Mississippi LGBT advocate to GLAAD: "Intersections are where work really needs to happen in the South"

During GLAAD's Southern Stories Summer Tour, GLAAD partnered with Unity Mississippi, one of the major organizations accelerating acceptance for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community in the Deep South. Seven weeks after coming to Mississippi, GLAAD caught up with Knol Aust, a founder of Unity Mississippi, to talk LGBT affairs in Mississippi and life post-SCOTUS marriage equality ruling. Knol Aust is an inspiring LGBT advocate making real change on the ground--and don't forget to offer your congratulations to this newlywed.

GLAAD: Could you describe your hometown, and what it was like growing up as a member of the LGBT community in Mississippi?

KA: I grew up in the countryside of Raymond, Mississippi but went to school and socialized in Jackson. As a young person, I called Jackson home. Jackson is a fairly progressive and diverse city. As a gay man, I’ve never felt like Jackson was like most of Mississippi. It was fairly easy to be me (including punk, skater, goth, and raver phases). I realize it’s not like that for many young Mississippians.

GLAAD: What inspired you to found Unity Mississippi?

KA: I first became interested in activism when Mississippi passed legislation banning same-sex adoption. After Mississippi voted 86% in favor of a constitutional ban prohibiting same-sex marriages, I, along with the founders and others in the community, became especially frustrated. We were frustrated by the lack of visible LGBT people and resources for the LGBT community. Very few Mississippians in those days were willing to take public stands and speak with the media on critical issues like the adoption ban and constitutional amendment.

We founded Unity Mississippi to create networks and awareness of the few existing organizations, churches, and businesses that were LGBT-centric, LGBT-owned, and/or LGBT-friendly. We also sought to strengthen and build statewide connections between communities and individuals.

GLAAD: Could you describe the work Unity Mississippi does?

KA: Unity Mississippi is built around resources, networks, and community-building. We do that through special events, providing online resources and information, and hosting Pride events. In the past, we also held OUToberfest which was similar to a pride festival but recognizing National Coming Out Day.

GLAAD: What was your reaction to GLAAD's Southern Stories Summer Tour?

I think the idea behind Southern Stories was great. The South has countless stories of bravery, passion, and accomplishment. We also face a lot of hurdles and disparities. I was excited to see GLAAD joining Southerners to increase acceptance in the South. 

GLAAD: Could you describe your experience trying to get married in Mississippi?

KA: After nearly 17 years in a relationship with my partner Duane, the idea of marriage finally being a reality in Mississippi seemed far off. We were committed to marrying only if it were recognized by the state where we lived. We’d discussed getting married if the SCOTUS decision was in our favor. When the ruling was made public, we jumped in the car and headed to the clerk’s office.

When we arrived, we were the first and only couple. There seemed to be confusion by the staff on how to proceed. It wasn’t resistance. In fact, they were pleasant and even seemed excited. Still, they need to hear something official from the state’s attorney general. After 30 minutes or so, another couple came showed up and joined the waiting game. After 3 hours waiting for word from the AG, we had to leave. Our Pride weekend was kicking off and we are key organizers for the event.

The weekend was a blur. We had a big turnout for Pride and the weekend was one big celebration. We didn’t have a chance to really think much about what our standing was regarding marriage legalization. We knew it was happening, but the timeframe depended on the AG and our Governor Phil Bryant.

Eventually, the AG issued a new statement clarifying that clerks should issue licenses on Monday, June 29. We weren’t the first in line that day. There were three other couples when we arrived. We now share that moment collectively and communicate regularly since then.

Those few days were surreal and it still hasn’t really hit me yet (almost a month later). Little things still make me smile…. like saying “husband.”

GLAAD: What are the next steps for Mississippi's LGBT community following the SCOTUS decision?

KA: I think community-building is an ongoing action item for all orgs and individuals. Without an informed and strong community, all future steps will be difficult. A strong, statewide community (including friends, family, churches, and businesses) creates safe spaces for LGBT people (young and old) and helps create awareness for issues and concerns relating to the LGBT community.

Legal protections that prevent discrimination in public spaces, housing, and workplaces are especially important in Mississippi. The state has a RFRA law that is weak, but still a threat to some in the LGBT community. The state is also a right-to-work state which makes it risky for lesbians, gays, and bisexuals and especially risky for trans persons. There are some groups currently working on workplace protections and thankfully the EEOC has taken a favorable position regarding the LGBT community and workplace protections.

Intersections are where work really needs to happen in the South (and the US). The LGBT community isn’t a monolith. Racism, classism, poverty, prisons, health needs, and women’s rights are some of the issues facing members of the LGBT community but not widely addressed within the LGBT community. We, as a community, need to continue embracing and encouraging human rights.

GLAAD: How can Mississippians be strong allies for the LGBT community?

KA: Allies are extremely important to our community. Some things allies can do to be a stronger ally include: learning more about LGBT inequality (political, legal, social); standing up to homophobia and transphobia; and getting involved and support local LGBT-friendly organizations and businesses. Don’t just be an ally… Be an advocate for equality and fairness.