Broad Brushstrokes, Narrow Minds: A Southern Homecoming of a Jewish, Queer, Activist
By Binyamina “Benji” Baker
I am a Jewish Texan lesbian currently living in Chicago, Illinois, United States. The winters are brutal. The summers are gorgeous, but short. The public transit is excellent, but oftentimes crowded and suffocating. The brownstone apartments are charming, but the rent is high. But the worst parts about living up north and in a "blue" state and city is the disdain people seem to have for my home.
As soon as I mention that I am from Texas and that I am Queer and Jewish, I immediately get 'tsks' and head shakes and signs of pity that imply that I certainly upgraded moving to a more "enlightened" part of the country.
In the United States, there is a division of "red" states - where conservative Republicans hold political power - and "blue" states - where liberal (but not always progressive) Democrats hold political power. Urban areas in red states are almost always "blue" oasis in a sea of red. But despite this, they're often ignored by both their Republican state governments and by other blue Democrat states and populations.
Yes, Chicago is a melting pot of diversity, especially in my beloved area of Rogers Park (over 80 languages spoken by its population of over 55,000 according to a 2017 report done by the Rogers Park Business Association). Yes, I can go from a string of authentic taco joints on Clark Street, down Devon Street through Little India, pass through mingling halal and kosher grocers and food joints, and end up in the charming shtetl of Lincolnwood. Here I can worry a little bit less about being shunned for holding a woman's hand in public, or being degraded for wearing my Magen David necklace. Yes, Chicago and other blue cities boast progressive policies, majority Democratic officials, and other attributes that white American liberals value.
But I do not feel any better about politics here than I do in my "progressive" hometown of Austin, Texas. Chicago and other blue cities are still plagued by our country's overarching systems of oppression: police brutality, socio-economic inequality, environmental damage, to name a few.
To say that only expensive major cities are safe for marginalized groups is classist, elitist, and completely ignores the hard work and activism done by marginalized groups throughout the South and in rural areas through the country.
So let's rewind back to my work with the Wendy Davis gubernatorial campaign in Texas in 2014 and my ongoing work with Planned Parenthood and Whole Women's Health of Central Texas while I lived in Austin. It was brutal, to say the least. Being a progressive activist in a red state felt like pushing a boulder uphill most of the time. It was exhausting. And checking with my activist friends still in Texas confirms that it is still incredibly difficult. But where is our help from the more "enlightened" parts of the country? Where is the recognition?
"The South is so backwards. It's a bunch of white racist hicks. It must've been so hard being queer and Jewish in the South." This was told to me at a Palestinian-Israeli peace rally last year in Chicago. "I don't want to go there, it's too dangerous."
"You don't feel just as unsafe in a city with one of the most corrupt police forces in the country?" I asked in return. They shrugged. Perhaps, I thought, this is why we have no help outside of the South. It's certainly not the first time I've heard such sentiments.
In late April, a synagogue was attacked during service on the last day of Passover. Not in a rural Texas town, but in San Diego. Exactly six months before that, an even more violent antisemitic attack killed eleven Jewish worshippers in Pittsburgh. Yes, these are locations that have large Jewish populations already, but if antisemitic sentiments exist in "progressive" cities, is anywhere in this country truly safe?
Eric Garner, a black man, was murdered by police for selling cigarettes on the street not in Selma, Alabama, but in New York City. Portland, Oregon - perceived as a progressive hipster's paradise - has seen a spike in white supremacist activity.
Did you ever stop to think about the thousands of people of color who call the south home? The people who have been displaced from their countries of origin and had no choice but to seek refuge in southern cities where they could find work? Did you know that Houston, Texas, had an openly lesbian mayor, Annise Parker, well before Chicago's recently elected Lori Lightfoot? Did you know that tiny Eureka Springs, Arkansas, has a thriving queer population? Have you learned about Atlanta's talented black arts community?
Go ask any southern person of color why they live where they do- it is probably because their family is surrounding them, their history is surrounding them, and the work that they do is needed in their communities. They have historical ties to the land thanks to enslavement, migrant farming, and generational socio-economic setbacks that keep them in cheaper areas and out of an expensive New York City apartment.
Southern states need to catch up with the times. But so do coastal states, northern states, Midwestern states, and western states. The United States ranks poorly in gender equality, racial equality, and religious equality, to name a few items. The hate given towards red states may be directed at the white conservatives in power, but that ignorance hurts progressive southern activists even more. It's this liberal elitism that further divides rural communities and urban communities, white communities and black and brown communities, Christians and non-Christians.
Running away to a blue city in a blue state won't help those who choose to stay or are forced to remain in red states.
I am moving back home to Texas. I miss the heat, the rolling grasslands, the cultural reverence towards Selena Quintanilla and Willie Nelson. I miss Tex-Mex cuisine. I miss my family. And my activism, my queerness, and my Jewishness will be just as relevant to progressing politics in the South as they would be in Chicago. In fact, it may even be much more needed.