Confederate General Robert E. Lee may have surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, 1865 but the Civil War is not over. The Trumpification of America has unmasked the secret shame of White Supremacy, the dormant yearning of white straight mostly Christian men to once again rule their domain. And while, racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia are not confined to red states and blue states, the Deep South continues to wreck havoc on LGBT rights in the name of religious liberty, the not-so-clandestine effort to eradicate the lines between church and state.
The Religious Right’s Republican handmaidens want to legally define “family values” for everyone, but especially the upstart LGBT community that has dared to claim and agitate for their rights to marriage equality and having children and a family of their own.
On Thursday, June 15, Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill into law allowing taxpayer-funded child welfare organizations, including adoption and foster care agencies, to reject qualified potential parents if an agency has a religious objection. HB 3859 was one of more than 30 specifically anti-LGBT bills pursued by extreme Texas lawmakers to stop or systematically roll back LGBT civil rights. And with Abbott’s itchy fingers ready to sign, more legislative hate is expected soon.
On May 3, 2017, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed a similar bill that allows private adoption agencies to enforce their religious right to discriminate, refusing gay couples the ability to adopt needy children. The law underscores Alabama’s proud legacy of denying any legal protections for LGBT citizens, who can be fired, denied promotion or not hired, or could lose or be denied housing or access to public accommodations without recourse.
“The Defense of Marriage (DOMA) falling had a different effect on places like the Deep South because it brought into focus that there were two Americas,” says clinical psychologist and author Lara Embry, co-director and co-producer on the new documentary “Alabama Bound” that had its world premier at the Frameline LGBTQ Film Festival in San Francisco on Saturday.
“I heard so many people in Los Angeles reference this ‘other America’ with phrases like ‘why don’t they just get out of there?’ and ‘why does any gay person stay in the South?’ Of course, those questions assume a pretty good level of privilege, as well as a desire to leave,” Embry tells the Los Angeles Blade. “What were people to do if they couldn’t afford to leave, or even more importantly, they didn’t want to leave? The questions, genuinely, started to sound to me like an abdication of responsibility to help improve that America, and stay in ‘safe’ blue states.”
The idea for the documentary originated in 2013 whenEmbry attended an exhibition in West Hollywood of photographs of lesbian families in Birmingham by photographer Carolyn Sherer. An Alabama native who left the state at 18, Embry often wondered what the lives of LGBT people were like “amidst such entrenched oppression where forces of discrimination claim the moral high ground?”
Embry traveled back and forth to work on the film and after a year, finally moved back. “What I found,” she says, “was a strong sense of community that helped to support families, but that these families were really living without protections that I had come to see as basic. Beyond the absence of legal protections, there was also a strong cultural bias that allowed the existing laws to be applied very unevenly, particularly in situations pertaining to child custody.”
Embry and her production partners, Carolyn Sherer and Michele Forman, found themselves in the thick of battle. As the “Alabama Bound” website explains: “Kinley married her male childhood best friend when she was quite young. They had a child together before she came out. She could not afford legal representation in her divorce and lost custody of her son to her ex-husband and his new wife. When Kinley’s son called her in tears after having been whipped by his stepmother, Kinley felt compelled to try to regain custody. After taking her son to the emergency room, Kinley was granted temporary custody by DHR. She and her wife soon found their marriage on trial in a lengthy custody fight in family court where Kinley lamented, ‘the judges here prefer to give a child back to an abusive parent or step-parent instead of a lesbian.’”
Kinley’s story set Embry back on her heels because she had experienced something similar in 2007 when she lived in Florida. “My first ex attempted to use the state’s anti-gay public policy to undo my adoption of our older child,” she says in notes on the website. “After almost three years, an appellate decision, and a custody evaluation, I was finally able to be in the same room with my child.
“Leaving Kinley’s interview,” she continues, “I realized this film could be about more than living within Alabama; it would be about the conviction of the subjects to defend their families. Kinley’s story brought so firmly into focus how personal the damage of a broken system can be, and how vulnerable our families, and our children, are to mistreatment in the guise of religious devotion.”
In addition to Kinley’s story, “Alabama Bound” follows Mobile couple Cari Searcy and Kim McKeand who were legally married in California in 2008, and sued and won their battle for marriage equality against the state, putting them $40,000 in debt. They had to fight the system again after hospital medical staff refused to recognize Cari as co-parent of Kim’s 11 year old son Khaya, who was born with a hole in his heart that required open-heart surgery.
“Alabama Bound” also follows out lesbian Alabama State Legislator, Patricia Todd, the incredible champion for LGBT rights, “ he voice for the voiceless,” in the state where viciously anti-LGBT suspended Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore not only still holds sways with lawmakers but is running for the U.S. Senate in 2017 to “make America good again.”
It is that sway, the hold the loony Religious Right has over citizens and lawmakers that so startled Embry when she returned home to Alabama.
“I found a really alarming level of internalized oppression,” she says. “When I met the production team for the first time, the co-director, who had lived her whole adult life as a lesbian in Alabama, would lower to a whisper whenever she said ‘lesbian’ in public.
“The impetus among the team making the film was to stay ‘apolitical’ and avoid upsetting donors,” Embry says. “I felt as if I was in a uniquely opportunistic position to make this film when I realized I was still decidedly ‘Southern’ and could tell a uniquely Southern story. But the 20 years away had made me unconcerned about rocking the boat and upsetting people. Southerners who didn’t leave have a much harder time telling the truth about what happens in the South—perhaps out of a fear of being impolite, perhaps because it is very hard to not eventually accept the degradation when it is so pervasive.”
That said, Embry wishes people would stop saying “’why do they live there?’—as if we have all lost our collective minds. There are truly wonderful things about living here, and flat out, many of us can’t afford to leave. The poverty in the South is tragic, and being LGBT means one is much more likely to live in poverty.”
Interestingly, Embry notes, “the comments I heard urging people to flee may be less common now, because we all live in ‘Trump’s America’—-which we refer to as the ‘Alabamification’ of America. Down here Trump didn’t cause much of a shift, except we exported a lot of politicians to the federal government.
“But that is what happens when we don’t bring the whole country along’ Embry says. “We can’t hide in the blue states and expect to stay insulated. The country, as a whole, still needs a lot of work. I’d really like to encourage everyone that transplanted to California to move back home! If nothing else, spreading out those 3 million votes to the red states would have been really helpful in the last election.”
Short of that, Embry encourages people to contribute to LGBT organizations working for change in the South and other red rural areas, not just in the blue states. And of course, find and watch “Alabama Bound,” which Embry describes as a “very personal, but decidedly political, documentary.”