Tuesday is a moment of choice for the state of Mississippi.
Democrats Michael Aycox and Michael Evans will face off in the primary for Mississippi’s 3rd Congressional District seat, which claims cities like Meridian, Natchez, Pearl, and Starkville.
Like characters ripped out of a Euripidean drama, the differences between the two candidates couldn’t be more stark: Evans, a state representative, voted in favor of Mississippi’s House Bill 1523, which allows religious businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people, but has claimed he isn’t sure if he would vote for the legislation if it came up again. The 42-year-old former volunteer firefighter believes that marriage is solely between one man and one woman.
Meanwhile, Aycox is the state’s first openly gay candidate for U.S. Congress, or any other major party seat in Mississippi. The 30-year-old Navy veteran married his husband in Central Park five years ago, before the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges ruling legalized same-sex marriage in the Magnolia State.
Aycox, who announced his candidacy on March 1, didn’t initially highlight the historic potential of his run for the U.S. House of Representatives. While friends, family members, and locals in his town of Newton, MS knew about his sexual orientation, it hadn’t factored into his message on the campaign trail. In a phone conversation with INTO, he explained that the omission wasn’t a matter of being in the closet—he just didn’t want to be pigeonholed.
“I never have wanted to be the gay candidate—not because I’m hiding, not because of internal homophobia but because being gay does not define me,” he said. “It doesn’t define any of us.”
But when Aycox’s campaign was trailing early in the race, he approached his father—who is currently employed as his chief of staff—to confess something. If they lost, Aycox hadn’t accomplished the one thing that he set out to do in this race: to make change in a state that desperately needs it.
Even though the candidate had yet to speak publicly about his sexuality, LGBTQ people would often approach him at campaign events and claim they had heard whispers that he’s gay—what Aycox jokingly referred to as “locker room talk.” Many said they aren’t out to even those that are closest to them. Given that Mississippi has the nation’s harshest law targeting queer and trans people in nearly every facet of public life, it doesn’t feel like there’s space for them to be themselves in their home state.
The Democrat claimed the “straw that broke the camel’s back” was when he spoke to a transgender woman at a Human Rights Campaign event on Derby Day in May. As they discussed her struggles to be affirmed in her gender identity, Aycox started to get emotional and did again over the phone, holding back a pent-up sob. Before being diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2016, he was part of the military class that ushered in Obama-era regulations paving the way for trans people to serve, which Donald Trump would attempt to overturn through his embattled ban.
“She told me about her service and the things that she’d done in her military career and she inspired me,” Aycox claimed. “I thought, ‘Mississippi has so much hate and yet you have these people who are living such a courageous life.’”
Days later Aycox officially came out in interviews with local press. When he spoke with INTO earlier this month, he had only been out publicly for two weeks.
While the declaration ignited national interest in Aycox’s campaign, being visible in the Deep South hasn’t been easy. The couple has received more than a dozen threats over the past month. A majority were sent to local news stations after USA Today ran a story on his candidacy, while others were posted to social media. His husband—who has largely stayed out of the limelight—was getting ready to deploy with the Air National Guard at the time.
After working as a police officer and an anti-terrorist specialist, Aycox wasn’t concerned by the threats, nor were they all that surprising. Mississippi is one of just two states in the U.S. where a majority of residents still oppose same-sex marriage. Starkville, one of the cities in Aycox’s district, voted to block an LGBTQ Pride Parade before that decision was overturned at the threat of a lawsuit.
But what was more startling was the opposition he received from local Democratic leaders. Bobby Moak, an officer in the State Executive Committee for the Mississippi Democratic Party, allegedly told Aycox the state would “never” have an openly gay Congressman and tried to stop him from running.
Aycox, who describes Mississippians as having a “rebellious streak,” remained true to that ethos by staying in the race. The Democrat welcomed the challenge.
“We’re still struggling pretty hard and fighting an uphill battle in a state that has legal discrimination laws for the LGBTQ community and I welcome that,” Aycox said. “I’m a fighter. I didn’t understand the gravity of my decision [to come out], to be quite honest. I would not do anything any different, except maybe come out sooner because then I would have more time… to be a beacon of hope for the many kids that have come out to our campaign.”
One of the most rewarding parts of Aycox’s campaign, he said, was the messages he’s gotten from LGBTQ people all over the world claiming his candidacy inspired them. A 70-year-old man who had been in the closet his entire life said Aycox gave him the “courage” to be himself.
“I didn’t do anything courageous in my eyes,” Aycox claimed. “I honestly didn’t. What I believed at the time and I do believe now was it was the right thing to do. It was something bigger than me.”
As an outsider with no political experience, the candidate faces a tough fight in Tuesday’s primaries against a representative who has sat in the Mississippi legislature since 2012—and then an even tougher one should he graduate to the 2018 general election. Incumbent Republican Gregg Harper beat Democratic challenger Dennis Quinn by more than 35 points in the 2016 race, amidst a presidential election where Donald Trump won the state by 18 points. Mississippi’s 3rd hasn’t had a Democratic representative since 1997.
But his state needs him. Following the passage of HB 1523 more than two years ago, Aycox said LGBTQ people have been forced into an environment similar to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” If he’s out eating with his husband at a restaurant and someone suspects them of being gay, they could be forced to leave. If they call the police, the authorities can’t help them—technically they’d be breaking the law by staying.
Aycox said that fear is “a little different” for him having been shot at, but these painful realities get under his partner’s skin. Sometimes when the couple is out in public, Aycox’s husband worries they’ll draw too much attention to themselves and something will happen to them. It something that’s always in the back of their mind.
“If I win this primary and I’m on stage with a Republican, someone could try to tell me I can’t be on the [debate] stage because I’m gay,” he said. “That’s legal in this state.”
But as a lifelong Mississippian, Aycox claimed he’s ready to keep fighting against legalized anti-LGBTQ hate. By getting elected to U.S. Congress, he hopes to “destroy HB 1523 from within.” The candidate views himself as a “voice of reason”: someone who can not only have conversations with elected officials but personalize the issue for Gov. Phil Bryant, the Republican who signed the bill into law two years ago. The law would be a direct attack on Mississippi’s own elected representative to the national legislature.
“We definitely have the opportunity to kind of pull Mississippi out of the dark in a lot of ways,” Aycox said. “I love Mississippi, but we’re very well known to be behind in a lot of things—education, healthcare, social justice, and just in general. We tend to be falling a little bit behind.”