The 20-year-old gay man -- the one who's afraid his dad could kick him out of the house -- said being teased for so long has made it easy for him to dish back insults instead of taking them to heart. "I had a girl tell me I'm going to hell because I'm gay. I said, 'Well, you're going to hell because you're a slut!' " he told me, beaming.
"I stay here because I love my little hometown," the man with the potbelly said. "It's beautiful here. I have my store and a garden. You learn to be tough here -- you really do."
He's also resolved to die alone here.
Another reaction is to live a full, happy life and hope others take notice. That's what the lesbian couple on "Happiness Hill" are trying to do. Lovett and Bobbie Jones know their parents don't approve of them 100%, but they do know they have their love. The couple don't try to stick out, but they're also not ashamed of who they are. They're not hiding.
That feels scary sometimes, but they think it's worth it.
They're pushing for change in a quiet, individual way -- the way Franklin County is more likely to accept. One night, I went with the couple to a backyard bonfire. (I thought that term might be an exaggeration, but it's literal; we're talking person-high flames.) Several family members were there. So were half-a-dozen friends. They sat on the back of a pickup, at the edge of the pine forest, beneath a sky pebbled with stars, listening to country music on the radio. (Ironic radio song of the night: "When a man loves a woman.") One man kept running around the back of the bonfire and throwing diesel on it unexpectedly, which led me to keep touching my face to check for eyebrows.
In this fire-and-booze-enabled environment, people were happy to talk about gay life. Some friends tossed out over-enthusiastic compliments to the couple, noting their bravery for living here openly. ("Y'all are f---ing bad f---ing a--! I love y'all to death!") Others teased them about their sexual orientation. One told Lovett she was like a man except for the fact that she was "born without one," referring to the male anatomy. But the couple don't really take offense at that sort of thing. Teasing means people are getting more comfortable with their sexual orientation.
"These are like profiles in American courage," an Atlanta gay rights attorney, Greg Nevins, said when we were discussing rural, gay life.
For all the talk of a "watershed" moment in the gay rights movement -- a time when states vote to approve same-sex marriage, when a president equates Stonewall with Selma, and when anti-gay NFL players are quickly and sternly rebuked -- there are still plenty of places like Franklin County, where being gay is seen as shadowy and sinful but where people like Lovett and Jones continue to live their lives, just the same.
They're the real heroes of the LGBT rights movement.
At first, it was easy to blame people in Franklin County for perpetuating anti-gay sentiments. Preachers tell their congregations that gay people are on a path to hell. Parents hear these messages and pass them down to kids who, if they so happen to be gay, are more likely to commit suicide or become homeless than their straight peers. Our society's hesitancy to wrestle with sexual orientation results in real consequences. Forty percent of homeless youth in America identify as LGBT.
But the longer I stayed in Franklin County, the more I realized we're all to blame for this -- gay and straight, religious and secular. We're not quick enough to call out anti-gay hate speech, too ready to tolerate people who are different, to hold them at a comfortable distance, rather than understanding and embracing them. And, in the gay community, we're too shy about being who we are, especially if we find ourselves in seemingly hostile or unwelcoming territory.
On our last day in Franklin County, Ancil and I picked up lunch at the grocery store in Meadville because everything else in the area was closed for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Both of us were sick of on-the-road fast food, so we got packaged salads, pretzels and juice -- not exactly the fried Southern fare you see in most restaurants around here.
I didn't think anything of it until we sat on a bench on Main Street in Bude, near the train tracks, a sawmill churning in the distance, two dudes eating lunch together out in the sun.
Will they know I'm gay by the food I'm eating? Should I have gotten a burger?
Trucks pulled in and out of the nearby hardware store.
Are these jeans too tight? Why didn't I wear a baseball cap instead of hair gel? Do these glasses make me look out of place? City boy. Probably queer.
Legs uncrossed. Shoes planted on pavement. Knees apart.
I know this is stupid.
I didn't want anyone to notice.