Ellen Dossett, a 71-year-old lesbian, recalls the violent clashes in 1960s Birmingham, Alabama, where she was a white student in her 20s and threatened with expulsion from her Baptist college if she sided with blacks in their struggle for civil rights.
“I just didn’t have the courage to go up against the authorities in my life,” says Dossett, who is still an active member of a Baptist church in Birmingham, “and that has been a big regret of mine.”
But her resolve to stand up for her beliefs grew – and in 1992, with a daughter newly born to Dossett and her female partner, Dossett came out in a state where her sexual orientation, then as now, loomed as a barrier to public and political acceptance.
Although her experience differs from racial discrimination, she tells PEOPLE, “I know how it feels to not be treated right and equally just because of who you are.”
Yet Alabama seems to be evolving, and surprisingly so, in the view of LGBT residents who have lived with the stigma of their state’s historic opposition to change. Last week, probate judges around Alabama began to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples after a federal judge ruled the state’s same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional, reports The New York Times.
And while other matters tied to sexual orientation – such as adoption laws and workplace protections – remain unresolved, those advocating for equality in Alabama cheer its progress.
What’s it really like to be gay in Alabama?
“It’s complicated,” says Lara Embry, a Birmingham native who moved back from Los Angeles last June after the end of her marriage to the actress Jane Lynch. Embry is co-directing the documentary, State & Union, that chronicles the legal and social limbo still faced by lesbian families in the state.
The film’s subjects include a lesbian state lawmaker who once was fired over her sexual orientation, and women struggling for parental rights in family courts, where judges have restricted adoption to single people and opposite-sex couples. Teachers interviewed by the filmmakers say they fear that by coming out, they still can lose their jobs.
“We’re not picking on Southerners,” Embry, 45, tells PEOPLE. “Everybody working on this project is a Southerner. We don’t believe the South is a monolithic structure. We believe that there are many people here who embrace progressive ideals, who embrace the ideal of equality, and also love the South. Those two things aren’t separate.”
But it’s also a place, she says, where certain religious views and conservative politics have blocked strides made elsewhere around the country. Until the recent court ruling, Alabama was among those states – now numbering 13 – that still outlaw same-sex marriage, pending the U.S. Supreme Court’s review of the issue this year, according to the advocacy organization Freedom to Marry.
In fact, Alabama is “really no different than anywhere else” where local laws have been slow to reflect public opinion polls that show growing support for LGBT equality, says Cari Searcy, 39, of Mobile, whose nine-year fight to be legally recognized as a parent of the son she shares with her female partner led to the recent marriage equality milestone.
Dossett, an educational psychologist, says vibrant LGBT pockets thrive in Alabama’s larger cities, supported by “wonderful, progressive, open-minded straight people.” But she adds: “If you get out of the metropolitan areas, it is so backwards you can hardly believe it. People are just full of hate and fear in these small communities.”
“We are just so entrenched in, ‘this-is-how-it’s-always-been.’ The Bible is used and distorted in such a way that people are led to be really fearful of this God who is going to punish them for everything they do,” she explains. “That has such a huge impact on people here in the Deep South.”
Searcy and her partner of 16 years married in California in 2008. But until same-sex unions were upheld in Alabama, their out-of-state commitment – bestowing legal rights to share in medical and other decisions for each other and their child – carried no weight where they live.
“Without legal protections, we’re always at the mercy of whoever we’re in front of, whether it’s a judge or a teacher or a nurse. It all depends on their personal views” whether other individuals will acknowledge the shared roles assumed by same-sex couples.
“Alabama sometimes gets a bad rap,” says Searcy, who owns a video production company. “I can’t say what it’s like living in Northern states, because I’ve always lived in the South. Even though the polls show that the majority of people here don’t believe in same-sex marriage, if you ask those same people, ‘Do you believe that gay people should have family protections and be recognized?,’ they’ll say yes. It’s all in the way you frame the question.”
Fighting for Rights
Still, Embry says there’s a resonance to setting her documentary in Alabama. Not coincidentally, the Oscar-nominated film Selma currently marching across movie screens reminds audiences of Alabama’s place in the forefront of American civil rights battles.
“I would never equate the two,” says Embry. “I would never want to insult the people who were involved in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Their struggles were different in scope and injury. That was a tragic period of American history, and our successes have come much more quickly and easily.”
Nonetheless, she says, “there’s a lot of interesting overlap.” Her documentary sprang from a 2012 exhibit by photographer and the film’s co-director, Carolyn Sherer, titled “Living in Limbo,” that presented images of lesbians in the South and was first displayed at Birmingham’s Civil Rights Institute. In just one parallel, Dossett and her partner of 28 years, Ann Wade, were the first same-sex couple to have their out-of-state union blessed at Birmingham’s Baptist Church of the Covenant – a church formed in 1970 by parishioners who broke from another Baptist church that had refused to accept a black mother and daughter as members.
A Parent’s Choice
Dossett says her decision to go public about her orientation was driven by becoming a parent.
“There’s no room to be in the closet if you have a child,” she says. “All internalized homophobia has to be dealt with. I am not raising a child in a family where there’s any shame, any secrets, any kind of mixed messages. We really made that commitment, Ann and I.”
Embry says that being open is important for change.
“One of the problems about the South is that we still have this cultural ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy,” she explains. “Southerners don’t like to make people uncomfortable, so we leave things out of conversation. We don’t take about difficult issues. So the oppression continues. What we hope [with the film] is to raise the conversation in a way that engages people’s empathy and understanding and hopefully humor, so that we can help people move forward in talking.”
With decades of struggle behind the state’s residents, Dossett says: “We have this history of being the last to make any sort of progressive change, and so I think to watch Alabama is to watch the South.”
“Sometimes it feels like one step forward, two backward,” she says. “But on this issue – the issue of marriage equality and gay and lesbian rights – yes, we are so much farther ahead than I ever thought Alabama would be.”