"It's a strange thing to me."
She can't stomach the idea of seeing her daughter kiss a woman.
'The only gay person in the world'
One gay rights activist I spoke with termed this condition the "Southern Closet." The door may be "wide open," Knol Aust told me, but gay people of Mississippi are still sitting inside "with all the clothes and high heels" -- the accouterments of gay life.
Straight people don't dare look in. And gays fear stepping out and being seen plainly. Both parties tolerate each other at a comfortable distance, with angst, hatred, ignorance and fear simmering just below the surface -- unspoken but always understood.
That may not sound so bad. It's better than being openly hostile, right? Gay people in Franklin County tend to describe gay-straight relations that way. We all get along, just so long as we don't talk about it. No need to flaunt it. It's not up for discussion.
Sometimes emotions do boil over, though.
Take Nicki Jones, 35. In a county where people leave doors unlocked and keys in their cars, she has installed a security camera over her porch. A neighbor several months ago sprinkled roofing tacks all over her gravel driveway, she said, to try to flatten her tires.
That same neighbor used to yell anti-gay slurs at her from his car.
"Small children will call you a 'faggot' around here," said Zac Case, a 24-year-old who isn't gay but has an ear for these sorts of things because he has friends who are.
In addition to "fag," which seems to be the preferred local term, gay men in Franklin County also are said to be "pissing glitter," "farting rainbows" or have "sugar in their tank." No one seemed too shy about sharing these slurs with me. One 20-year-old gay man, who asked not to be named for fear his dad, who knows about his sexual orientation, would kick him out of the house for publicizing it nationally, said he's been called "fag" so many times in Franklin County that he's "used to it."
There are other terms for gay women. Nicki Jones' partner, Christina Gibbs, 23, has co-workers who tell her that her boss calls her "cat licker" and "carpet muncher" when she's not in the office. Gibbs said the couple have a good life here in Franklin County. But they know to stay out of the spotlight. "It's the Deep South," she said. "You're in the Bible Belt. I'm not going to say people view you different. But you don't have a lot of friends, I guess."
The words also can turn into actions.
The man with the potbelly said his brother beat him up regularly -- breaking his nose once -- because he liked to read Shakespeare and pick flowers as a young kid. Boys in Franklin County play football and hunt. None of that sissy stuff.
"I thought I was the only gay person in the world for a long time," he said.
Nicki Jones also has been hurt with more than words. Her upper body movement is stiff, like that of an action figure, because, in 1994, while she was living in Covington, Tennessee, she was attacked and ultimately knocked off an embankment in her car after a man accused her of sleeping with his girlfriend. She hadn't, she said. But the injuries stay with her -- a long scar on her neck telling the story of four vertebrae that were fractured. The trauma led her into an addiction to pain pills that she said she's only recently been able to kick.
"You're not going to see us holding hands around here," she said.
The county has been blessed with the gift of understatement.
'You can't subtract your upbringing'
Gay people, of course, react to this environment in various ways.
I met a 56-year-old artist who said he is trying to distance himself from "the lifestyle" because it conflicts with his religious beliefs.
"You can't subtract your upbringing," he said.
Nor do you dare ignore your surroundings.
Robbyn Raquel Wallace, 36, is without a girlfriend, in part, she said, because she doesn't want to upset the town -- and because raising her middle-school-age daughter has to be priority No. 1.
"I personally have never had a major problem with anybody about being gay," she said. "I'm not liberal. I'm very conservative, but I'm open. If you look on my Facebook page it says I'm interested in women. I'm open. I'm not closeted. I'm not going to hang a flag up and say, 'Hey! Everybody, look! There's me!' ... My first priority is being a mom."