July 29, 2014 at 6:00 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Gay Miss. teacher a reluctant pioneer
Ryvell Fitzpatrick, gay news, Washington Blade

Ryvell Fitzpatrick was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

GREENVILLE, Miss. — Ryvell Fitzpatrick wanted to be a lawyer when he was growing up in the Mississippi Delta.

He told the Washington Blade during a July 10 interview that he taught his younger brother from a chalkboard in the yard of his childhood home in Ruleville, a town roughly 50 miles northeast of Greenville in Sunflower County in which slightly more than 3,200 people live.

Fitzpatrick’s mother and grandmother and most of his aunts and uncles are teachers. He has taught English to eighth graders in Greenville for the last two and a half years.

“I love it,” Fitzpatrick told the Blade during an interview in the living room of his home that is less than two miles from the Mississippi River. His dog Royce, a 4-year-old Pomeranian, sat on his lap as an episode of “House Hunters Renovation” was on in the background. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Fitzpatrick, 24, described his childhood as “slightly oppressive” because his family is very religious. He attended church twice a week growing up and more frequently when he went to college at Mississippi State University.

Fitzpatrick “vividly” recalled an anti-gay sermon he heard after he had just begun high school.

He told the Blade the minister said gay men wear backpacks with diapers inside of them because they have anal sex and “can’t hold their bowels in.”

“He was just saying the purpose of the anus was not that,” said Fitzpatrick, noting some congregants left the church during the sermon. “It was very graphic. He made the movement: It goes in and comes out and it just don’t stretch back like it’s supposed to. It was awful.”

Fitzpatrick said he heard other sermons that were “anti-sin, anti-homosexuality, anti-stealing, anti-drinking, anti-gambling.”

’We can be here’

Fitzpatrick and his boyfriend who lives three hours away from Greenville have been together for three months. They had previously dated for a year.

“I’ll either go to him or he’ll come to me or we’ll go somewhere else together,” he said. “We can be here. There’s no issue at all.”

Fitzpatrick said he only came out to his mother two months before speaking with the Blade.

“She said I knew when you were in middle school,” said Fitzpatrick. “I really think she had to come to grips with it when I went to college. And I think that was why it was so easy for her to accept it when I told her because of things changed. I explored different things.”

Fitzpatrick told the Blade his colleagues at the school where he works know he is gay.

He said one of his students once complimented a shirt he was wearing that he thought he bought at Cato, a women’s clothing store with dozens of locations in Mississippi.

Fitzpatrick also frequently changes his hair color and style.

“I definitely don’t say hello students, I’m Mr. Fitz and I’m gay,” he said.

Fitzpatrick said a parent of one of his students “struck up this whole conversation” with his boyfriend earlier this month when he was visiting him in Greenville and she saw them out.

Fitzpatrick told to act ‘more masculine’ to advance career

Poverty remains common throughout the Mississippi Delta.

The U.S. Census indicates 37.3 percent of Greenville’s population of roughly 34,000 people were living below the poverty level between 2008-2012. Nearly 35 percent of people in Sunflower County, in which Fitzpatrick’s hometown is located, were living below the poverty level during the same period as the U.S. Census notes.

Fitzpatrick noted to the Blade that up to 95 percent of students in the Greenville Public School District in which he teaches receive free or reduced-price lunch.

He said this poverty also affects LGBT people, noting a scenario where only one of the 12 people who are sitting on a couch have a job.

“Not many are careered, not many have the drive,” said Fitzpatrick. “I’m not sure if its because they lack the drive or its because they’ve been oppressed for so long in so many different areas that they’ve just given up. A lot of people don’t have careers… you can definitely see the homosexuals with post-secondary educations and those without.”

Fitzpatrick said he has been told to act “more masculine or more professional” if he wants to become a school administrator or principal.

“I feel that that wouldn’t be me being a principal,” said Fitzpatrick. “That is definitely rooted in ignorance. It is just a result of a prejudice.”

Race and sexual orientation ‘almost the double whammy’

He said he is “really not sure” if race determines attitudes towards homosexuality, but he described the two factors as “almost the double whammy.”

“You know you have the people who are not going to like you because of race,” said Fitzpatrick. “You are going to have the people who are not going to like you because of your preference.”

Fitzpatrick told the Blade the “most prejudiced people” he has met are those “who have been discriminated against because of their race.”

“I see African Americans as some of the most prejudiced people on the face of the earth,” he said. “It’s very interesting that you think because of the struggle they would be — or we would be more accepting.”

Fitzpatrick said he feels these homophobic attitudes stem from ignorance and misinterpretations of the Bible.

“A lot of churches still teach the slave master’s Bible,” he said. “If you don’t do right, you’ll go to hell, which was really a tool of slave masters to keep the slaves in order. And there are a lot of churches today who still preach that, who are not preaching grace, who are not preaching forgiveness, who are not preaching love.”

Fitzpatrick told the Blade the church remains a source of information for people of color, especially those who live in more rural areas.

“When that church is misguided or misrepresented or misinterpreted, than that’s the mindset of the people,” he said.

Fitzpatrick viewed as ‘spectacle’

Fitzpatrick told the Blade as an afternoon thunderstorm developed over Greenville that he feels people are either “intrigued by me” or view him as a “spectacle.”

“There’s a very, very small population who gets to know me for me and treats that person with respect,” he said. “I’m mature enough to know that not everyone who is okay with it is accepting. I think a lot of times I’m tolerated, which is not okay. I don’t do me tolerated if I’m not accepted and loved. I don’t want to be part of that.”

Fitzpatrick said a comedian who performed at a recent scholarship pageant for a local organization picked him out of the audience because of the “huge bow” he was wearing on the side of his head with platinum hair. He said the performer “lashed out” after he realized he was not a woman.

Fitzpatrick recalled another situation that took place when he was in college.

He said a group of men shouted “we hate those fucking faggots” and “we’ll shoot those fucking faggots” when they heard him “having a very intense conversation” outside a residence hall. Fitzpatrick said they chased him in their vehicles.

“That was a point when I had to say look, if you’re going to do this, you have to be comfortable enough to deal with this and to go forward,” he said. “It’s easier for me now because I made the decision a long time ago if you’re going to do this, you need to be comfortable with it. It doesn’t bother me. I definitely have a very, very, very small circle. I guess that makes me less susceptible to discrimination.”

Miss. ’good old boy connection’ remains intact

Fitzpatrick spoke with the Blade less than two weeks after a state law that opponents argue allows business owners to deny services to LGBT people based on their religious beliefs took effect.

He criticized Mississippi lawmakers for not “fully” funding the state’s public education system and for supporting a voter ID law.

“There’s a good old boy connection that’s going on,” said Fitzpatrick. “If you’re in, you’re in. If you’re not, oh well. I definitely see things happening that are almost tokens that are thrown, just to kind of pacify (their supporters) or just to shut people up.”

Waveland Mayor David Garcia became the first Mississippi mayor to publicly support marriage rights for same-sex couples less than a week after Fitzpatrick spoke with the Blade.

“I do not think the word marriage should exist in politics at all,” he said. “A marriage is a promise that two people make to each other and God, that’s all. However, the word marriage has been pimped out for so long and it has become a legal term. And because it is a legal term despite it’s religious origin it has to be extended to all.”

Fitzpatrick acknowledged progress on LGBT rights in Mississippi is “a slow moving fight.”

“You have to have people who want to fight the fight,” he said. “I just don’t see that here.”

Fitzpatrick said discrimination is “not as blatant” in Greenville as an outsider may think.

“When it’s not as overt, it’s kind of harder to fight or get a group together who has a desire to fight,” he said. “You also have to realize that you’re fighting a mindset. You’re not fighting a particular issue. You’re fighting a mindset, a mindset where people have learned that hey, I know I cannot say this, I’ll just think it and act it different.”

He said some of his close friends work with the Human Rights Campaign on efforts to bolster the LGBT rights movement in Mississippi and other Southern states.

“I hear they do a lot,” said Fitzpatrick. “I’m not just involved with it. It’s just not my thing.”

Fitzpatrick ‘definitely’ proud to be from Mississippi

Fitzpatrick told the Blade he would not raise his children in the Magnolia State for reasons other than the fact same-sex marriage remains illegal.

“If I were leaving the state and if I were somewhere I could get married I would,” he said. “I definitely would not leave to get married. I have tons of reasons I could leave and love just ain’t one of them.”

In spite of the state’s anti-LGBT politics and poverty, Fitzpatrick said he is “definitely” proud to be from Mississippi.

“This situation of Mississippi is what helped make me who I am,” he said. “Some people could not have handled it. Yes, it is a tough situation. I’m proud to have endured that tough situation.”

Fitzpatrick said his family and the close proximity in which his relatives — his mother, grandmother and two of his aunts — live is another thing he likes about his home state.

“I just love how we were able to always be together,” he said. “We didn’t have the hustle and bustle. We could go out in the yard and play. I didn’t have to catch five buses to school or that sort of thing.”

Fitzpatrick was reluctant to call himself a pioneer at the end of the interview as the thunder grew louder.

“It definitely takes courage,” he said. “It takes courage just to get up and deal with children every day. It takes courage to be an educated African American man in the South. It takes courage to be an openly gay educated African American man in the South. It takes a lot of courage to be a slightly effeminate gay educated African American man in the South.”

“My name is Ryvell D. Fitzpatrick,” added Fitzpatrick. “My name is not gay. I have so many more things that define me. I have so many more struggles that are going on than just being gay and this is just not something that I’m consumed by. There’s a lot more to life in the Delta than just (me) being gay.”

Michael K. Lavers has been a staff writer for the Washington Blade since May 2012. The passage of Maryland's same-sex marriage law, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the burgeoning LGBT rights movement in Latin America and the consecration of gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson are among the many stories he has covered since his career began in 2002. Follow Michael

  • John Criswell

    You referred in your interview to your sexual preference. As an English teacher you need to realize that the word “preference” implies a conscience choice on the part of the “peferrer”. That just fuels the mistaken belief that humans can choose to be homosexual. Only persons who self-identify as bi-sexual truly can say they have a choice …. in other words a preference.

    The correct term to use in this situation is sexual “orientation”. Orientation implies that that is just the way things happen to be. When one finds their orientation to be homosexual their preference becomes the type of same sex partner preferred. As a homosexual oriented male I can find other males so oriented from which I can exercise my preferential choice of the type man i prefer.

    Love your spirit!

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