I am from Houston, Texas. At least, that is what I say on day one of discussion section whenever we go around making our introductions: name, major, year and ideal date (or whatever the GSI has come up with that day).
Of course, my statement is technically false. I am really from Spring, Texas, but no one knows where that is — unless there are still some diehard Big Bang Theory fans out there who know way too much about Jim Parsons (and yes, hypothetical fans, thank you for asking, he and I did attend the same high school). Spring is close enough to Houston to not feel rural, but not close enough to get a vote for Houston mayor or have a say about what goes on in the city. So it was never really home. Houston was more a form of intangible validation for us that we did not live in the backcountry; after all, the fourth largest city in the United States was just a quick drive away. I was closer to the small town of Conroe than I was to the big city, but I didn’t really exist in either.
When I tell people I am from Texas, I normally get one of three reactions.
The first is “Wow I never would have guessed! You don’t have an accent.” This is one of my favorites because I do have a slight drawl at times, so what that phrase really means is that I don’t sound like the kind of caricature of a Southern accent that every single poor family on every single sitcom always has.
The second reaction I get is a sort of “Oh,” coupled with pity — as if they are so sorry to hear of my plight, as if being from a Southern state is a great burden to bear. (Which, well, we’ll get to that.)
The last reaction, though, is my favorite and the most common, especially when I’m talking to Californians. It’s the, “Oh wow, you must be really happy to be here, then.”
And of course the answer is yes I am, and I did give that answer for a while. I’d laugh about Texas and how difficult it was there and how glad I am to be here. And all those feelings were true and still are.
From as early as 7th grade, I knew I could not stay in Texas, and I did everything in my power to give myself the greatest chance of achieving an escape. Texas was no friend of mine; it was a place where I felt streamlined into a certain identity that was not really me. I was in the closet. I was working through years of religious abuse.
And also it’s humid as hell there.
So yeah, I am happy to be here, because I dragged myself here through sheer willpower and spite, and managed to leave Texas with both my middle fingers straight up. But I’ll never forget the time my sophomore year at UC Berkeley when someone grabbed my hand to tell me I was “safe now.” I get those reactions all the time because there is a fundamental disconnect between the way the South is portrayed by coastal elites and the way the South actually is.
People fail to realize that there is not a single Southern experience. I’m a white woman who, until recently, presented as traditionally feminine. The entirety of Southern society was built around the idea that my innocence and safety needed to be preserved at all cost, so the South I experienced was in accordance with that framework.
Yes, the environment was incredibly toxic, but until I came out, I never had to fear any sort of threat to my person. Complications arose as I distanced myself from religion, dressed and presented more and more masculine, and, of course, eventually came out as a lesbian. I didn’t do any of this explicitly until I left, though. So I was always, technically speaking, safe in the South. But I left anyways — because I was drowning, because all the Southern paternalism in the world did not outweigh the fact that I no longer fit.
But it was not California that saved me, nor was it the liberal haven of Berkeley (though those did provide me the refuge I needed to figure shit out.)
So I left. It was not the only option. It was not the right or wrong choice. It was what I needed to do in order to best become who I am. Other people stay in the South, and that is its own form of victory. Many others experienced oppression far more acute than I did.
There is no one Southern experience, but this is mine.
Danielle Hilborn writes the Thursday column on finding your home. Contact her at