What it’s Like to Be a Gay Teen in Tennessee
Growing up in the South is hard if you’re even the tiniest bit unique.
When going to church is life, and conservatism leaks into every aspect of your being, coming out as gay is basically social suicide. Especially in schools where kids share their parents’ conservative views, it can be really difficult for anyone who’s LGBTQ.
Ashleigh Conrad grew up in the same town as me: Clarksville, Tennessee (full disclosure: Ashleigh is dating my sister). It’s a decently large city outside Nashville that only has the large population it does because of the close military base. That, combined with the natives who have never left Tennessee, brews a homophobic cess pool.
When Ashleigh was a junior, she confided in her best friend about the feelings she was having towards girls. She was even dating a guy at the time to cover it up. Long story short: she and her BFF ended up kissing, and in no time at all, the entire school found out about it after her friend spread the word. She was ostracized and lost her best friend because of the rumors.
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Then, she was officially outed by her parents during her senior year.
“My parents found a Tumblr I had, that had some incriminating stuff on it,” Ashleigh said. “I don’t even know how it happened. My dad didn’t actually tell me how he found it, he told me he got an anonymous tip.”
And her parents were far from accepting. In fact, she still doesn’t talk to her dad.
“He didn’t like it at all whatsoever, and was kind of hostile,” Ashleigh said.
Her mom is still coming around to the idea, but she doesn’t want to talk to Ashleigh about it. Avoiding the conversation entirely made it hard at home. Even though school was less hostile, the tension with her family still caused a lot of problems, especially because her conservative parents avidly went to church.
“I was never forced to go [to church],” she said. “I had an option, and I wanted to go when I was younger. But then when I started figuring out who I was, and realized I was having feelings for these girls I went to church with, I freaked out.”
Plus, she just wasn’t that into the church thing to begin with.
“It was so preachy, you know the typical line: the bible says, ‘Marriage is between a man and a woman,'” she said. “It just made me so uncomfortable. My mom still asks me when I go home if I want to go with her to church. I’ll always say no just because I feel like I might burst into flames.”
So she stopped going. I’m not sure many people are aware of how church in the South is basically your social life. The popular kids in high school were all in YoungLife, a Christian organization that held weekly meetings and sponsored mission trips. It operated like a cult, and if you got to go on one of their trips, you were basically guaranteed some sort of status in school.
“I was acquaintances with people who went to YoungLife,” she said, “but I was never great friends with them. After I came out, I mean my group of friends changed, not because of that though, but the drama that went along with it. Anybody that I told to their faces was really supportive to people within my age range.”
She is now a freshman at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, which she says is better than being in Clarksville. But still, the college is in Tennessee, and Ashleigh said it’s not completely accepting.
“I have seen some shit,” she said. “One party I was at, the fraternity kicked a guy out because he was gay.”
But because Ashleigh doesn’t look like the way people expect a queer woman to look, it takes some convincing for people to believe her. Lesbians are stereotyped to look butch and unfeminine, but Ashleigh doesn’t look that way — so she hears a lot of ignorance.
“Some people don’t believe me at first, like guys especially don’t believe me at first,” she said. “They’re always like, ‘You’re just fucking with me, you just don’t want to date me.'”
Typical guys, always making it about themselves. Ashleigh refuses to compromise her own sense of style to match other people’s definition of what it means to be gay.
“Am I supposed to walk around with boy-short hair and guys clothes with saggy pants and just dress like a macho man?” she said. “Like, you don’t have to do that to be gay. There’s no ‘looking gay.’ Sometimes people just don’t believe me and I do end up having to whip out a picture, like here’s a picture of me and my girlfriend, and they’ll be like no, that’s just you and your best friend. And then I scroll and show them a picture of us kissing. Like is that enough proof?”
Ashleigh said it gets really uncomfortable sometimes. “People just stare at me and I know that it’s processing in their heads. I can tell that they are trying to detect the gay,” she said.
Plus, straight girls say some incredibly stupid things to her about it.
“People in high school used to tease me after I told them. They’d say, ‘Alright, well, don’t fall in love with me!’ And I’m like, ‘Okay, I won’t,'” Ashleigh said. “One girl was like, ‘What, am I not pretty enough? Do you not think I’m attractive at all?’ Like, no, I’m sorry, I am not attracted to you. They’ll say ‘don’t fall in love with me,’ but are so offended when I don’t find them attractive.”
And that’s the kind of double standard people who don’t know any better will hold Ashleigh and every other femme lesbian to.
That’s what makes growing up in a conservative community like the small-town South so hard though: people don’t take LGBT people seriously. If their friends aren’t shunning them, they’re using them as a mirror and asking them how they look.
Things have changed though. Thanks to the legalization of gay marriage, more people in Tennessee have become accepting of these differences. But homophobia still exists, and there’s still a lot of work to do.