An Ally’s Perspective on Coming Out in Small Town America

Lexington is a small town in North Carolina with a population of about 20,000. I grew up there and have watched it change over the years. The town is a little poorer than the national average, with nearly a third of all children living below the poverty line. It’s poorer now than it used to be. When the town’s two main industries – textile and furniture manufacturing – were outsourced in the 1980s and 1990s, it hit the community hard. A lot of people lost good-paying, middle-class jobs. About the same time, more immigrants began moving into the community. The same trade agreements that made outsourcing appealing to local manufacturers made life even harder for workers in the countries where these industries re-settled. To survive economically, many families had little choice but to move. Most people in Lexington don’t talk about this – they probably don’t know it. What they know is that they no longer have good, secure jobs and there are more immigrants in the community than there used to be.

Over the years, Lexington has become best known for its annual Barbeque Festival (a uniquely southern celebration that has to be experienced to be understood) and Sheriff Gerald Hege – the self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in America” and controversial figure who, for a decade, modeled himself after Joe Arpaio – dressing deputies in paramilitary fatigues, painting jail cells pink, and reinstituting chain gangs. He was eventually suspended from office after pleading guilty to corruption charges, but launched a re-election campaign in 2010 pledging to “rid Davidson County of all illegal aliens.”

Although Hege lost the election, this kind of anti-immigrant fervor is often pervasive in small town and rural America. As a white person with citizenship privileges, I was oblivious to it until I met my best friend in the seventh grade, a young woman from Colombia. I learned from her what it was like to deal with insulting comments and prejudice on a regular basis. She’d shrug it off – “They’re just stupid,” she’d tell me. But, I knew it hurt her. And I didn’t know how to help. The idea of launching some type of resistance movement was far, far from my consciousness. Even now, it seems dangerous. There are currently over two dozen hate groups in North Carolina. Many of them set up shop in small, rural communities. And it’s important to acknowledge the special challenges young immigrants living in these places face in speaking out and fighting for their rights. In these communities, talking about being undocumented is often shunned – you just don’t do it. The threat of deportation (NC is now 100% S-Comm) and racist intimidation is very real and ever-present; and young people often experience a profound sense of isolation and powerlessness.

But, even in these communities, immigrants are finding their voices. In a subsequent post, we would like to give special attention and encouragement to four undocumented youth who, knowingly or not, stood up to this danger in a small act of resistance by coming out to us at Lexington’s Annual Multicultural Festival.