When Stephanie Williams was growing up in rural Alabama, her world was orderly and precise. She lived in the same house in Autauga County until she left for college; her parents were very conservative Christians, and she worked hard to make them proud. She got good grades, played in the marching band, and, of course, preserved her virginity for marriage.
Stephanie did not grow up in a world where she felt free to ask questions, even of herself. She simply took the next indicated and agreed-upon steps, which eventually led to marrying a worship leader and having four children.
"Looking back, there were some really obvious signs in my life [that I was gay]. I should have been asking more questions … but honestly, I did not live in a world where you could do that," she said, noting that her involvement with the church and deeply held religious beliefs meant, for her and other women in the congregation, quiet obedience. Women submit to their husbands—that's the unspoken rule where she comes from.
In 2016, for reasons unrelated to her sexuality, her marriage fell apart—and then her mother died. It was at that point that Stephanie began thinking critically about her life, her children's lives, and the life she wanted to live.
"I had a reckoning," she said. "It was really sort of this hard inventory of myself, my parenting, my life … everything was in upheaval." During that time, she reconnected with Laurie, an old friend from college, and the relationship grew from there.
"This is what I knew: I knew that whatever you call it to be in love with Laurie, that is what I am," said Stephanie. "Given the chance to grow into your identity outside of a very small world, you discover a lot."
At age 37, Stephanie discovered she was gay.
The couple dated in secret for a year, slowly coming out to friends and family. Their friends were very supportive and genuinely happy for them, but telling family members proved to be trickier, and the couple received a mixed bag of reactions.
This experience is typical, especially for members of the LGBTQ+ community who live in, or are from, the South. According to GLAAD, "Southerners feel significantly more discomfort about their LGBTQ family, friends, and neighbors than is found in other regions of the country." Additionally, Alabama hate crime law does not protect LGBTQ+ citizens, leaving members of marginalized communities exposed and fearful of being open with the people they interact with on a daily basis.
For a group who suffered for so long in silence, the concept of gay pride is a beautiful thing.
Support is vital, which is why the yearly pride events are so important—especially for the LGBTQ+ youth, who don't always live in the friendliest home environments.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the inaugural gay pride parade and large scale events were planned; now that we are also facing a pandemic, instead of standing in solidarity with allies ( or getting hugs from moms and dads who want to support kids who might be struggling), the celebrations have moved online.
Stephanie says that for their family, which includes four children and almost as many dogs, the online option is much better than facing crowds. One of her children is on the Autism Spectrum, and the neurodiversity in their household often prevents them from attending large-scale public events; it's simply too stressful. They prefer to go to smaller, family-friendly Pride events, where there are lots of other children and less stimuli, but this year, because of the risk of Covid-19, they'll stay home and participate in a virtual parade.
In 2018, Stephanie and Laurie got married. "There was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to be with her for the rest of my life," Stephanie said, with a smile lighting up her whole face. "Right now, I'm the happiest that I've ever been," she added, proving once again that pride is more than a single event or a movement. Pride comes from within.
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