Marisa Richmond: Unbuckling the Bible Belt


Graphic by Abigail Potter / MTSU Sidelines

Transgender: of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity differs from the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

Bible Belt: an area chiefly in the southern U.S. whose inhabitants are believed to hold uncritical allegiance to the literal accuracy of the Bible (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

Born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, Middle Tennessee State University adjunct professor Marisa Richmond lectures her students on women and gender studies every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. But for Richmond, the study goes beyond the classroom: Since transitioning from male to female 16 years ago, it’s become a way of life.

Still though, her lectures ring true.

“In the classes this semester, we’re looking at gender and sexuality around the world … to understand there are different attitudes, regardless of where you are, based on your culture and based on your religion,” Richmond said.

Richmond lives in the heart of the Bible Belt, and even though she understands that background and beliefs affect an individual’s attitudes toward the LGBTQ community, it doesn’t dismiss the fact these people receive harsh criticism. Especially when you’re a public figure like Richmond.

As a volunteer lobbyist for the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition at the state capital, Richmond has experienced people from all backgrounds.

“There were a lot of people who had missed stereotypes, and I had to educate them,” Richmond said. “Some of them were very negative … especially when I got media coverage; there were always people who were outraged.”

Rather than fight those at odds with the transgender community, Richmond focuses her energy on those willing to accept the concept.

“What we deal with in the political reign is what we call the movable metal, so I usually don’t deal with (hateful) groups,” Richmond said. “I’m looking — particularly as an educator and as a public figure — to deal with the people who are willing to listen and willing to read and learn and are trying to understand. That’s the moveable metal that I seek to try to reach.”

Richmond has made it a mission to pave the way for those like her. In 1992, she co-founded Nashville’s transgender support group, known as The Tennessee Vals.

The Tennessee Vals pride themselves on being a “non-political, educational, social and support organization founded and designed to educate and support persons regarding transgender issues, without prejudice, regarding sexual orientation, sexual identity or gender identity.”

“I would point people usually to that to look for resources,” Richmond said. “That’s the thing, there are resources now that are more readily available. The internet is a way of connecting with a community, either with your hometown or elsewhere.”

Richmond has noticed issues with transgender minors expressing themselves due to hostile families. Oftentimes, these are the individuals who deal with blocked internet sites that could otherwise serve to support the individual.

“In Nashville, they can come together for peer support and find resources for their parents to help them understand better,” Richmond said.

It’s no secret that the transgender community and the Bible Belt don’t mix well. But Richmond is determined to find a way to make it happen, almost as if she’s unbuckling the tightly clasped belt herself.

This story originally ran in MTSU Sidelines’ October 2017 print edition. For more information, contact Editor-in-Chief Brinley Hineman at editor@mtsusidelines.com.

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