Tate Rich Hoskin’s gateway to self-expression was a fuzzy bear hat he wore in middle school. The furry bear’s head sat atop his own, its arms billowing down like a scarf with fuzzy pink paws on the ends. It was the pinnacle of early 2000s it’s-not-a-phase-mom fashion.
His small group of friends thought the fluffy accessory was fitting, timely and fashionable, but the majority of Hoskin’s peers stared at him asking, “What is wrong with you? Why are you like this?”
Those comments didn’t stop him. Soon, he was polishing his fingers and, occasionally, wearing makeup. That’s when some in Manchester, Ky. — a conservative, Southern Baptist town of just over 1,500 people — grew uncomfortable with Hoskin’s efforts to challenge gender norms.
Some of his teachers even jumped in on the harassment. “That’s when I realized how people could really be in the South,” he said.
Now 23, Hoskins can be found on TikTok swinging his hips in a French maid’s uniform, fuzzy cat ears and cowboy boots for more than 679,000 followers. His most iconic video received more than 91.3K comments ranging from gushing adoration to reportable harassment. One user, dressed in a camouflage pullover, made a duet video leaving viewers with the question: “Oh my God, what has America come to?” Another responded saying he finally found his type. With more than 8.3 million likes, Hoskins started conversation about the intersection of Southern values and LGBTQ rights.
@tatehoskinsthis is the energy we’re taking into 2021 #lgbt #country #cowboy #newyearnewme #duetthis♬ Hai phút hơn – marlene
But Hoskins doesn’t believe these identities are in conflict, affirmed by the supportive community he found after his videos went viral. In fact, many LGBTQ Southerners discover communities of fellow country queers through social media.
After all, the South is home to more queer individuals than any other region in the country, according to Out In The South, a non-profit organization working for LGBTQ rights in the South. One in three LGBTQ adults live in the South, and despite those numbers, the South only receives 3 to 4% of domestic LGBTQ funding every year.
Hoskins’ viral video has inspired many Southerners to come out of the closet, try dressing against the stereotypes and speak out against homophobic responses on the internet.
“When I put on [the dress] for the first time, I felt powerful,” he said. “I felt like the baddest baddie around. Putting yourself out there in front of 10 million people or more has given me the biggest confidence boost.”
@tatehoskins#stitch with @tatehoskins addressing the hate :heart: spread positivity in 2021 #country #south #lgbt #gay #MyStyle
Hoskins didn’t always have that confidence and coming out in the South as a gay man was rocky at first, he said. Before shifting to homeschool because of harassment, Hoskins came out to a close group of 8th grade friends and confided in a school counselor who immediately contacted his mother.
“My mother was very Southern Baptist and didn’t want me to be gay, so she picked me up and took me to church for an exorcism,” he said. “We are good now, and we laugh about the situation.”
After coming out to his mother, things got easier. And despite some hateful comments on his new platform, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
Social media has played a similar role in Auburn Kelton’s life. Kelton, a Huntsville, Ala., native who lives in Boston and works as a graphic designer, remembers her youth pastor showing a scene from Glee of a gay kiss followed by a lesson on why that behavior was wrong. It wasn’t until she was 15, that she used Tumblr to interact with normal people from all over who “just happen to be gay.”
“I remember the first time I thought I liked a girl,” she told Reckon. “I was 16, and I thought, ‘No, being gay is OK for other people, but not for me. I repressed it until I was 19.”
Coming out to her family was not easy, but the fear of being cut off or disowned never came to fruition because her parents took the news better than expected. Kelton felt a huge weight “lifted from her soul” after letting go of the lie.
For a while, Kelton said she had trouble grappling with her Christian upbringing and being a gay woman.
“My church friends didn’t want to hear me talking about being gay, and my gay friends didn’t want to hear me talk about being a Christian,” she said.
It wasn’t until college that her network of friends, allies and communities started to expand. Since then, her mindset on being a gay Southerner has changed. She now feels far more accepted and passionate about where she is from.
After studying at Auburn University, she produced a magazine for her senior thesis called, “Backporch,” an editorial look at the sides of the South that mainstream media miss. It started as a “love letter from [Kelton] to the place” she grew up in, the project said.
During her research, she came across a quote from Stark Young, an American professor, in “I’ll Take My Stand,” a 1930 essay, “…the South changing must be the South still.”
She has chosen to reclaim that for herself. “LGBTQ culture in the South is different than anywhere else,” she said. “It is everything that Southern culture is — hospitable and welcoming — but without the stereotypes that we are forced to hear growing up. And that culture is here and thriving.”
There is still work to be done, though, as shown through comments on Hoskins’ videos and the suffocating stereotypes that are pushed at young ages.
Turner Cowles’ first experiences dating as a queer man in Fairhope, Ala., did not end well. Cowles came out when he was 15 to Southern, Catholic, Republican parents. And at school, he was one of the first his age to have figured out who he was.
For a while, his only connection to South Alabama’s queer community was Grindr, a dating app for gay, bi and trans people, but it never led to real connections. One of his first instances of meeting someone from the app ended in what he calls a sketchy encounter that turned him off from the platform for years.
Cowles currently lives in New York with his boyfriend. But during the pandemic, they packed up and stayed with his parents on the Alabama coast for two months. They enjoyed their time back in the South, but the answer to whether he considered himself Southern drew a mixed response.
“A lot of stereotypical values that Southerners have are at odds with the stereotypical views of the queer community,” he said. “People kind of look at it like ‘queer’ and ‘Southern’ are on opposite ends of the same spectrum. They are not. They are wildly different. One is a social community and one is your family and heritage.”
The thought of moving back home to be near family, near the water and in Fairhope is an ideal thought, he said, but Cowles is unsure of living in some areas of the South with his partner. Videos like Hoskins’ offer hope, but the comment section also sheds light on the amount of work still to be done.
“I still don’t know how I feel about holding [my partner’s] hand walking down the street there,” he said.
And the fear is warranted. No Southern state has statewide non-discrimination protections and 71% of anti-LGBTQ laws introduced in statehouses across the country in 2017 were introduced in the South, according to verified and updated research from Out In The South, a non-profit organization working for LGBTQ rights in the region. In contrast, the South has more than 750 queer assets in the region, with Georgia, Texas, Florida and North Carolina leading the way in resources.
And in reality, social accounts like Hoskins’ are included in the change-making efforts, and he hopes his account continues to be a safe and welcoming place for people to let loose and be themselves.
“More than money and a possible career path, I didn’t think that making TikToks would have the emotional and meaningful impact that it’s had,” he said. “It’s been overwhelming.”