Many years ago, a young Chad Griffin left his hometown of Arkadelphia, Ark., to pursue a career in politics. Today, he's the newest head of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) — a powerful gay rights group based in Washington, D.C.
Together with Oxford American magazine, NPR brings this latest installment of Southword, a series about life in the South. To learn a little bit more about what it's like to be gay below the Mason-Dixon line, we caught up with Griffin — both at his office in Washington and in his hometown of Arkadelphia, Ark., where he spent his first day on the job.
"I never knew that I knew another gay person when I was growing up," Griffin recalls, describing life in Arkadelphia. "I frequently heard things like 'faggot' and 'queer bait.' "
It wasn't until many years later that Griffin would realize he was gay, let alone come out to his mother, which he did in his 20s. By that time, he had already volunteered for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign, and joined that administration in the White House as one of the youngest-ever staffers, at age 19.
"I was raised missionary Baptist. Very conservative," says Griffin's mother, Betty Hightower. "And at first it really was hard for me to say my son was gay." Still, Griffin emphasizes repeatedly, he has always had his mother's support.
Even Jerry Cox, head of the conservative Arkansas Family Council, says homosexuality, per se, is not the issue:
"Most people in Arkansas have a very live-and-let-live attitude," he says. "So if you said, 'What do people say about gays in Arkansas?' They'd be like, 'Eh, whatever.' "
Yet Cox takes issue when certain folks try to change the rules. In 2008, he led an Arkansas ballot initiative banning gay couples from adopting (which was later struck down by the state Supreme Court). And he represents long-standing beliefs about upholding the traditional family unit.
"Where the issue comes in," he says, "is when people come in and say 'I'm gay and I want to redefine what marriage is.' And people say 'Woah, wait a minute, marriage has been this way for thousands of years. We like it the way it is and don't want it to be redefined.' "
The HRC provides support to those opposing positions espoused by Cox. Griffin and his sympathizers might not win all battles, but they have won some: Arkansas is actually one of a few states that has an anti-bullying law with specific protections for sexual orientation.
Life At Home
Of course, what goes on in the legislature doesn't always reflect attitudes at home, which can prove formidable.
Take 19-year-old Alyss Parrish (that's not her real name; it's what she goes by in college in Little Rock). When she's home with her parents, she goes by her birth name. Because when she was 15, her parents found her MySpace page — and saw that she was questioning her sexuality.
"Mom started crying," Alyss recalls at a function for Griffin in Little Rock. "Dad pulled out a bible. Chanting verses, angry, extremely red-faced. I don't think I've ever seen my parents that upset before."
Her dad is a Pentecostal preacher. He said she could continue to live with them under one condition: That she say she's straight. And so she did. If she told them she was actually gay, she fears they would disown her.
Griffin says he goes home so he can hear stories like hers.
"Someone who is that young," he says, "Having to go in and out of the closet so she can hide her identity from her own parents — that's the young person that motivates me day in and day out."
Maybe this is where Griffin's southern roots come in. If he can pivot from pressuring the president one day, and the next, to handing a microphone to closeted kids like Alyss in Arkadelphia — well, she can tell you what that means:
"Having someone from this state president of the HRC? That's big! That's big for Arkansas," she says.
Griffin left the south to pursue big dreams. Alyss, on the other hand, doesn't think she has to leave home to change the world. She wants to be a Supreme Court justice. And change, she says, is already afoot in Arkansas.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Many years ago, a young Chad Griffin came out as gay in his hometown of Arkadelphia, Arkansas. He's gone on to become president of the Human Rights Campaign, a powerful gay rights group in Washington, D.C.
As part of our collaboration with Oxford American magazine, covering life in the South, NPR's Claire O'Neill caught up with Griffin on a visit to his hometown.
CLAIRE O'NEILL, BYLINE: Chad Griffin has made a name for himself in the elite political circles of Washington and L.A. But ask people in his hometown of Arkadelphia - population 10,000 - if his name rings a bell.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Chad Griffin, sure doesn't. What's he do?
O'NEILL: Well, according to OUT magazine, he's one of the most powerful gay rights leaders in the country. But of course, even the mighty can have humble origins.
CHAD GRIFFIN: Growing up in Arkadelphia, I don't know if some of you knew I was gay. I didn't yet know.
O'NEILL: That's Griffin.
GRIFFIN: If you did, why didn't you tell me?
GRIFFIN: It would have made that process so much easier.
O'NEILL: On his first day as head of the Human Rights Campaign, Griffin went home. The morning started at the Honeycomb Restaurant on Main Street, where he spoke to his friends and family at a breakfast in his honor.
GRIFFIN: I never knew that I knew another gay person when I was growing up. And Jason laughs.
O'NEILL: Jason Sheeler, that's Griffin's friend from high school who's visiting from Texas where he lives now. Neither of them were out as teenagers, as Jason remembers outside of the Honeycomb Restaurant.
JASON SHEELER: This wasn't always the easiest place in the world to grow up for sure, particularly for young boys who don't excel at football, basketball, baseball or whatever. You know, we definitely were called fag. And here on Main Street, I even whisper the word, right? 'Cause it takes you right back to how you were as a 16-year-old boy who kind of didn't know what the heck was going on.
O'NEILL: Chad Griffin may not have known what was going on with his sexuality, but he knew one thing: He wanted to go places. At just 19, he volunteered for a local politician named Bill Clinton, and rode that wave all the way to the White House. Later, as a political consultant, he played a big part in getting conservatives and liberals to work together to overturn California's Prop 8 ban on gay marriage.
GRIFFIN: If you don't talk to those who disagree with you, you're never ultimately going to bring them to your side.
O'NEILL: Griffin has a knack for politics, it seems, but also knows how to compromise. And his friend Rob Fisher says he's always been able to get his way.
ROB FISHER: His mom can tell you stories about, I wouldn't say manipulating, but being able to talk her or any teacher into anything.
O'NEILL: Or even the big wigs. Griffin was one of President Obama's top campaign bundlers. He's credited as influencing Obama's public support of gay marriage.
But back home in Arkansas, politics require a different dialect. And making change is a delicate dance.
JERRY COX: Most people in Arkansas have a very open live and let live attitude.
O'NEILL: Jerry Cox heads up the Arkansas Family Council.
COX: So if you said, what do people think about gays in Arkansas, they would be, like, eh, whatever.
O'NEILL: In 2008, Jerry Cox led an Arkansas vote banning gay couples from adopting. It was later struck down by the State Supreme Court, but still he reflects longstanding attitudes about upholding traditional marriage.
COX: Where the issue comes in is when people come in and says, I'm gay and I want to redefine what marriage is. And people say, whoa, wait a minute, marriage has been this way for thousands of years - one man, one woman. We like it the way it is and don't want it to be redefined.
O'NEILL: In the South, and wherever home may be, tradition can be a powerful force, which makes it hard to change. And even harder sometimes to just be honest with your family. Griffin's mom, Betty Hightower, wasn't surprised when her son came out in his 20s. There was no major drama. But she recalls, sitting on her back porch, it wasn't easy.
BETTY HIGHTOWER: I was raised Missionary Baptist, very conservative. And at first, it really was hard for me to say my son is gay. At one time, I was telling this person that Chad was gay. I wasn't saying it to get any kind of sympathy. I don't know, we were just talking about Chad. And he said, well, don't worry about it, God forgives all sins. And a knife went through me.
I told him very quickly that we all have had sins but this was not one of Chad's sins. Now he had sins.
HIGHTOWER: But this was not something he needed to be forgiven for.
O'NEILL: Not all parents share this attitude though. And Griffin says that's what motivates him; kids from small towns, like him, who think they have to hide who they are. On this day, he's back in Arkansas, holding a Q&A and opens the floor to questions from the audience.
ALYSS: I'm 19 years old. I'm the daughter of a Pentecostal preacher. They don't know I'm here...
O'NEILL: This is 19-year-old Alyss. Well, actually, it's not her real name. It's what she goes by in college in Little Rock. When she's home with her parents, she goes by her birth name. When she was 15, her parents found her MySpace page and saw that she was questioning her sexuality. She tells more of the story outside, after the Q&A.
ALYSS: And mom started crying. Dad pulled out a Bible, chanting verses, chanting all this stuff, angry, extremely red-faced.
O'NEILL: Alyss's dad's a preacher. He said she could continue to live with them under one condition - that she say she's straight, and so she did.
ALYSS: Because I don't want to be kicked out of the house again. So I just deal with it. I mean, they're my parents.
O'NEILL: She says that if she told them the truth, they'd disown her.
ALYSS: Oh, yeah. Oh, especially with my dad, like, being a Pentecostal preacher. This is the peak of his career, I guess. Like, more people are coming to the church that I don't want to ruin it for him. You know?
O'NEILL: Chad Griffin gave her some advice and brought her story back with her to Washington.
GRIFFIN: Someone who is that young, who should be worried about things like your next exam, instead her worry is having to go in and out of the closet, so that she can hide her identity from her own parents. That's the young person that motivates me day in and day out.
O'NEILL: This where Chad Griffin's Southern roots come in. If he can pivot from pressuring the president one day, and the next to handing a microphone to closeted kids like Alyss in Arkadelphia. Well, she can tell you what that means.
ALYSS: Having someone from this state, president of the HRC, that's big. That's big for Arkansas.
O'NEILL: And change, she says, is already afoot at home in the South.
Claire O'Neill, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: And you can see Chad Griffin touring around his hometown in a video by Oxford American magazine at our website, npr.org. On this first day of the new year, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.