By: Shannon Ralph
There is a place in Kentucky where azaleas and dogwood trees line the streets. There is a place in Kentucky that is just small enough to feel homey, while still being large enough to feel on-the-map. A town where the Ohio River flows deep and wide. A town steeped in tradition, with a eye toward the future. A town that has room enough for old fashioned dairy barns and sleek, modern Starbucks. A town where people still sit on their front porches and sip sweet tea and wave at their neighbors as they walk by. Where kids still chase lightning bugs after dark. A town where people say “yes ma’am” and “no, sir” and refer to one another as “honey” and “darlin’”. A town where you can’t make a quick Target run without encountering half a dozen people you know. There is a town in Kentucky where barbecue and Bluegrass reign supreme. Where Friday nights are spent watching bitter high school rivalries played out on the football field. Where Saturday nights are for poker. And Sundays are all about church, mom’s fried chicken, and family. A town with low crime rates and high graduation rates. A low cost of living and a high quality of life. There is a town in Kentucky where winters are mild and summers are sweltering. A town where the air is clean and the sky is blue. A town where kids can play outside without being afraid of anything scarier than mosquitoes bothering them. A town with character and atmosphere and charm to spare.
This is the town I grew up in. Owensboro, Kentucky. Population: 55,525. Owensboro straddles the Mason-Dixon line. One merely has to cross a bridge into Indiana to leave the South behind. Though practically Midwestern in locale, people in Owensboro are, without a doubt, Southerners at heart. They speak Southern. They eat Southern. They think Southern. Their pace of life is absolutely Southern. Growing up, I wanted nothing more than to leave this place behind and see the world. The more I saw of the world, however, the more I discovered what an extraordinarily remarkable place my hometown really is.
Why then, if this Utopian town exists in Kentucky, am I living in Minneapolis, Minnesota? Why have I forfeited mild winters for this frozen tundra where snow piles up four feet high and refuses to melt until May? What possessed me to trade clean air and blue skies for traffic congestion and urban sprawl? Why would I leave behind all that I know and love and move to a place that considers Jello a dinner staple? The answer to these questions is really quite simple. I did it for my children.
Owensboro, Kentucky is the perfect place to raise children. There is no doubt about that in my mind. I see my cousins raising their children in Owensboro, and marvel at how ideal it all is. Their children get to experience the same sights and sounds they grew up experiencing. Their children get to visit the same places and go to the same schools. Their children get to go to the International Barbecue Festival each summer. They get to taste the sweetest fresh-picked apples at Reid’s Orchards Apple Festival each autumn. They get to stop at The Big Dipper for banana milkshakes and tator gems. My children, on the other hand, are growing up in a place that is foreign to me. So what is the difference between me and my cousins? Very little, actually. I am gay. They are not.
Yes, I could live in Owensboro. I could raise my children there. However, despite the many amazing qualities the town possesses, an openness toward people who are different—specifically gay people—is not one of those qualities. People in Owensboro, in addition to being stalwart Southerners, are religious people. It’s the Bible Belt. Owensboro has been called the “City of Churches”. There are one hundred and fifty Protestant churches, eighteen Catholic churches, and one Jewish synagogue in the county where I grew up. The area’s largest faiths are Catholic and Southern Baptist —not exactly two of the most open and affirming denominations towards gay people. So I could raise my children there. But what kind of childhood would they experience? How quickly would their innocence be thwarted by God-fearing people who felt it was their job to “save” us all?
Don’t get me wrong. Not all people in Owensboro —or in the South at large, for that matter —are homophobic. As a matter of fact, most people are not. Most people, like my family members living in Kentucky, are good people trying to raise their children to be good people. They are open and accepting and loving and tolerant. However, there are still those who are not. And as a parent, I want to reduce my children’s risk of encountering these people as much as possible. I want my children to see our family as normal. I want them to realize that all families are different. Our way of creating a family may be a bit different —it may be new —but is no better or worse than anyone else’s way. Families are families. And I don’t want anyone telling my children differently. So yes, I could fight the good fight, live in Owensboro, and enlighten the minds of the people in my hometown. Yes, I could be courageous. Yes, I could plant my rainbow flag in the middle of town and declare, “I’m here. And I’m Queer.” But at what cost to my children? Would the value outweigh the detriment to the tiny people I love the most in this world? I don’t think so.
So we live in Minneapolis. The “Gayest City in America,” according to The Advocate magazine. My children go to school with other kids who have gay parents. There are Gay-Straight Alliances in our schools. There are programs in both the St Paul and Minneapolis Public Schools aimed at creating a safe environment for all children. We have gay and lesbian friends, in addition to numerous accepting and loving straight friends. We have made a happy, comfortable life in Minneapolis. I recruited my two sisters to move to Minnesota. And eventually my mother moved up here, as well, because she couldn’t stand to be away from “her girls”. I love my life here. I truly do. I would be lying, however, if I didn’t tell you that I sometimes think about the unfairness of it all. My kids are not going to be Southerners. This may seem miniscule in scope, but it is important to me. Being Southern is a huge part of who I am. It is as much a part of my identity as being a woman or mother or a lesbian. My children are never going to utter the word “y’all”. They are never going to experience the magic of a small-town Christmas parade viewed from the steps of the County Courthouse. The Kentucky Derby means nothing to them. They are not going to grow up surrounded by the aunts, uncles, and cousins I dearly love. My proud Southern heritage stops with me. I can live with this for the sake of my children, but it would not be my ideal choice. And—despite the happiness that I have in my life now—it is unfair.
Regardless of the fairness or unfairness of it all, however, I am a Midwesterner now. At some point during the thirteen years I have been in Minnesota, I have become acclimated to the Midwestern way of life. I have learned to speak a little faster. The pace of my life is a little faster. I can now handle subzero temperatures and four feet of snow. I can live with icicles taller than I am dangling from the side of my house. I am no longer appalled by snow falling in April. I have become an expert at dressing in layers. I have learned to speak like a true Minnesotan, using terms such as broomball, ice dams, and wind chill factor—terms that were foreign to me a little over a decade ago. I have even, on rare occasion, found myself saying “Yah. You betcha,” to my utter mortification. I have come to the point that I can appreciate hockey and ice fishing. Okay, perhaps “appreciate” is a bit strong. Let’s just say that I no longer think hockey players and people who ice fish are raving lunatics. I even briefly considered naming my youngest son Sven —though I eventually thought better of even suggesting it to Ruanita. Yep, I can be a Minnesotan. I can be a hearty Midwesterner. I can raise a family of hearty Midwesterners. I can put on a good show. I can pretend. Despite appearances, however, I will always and forever be a redneck Southern girl at heart.