Statistically speaking, Franklin County should be straighter than John Wayne eating Chick-fil-A. The middle-of-nowhere rectangle in southwest Mississippi -- known for its pine forests, hog hunting and an infamous hate crime -- is home to exactly zero same-sex couples, according to an analysis of census data.
In other words: It's a place where gays don't exist.
At least not on paper.
Before I visited Franklin County, I figured there must be gay people living in Straight County USA. But I didn't expect anyone to be open about it -- and with good reason. As part of this op-ed project, I recently ranked the Hospitality State as one of the least hospitable for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, based on its lack of legal protections. In addition to allowing gays and lesbians to be fired because of who they are, Mississippi is also gracious enough to let landlords evict gay residents.
Those are great incentives for a gay person to become invisible. And being invisible, of course, could mean avoiding census workers.
I drove to this place of rolling hills and misty valleys with a few questions on my mind: Can there really be such a thing as an all-straight county? If so, what is it like to be someone who never has met a gay person? Do you just watch "Glee" and figure it out?
If there are gay people in Franklin County, what keeps them hidden?
I spent a few days searching for answers before I realized I was making the wrong assumptions: It's not that gay people here (or anywhere really) want to be in the closet, necessarily. It's the rest of the world that pushes them in and shuts the door.
'Limits exist only in your mind'
My first mission in Franklin: looking for any superficial signs of gayness.
There's a gas station named ABBA and a purple hair salon called Sassy Fraz. In the window of the Bude Thrift Store, there's a piece of fabric with the words "LIMITS EXIST ONLY IN YOUR MIND" stitched on top of a rainbow. The Homochitto National Forest (insert middle-school laugh here) occupies about half of the county's land.
Other than that, Franklin County is pretty much the straightest-seeming place you could imagine. Its 8,000 residents (population density: 45 acres per person) are concentrated primarily in three towns: Bude, Meadville and Roxie.
Roxie's downtown is home to an empty swing set and about five rusted and abandoned buildings. One resident described it as a ghost town in the making and told me I could take a nap in the dirt road and would be safe all day because no cars would be coming through. It looks like the set of a post-apocalyptic movie. A zombie wouldn't seem out of place. Bude has a train depot and a hardware store with a sign in the window warning of alligator attacks ("... alligators should not be fed or molested in any way. Dogs can be a food source for alligators.") Camo print is everywhere. Meadville, the county seat, boasts a restaurant called The Feed Mill, which specializes in feeding bread pudding to people, not animals. A convenience store between towns keeps pickled pig lips next to the cash register.
It's a far cry from Chelsea or the Castro.
Racially, the county mirrors the rest of Mississippi: 64% white and 35% black. Residents are proud of the fact that there's only one school in the area, which means the kids all are educated together, as opposed to in segregated private schools. Housing is not as integrated. Cross over the railroad tracks by the sawmill in Bude and you find yourself in "The Quarters," as in "slave quarters." That's the primarily black area of town. Tell white residents you plan to go and they'll ask why you're not taking a gun.
Jim Crow doesn't seem so far gone in Franklin County.
In 2007, national news crews descended on the area after a local man, James Ford Seale, a reported Ku Klux Klan member, was convicted on federal charges of kidnapping and conspiracy in connection with the 1964 deaths of two black men. The two 19-year-olds, according to prosecutors, were abducted near Meadville; they were beaten in the national forest before being drowned in the Mississippi River, with an engine block, iron weights and railroad ties pulling them into the depths. Seale died in prison in 2011.
"These allegations are a painful reminder of a terrible time in our country, a time when some people viewed their fellow Americans as inferior and as a threat based only on the color of their skin," then-U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said in 2007.
Ask pretty much anyone in Franklin County about race relations, meanwhile, and they'll tell you things are just fine.
Hours pass before anyone mentions the killings.
'Everybody knows everybody'
The same sort of knowing denial applies to gay people.
A few Franklin County residents were happy to more or less confirm what I had read from the Williams Institute at UCLA: no gays here.
Some of them were nice about it.
Dorothy Creech, a 74-year-old woman who lives in a big white house with two rocking chairs on the porch, said she never has encountered a gay person in the flesh, but she wouldn't be bothered by it if she did, partly because she loves "The Ellen DeGeneres Show." "I don't agree with her lifestyle, but I wouldn't hold it against her," Creech said of the dance-happy, lesbian talk-show host. Gay people would have a fine time of it if they did live here, she said, since folks are so friendly to people of all types.