JACKSON, Miss. — It was shortly before midnight on Saturday when Constance Gordon arrived at Club Metro, a nightclub along U.S. Highway 80 in Jackson that is popular among local LGBT people of color.
Gordon, a performance artist whose stage name is Lyrik Skilz, greeted a handful of people who were sitting in chairs alongside an expansive dance floor as a DJ played hip-hop. She then walked backstage with Todd Allen, a local LGBT rights advocate who works with GetEQUAL, and spoke to a handful of other people before the weekly lesbian show she emcees began at 1:30 a.m.
“I do entertain and have fun and drink,” Gordon told the Washington Blade during an interview in the dressing room backstage. “It’s pretty cool.”
Gordon, 31, was born and raised outside McComb in Pike County near the Louisiana border.
She described herself as a “masculine-gendered woman” who is from the “first generation of free black people.”
Gordon said she was called the N-word “plenty of times” when she was younger.
“I guess because I’m a first generation of free black people, it didn’t make me feel like it made my mom feel or my grandma feel,” she told the Blade. “It didn’t make me feel like it took something from me or belittle me. I was just like ‘F you’ instead of being like ‘Oh, I’m so sick of this oppression.’ It was more like if I wasn’t getting in line for a cheeseburger I could kick your ass.”
Gordon described this reaction as “my privilege” because she said her mother and her grandmother would not have had the same opportunity to respond in the way that she did during legalized racial segregation in Mississippi.
“That’s a privilege that my mom didn’t have, my grandma didn’t have, to be able to say something back to them,” she said. “They were scared to say something because you get your teeth knocked out. I was scared to say something because I didn’t want to fight that night. I didn’t want them to come back and shoot me or something like that; something more modern.”
Gordon said she gets “all kinds of looks” from both men and women because of her masculine gender presentation.
Gordon has worked for the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi since early 2012.
Her work primarily focuses on youth and LGBT advocacy that includes the implementation of anti-bullying policies and other issues where “youth, justice and LGBT rights kind of crosses over.” She also runs Youth in Color, a program that seeks to create Gay-Straight Alliances and other LGBT rights organizations.
The ACLU of Mississippi is among the groups that are monitoring potential incidents of businesses denying service to LGBT people because of their religious beliefs under a controversial state law — Senate Bill 2681 or the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act — that took effect on July 1.
Gordon is among the dozens of LGBT rights advocates who took part in protests in Jackson, Biloxi and around the state after Gov. Phil Bryant signed the measure into law in April.
“We do not support 2681,” she said.
LGBT Mississippians face poverty
Gordon told the Blade that one of the major challenges LGBT Mississippians face is what she described as a lack of social equality.
“There are so many LGBT people here that it’s easy to say that there’s not a problem because no one will discriminate in your face,” she said. “[It’s] hands-off discrimination so where [they say] OK I won’t let you stay here, but you don’t know I won’t let you stay here because of that because I’ll give you another reason, but because [at] face value you can’t tell, regardless.”
Gordon noted the majority of Mississippi’s LGBT advocates are white, but she told the Blade that more people of color have begun to support their efforts.
“The more and more you see it, the more people we see at events in Mississippi that are supporting LGBT stuff,” she said. “The forefront of white people is maybe needed you know — like abolitionists or something. It’s that availability. They’re available.”
Poverty remains a serious issue that LGBT Mississippians continue to confront.
The U.S. Census notes slightly more than 22 percent of the state’s population of nearly three million people were living below the poverty line between 2008-2012. This figure jumps to roughly 28 percent of the total population in Jackson, which is nearly 80 percent black, during the same period.
Gordon told the Blade that disparities in education, health care and other areas are at least twice the rate among LGBT people as they are among their heterosexual counterparts.
“LGBT children who are living in poverty are just like the straight children who are living in poverty except they’re two times or more worse because they’re being not only targeted for being poor,” she said. “They’re targeted and left out and excluded and other things like that for being LGBT at the same time.”
She noted family rejection — especially among LGBT youth of color — contributes to poverty.
Gordon said many of them eventually end up in the state’s juvenile justice system.
“I can definitely say that there are a lot of people displaced here all the time because of coming out as LGBT just because of the simple fact that this is a very religious place,” said Gordon. “It’s kind of like if we don’t see it, we don’t get in trouble for it. They’re like go from my house and then I won’t feel bad because I’m not accepting you. We get a lot of kids like that. But it’s always been a problem here because of where we are.”
Civil rights movement empowers LGBT advocates
She acknowledged she agrees with many of the stereotypes associated with Mississippi — including so-called rednecks. Gordon also referred to “blacknecks,” who she described as rednecks, but “they’re black people.”
“It’s part of the deep-rooted culture that we have that’s a slave and master,” she said. “So you mimic the masters. It’s subliminal.”
Gordon added she feels the legacy of the civil rights movement in the state — especially the 50th anniversaries of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Freedom Summer — is empowering the current movements for LGBT rights and racial equality.
“People don’t realize that we got that freedom, of course we forgot about the movement,” she said, noting how LGBT and civil rights advocates alike opposed SB 2681. “It’s easy to forget about people oppressing you when you can finally get a job and support yourself when you can box all this stuff and you’re not noticing all that oppression as easily. These same people are still here. We don’t leave. A lot of us are rooted and I’m one of the rooted.”
Gordon, who met her partner at Club Metro last year, said she remains proud of her state in spite of the challenges she and other LGBT Mississippians continue to face.
“I’m proud to be from Mississippi because this is where I’m from,” she said. “That’s enough reason for me. I’m born from the dirt here.”