Why the #SouthernStories Summer Tour matters

When I tell people about growing up gay and Jewish in North Carolina, I prepare for a sympathetic look. Not only is my home state firmly in the U.S. "Bible Belt," but also—in 2012—my fellow North Carolinians elected to make it unconstitutional for our state government to recognize same-sex marriage: the dreaded, "Amendment 1." Even though the federal court system negated Amendment 1 as of last year, the North Carolina Senate—despite the fact that it's LGBT Pride Month—is trying to push through legislation that would allow magistrates and registers of deeds to deny service to same-sex couples. Needless to say, people feel sorry for me.

Identity, however, is not that simple, and the American South is more than a vortex of homophobia.

My own coming out story was difficult. Part of what makes the South so hard for LGBT people is the lack of visibility. Sexuality—of any kind—stays in the closet. My sex education consisted of abstinence-only. Homophobia abounded. The only gay person I knew was Jack McFarland from Will and Grace, and I did not even realize Will was gay too. I felt alone, and scared of myself.

Embracing my gay identity took lots of inner struggle and heartache, but after coming out to those on my college campus and those closest to me, telling my dad felt like the biggest hurdle of them all. During my sophomore year of college, I drove home from my small southern liberal arts school, Davidson, for Spring Break with a purpose: I was going to come out to my dad.

We spent the entire day together, and meandered all over Raleigh, my hometown and North Carolina's capital. We went to a local YMCA for a swim. And as we changed in the men's locker room, I thought, not here. We went to a big park. Too many people. We went to an Irish pub. Too loud.

Finally, we drove back to my childhood home. My dad and I have a tradition of walking around the neighborhood and talking about life, so I told my dad that it was time for a walk. And just like that, under the Carolina night sky, in the suburbs of Raleigh, I came out to my dad as gay.

I was crying, and then he started crying. And, miraculously, he apologized for all the homophobic things he had ever said. He hugged me, and I will always remember his words: "Dylan, you are so special, and this is just another thing that makes you unique. Now, you can be happy." It remains one of the happiest moments of my life. Never underestimate the power of love and family.

Unfortunately, my story is too often the exception. LGBT youth, like myself, are kicked out of their homes, bullied, and abused. In 29 states, you can be fired for being gay. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs' 2014 report on hate violence against LGBTQ and HIV-affected people, 50% of homicide victims were transgender women of color.

This is why the Southern Stories Summer Tour is so important—because the South needs to break the silence around both its LGBT injustices, but also its victories. I came out to my dad on a humid Carolina night. Last year my small southern college introduced its first LGBT resource room. And Ty Herndon announced he was gay to his entire country music fandom. The landscape is not the giant closet it used to be.

When I joined the GLAAD team, the office was abuzz with the Southern Stories Summer Tour, GLAAD's programming initiative to accelerate LGBT acceptance and understanding across the South. Hitting Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, the Southern Stories Summer Tour kicked off last Friday with the Concert for Love and Acceptance and features events ranging from panel discussions to documentary screenings about the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people who say "y'all."

Ty Herndon, one of the country music stars headlining the tour, inspired millions—including myself—when he came out as gay just under a year ago at 52-years-old. Last November, the Mississippi-native told People "I was 10, sitting in church and horrified that I might be a homosexual. Whatever that word meant, I knew that I probably was one."  Fear is something LGBT people know all too well, whether in the South or anywhere else, and to see a man like Ty overcome those fears and become a voice for acceptance in the public eye is the definition of pride.

Ty Herndon, born and raised in the Deep South, came out. It is possible.

 The South is not a wasteland. In fact, it is filled with potential, hope, and love. It is a place that has made me the person I am today, and I am proud to be gay, Jewish, and North Carolinian. But it is time for those who believe in LGBT equality and acceptance in the South to have their voices heard. Had there been events like the Southern Stories Summer Tour while I was growing up, maybe I would have spent more time living and less time being afraid. 

Help GLAAD and the LGBT community in the South—my community—create positive change. Celebrate the Southern Stories Tour this week.  And don't be afraid to share your own story. We all deserve love and acceptance. No one should feel scared of being who they are.