On Tuesday, North Carolina put basic human dignity and equality up for a ballot referendum. By 61 percent, voters decided to amend their constitution to ban same-sex marriages and civil unions. Among other things, the new amendment may prevent gay couples from visiting one another in the hospital, inheriting from one another, and having a say in one another’s end-of-life decisions.
What surprised me was how quickly the justifiable outrage of many on the left turned to self-righteous condemnation of an entire state and culture. This was perhaps nowhere more noticeable than on my Twitter feed. Populated almost exclusively with leftists, it quickly degraded into bitter quips about how a state that allowed incest can possibly have a problem with gay marriage.
It is true that first-cousin marriage is legal in North Carolina—a fact several friends pointed out indignantly when I accused them of playing to southern stereotypes. Here’s the problem: It’s also true that California allows first cousins to marry—more types of first cousins, in fact, that North Carolina does. But when Prop 8 passed, no one even thought to look that up. In fact, 25 states allow cousins to marry. North Carolina was singled out, despite the fact that anti-gay amendments have passed in all 31 states in which they’ve been considered.
Here’s the other problem: To talk about incest in North Carolina is necessarily to talk about the idea that southerners are backward and inbred. A lot of my friends missed that point, intentionally or not. It’s like someone going on about welfare queens then, when they’re accused of racism, proclaiming that surely someone on welfare doesn’t want to work. Well, yes, obviously. But we all know what they really mean.
Like all stereotypes, ones about the South have consequences that reach beyond hurt feelings. For decades, accusations of inbreeding and miscegenation were fodder for eugenicists, who claimed that poor rural whites, minorities, and immigrants had “inferior blood.”
Ironically, the results were felt hardest in North Carolina. In 1929, the state legislature passed one of the nation’s most aggressive forced sterilizations laws. By the time the state ended the practice in 1977, some 7,600 people had been sterilized against their will. Forty percent of victims were minorities, and 85 percent were women, but poor people in general bore most of the burden; the program specifically targeted large, poor families and welfare recipients. Victims are still awaiting restitution, which a state committee has recommended be set at $50 thousand each.
Even today, the South and Appalachia are among the most economically depressed areas in the country—for men and women, blacks and whites. The poorest US states are all in the Southeast or the Southwest, with the exception of Oklahoma. Eight of the ten states with the highest infant mortality rate are in the South, as well. (Delaware—a former slave state—and Ohio are the two outliers.) And Mississippi consistently has some of the worst quality-of-life indicators in the country.
In her brilliant essay “There Is No Hierarchy of Oppressions,” Audre Lorde writes,
Any attack against Black people is a lesbian and gay issue, because I and thousands of other Black women are part of the lesbian community. Any attack against lesbians and gays is a Black issue, because thousands of lesbians and gay men are Black. There is no hierarchy of oppression.
That’s the most frustrating thing about my friends’ reaction to Amendment One. Their comments didn’t serve to point out North Carolina’s hypocrisy; they were a cheap shot, aimed not just at the purveyors of hate and intolerance in North Carolina, but at the state as a whole.
Back in 2006 I canvassed door-to-door against Georgia’s anti-gay constitutional amendment. I can still remember the look of disgust that came across one man’s face when he realized I might be gay. A lot of people in North Carolina—gay and straight, men and women, black and white—who fought tooth-and-nail against Amendment One have endured that same look day in and day out over these past few months just for being who they are. They don’t deserve to get it again just because of where they live.