Gay Life

Mississippi, the nation’s poorest state, upsets dominant notions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community and history. Though in many places queer life is conceived as an urban phenomenon, in Mississippi it more commonly has been characterized by the careful negotiation of local institutions—home, church, school, and workplace. Such sites are often assumed to be hostile to sexual and gender nonconformity, but such nonconformity has flourished in precisely these settings in Mississippi. Older LGBT Mississippians recall meeting sexual partners at church socials and family reunions, in classrooms and on shop floors, on athletic fields and at roadside rest areas. If households and employers, educational and religious organizations sometimes condemned “deviant” sexualities and genders, those institutions’ buildings and grounds often became the most common sites for queer sexual activity.

Finding friends and partners across a largely rural landscape, queer Mississippians have relied on circulation as much as congregation. The state has long harbored queer networks but has only recently developed lesbian and gay cultures. Before the 1960s same-sex play between adolescents was tacitly condoned, and queer sex between adults was clandestine but common. Though an 1839 sodomy law criminalized oral and anal sex and seven men were imprisoned under the statute over the next four decades, homosexual activity was quietly accommodated with a prevailing pretense of ignorance. By the 1970s, however, LGBT identity politics and organized Christian resistance had grown hand in hand.

For women in particular, education and separatist organizations have proved critical in the forging of same-sex worlds and relationships. In the early 1890s suffragist Pauline Orr and Miriam Paslay created a life together as professors at the first state-funded women’s college in the United States, the Industrial Institute and College (now Mississippi University for Women) in Columbus, where they promoted a broad curriculum rather than a focus on “domestic science.” They also advocated equal pay for equal work at other state universities. A century later, Brenda and Wanda Henson founded Camp Sister Spirit near Ovett, a feminist retreat that hosted events for women only, lesbians, and gay men. Despite facing death threats, the Hensons also cultivated a nonprofit organization that worked to alleviate hunger, poverty, and bigotry in the region. Though anchored in state and local struggles for social change, Orr and Paslay and the Hensons became key figures in national and international women’s reform movements.

When male public figures have been implicated in homosexual acts, mainstream media scandals historically have erupted. In the 1890s newspapers exposed Prof. William Sims, who was kicked off the faculty at the University of Mississippi, as well as planter-politician Dabney Marshall, who murdered his accuser. Jon Hinson represented Mississippi’s 4th District in the US House of Representatives from 1979 until 1981, when he was forced to resign after being charged with sodomy. Two years later, gubernatorial candidate Bill Allain faced rumors that he had engaged in homosexual acts with two male transvestites but nevertheless won election. While oppressive discourses continually cast homosexuality as new or as elsewhere, a number of Mississippians have produced queer narratives with local settings—playwrights Mart Crowley and Tennessee Williams, novelists Hubert Creekmore and Thomas Hal Phillips, poets and memoirists William Alexander Percy and Kevin Sessums, physique artist and pulp novelist Carl Corley.

Scandals involving black civil rights activist Aaron Henry and white advocate Bill Higgs marked a crucial turning point in regional queer history. When accused in the early 1960s of intercourse with younger men, the two movement leaders denied the allegations, a required response given the cultural climate of the times. But these charges linked queer sexuality and racial equality, both in alarmist rhetoric and in practice, and the strident legal-political crackdown against members of the LGBT community that emerged elsewhere in the 1950s did not reach Mississippi until the following decade and formed part of the massive resistance to African American freedom struggles.

Establishments that accommodated or were friendly to the LGBT community date back nearly a century, with “gay bars” existing from the 1940s onward in Mississippi. Most of these establishments catered to mixed clienteles—young and old, women and men, gender normative and nonnormative. Mirroring larger divides, however, these businesses often have remained racially segregated. When towns and cities achieved the critical mass to support more than one queer bar, separate black and white establishments usually resulted. In Jackson in the 1970s and 1980s, for example, the two were located directly across the street from one another.

Although fundamentalist preachers from Mississippi have founded some of today’s most prolific vehicles of homophobia (Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association and Fred Phelps’s Westboro Baptist Church), many queer Mississippians, black and white, have retained strong commitments to Christian spirituality. While the Mississippi Gay Alliance, founded in 1973, and its longtime leader, Eddie Sandifer, often advocated a radical political agenda linking various left causes, the most successful organizing, Sandifer concedes, has occurred through LGBT congregations such as the Metropolitan Community Church, which opened in Jackson in 1983. The twenty-first-century political struggle has largely been led by Equality Mississippi and its executive director, Jody Renaldo.

Transgender persons have occasionally found amenable physicians, including gay doctor Ben Folk, and hospitals for treatments, as at the University Medical Center in Jackson. More frequently they have traveled abroad for lower-cost sex reassignment surgery. While only a minority of queer Mississippians have moved to major out-of-state cities, many have returned regularly throughout their lives and permanently in retirement. Ironically, as mainstream media fixate on rural prejudice and brutality, American antiviolence projects report a far greater incidence of homophobic assault and murder in urban centers, with their high LGBT visibility. Thus, some LGBT people find greater safety in Mississippi, whereas many queer urbanites consider the form of selective visibility practiced there an ideological impossibility. Often belittled as backward or exceptionally repressive, Mississippi continues to hold a deep emotional grip on many of its queer natives.

In recent years, issues of law and politics have been central to gay and lesbian life. Beginning in 1993 state and federal courts, the US Congress, state legislatures, and state referenda tackled the issue of same-sex marriage, with some states permitting it and others as well as the federal government defining marriage as solely involving a man and a woman. In response to this patchwork of laws, numerous gay and lesbian residents of Mississippi and other states where same-sex marriage remained illegal began traveling outside their home states to be married elsewhere. In 2015, however, the US Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that all laws against same-sex marriage were unconstitutional, and Mississippi’s first same-sex marriages took place.

In the spring of 2016 the Mississippi legislature passed House Bill 1523, officially named the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act,” and Gov. Phil Bryant signed it into law on 5 April. The act declared that public employees, businesses, and social workers could not be punished for denying services based on the beliefs that marriage is strictly between a man and a woman, that sexual intercourse should only take place within such a marriage, and that gender is determined at birth. In addition, the measure said that the government could not prevent businesses from firing transgender employees, clerks from refusing to license same-sex marriages, or adoption agencies from refusing to place children with unmarried couples believed to be having sex. Finally, the law declared that businesses and other institutions could not be prevented from establishing “sex-specific standards or policies concerning employee or student dress or grooming, or concerning access to restrooms, spas, baths, showers, dressing rooms, locker rooms, or other intimate facilities or settings.” Authors claimed that the law protected business owners and public officials from being forced to violate their religious beliefs. Opponents, however, argued that the measure in fact sanctioned religious discrimination, permitting people to impose their religious views on others, and compared it to earlier religion-based arguments for racial segregation. As with North Carolina’s better-known “Bathroom Bill,” other states and localities responded by banning employees from nonessential travel to Mississippi, and several governments warned LGBT travelers about visiting the state. Legal challenges to House Bill 1523 led to an injunction against the bill in June 2016, but appeals overturned that injunction the following year, and the law went into effect in October 2017.

Further Reading

  • Michael Bibler, Cotton’s Queer Relations: Same-Sex Intimacy and the Literature of the Southern Plantation, 1936–1968 (2009)
  • Kate Greene, Women and Politics 17 (1997)
  • John Howard, in Queer Studies: An Interdisciplinary Reader, ed. Robert J. Corber and Stephen Valocchi (2003)
  • John Howard, ed., Carryin’ On in the Lesbian and Gay South (1997)
  • Sarah Kaplan, Washington Post (31 March 2016)
  • Sarah Wilkerson-Freeman, “Love and Liberation: Southern Women-Loving-Women and the Power of the Heart,” Paper Presented to the Organization of American Historians (April 2003)
  • Benjamin E. Wise, William Alexander Percy: The Curious Life of a Mississippi Planter and Sexual Freethinker (2012)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Gay Life
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date April 4, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update June 6, 2018