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These Photos Celebrate Queer Love In The South

When I think about my upbringing in the lush, sticky heat of Florida, I think about my chosen family: meeting my wife between the bookshelves of a lesbian literary journal; laughing with my best friend in Miami; crash-landing on rural, trans-owned land and staying for months on end. I think about the elders who shaped me. The motorcycle-driving butch who left me small, perfect eggs from her farm. The wry dating advice from a 65-year-old doula or the hilarious truisms dished out by a gay barber who’d seen it all. I think about the strong shoulders of the south I’ve not only leaned on but stand on, too. 
This isn’t what most people think of when they hear the words “Florida” and “lesbian.” The south is often seen as hostile territory for the LGBTQ+ community — not wholly without cause. The historic rise in anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and targeted attacks on public education, trans youth and reproductive rights all compound in the region to make queer life precarious. But for the queer and trans people who call the south home, there's power in loving one another during unlovable times.
This Pride month, Refinery29 wanted to hear about the deep and shimmering ways people in the south love one another. Below, I asked three southerners to tell me their love stories in their own words.
Photo Courtesy of Rene and Angel.
Rene and Angel
Rene is a femme lesbian who was born in Mississippi and grew up in South Korea before moving to Arkansas for high school. Rene’s butch girlfriend, Angel, was born in Chile and immigrated to Arkansas at seven. Currently, Rene and Angel are incarcerated in different prisons. I asked Rene how they keep in touch.
There are blackbirds everywhere at the prison camp in Alabama. They build nests in the awnings and every week the courtyard orderlies knock them down with mop handles. I wonder if those blackbirds migrate. I wonder if they would go as far as Texas, where my Angel is locked up. I wonder if they would pass over Arkansas, where I fell in love with her, where we built a home.
The portrait of our queer southern life had so many colors. [I remember] cruising through Little Rock, slamming screen doors, the smell of something spicy on the stove, mosquito bites. The way we were all housing-insecure but opened up our homes. When Little Rock's nonprofit for LGBT youth suddenly closed its only shelter, Angel and I found ourselves taking in several former residents in our own homes. 
Southern queer life is intimate by nature, out of necessity — because if we don't got each other, who does?
The first time I spoke to Angel was at her house. A group of us [were making] signs for a protest and writing letters to incarcerated queer people. We talked about everything — about how Leslie Feinberg, Minnie Bruce Pratt and Stone Butch Blues changed our lives, our love of books, our faraway motherlands, our immigrant family members, our desires for the movement. Angel became my steel-covered velvet and I became her velvet-covered steel. 
In the summer of 2020, the whole country burned for George Floyd. While we were marching, we spotted cops roughing up a man in an alley. Recklessly, we ran towards them. The cops shoved my face into the concrete. That was the first time I went to jail with Angel. Then, six months later we were both arrested for federal arson, conspiracy and possession of a destructive device, charges also related to protest. Almost exactly three years later, Angel and I were finally sentenced to 18 months in federal prison in the historic Little Rock Nine courtroom.
The other day, I gushed about Angel to my friends in the rec room. A girl named Mimi said, “Is she Spanish? Transgender? Cleans all the time? I think she was my neighbor at the transfer center!”
It's got to be her. I grabbed my photo album. 
“Oh yeah, that's her,” Mimi laughed. “Girl, she would not shut up about you. All she would talk about all day was wanting to get to Alabama to be with her girl. One time, her cellie started talking about her own boyfriend, and Angel cut her off to start talkin’ about you!” 
As I write this, I hear the blackbirds' strange, mournful chirps outside the window. Their nests are back up again.
Photo Courtesy of JV and Carlos.
JV and Carlos
JV met their best friend, Carlos, during college in Texas, where they are both from, and quickly became close. JV now lives in Colorado and Carlos is still in Texas. When I asked about their relationship, JV described Carlos as the greatest support system they’ve ever had — more than a best friend, really, and more like a chosen brother. 
Carlos and I met during our freshman year in the library of our university during finals week. We laughed, shared music and snacks, and did very little work. That night started a nine-year friendship. We’ve seen each other through teary conversations about platonic and romantic love, graduations, couch co-rotting, playing Fortnite from states away, resume reviews and job searches, family events and holidays. 
I’ve been on T [testosterone] for one year and the process was intimidating for me. At the time I needed a person who’d just listen and be along for the experience. Carlos was there to hold my hand virtually. I have bared my soul to Carlos and he has never, ever made me feel ashamed. He has always empowered me to do the things I’ve set my sights on. 
Love in the south, in general, is based around family. But family can be chosen. The love [Carlos and I] share carries me through the hardest times of my life, and has lasted through 900 miles. 
Photo Courtesy of Anuva.
Anuva and their community
Anuva is a South Asian (Indian-American) community builder and artist living in Austin, Texas. Along with cofounder Alex Guerra, Anuva founded and launched Mutual Love, a community space and haven for queer and trans people, families and allies of all ages to experience joy, rest and play. I asked Anuva about his community work — which he calls beautiful, hard and hopeful — and how Mutual Love has shaped him.
When I couldn’t see myself in the outside world when I was coming of age, I found glimmers of my own possibility in queer community spaces. These sanctuaries helped me hold a future for myself, especially during the 10-year wait for lifesaving gender-affirming medicine and surgery. As a trans man, my journey in self-validation and self-love has been the most challenging and rewarding emotional and spiritual experience of my life. Community is lifesaving, especially in places like Texas where autonomy is under attack and the validation of youth agency and wellbeing has been stripped away.
When I think about queer and trans love in Texas, I'm reminded of the collective effort behind every Mutual Love Rest Fest [a free and annual all-ages community festival]. Every Fest takes the coordination of tons of people and organizations working together in good faith to create a safe, smooth and joyful experience. Many hands and hearts. 
[This] demonstrates what it means to actually show up for each other — to provide safety and support while fearlessly embracing expression and joy. Every Fest is a portal. And the smiles speak for themselves.
I’ve learned so much about love from my friendships, my family, from the queer and trans community. Love is my greatest teacher, offering texture in all its shapes and flavors — pain, grief, connection, joy, rest and everything in between.  
In my lineage, my ancestors were able to keep our language and cultural practices alive despite genocide, [colonization] and forced migration because of community resiliency. I am on the shoulders of fiercely optimistic and pragmatic dreamers who held steadfast to visions of love and hope.
Interviews have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

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