People march in front of the Governor's Mansion in 2016 protesting HB 1523, the law allowing religious groups and some private businesses to deny services to same-sex couples and transgender people. (File photo: Jeff Amy, Associated Press)

For much of their life, Kyle Simpson, a Perry County resident who identifies as non-binary or as someone who identifies neither as female or male, has felt invisible. 

“I have always been punished for who I am,” said Simpson, who is an aspiring counseling psychologist. “I have spent my life with people telling me that I’m the problem.”

Like Simpson, many people are feeling unaffirmed in Mississippi, where 3.5% of its population identifies as LGBTQ+. Several LGBTQ+ Mississippians responded to Mississippi Today’s NextGen survey and shared their experiences.

Many of the LGBTQ+ residents who spoke with Mississippi Today said they feel connected to Mississippi, but they all expressed a desire for affirmation in the state that sometimes fails to recognize them. Acknowledging their existence, several of them shared, is key to building a more accepting community.

While each respondent’s perspectives varied, several overarching themes emerged: feeling tension between upbringings and finding acceptance in the state, wanting to stay in the state but feeling a lack of community or a lack of resources, and struggling to reckon with harmful policies championed by some of the state’s elected officials.

Simpson acknowledged these problems are not unique to Mississippi but tie into America’s complex history of disenfranchising marginalized groups.

“Change is threatening, but people have to know the truth of the South even though it is a beautiful paradise with great people,” Simpson said, alluding to the long history of the South’s leaders, in particular, passing policies that marginalize certain groups.

Several of the survey’s respondents mentioned policies championed by some of the state’s most powerful elected officials like House Bill 1523 passed in 2016, which is often referred to as the most sweeping anti-gay legislation in the country.

“People feel if they allow other marginalized people to feel valued then they worry their own experiences will be invalidated,” Simpson said. “I don’t want to be treated like a trans person. I’m Kyle Simpson first.”

Derrick Dupuy, a 22-year-old Millsaps College graduate, was early into his fellowship at the Meridian Freedom Summer Project — a program for sixth through twelfth graders designed to foster academic, leadership and professional successes — when he was asked by a young student when he knew that he liked boys.

Dupuy, who teaches arts-integrated Black history with an emphasis on civil rights and Afro-religions, opened up a dialogue that day to be “real” about his sexuality as a gay Black man.

“Masculinity is all about choice, and that’s not something that has been afforded to the Black man or to the Black community,” Dupuy shared. 

Growing up in New Orleans, Dupuy recalled “being bullied for being gay.” But Dupuy’s experience, unlike white LGBTQ+ members, highlights a common aspect that people of color face: increased homophobia and stigmatization.

While Dupuy recalled homophobic and racist experiences at Millsaps College prior to coming out, he said he is ultimately proud of his decision to publicly acknowledge his identity. Dupuy reiterated that affirmation for LGBTQ+ Mississippians begins with people “looking in the mirror” to break the cycle of judgment and fear.

“That’s the beautiful part of being LGBTQ+ is that we’re multidimensional and when we’re given space to flourish, we flourish,” Dupuy said. 

Melanie Walsh, a Mississippi State University researcher who also works with the LGBTQ Fund of Mississippi, has sat on the organization’s grants review committee for two years and has studied the extent of Mississippi’s resources that support organizations aiding LGBTQ+ people.

A lead researcher on the LGBTQ Fund’s statewide needs assessment, Walsh’s research drew in 500 survey participants, conducted focus groups in seven regions of Mississippi, and identified 28 LGBTQ+ organizations in the state.

Walsh knows that even with some resources in the state, LGBTQ+ life in the South can be an isolating experience.

“I think for a lot of youth, it’s hard to see role models in this community,” Walsh said. “There’s a lot of us out there, but the visibility isn’t there.”

While Walsh listed social media and Gay-Straight Alliances as ways for LGBTQ+ Mississippians to connect, she emphasized that safety is a vital factor.

“We always want to make sure safety comes first,” Walsh said. “Being somewhat visible if it’s safe.”

Walsh and several others detailed to Mississippi Today the emotional labor of coming out to oneself and to others.

“When I told my mom, I was actually crying,” Sebastian Prisock, an 18-year-old Madison Central graduate, shared as he referred to his coming out as a trans man in the seventh grade. 

Backed by a supportive mother, Prisock had the opportunity to “openly talk about those things” in his community growing up; however, he attested to experiences that made him feel targeted in school.

“My counselor had seen me literally holding hands with my girlfriend even though there were tons of people doing other things than holding hands. A week later, she called me in and said we can’t be doing that,” Prisock said. 

Prisock’s experience echoed the difference in treatment regarding LGBTQ+ members and heteronormative or straight members, though he said his teachers still respected him “if they were not completely accepting”.

Starting hormone therapy in February of this year, Prisock realized that awareness of LGBTQ+ resources — particularly hormone therapy — in Mississippi is scarce. 

Prisock suggested that the lack of available resources could be attributed to the effects of policymaking like the bill passed in 2021 that bans transgender athletes from competing on girls’ or women’s sports teams.

“Even when people make the smallest bit of change, people will always push back some. But if policies change, then people change,” Prisock said. 

Adam Connor, a University of Mississippi graduate, learned through an experience of not being able to come out on his own terms that it is important to initiate the narrative on his identity. 

“I think that’s a part of why I’m so open today,” Connor said. “I’d rather just tell people things first than have them hear some convoluted story. I just want to be the provider of that piece of information.”

Those “convoluted stories” Connor referred to are micro-aggressions and indirect discrimination against a marginalized group in the workplace, like when he is asked outright “if he is gay” or more subtly asked if he is dating anyone.

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Connor recognized that genuine support can derive from such questions; however, he reiterated that only further misunderstanding is created about LGBTQ+ identities. 

“They’ll ask and they’ll be supportive of it like, ‘Oh, that’s so great. I love gay people. I need a new gay bestie and then we can go shopping and do all the stereotypical stuff together,’” Connor said. 

When same-sex marriage became legalized in Mississippi in 2014, Connor revealed a common stressor for non-marginalized groups: the fear of having their rights stripped away.

“That whole gay marriage debate was messy, and my viewpoints on marriage are messy,” Connor said. “Because of it, I grew up not expecting being able to exercise this right.”

Although not always acknowledged or heard in Mississippi, many LGBTQ+ Mississippians shared a fondness for the state they live in. But they also recognize the challenges of building community here while expressing hope that they would be more broadly accepted in the future.

“It is disrupting the status quo, but it is a necessary disruption,” Walsh said. “It is absolutely imperative that we’re acknowledging our identities.”

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Candace McKenzie, a Raymond native, was Mississippi Today's second Emerging Reporters Fellow. She earned an associate’s degree from Hinds Community College before transferring to Millsaps College. During her time at Millsaps, McKenzie served as editor-in-chief of The Purple and White student newspaper and collaborated with administration, alumni, students, and several others to revive the once non-existent paper to a place of importance on the campus.