I come from the land of Duck Dynasty.
Not the same city, exactly, but the same idea – the same roots. I grew up in South Louisiana, but my mother’s roots were planted in the same ground as Miss Kay Robertson, the matriarch of the bearded boys who rake in dollars for A&E. Miss Kay’s family ran a store in the tiny town where my grandparents’ parents ran farms and (*sigh*) plantations. My mother went to college in Monroe, LA and my grandparents taught in the North Louisiana school system their entire lives.
I have the stamp of the Deep White Shameful South all over me, is what I’m saying. And while I have never shaken the hand of a Robertson, I might as well be a family member. My mom’s cousins (whom I call my aunts, because it’s the South and everyone’s your aunt) are all big breasted laughing crying praying women who love their children and rule their kitchens. My cousins fish the lakes, grow out their scraggly beards, and run just short of trouble most of the time. They hunt with Robertson duck calls. They have babies and take those babies to church. They tease me for being the egghead with the academic father who moved us to the city and forgot how to fish. They pray faithfully to the pastel Jesus in the paintings, the one from Sunday school, the one who expects you to show up to service two days a week with your shoes shined and the dirt washed off your mouth.
The one who would turn me out of his heart and his house for being gay. That pastel Jesus.
When that show first came on the air, I watched it. I admit it. I watched every second of it with relish, missing the place I came from. I watched and dreamed of being in a kitchen with my big-breasted great aunts, the ones who tried (and failed) to teach me to cook. I imagined what it must be like to belong to the club, to go out into the woods with the men and wait and wait and wait for an unsuspecting animal to saunter by. I imagined how life might have been different if I hadn’t been afraid of bugs in the woods, hadn’t cried every time my cousins brought home a dead buck. I even imagined, for a moment, what it must be like to sit around a dinner table and say Grace before a meal, to think you’ve felt the power of God Himself blessing your family.
And then Phil Robertson opened up to the press and confirmed what I’d always known: that membership in the club requires credentials I did not possess.
I won’t go into specifics about the things he said – partly because I don’t want to revisit them, partly because I don’t want to visit them upon anyone else, but mostly because they don’t deserve the validation of repetition. Suffice it to say, he made clear his disdain for queer people (although that isn’t the word he used), and even more clear his hatred for people of color (again, not the word he used). He expressed nostalgia for the days of sharecropping. He called upon religion to support his ideals.
When Robertson said these things to the press, there were two reactions: resigned outrage from one side, exultant cheering from the other. A portion of the American public (the same portion that now holds Donald Trump aloft on their shoulders) congratulated Robertson for “speaking his mind” and being “unafraid” of PC culture. He was their hero. The other portion expressed understandable horror, tinged with a lack of surprise. “He’s an idiot,” people said. “Why is anyone even listening to him?”
The question rang in my ears. “Why is anyone listening to him? Why? Idiot. Why? He’s worthless. Useless. Irrelevant. Why?”
Why? I can tell you why. Because for many of us still living in the South, trying to make it a better place for our queer brothers and sisters, he’s a daily reality. For some of us, he might as well be our family – our uncles, grandfathers, and fathers. There are a lot of things that make being gay in the American South a difficult prospect. Many suffer far more than I have. I have been lucky beyond belief to have accepting parents, accepting colleagues and long-time friends. I will marry my girlfriend in September, and the people to whom I am closest never waver in their support. But I also know, in my heart, that the day I came out was the day that I severed my membership in the club. And every time I hear a progressive commentator dismiss Robertson by saying he isn’t even worth paying attention to, that he’s a useless idiot, I think of the queer kids whose fathers cheered Robertson on. While we ignore and dismiss him, consider him a relic of the old days, he will continue to speak, and his words will continue to hurt.
“Why would anyone watch that show in the first place?” a friend from California posted on Facebook during one of Robertson’s most recent screeds.
“Because it reminds them of home,” I said. “Like it or not.”
Because sometimes home is a complicated place that you miss, even if it may not miss you back.
Because sometimes our fathers and grandfathers are less than what we would like them to be.
Because sometimes we are tired of fighting, and wish we could believe in family and history without complications.
Because sometimes we wish that we could close our eyes, bow our heads, and believe that the people at the dinner table were bound to us by God Himself, and that they could never turn their backs on us.
Because being gay in the South is complicated.