Commentary

Madison County “culture war” is a fight worth having

June 21, 2022 8:00 am
A Pride parade on iconic Beale Street June 4 in Memphis, Tennessee. Gay people and the people who love them came out to celebrate Pride month. (© Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht/Tennessee Lookout)

A Pride parade on iconic Beale Street June 4 in Memphis, Tennessee. Gay people and the people who love them came out to celebrate Pride month. (© Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht/Tennessee Lookout)

Since the beginning of time, relationships between humans have existed in many other forms and fashions other than monogamous, heterosexual affiliations.  Until recently, however, those relationships were not equally recognized from a legal perspective or carried the same weight of acceptance from a broad portion of society.  The strides that have been made over the last 25 years, and especially since 2015 with the advent of marriage equality, have been remarkable.   

With any seismic shift in culture, though, there is always pushback from the opposite side.  We’ve seen that play out in school board meetings across the state in Tennessee when it comes to censorship of books and curriculum that includes same sex relationships or gender identity topics. 

As someone who has only been in monogamous, heterosexual relationship, the censorship of lifestyles and gender preferences has largely been a talking point for me. Coupled with the fact that my hometown of Jackson, Tenn., has not had to deal with any of these censorship topics, I’ve been a concerned observer of the attacks and discriminations of personal lifestyle choices, but nothing more.  

That all changed last week when an LGBTQ Pride display at the Jackson-Madison County Downtown Library caused a stir among local leaders in the Republican Party.

A modest display of books written by LGBTQ authors or from an LGBTQ point of view—no different from Black History Month or President’s Day Displays—prompted a complaint from a Republican county commissioner.

The Pride display in the library is small.  There is an 8 ½ by 11 colored printed sheet of paper on top of a stack of books.  The library has similar displays throughout the year: There is a display for Black History Month in February along with a President’s Day display on the adjacent table.  In July, there are patriotic books on display, and in October there are books about Halloween and other horror literature placed on the show tables.  This year was the first time the library created a space for LGBTQ Pride Month.  

On the table under the flier promoting LGBTQ books and authors there were selections such as “Girls Can Kiss Now”, “Winter’s Orbit”, “Nanette”, and other books written from LGBTQ points of view.  The library also included a foldable information guide to help readers navigate the different topics each book and author offered.  It was a wonderful way to help readers young and old connect to topics they find personally relevant to themselves or loved ones.  

Unfortunately, not everyone in Madison County thought this was appropriate.

County Commissioner Cyndi Bryant, R-District 4, and wife of former GOP State Rep. Ed Bryant, noticed the display and complained that it was inappropriate.  When I reached out to her for more information, she didn’t respond.  The matter was then discussed in a county commission personnel meeting by the chair of the Madison County Commission and certain books were removed, but the display was allowed to remain for the time being.  It will be discussed further at the library board of directors meeting on Wednesday.  

A Pride parade images its way down conic Beale Street on June 4 in Memphis, Tennessee. (© Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht/Tennessee
A Pride parade images its way down conic Beale Street on June 4 in Memphis, Tennessee. (© Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht/Tennessee Lookout)

Whether or not the display is allowed to remain isn’t the issue. The issue at this point is the fact that the display ever became a political concern to begin with. The library is a public space paid for by taxpayer dollars.  Some of those taxpayers are LGBTQ taxpayers.  They deserve representation.  The idea that Commissioner Bryant would use her position to have books taken away from a display or have the display possibly removed is simply an abuse of her power.  

When attempted censorship of this nature occurs, it marginalizes a group of people that deserve to be able to live their lives in ways they desire.  For many people in the LGBTQ community who live in rural West Tennessee, I can imagine that being open about their relationships or their gender identities can be challenging.  When elected representatives feel the need to say LGBTQ books and authors should not be displayed, what message does that send to the LGBTQ community?

Books are places where we all can go to remove ourselves from whatever tension or anxiety we experience in our actual lives.  Books can also be places where we can see reflections of ourselves; where we can relate to characters or stories and then use those as tools to navigate challenging aspects in our own worlds.  I cannot begin to imagine how important that might be for a child who identifies as LGBTQ but has yet to find the voice they need to tell their story.  

The term “culture war” is thrown around a lot and maybe that’s where we are, but I know this is a fight worth having regardless of the political players involved.  Our society as a whole and our community specifically must move beyond the antiquated idea that a lifestyle choice or gender identification is somehow morally wrong.  It’s not.  

What is morally reprehensible, however, is marginalizing a group of people simply because they want to be able to live their lives without moral persecution.  As a citizen of Madison County, I’m deeply embarrassed that some of our leaders believe that we all are not created equal.  As a human being, I’m deeply hurt for my LGBTQ brothers and sisters who have been made to feel less than by people in positions of power.  We can do better.

 

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Gabe Hart
Gabe Hart

Gabe Hart is chief communications officer for Haywood County Schools and a former teacher of English and Literature. He writes a monthly op-ed column for The Jackson Sun as well as feature stories for the quarterly journal, "Our Jackson Home." He also serves on the education committee for the newly formed Jackson Equity Project which seeks to advocate for equity and justice for marginalized, disenfranchised, and oppressed people living in Jackson. Beyond writing and teaching, Gabe enjoys spending time with his fourteen year old daughter, exercising, and listening to music (specifically The National and Jason Isbell.)

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