Opening Spaces: On Tolerance and the Possibility for Love

Emory University
Published February 24, 2014
Eric Solomon
Emory University

"I'm tired of these categories." —Patricia Yaeger1

In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, who received a PhD in economics from Harvard University, asks, "How many American men are gay?" While this question is notoriously difficult to answer in any definitive way, and though he uses non-"ideal" sources such as "surveys, social networks, pornographic searches, and dating sites" to compile "evidence" on the "number of gay men" in this country, Stephens-Davidowitz still finds a "consistent story" that suggests at least 5 percent of American men are "predominately" attracted to other men. Millions of these "gay men," he goes on to say, still live in the closet, and many, the "evidence suggests," are married to women.2

The attempt to statistically classify and pinpoint the number of "gay" men "in our midst" is nothing new. Unveiling and unmasking our identities so that we can be categorized, numbered, and made intelligible forms part of what Michel Foucault, in his History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge, called the "deployment of sexuality."3 The "truth" of sex for Foucault is not found in individual identity; instead he insists that we must develop an "analytics" that views power as diffuse and capillary, refusing the perhaps too-easy notion that a power over sex can be wielded via a conquering "liberation" or dominating "affirmation" of one's own knowable, classifiable sexuality.4

Participants march in the 2009 Memphis, Tennessee gay pride parade. Photograph by Debbie Ramone. Courtesy of Debbie Ramone.
Participants march in the 2009 Memphis, Tennessee gay pride parade. Photograph by Debbie Ramone. Courtesy of Debbie Ramone.

Stephens-Davidowitz's Times opinion piece (and the larger work it suggests) explicitly places sexuality within this framework of exposure, intelligibility, and liberation that Foucault problematized. Stephens-Davidowitz returns us to the closet so that we may link hands with those who experience a "secret suffering" that "can be directly attributed to intolerance of [their] homosexuality" and walk with them into more tolerant climes and locales.5 The majority of these "secret" sufferers live in intolerant states, which according to Nate Silver, nearly all fall neatly below the Mason-Dixon line. The bottom six states, the "least tolerant," in descending order, are South Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi. Of the twenty-three states listed as above the national average of "tolerance," not one is in the South.6 In more tolerant states, "the openly gay population is dramatically higher." Yet, these "less tolerant states" or "intolerant areas" prevent what Stephens-Davidowitz finds implicitly possible: a "perfectly tolerant world" in which a neat 5 percent of men could say they are "interested in men," which of course is different from saying they openly identify as "gay." Stephens-Davidowitz finds no reason to believe there are fewer gay-inclined men in less tolerant states, but there are "far fewer openly gay men," and therefore, "there is a clear relationship between tolerance and openness" about one's sexuality.7

Stephens-Davidowitz buys into a narrative with a history. Mississippi has long been described with an array of debasing superlatives, consistently occupying the proverbial bottom rung of the ladder in our national obsession with rankings. Writing in 1931, H. L. Mencken and Charles Angoff labeled Mississippi the "worst" American state; in 2014, Politico writer Margaret Slattery echoed this line of thought, implicitly labeling Mississippi both the "worst" and the "weakest" state in her ranking of the fifty US states from weakest to strongest. (Slattery even gives us a formula: "1 = Best.").8 The strongest state, Massachusetts, is ironically the most "fabulous" state, while Mississippi, most intolerant, is far from fabulous; it is, Slattery writes, a "failed" state. According to both Silver and Stephens-Davidowitz, Mississippi has failed the tolerance test; it is the most intolerant, the least fabulous, and therefore the most "closed." Despite a recent Daily Show segment, in which an incognito gay couple elicited surprisingly tolerant and enthusiastic (some might even say fabulous) reactions from some Alabama and Mississippi residents, Deep South states like Mississippi continue to be figured as containing the most occupied closets with doors shut.9

Screenshot from The Daily Show segment "Last Gay Standing," 2013.
Screenshot from The Daily Show segment "Last Gay Standing," 2013.

Nowhere is this association of Mississippi with intolerance more problematic than the final turn of Stephens-Davidowitz's piece, when he "get[s] tired of looking at aggregate data" and talks with a real person, an unnamed retired Mississippi professor in his sixties who "has always known he was attracted to men" but has remained in a sexless marriage to a woman for forty years. This professor, however, did at least once sleep with a male student of his in his late twenties.10 The assumption Stephens-Davidowitz makes here is that this sixty-year-old man cannot live his life openly because he is trapped in a place of intolerance. Place becomes the diagnosed pathology. In his attempt to classify and order gay men, he fails to analyze the fact that place is only one factor in the power grid that determines what is tolerated and what is not: in his neat map of the United States's tolerance, where is an analysis or mention of gender dynamics, age and generational differences, race, class, educational and healthcare disparities, and, perhaps most glaringly, religious beliefs? Where is a discussion of intersectionality? Stephens-Davidowitz's final scene leaves one very strong desire unexamined: what of the student in his late twenties in Mississippi who slept with his older professor? Does he feel trapped in his Mississippi-closet?

To open our eyes to the realities of Mississippi beyond "aggregate data" and shed some light on that twenty-year-old gay man's reality, let us return to the University. On October 1, 2013, a University of Mississippi performance of Moisés Kaufman's The Laramie Project 11 garnered national attention when unidentified audience members uttered homophobic comments. Originally exposed in the university's Daily Mississippian, national media outlets picked up the story as another example of Mississippi's intolerance. As an alumnus of the university, I can attest that Meek Auditorium, where the performance took place, is a small and intimate space—seating only 150—in which hate-speech would reverberate loudly. The actions of those audience members are inexcusable, but are they indicative of Mississippi's peculiar intolerance of homosexuality or a microcosmic snapshot of our national discomfort in directly facing the harsh realities of hate? Does such an example make Mississippi the most backward, the absolute worst?

Stop the Hate. Bedsheet Angels march in the 2013 Atlanta Gay Pride Parade. Photograph by Nick Mickolas. Courtesy of Nick Mickolas.
Stop the Hate. Bedsheet Angels march in the 2013 Atlanta Gay Pride Parade. Photograph by Nick Mickolas. Courtesy of Nick Mickolas.

Here, the University of Mississippi once again comes to serve as the testing site for our national struggle to understand the complexities of hate, the different shapes of violence, and the challenges we face as a nation continuously confronted with difference. On October 1, 1962, James Meredith became the first African American student at the University of Mississippi. Chaos ensued. On October 1, 2013, the Ole Miss Theatre company performed The Laramie Project. Chaos ensued. Although the physical violence and loss of life associated with James Meredith's integration of the university during the height of the civil rights movement and the verbal violence associated with the recent Laramie performance are not to be equated, both events provoke reflective questions we must ask ourselves: in fifty one years, to the day, what has changed at the University of Mississippi? And more importantly, what has changed in how we, as a nation, think about difference and the ugly truths a hatred of difference can manifest?12 (The recent defilement and attack of a campus statue memorializing James Meredith's legacy at the university demands that such questions be discussed. Here again, the University of Mississippi serves, according to a recent New York Times article, as a testing site for "confronting a challenge with deep and difficult roots.")13

The Laramie Project and the wider story of Matthew Shepard's murder are often seen as convenient stories, neat narratives, in the teaching of prejudice and tolerance. However, Shepard's is but one of the many stories of gruesome homophobic violence in this country. All of these stories—even Matthew Shepard's—contain "raw and inchoate stuff that resists easy telling" and lack "clear beginnings and resonant endings."14 In the US South alone—those states defined as the least tolerant—a number of horrific murders attributed to LGBTQ-related hate have occurred in the last thirty years.15 Lost in attempts to locate and label sexuality, thereby freeing people from their uncomfortable closets, many are unaware of stories like these, in which LGBTQ people led open lives in the South and succumbed to hate-violence. Yet, such violence and "intolerance" are far from exclusively southern, despite what Stephens-Davidowitz's non-"ideal" sources revealed. Stephens-Davidowitz admits that intolerance is a national problem with a higher prevalence in southern states, yet his overarching narrative is another link in the chain of pathologizing southern space via flawed statistical aggregation. If we tolerate the received narrative of southern space, we neither think critically nor do justice to the stories of real people outside of often biased and imperfect data.

Stage set for Lafayette College's 2011 Production of The Laramie Project. Photograph by Chuck Zovko and Lafayette College. Courtesy of Chuck Zovko and Lafayette College.
Stage set for Lafayette College's 2011 Production of The Laramie Project. Photograph by Chuck Zovko and Lafayette College. Courtesy of Chuck Zovko and Lafayette College.

In 2012, according to a report from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP), the most at risk LGBTQ populations remained transgendered persons, people of color, and gay men. Stephens-Davidowitz confines his study to "gay men," without any mention of race or gender-identification. Gay cisgender men remain the most likely to report acts of violence they have survived. As such, a 2011 FBI report indicates that of the 20.8 percent of hate crimes based on sexual orientation, 57.8 percent of those reported were classified as anti-male homosexual bias.16 The NCAVP report reiterates the 2012 UCLA Williams Institute findings that "gay men experienced higher rates of hate motivated physical violence than lesbians, bisexuals, or other federally protected groups including Black people and Jewish people."17 According to the NCAVP report, of the twenty-five reported hate violence homicides related to LGBTQ identity in 2012, only one occurred in the "deep" South: Marquita Jones was murdered near Memphis, Tennessee, the tenth most intolerant state in the country according to Silver and Stephens-Davidowitz.

Shifting the narrative requires an understanding that for every Duck Dynasty, there is a Southern Poverty Law Center, a Rethink Mississippi; for every Phil Robertson, a Jesse Peel. Hate and intolerance are neither tied to place, rooted in the soil, unyielding and unchanging, nor are they manifested solely via physical violence. We must remain aware of the complexities of prejudice's functionality: how it "works not just through the viciousness of physical violence but also through the daily erosion of selfhood by the friction of widespread, casually expressed hatred."18 The casually uttered "faggot" or "queen" or "queer" in response to a dramatic production has consequences that resonate beyond the walls of Meek Auditorium at the University of Mississippi. In isolating Mississippi, and the larger US South, as the least tolerant, we put the South on stage to be disciplined and punished. How easy it was for the Mississippi audience to isolate Matthew Shepard on a stage and re-victimize him with a slur.

ATL, Love, graffiti in Atlanta, Georgia's Krog Street Tunnel, February 17, 2014. Photograph by Eric Solomon. From Eric Solomon.
ATL, Love, graffiti in Atlanta, Georgia's Krog Street Tunnel, February 17, 2014. Photograph by Eric Solomon. From Eric Solomon.

How easy it must seem for scholars and thinkers to look at data and isolate the South as the land of intolerance: how easy it is to label the worst, the weakest, the most backward. The harder but necessary challenge is to understand and help prevent the diffuse and far-reaching consequences of homophobic violence and intolerance. The harder work is to take the lessons learned from The Laramie Project inside Meek Auditorium into Oxford, Mississippi and the world at large. To paraphrase a great man, the harder work is to understand that people aren't born hating and can learn to love.

  • 1. Patricia Yaeger, Dirt and Desire: Reconstructing Southern Women's Writing, 1930–1990 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), ix.
  • 2. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, "How Many American Men are Gay?," The New York Times, December 7, 2013, accessed December 9, 2013,
  • 3. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume One: An Introduction (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 78. The book's title is often translated as "Volume One: An Introduction."
  • 4. Ibid., 8, 82–83.
  • 5. Stephens-Davidowitz, "How Many American Men Are Gay?"
  • 6. Nate Silver, "How Opinion on Same-Sex Marriage Is Changing, and What It Means," The New York Times: FiveThirtyEight blog, March 26, 2013, accessed December 9, 2013,
  • 7. Stephens-Davidowitz, "How Many American Men Are Gay?"
  • 8. Margaret Slattery, "The States of Our Union ... Are Not All Strong: We Ranked All 50 from Fabulous to Failed," Politico Magazine, January 24, 2014, accessed February 3, 2014,
  • 9. Madison Underwood, "In Alabama-Mississippi 'Intolerance-off,' The Daily Show Tests Reactions to a Gay Couple, Gets Surprising Reaction (Video, Poll),", October 30, 2013, accessed February 20, 2014,
  • 10. Stephens-Davidowitz, "How Many American Men Are Gay?"
  • 11. Kaufman's play, written in collaboration with the Tectonic Theater Project, details reaction to Matthew Shepard's 1998 brutal murder in Laramie, Wyoming. Combining personal interviews with town residents, journals of the theater company's members as they engaged in these interviews, and media coverage, Laramie creates a complicated portrait of how a town responds to violence, hatred, and loss.
  • 12. Legislatively, some things have changed while some remain the same. As Christopher Lirette noted in an August 6 bulletin on the Southern Spaces Blog, since 2011 Baton Rouge police have unlawfully arrested at least a dozen men based upon a still-on-the-books state level sodomy law that was ruled federally unconstitutional with 2003's Lawrence v. Texas. In 2003, eight of the fourteen US states with anti-sodomy laws still on the books were in the South. Baton Rouge reveals the everyday slipperiness of archaic sodomy laws. Similarly, although the 2009 Shepard-Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act became the first all-inclusive federal bill, most southern states still do not include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected identity categories in hate crime legislation.
  • 13. Alan Blinder, "Racist Episodes Continue to Stir Ole Miss Campus," The New York Times, February 20, 2014, accessed February 22, 2014,
  • 14. Beth Lofredda, Losing Matt Shepard: Life and Politics in the Aftermath of Anti-Gay Murder (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), x.
  • 15. Some of these deaths include the 1973 UpStairs Lounge attack; the bludgeoning of Billy Jack Gaither; Scotty Joe Weaver's partial decapitation; Sean W. Kennedy's beating; the murders of Marcel Tye, Duanna Johnson, Tiffany Berry, Ebony Whitaker, Brenting Dolliole, Githe Goines, and Marquita Jones; and lastly, the beating and burning of Marco McMillan in 2013. The stories of these murders, all occurring on southern soil, are indeed horrific, but they remain a few of the raw seams to a larger narrative of hate-based crimes in this country; they are painful examples, but far from representative of a particularly southern problem or the array of hate-based crimes that occur every year. For more information on hate crimes legislation, state by state, visit Lambda Legal, Human Rights Campaign, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. For information on LGBT rights in the US South and Hate and Extremism nationwide, visit the Southern Poverty Law Center. In addition, visit Robert T. Gonzalez, "An Interactive Map of Racist, Homophobic and Ableist Tweets in America," io9, May 10, 2013, to view the 2013 "geography of hate" map, in which hate's spatiality seems divided along an East–West line rather than a North–South one.
  • 16. "Hate Crimes Statistics 2011: Incidents and Offenses," FBI, 2011,
  • 17. Shelby Chestnut, Ejeris Dixon, and Chai Jindasurat, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and HIV-Affected Hate Violence in 2012 (New York: National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 2013), 51,
  • 18. Lofredda, Losing Matt Shepard, x.
Cover Image Attribution: 
Participants march in the 2009 Memphis, Tennessee gay pride parade. Photograph by Debbie Ramone. Courtesy of Debbie Ramone.

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