story and photos by Mark Benton
When Focus contributor, Mark Benton, moved to Jackson, Tennessee in 2013, he had lived in many large cities but never a city as small as Jackson, population 70,000. He had always been active in the local gay community where he lived. In Jackson, he scratched his head and asked himself “where is the gay community?” With a population serving over 165,000 people there had to be a statistical queer population of at least 5,000. At the very least 2,500.
Benton began involving himself with local groups, churches and the arts community. His spouse, Mike Millson, had moved to Jackson in 2007 to be closer to his daughter. Mike wasn’t sure that a politically and active “OUT” Benton could adjust to the slower lifestyle that Jackson adhered to. However, the “Mayberry lifestyle” and old southern charm lured him to purchase a home there in 2014. He noticed how the gay community attempted to quietly blend within the framework of the community.
Most would flee their city on the weekend and travel to the more gay active cities of Memphis and Nashville. Benton was active in organizations in both.
In September of 2016, Benton and a man named Eddie (last named withheld for privacy) formed the “Jackson Men’s Dinner Group, specifically for gay men in Jackson and the local area. The group started privately on Facebook and quickly gained a membership of over 140. Now, each month they select an area restaurant to dine at. Usually around 25 attend. It has been a success for over a year and membership continues to grow.
In January, Benton took a leap of faith and started Equality Jackson, a virtual LGBTQ community center. Its membership grew to over 400 in less than two months. Benton understood that Jackson had a vibrant yet disconnected LGBTQ community. He realized that Equality Jackson could be the connecting element in bringing the LGBTQ in his community together. This June, Equality Jackson became public to all of Jackson.
What exactly is Equality Jackson?
Equality Jackson is a virtual community center for Jackson and the local area. Our office is in my home (by appointment only). We are currently studying whether to be a 501(3)c organization.
We offer LGBTQ resources and important information that can be accessed right here in Jackson. We support three dinner groups and are currently reaching out to two local LGBTQ student groups: one at Jackson State Community College and the other at Lane University. We are developing a supportive role with West Tennessee Health Consortium Group in our fight against, and education on, HIV. We are also reaching out to our local NAACP chapter and will participate with area churches seeking a more affirming dialogue with their LGBTQ members. We made our presence known this summer at the weekend (and well attended) Farmers Market. I was ecstatic how well received we were.
What are you doing to affirm the rights of gays in the area?
Our public and private presence alone helps affirm the lives of our LGBTQ community. I spoke about gay rights at the Madison County Democratic Party, of which I am a member. We placed an historic marker for the LGBTQ community in our area. I was able to get them to redefine their nondiscrimination clause to include gender identity. I hope to make our presence known to our local Chamber of Commerce. We want to make sure that businesses in Jackson are nondiscriminatory to everyone, including LGBTQ residents. We are also starting a campaign called «I LOVE JACKSON AND I SUPPORT LGBTQ EQUALITY.»
What is the mission of that campaign?
Basically, It will be an online petition that all members of members of the Jackson community can sign. I believe this campaign will help break down the perception that smaller cities like Jackson are homophobic. As more people and businesses sign the petition the more Equality Jackson hopes to break the barriers of fear surrounding the gay community. While living in smaller conservative communities can be a challenge it doesn’t necessarily mean that all conservative small city people are homophobic.
You recently had a small Gay Pride event sponsored by EqualityJackson. What was it like?
I can’t begin to tell you the support I received from businesses in Jackson and LGBTQ organizations from Memphis to Nashville. It was well attended and we had great entertainment and speakers.
Tell us more!
We had Mid-South Pride, NAACP, West Tennessee Health Consortium Group, Choices, Tennessee Equality Project, Lambda Car Club of Memphis and Mr. Friendly (Fighting HIV stigma) speak and Redemption Road Horse Rescue speak. I just wanted to cry tears of joy. My friends who lead these organizations took time out of their already busy schedules and drove to Jackson to support Equality Jackson. We had plenty of food, drinks and entertainment. Chaz Coffman and Kate Deliriouz were splendid entertainers.
What else is happening with Equality Jackson?
We are working with Ray Rico Freelance in launching our website later this year. I wanted the best and Ray’s work is known in the Mid-South to be superb. The website will have a list of resources in our area. Everything from affirming churches to professional services, legal referrals, health services and other supportive LGBTQ groups and business in our area.
In September we begin a third dinner group. Called “The Rainbow Connection,” it will be available for all LGBTQ people and allies to attend. Currently there is a men’s and women’s dinner group.
How can one contact Equality Jackson to get involved or seek information and resources?
Currently you can reach me at my cell number which is 731-394-1154. Email: benton. email@example.com. We are located on Westwood Avenue, Jackson Tenn. (please contact us first for an appointment). You can become a member of our private Facebook community by friending me on Facebook. Through me or another member, we can place you in our dinner group sites. Our motto is «STANDING STRONG TOGETHER.»
I have to say that placing FOCUS Magazine in a half a dozen business and colleges has raised awareness of our need to connect our community. I hand out over 200 copies of the magazine every other month. Lastly, I must say, that without the encouragement and support of my beloved spouse, Mike Millson, I could not have done all that I am doing. It feels great serving your community and connecting lives for the better.