This week, Cindy Hyde Smith was elected to office in Mississippi, even though she made statements about attending public hangings and voter suppression. In response, I'm seeing a lot of folks on the internet call for a Mississippi boycott. Here are my thoughts on that issue. Let's take a pause and consider what that would really mean and what we can see from the election results. For instance, what if the rest of the world decided to boycott the United States after the last presidential election? Would that be fair to those of us who voted differently?
As someone who lived in Mississippi for a few years (1995-1999) and who went to graduate school and earned a doctorate degree from the University of Southern Mississippi, I ask folks to be more thoughtful in their response. Those who depend on service jobs the most likely are not the ones who voted for CHS. In addition, there are many people in the state working to make things better--including those who are students, grad students, and faculty at my alma mater.
As one commenter on a post-election Intelligencer article "Black Mississippi deserves better" commented, looking at the results tells us something important: With a 38% black population and 46% of the vote for Espy, it is clear that many white voters did, indeed, vote for Espy.
When I first moved to Mississippi in 1995, I experienced deep culture shock. As an Arkansan, I didn't expect it. But I stopped for gas and a pee break in Meridian and an older black man excused himself as he passed me in the parking lot, apologizing for simply existing in the same space I was in, basically. His eyes were down and he had a good thirty years on me at the time, yet here he was making sure I felt comfortable in the parking lot of a gas station. Why should an older man have to defer to me, especially when he lived in a town whose demographics were more than 60% African American? Once in the largely protective bubble of graduate school in Hattiesburg, I was reminded of how segregated things were by little things like how friends who rented houses across the train tracks couldn't get pizza delivered to them because the delivery guys wouldn't go past the Big Star grocery store.
On that boundary represented by the Big Star and the tracks, though, you might find Lollipop and Bootenanny, men who often were decked out in their own brand of drag. Yet the fear of Mississippi is such that when the Lesbian Avengers came through town in the 1990s, they assumed that they were in danger from a lone black man in the grocery store who touched one of them on the arm:
Right off the thruway exit at Hattiesburg, we've stopped at Big Star Foods, a supermarket on Main Street. Part of the reason for the pit stop is to remove the banners from the vans; . . .But we also want to bring goceries. . .However, as we lounge out in the parking lot, the Tank comes barreling out of the market in hysterics . . .What actually happened, as finally revealed at a processing session next morning at Camp Sisterspirit [sic]: A black guy walked up to the Tank in the market, clapped a hand on her upper arm, and said, with what she described as ''a kind of lisp," some thing "that sounded like 'sister.'" While the fellow could have been the town's one black faggot** expressing support, she figured he meant "Camp Sisterspirit," the lisp was fake, and he was being hostile.
--From The Girls Next Door: Into the heart of lesbian America.
I wonder if the person they encountered was simply showing solidarity and identifying himself as part of their larger tribe. While I understand they were on high alert, it's quite possible they missed an opportunity to bond with someone who considered them sisters. What might have happened if instead of running away from that one person in the Big Star, the Avengers had stopped and listened for a moment?
What if we stop for a minute and consider listening to those in Mississippi who don't support Cindy Hyde Smith? What if we listen to Mike Espy and celebrate his vision, rather than falling into a depression about what Cindy Hyde Smith represents?
The Lesbian Avengers were headed to Ovett, Mississippi to Camp Sister Spirit. The camp is long gone some 20+ years later, but it's important to remember they were there before and there are still folks who are fighting to make things different in Mississippi.
We can only make a difference if we're willing to stay and fight for what we know is right--that's true no matter where you live. Running away or boycotting a state isn't what brings change.
In honor of Mississippians who are trying to make a difference, I offer this challenge: Instead of boycotting the state, show some love and support for organizations like:
Let's flip the script and start by listening to Mike Espy. He noted in his concession speech that he ran a historic campaign and his defeat this week was not the end. While I'm saddened that he didn't win, I am hopeful that his campaign's success will lead to more folks standing up against the old guard and old perspectives. If those of us on the outside don't keep cheering those in Mississippi on to stand up and make change how can we expect any change to happen?
**The use of the word "faggot" here certainly indicates a division between the Lesbian Avengers and gay males and trans folk that is likely connected to TERFism now. I want to make clear, as the video I embedded does, and as the later narrative about Camp Sister Spirit in the book does that the Hansens were not exclusionary. When asked about how their son got on at the Camp, Brenda indicated he did real well. Their attorney was a conservative Republican male. And they did a lot of work to help men with HIV.