Growing Up Gay in the South

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader, responding to our earlier note about teen love at a county fair in North Carolina, recalls his experience growing up gay in small-town Kentucky:

My memories aren’t as traumatic as others’, but similar I assume. I am in my mid 40s, a white male from a small town (3,500—the county seat and biggest town!) in a small county (14,000 or so) in western Kentucky. The county is more or less evenly divided, due to quirks in settlement and history, between Roman Catholics and Protestants.

Growing up Catholic, I realized that my affections for other boys wasn’t a thing to flaunt or act upon.

In that small town, I lived in an insular neighborhood. Somewhat cut off from the rest of town, we kids just kind of kept to ourselves. The neighborhood was full of kids back then. My parents still live there, and I visit frequently.

While the concept of “love” was something I never really considered (though I did the usual thing and dated girls—disastrously), I found that some elements of sex were not all the difficult. Indeed, I had trysts, of a sort, with at least two friends from that neighborhood. Nothing too serious, but a bit of a lifeline in a way, I guess. Both were and are self-identifying hetero men, and both are now married and have kids. I was in the wedding of one, and we’re still friends when I go home to visit.

I had the usual problems, however. I am sure I was “suspect” by virtue of not having a regular girlfriend and the like. I am sure I was part of a particular whisper campaign, to the extent people cared to talk about my situation. I dated a woman semi-seriously and broke up with her when I realized I was seeking other things. I enjoyed the relationships I had with women but realized it wasn’t enough or whatever.

Looking back, the “keep your head down and no one will notice” type of behavior I engaged in probably had little effect. When my sexuality came to a head among my friends years ago, nearly to a man they all said, “We knew all along and don’t care.”

That may be because I have cultivated a quiet, NOT-in-your-face gay lifestyle—partly, I guess, as a defensive mechanism left over from being young in “that place” and partly because I know what I like and like what I know. I am more comfortable watching college basketball with the gang than marching in gay pride parades, etc. … you know, being what most people consider “normal,” I guess. As others have said, "Being gay is only a small part of who I am,” and I no less want to be questioned on who I sleep with or SLEPT with than any other person.

My family, however, is a different matter. My brother and sister-in-law kinda know I’m gay. I suspect my parents aren’t stupid, but we kind of let it lay there. Still, it’d be nice to not have to dance around things. But I just can’t picture ever really saying the words. Middle-child syndrome means keeping the peace, conflict avoidance, etc.

I personally didn’t find it strange that no gay couples were included in the video you featured. I didn’t know where this county fair was, but it looked similar to the one my county in Kentucky still holds each year in June. It’d take very strong kids to walk around a place like that (small town North Carolina) displaying affection as openly as the straight kids you profiled. It would require equally “cool” parents and equally “cool and understanding” citizens in general.  

But that’s just my opinion. I can see an unspoken suppression of that kind of thing in small towns like ours. It’s not hostility per se—we KNOW gay people exist and live among us even—but it’s just a “don't make us see it” and “deal with it" attitude.

If you have any notable memories about growing up in the South as a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender teen, let us know.