Nonbinary Love in the South: A Queer Love Story of Health, Pride, and Resistance | GLAAD (2024)

Shayla Lawson, an award-winning author, poet, and journalist, has captivated audiences with works such as This Is Major and I Think I’m Ready to See Frank Ocean, demonstrating their extensive poetic range. And back in Februruary of this year, gave us a coming of age work, How to Live Free in a Dangerous World: A Decolonial Memoir. But this Pride Month, Lawson and their non-binary partner showcase their activism and pride in a different way in the South.

Nonbinary Love in the South: A Queer Love Story of Health, Pride, and Resistance | GLAAD (1)

Earlier this month, non-binary author Shayla Lawson and their partner orchestrated a “queer medical shotgun wedding” in a defiant act of love and resilience. The extraordinary event was not just about tying the knot but also about securing healthcare for Shayla’s disabiltiy amidst the restrictive environment of the South. Faced with the life-threatening implications of pregnancy and anti-abortion legislation, they swiftly organized a guerrilla wedding ceremony in just five days to coincide with the start of Pride Month. For these two nonbinary, non-monogamous individuals, this wedding was a bold statement against the oppressive institutions that seek to control their bodies and lives.

Nonbinary Love in the South: A Queer Love Story of Health, Pride, and Resistance | GLAAD (2)

The American South, with its complex history surrounding racial and queer oppression and signifcant healthcare disparities amongst the Black and LGBTQ+ community, paints a stark backdrop for Lawson’s narratives. This region has been a battleground for some of the most regressive anti-LGBTQ+ laws, such as “denial of service laws,” and reproductive rights legislation in the United States. And with 1 in 3 LGBTQ people being based in the south and 1 in 5 of that population identifying as black, studies have continuously shown the lack of care and protection shown to Black queer individuals, despite it being a large portion of the population itself. And for someone like Lawson, who identifies as non-binary and black, these legal and social hurdles are not just abstract issues but daily realities that shape their existence.

The intersection of reproductive rights and healthcare access adds on to these layers. In recent years, the rollback of reproductive rights, caused by the repeal of Roe v. Wade, has intensified the struggle for bodily autonomy. And for many, including Lawson, the stakes are particularly high. Access to comprehensive healthcare, including reproductive and gender-affirming care, is a crucial aspect of their well-being. And Southern states’ restrictive policies often deny or limit this access, forcing individuals to navigate a fraught and discriminatory healthcare system.

Nonbinary Love in the South: A Queer Love Story of Health, Pride, and Resistance | GLAAD (3)

For Lawson and their partner, the decision to marry was not only a celebration of love but also a strategic move to secure healthcare coverage amidst a precarious legislative landscape. This “queer medical shotgun wedding,” was necessitated by the harsh realities of the American healthcare system.

GLAAD had the opportunity to chat with Lawson about this special milestone as they delve into the significance of their wedding, the impact of living in the South, and the broader implications for the Black LGBTQ+ community.

Nonbinary Love in the South: A Queer Love Story of Health, Pride, and Resistance | GLAAD (4)

What significance did starting Pride Month with your wedding hold for you and your partner, especially as nonbinary, non-monogamous individuals?

In both Black and queer communities, marriage has been held out from us as a means to say who gets to be whole, valuable, virtuous beings in the eyes of the state. In this country, Black people have always been outside the binary—a means to keep us constantly wanting, comparing ourselves not by what we have but what we lack. In love too, we’ve been relegated to the margins. Ogled, exotified, but rarely given the advantage of love that offers full personhood. Although both nonbinary and nonmonogamous identities sound trendy, they have global, longstanding, global ties to ways of living that have been lost to the caste system of colonialism. It’s okay to be rich and polyamorous. It’s alright to be white and demand respect for your pronouns. But, as BIPOC people, we don’t always have the community support to live our lives openly. To us, it’s important to use the institution of marriage as an opportunity to shed light on these battles. To change the tide. To take the stance that fluidity is integral to the very fabric we of humanity, not a sideline fighting for recognition. In our family we love to remember that Pride was a protest. Michael was raised by a queer Black mom at a time where marriage wasn’t an option. We never forget how, and for how long our people have been separated from recognition. We’re more than just gay and straight. We’re a rainbow of opportunities for expression.

Nonbinary Love in the South: A Queer Love Story of Health, Pride, and Resistance | GLAAD (5)

Can you share more details about your “queer medical shotgun wedding” and how living in the South influenced you to make this decision to ensure health insurance coverage for your disability?

It’s a special kind of day at the doctors’ office when they ask you “has anyone ever told you it would be dangerous for you to get pregnant?” Lethal, even. Particularly in the time of repeal of Roe v. Wade. What’s happening right now in the realm of healthcare bans for trans and womb-bearing people is a particular form of oppression. In a country that advertises itself as the land of the free, healthcare should be a basic right but we’re living in a diseased time. The timing of our marriage was based on the fact I needed an extensive surgery to protect my right to a healthy life. And this coincided with the moment I was losing my health insurance, battling to keep my job as a professor in a disabled body. We wanted to make the story of our marriage public as a way to shed some light on what the fight for intersectional equity looks like on the ground level. We have LBGTQI+ people across the country fighting not one but a number of systemic battles against the institutions our country serves over the good of its people. We have to figure out-of-the box ways to combat the suffocation of our autonomy. Of our human liberty. We can do that by taking to the streets, but also through how we turn those very institutions that hold us down on their ear to serve in our protection. As Marsh P. Johnson put it, “You never have all your rights unless you all have rights.” This was one small way we could answer her call, by ensuring that we—as two people who love each other—didn’t allow each other to fall victim to an unjust system. A wedding’s cute because everyone loves a good love story. But the bigger picture here is that love saves lives, and we live in a time where we need to be brave enough to do that for each other. Love each other enough to keep our hearts beating.

Nonbinary Love in the South: A Queer Love Story of Health, Pride, and Resistance | GLAAD (6)
Nonbinary Love in the South: A Queer Love Story of Health, Pride, and Resistance | GLAAD (7)

How has your experience and story been received by your local community, and what message do you hope to convey through sharing it?

Mixed. Too many people get caught up in the idea of “Congratulations, you’re married!” without considering the circ*mstances. This was a beautiful, creative, choice but also one borne out of necessity. Marriage is a social contract that provides legal protection. If we lived in a country that provided universal healthcare and didn’t practice wide-scale discrimination against disabled people, we wouldn’t have gotten married. At least not this soon. The other issue is people who want to judge a book by its cover—“two hot straight, looking people, what’s the big deal?” Being Black, there’s still so much complexity around what it means to be “gay enough” to claim LBGTQI+ community, and that can be heartbreaking. The ignorance is an uphill battle. But it’s also a worthy pursuit. A lot of people don’t realize that, of all forms of discrimination health care bias is the hardest to combat. We want to share that story for so many who are suffering. We’ve seen the ways our union has opened eyes and changed minds. It feels good to contribute something more to the world of weddings than just serving body and face.

What advice would you give to others in the LGBTQ+ community facing similar health and legal challenges?

Number one, you’re not alone. When the world talks about queer community, there’s this perverse obsession with who people are in bed with. When what we know on the inside is that it’s about who you are family with. Our greatest achievement as queer people is how we’ve liberated the family structure to tend to each other. And within those groups we recognize the compounding factors of marginalization meant to keep up powerless. We’re not just queer. We’re queer and BIPOC. We’re queer and economically suffocating. We’re queer and disabled. We live at multiple intersections that spell death in the communities of bigotry that surround us. And yet, we thrive. And yet we Pride and force the world to see the power in our colors. In our family, we remind each other regularly, “Never forget that Pride was a protest.” Which means, no matter what strides we make activism will always be our primary path toward equity. Our health care system is corrupt. Our legal system is designed to protect the people with the most money to put into the system. But never forget it’s a Goliath v. Goliath battle. You had the bravery to live openly, to heal, to build self-awareness in a world that said you are not worthy of safety. Never forget how much you’ve overcome.

Nonbinary Love in the South: A Queer Love Story of Health, Pride, and Resistance | GLAAD (8)

How has your relationship with your partner evolved through this experience, and what strengths have you discovered in each other?

You know, that’s one of the tricky things about a medical shotgun wedding, we didn’t have a ton of time to prepare for the future in advance. But that’s what’s wonderful about being queer. Because we’re queering the structure of our relationship, we’re on no one else’s timeline. We don’t buy into the marriage plot, so we don’t take it for granted this is “the end” of a fairy tale. We do family therapy; we make sure to sit down and have the deep conversations that’ll help us get to know one another every day. And we queer romance to build a love without limits. We’ll celebrate our one-year anniversary dating during our hometown’s Pride celebration. One day, we plan to get legit engaged. It’s cool that we can do this, it’s cool that we can make marriage evolve in same ways humankind is. That’s the queerest sh*t imaginable, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Nonbinary Love in the South: A Queer Love Story of Health, Pride, and Resistance | GLAAD (2024)
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