing for a performance at an undisclosed Hattiesburg bar. "I think doing awesome stuff like that, and shocking them and doing different things, I just get a thrill from that."

Bentley said growing up in Mississippi was not always easy, and even though his passions are the performing arts, he tried to fit in by doing statistics for the football team.

"Kids are hateful," he said. "It's sad."

But as he has grown comfortable with himself, Bentley said he sees opportunity in talking about his sexuality.

"I don't get offended being asked about it. I like giving people knowledge," he said."I'll have kids at work all the time ask me if I'm a boy or a girl, and I'll tell them I'm a boy, I just like to be pretty."

When asked if he is proud to be from a state that does not recognize him like other residents, Bentley hesitated to answer.

"It's hard to say right now," he said. "I mean, I love this place. I do. Even though it's hard sometimes, but I don't know."

As for Bass, he is proud to call Mississippi home in light of what he sees as growth opportunities.

"Mississippi is my state, just as much as anyone else's," he said.

Both Bass and Bentley have struggled with the pressures of society, particularly the church, when making their sexuality public knowledge.

"It kind of makes me irate when someone tells me they can fix me," said Bass. "I'm not broken."

"It's just something different goes through people's minds here," said Bentley. "I guess just because it's not as common."

And while Bass is comfortable in his skin now, it wasn't an easy road to get to where he is. But, legally recognized by his home state or not, it's his happiness that is not defined by law.

"I mean, it's kind of hurtful, but I guess after a while, you kind of get used to it," he said. "You try to keep a smile on your face and keep going with your life because you can't let those types of things affect you."

Copyright 2014 WDAM. All rights reserved.