NATCHEZ, Miss. — Just three months ago, Rob Hill was a Methodist pastor with a burning secret. But as a swampy heat took hold one recent morning, he put on a suit, climbed into his car and headed into this river town on a mission that would have been unthinkable not long ago: promoting gay rights in rural Mississippi.
It’s hardly the most audacious thing he’s done this year. In July, after 12 years in the clergy, Hill came out of the closet — not at an intimate gathering around his kitchen table, or to friends on Facebook, but at a news conference orchestrated by the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based gay-advocacy organization that is pouring $9.5 million into an effort to push the needle of public opinion in the Deep South.
It is part of a broader shift within the gay rights movement, which has turned much of its attention away from same-sex marriage now that it is legal in 19 states and the District and is a question likely to be settled by the Supreme Court. The focus has shifted to improving job protections, passing local anti-discrimination ordinances, bolstering the rights of gay parents, reducing anti-gay bullying in schools and nudging change in places that have resisted it.
Hill is now the face of that campaign in Mississippi, a state that has remained largely untouched by the recent wave of gay rights victories. So all summer, he has been going from town to town like this, to coffee shops and living rooms, coaxing quiet gays into becoming a little louder and a little angrier, urging local officials to be on what he describes as the right side of history.
He has been encouraged by the initial victories — for example, when leaders in the coastal town of Waveland unanimously passed an anti-discrimination resolution, presenting the document at a meeting with a little rainbow flag printed on the bottom. But the road forward is steep. This is Mississippi, after all, a state that embodies the values of the Bible Belt.
That was apparent even in Natchez, a community of graceful antebellum homes huddled along the Mississippi River, known to be relatively welcoming to gays. But neither the mayor nor a well-known liberal alderman had accepted an invitation to meet with Hill on this trip. At a coffee shop, card-carrying liberals nodded vigorously as Hill spoke but hesitated when asked if they would propose an anti-discrimination ordinance.
Even many local gays expressed a reluctance to rock the boat, satisfied with a kind of truce that had been struck. At the Cotton Alley Cafe, a funky little restaurant with mismatched chairs and artwork cluttering the walls, owner Guy Bass said he was sympathetic to Hill’s efforts but unsure of how aggressive he wanted to be in asserting his presence.
“We’ve just lived our lives here,” Bass, 55, told Hill. “We’re not out, I guess, but everyone knows we’re gay, and they support our restaurant, thank God. We don’t shove anything down people’s throats, and it’s worked out for us.”
Bass’s partner for 35 years, David Browning, 53, put it a little differently: “It’s great here — as long as you don’t put the pinky out.”
But being open and demanding equal treatment is exactly what the Human Rights Campaign is hoping Browning and others in the region eventually will do. The group set up permanent offices in Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama this summer in the hopes of swaying public opinion in a region that has been resisting the tide of gay rights.
“The reality is that a lot of that progress has been limited to the coasts and a few bright dots in the middle,” said Brad Clark, head of the multi-state program, called Project One America.
There is reason for the group to be optimistic. Over the past year, eight small towns across Mississippi have passed resolutions meant to create a welcoming atmosphere for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Most of them passed unanimously.
The group’s work will probably run into resistance from organizations espousing more conservative social values that have traditionally had more sway here, especially since the Human Rights Campaign is a Washington-based group with ample resources and ties to the Democratic Party.
“States of the so-called Bible Belt are kind of the stronghold for our position for holding firm against some of what we sometimes refer to as the homosexual agenda,” said Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council. “We intend to work closely with our allies there to resist some of these efforts.”
Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, a conservative Christian group based in Tupelo, Miss., that owns more than 200 radio stations across the country, said he was skeptical that the Human Rights Campaign would be successful. “Mississippians are not going to be swayed, I think, by this group coming in, in terms of their personal beliefs on GLBT,” he said. But he challenged the organization to try.
For now, though, the campaign is less of a fight than a soft pitch, made by charismatic characters such as Hill, 39, a lifelong Mississippi resident with a receding hairline and absorbing blue eyes.
While many friends knew he was gay, it was not something he broadcast publicly — the United Methodist Church does not allow openly gay ministers. Had he come out, he would have been forced to resign and surrender his credentials — a gut punch after so many years in the pulpit.
But last fall, the pressure of keeping this secret became too great a burden. He began to envision leaving, not just the church but Mississippi altogether. His partner of six years got a job in New York City, and the two were there, about to sign a lease for an apartment in Washington Square, when it simultaneously dawned on them.
“We had the paperwork in our hands and said, ‘Let’s not do it,’ ” he recalled. “We have friends here, family here, and the truth is it’s not a bad place. . . . We realized, this is our home. We shouldn’t have to leave it to live authentic lives.”
It was around that time that the Human Rights Campaign began its work in Mississippi, and eventually the group asked him to head the project. His job would be to meet lots and lots of people. He would help shepherd local resolutions and cultivate relationships with religious leaders — friendly and not — and collaborate with a lobbyist in the capital to resist anti-gay legislation and push favorable bills.
Hill quit the church and took the position. Since then, he has put on 15 pounds, which he attributed to stress. He has lost some friends and gained a whole lot more. He has all but stopped going to church. And he has become addicted to pulpy top-40 country music: Just outside Natchez, Hill cranked up the radio and shook his shoulders when the car radio blared Joe Nichols’s “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off.”
His first stop was the Natchez Coffee Co., where taco soup was on the menu and a group of regulars huddled at a pair of tables — the liberals at one, the conservatives at the other. At the second table was a 79-year-old retired stockbroker from New York who was baffled that a Washington-based group would try to infiltrate this community of 18,000 residents.
“This is a perfect little town,” said the man, who declined to give his name. “There are no class distinctions. No crime. The kids generally grow up nicely with good educations. Why would anyone come in here and try to change it? Things are just fine.”
Hill’s purpose is not to challenge his foes but to find friends. So he had arranged a meeting with Mary Jane Reed Gaudet, a seventh-generation Natchezian and a local mover and shaker who is known for her embrace of progressive causes. She had assembled a group of local gays and activists, including the community-theater director who had caused a stir with his production of “La Cage aux Folles,” a musical centering on the lives of a flamboyant gay couple.
They told Hill that their town was surprisingly accepting. When a local publication outed an area official whose mother didn’t even know he was gay, the community hardly blinked, they said.
Hill asked if they would propose an anti-discrimination measure to the local board.
“It’s very accepting here, but it’s just not something you talk about,” Gaudet said, expressing her preference for “indirectly approaching conflicting feelings, whether it be race relations or gay and lesbian things.”
His final meeting of the day was more encouraging. Margaret Perkins, 56, whose family owns the local radio station, and her partner, René Adams, 48, said they were in favor of an anti-
discrimination measure as well as more-binding state laws that would prevent employers from being able to fire employees for being gay.
Perkins recalled the times when she had held her tongue while her co-workers prattled on about their weekends, fearful she might slip up while telling some mundane story and inadvertently reveal she is gay. “Why should I act like I don’t have a life?” she said.
But the couple suggested a more circuitous route rather than directly taking a resolution to town leaders. Why not start with a pitch to the tourism board that being gay-friendly is good for business?
Hill said it was a good idea and agreed to come back another time, when the pair would throw him a fete to meet more locals — and perhaps set up a meeting with that progressive alderman he missed this time around.