The Traveling Ally: Why Cody Barlow Tours The South For The LGBT Community | by Forbes Magazine
This June, unassuming country boy Cody Barlow, 28, was just trying to support his LGBT friends and family when he used duct tape to decorate his truck's tailgate with a rainbow flag and his now viral message, “Not all country boys are bigots.” It was intended as a local pride month gesture, but the photo he posted on Facebook took off, unwittingly placing Barlow in the position of semi-professional ally and ultimately setting him on a course through several of the South’s pride events as he spread his message of equality. In this Q&A, Barlow explains what led to his “fifteen minutes” and what he intends to do with his current platform as he hits the road.
Describe life in your hometown, and what you think it’s like for an LGBT person living there.
My hometown of Wagoner is a relatively small, but growing community. It is one of those places where it seems like everyone knows each other. There were less than 100 students in my high school graduating class and high school football is a big deal in Wagoner. Our team has won the state championship many times. Wagoner county is made up mostly of farm land and many people spend time at the lakes and rivers, fishing, swimming and tubing. There is not a great deal of culture or diversity in Wagoner, but it has a large amount of travel through it due to two major highways intersecting in the town. The majority of people in Wagoner are kind and exemplify "southern hospitality." The LGBTQ+ community is not openly supported there and most younger people keep their LGBTQ+ status a secret until they are old enough to move away to a larger city. It is not a dangerous place for the community, though. Typically, most people keep their opinions to themselves, and just want to “live and let live.”
Why did you decorate your tailgate in a town where most people keep their opinions to themselves?
The inspiration to decorate the tailgate of my truck developed over time and several factors influenced my decision. I have family and friends that are LGBTQ+. I also served with people in the United States Navy that are LGBTQ+. I had learned about their experiences from speaking to them—about the things they have dealt with over the years, including hatred, judgement and even their own family and friends turning their backs on them. Also, the media seems to be filled with a great deal of negativity, including hatred toward the LGBTQ+ community. While I was deployed, I was able to gain better perspective on life in the United States. It seems that the core values of being an American have been overshadowed by people inflating the value of their own opinions. Unfortunately for people in the LGBTQ+ community, the way they have been treated has been a "norm" for so long that many people ignore the fact that they are not being afforded some basic human rights. I wanted to spread a message of acceptance, hope, love and support. With so much negativity going on, I wanted to create something positive that made people feel more welcome in their communities. No one should have to live in fear or shame because of who they are or who they love.
Did you receive any backlash from anyone in your community, particularly family or friends?
I have not seen backlash from any personal family or friends, at least not yet. Anyone who chooses to treat others as second class citizens for who they are, who they love, their skin color, their country of origin, the language they speak, their religion or lack thereof or physical appearance is definitely no friend of mine anyway. In my local community, I have not been approached in a negative manner. I see people occasionally giving me dirty looks, but typically people only say hateful things on social media, probably because they feel a false sense of security when insulting people over the internet, as though there are no repercussions for their actions.
What are some of those negative comments saying?
The negative feedback I have received seems to be the same typical responses, just from different people. Many of the people leaving negative comments or sending messages try to disguise their hatred with religious scripture from Christianity suggesting that homosexuality is an abomination and that people who are LGBTQ+ will burn in hell if they don't repent. Others tell me I am a disgrace to the state. Some have called me a slur that is commonly used as a derogatory term for homosexuals and starts with the letter "f." Many have referred to the movie Brokeback Mountain when talking about my "country boy" label. I don't respond to the hatred. It would be a waste of my time to argue with those people. I would rather spend my time making people feel more welcome in their communities, bringing people together, giving hope and support to others and showing love to people who want nothing more than to enjoy the same freedom, protections and rights as everyone else. The goal is to drown out the hatred with love.
What positive responses have you had?
The positive feedback has been overwhelming. Some of the reactions I received have been very emotional and heartfelt comments and messages telling me how much this positively impacted them, brought them out of a dark places, gave them hope and restored their faith in humanity. Several people have suggested I become a motivational speaker or run for some kind of public office. It started letting me know what kind of an impact this was having on people's lives.
Is this why you decided to take your truck on the road?
The inspiration to take the truck to pride events came from the responses I have been receiving. Because this had given so much hope and support to people, I wanted to be able to meet them in person, shake their hands, give them a hug, see the emotion in their eyes and hear their stories first hand. I don't like that social media is too impersonal, and it feels artificial. I wanted to be able to meet and support the people that had reached out to me to tell me how this had impacted their lives in such a positive and powerful way. Initially, I had received requests from members of the LGBTQ+ community to come to pride events, starting with the Fayetteville, Arkansas, parade, so I reached out to the event organizers about participating and they approved it. After that, I began receiving requests directly from the event organizers of other pride events.
And how have you been received by the community at these events?
The reception of the truck upon my arrival at the events is overwhelming. People cheer, clap, scream and take pictures. They run up to talk to me and ask to take photos with me. I have received a very warm and loving welcome at each of the events I have attended. Some people have broken down in tears, barely able to get their words out, telling me how much this had positively impacted their lives, or the life of someone close to them. These were very emotional experiences that opened my eyes more to what this community has dealt with their entire lives. It has been a beautiful and eye-opening experience.
You’ve been to at least 5 pride events this summer and you’re attending Diversity Weekend in Eureka Springs, Arkansas this weekend, so it looks like your message is extending well past pride month and you’ve updated the truck a couple of times already, including “Drown out the hatred with love!” and “Diversity is beautiful.” What are you plans moving forward, and how do you see your role as a public ally impacting your future?
When I first started this message, I only planned to keep the message on the truck for the month of June, but I did not realize how much this was going to impact so many people's lives. I want to continue supporting such a great community of people as much as possible. If it continues to do some good and bring hope to people, I will continue pushing forward. I am not sure what to expect as far as my role as an ally. I never expected it to spread as far as it did, or impact people all over the world, so it is a growing and learning experience as I move forward with this. I just want to spread some hope and love to good people.
I'm sure you’ve learned a lot about the LGBT community you’re supporting since this began just a couple months ago. Could you summarize some of that?
I have learned several things about this community since this started, including the history of Stonewall, the various aspects of diversity within the community, some of the challenges that the members of the community face, what life was like for many of them growing up and how hard it is for some of them to stay hopeful through everything that they endure.
Many LGBT people fear for their safety. Now that you’re a public advocate, especially in a traditionally unreceptive region, do you ever fear for yours?
I do occasionally feel a bit more watchful in some areas, but I don't feel overly concerned. I have the means to protect myself, and will exercise that right if necessary, but so far it has not been an issue. I keep a good level of vigilance though. I am fairly confident, but I am not cocky or foolish. If someone like me feels uneasy in some areas, I can only imagine how hard it must be for someone in the LGBTQ+ community.
You’re putting a great deal of time and energy into a community you don’t identify with. Why is it so important for allies to speak up?
It is important for allies to make their voices heard because, demographically speaking, we make up the majority of the population, and if we sit idly by and do nothing about others spreading hatred and intolerance, we are allowing the problem to continue. People that disagree with the LGBTQ+ community have negative, preconceived notions about them, and will likely not listen to people that are from the community. I feel as though they may be more receptive to a message coming from someone more like them.
I am not sure where all of this is heading, or how life may change for me in the future, but for now I am just an average guy that wants to try to do some good with the time I have in my life. I like to go fishing, swim at the lake, float the river and take my truck mudding. I also really enjoy traveling to different parts of the world and experiencing new cultures and diversity. I haven't traveled for a few years, but I hope to soon. I want to remind people to stop for a minute and reflect on life, and remember to treat others with compassion and love—especially those that they do not understand. Life has countless potential opportunities that are amazing and beautiful, and everyone deserves the opportunity to experience as many of them as possible without being harassed or harmed.
Thank you Brandon Schultz and Cody Barlow!
Cody Barlow visited Eureka Springs, AR on August 2 - 4, 2019 for our Summer Diversity Weekend Celebration. In the true style of Eureka, he was welcomed with open arms.