For more than 30 years, Kathy Garner and Rev. Susan Hrostowski have chosen to call Mississippi “home” for their family despite numerous battles. From their secret marriage in 1993 to Hrostowski’s fight to legally adopt their son, the couple, both native Mississippians, chose to stay.
The couple opted to live in a state historically belligerent against LGBTQ+ couples because they believe there are good people who can change the culture from within.
Now, after decades of protesting and working for change and as the next legislative session nears, Garner and Hrostowski are turning their focus on building a foundation for Mississippi’s queer youth by spreading their story.
On a Wednesday afternoon in late November, Garner and Hrostowski sat next to each other on the couch while their smallest dog, Rufus, sat on the back of the cushions between them. An old, large, happy golden retriever nicknamed “Champ” laid on the floor in front of them, occasionally letting out a groan or a tail wag.
Garner and Hrostowski have fought for the LGBTQ+ Mississippi community from within this home for more than 20 years. This was the home in which Hrostowski planned an escape route in case someone from Child Protective Services came to take her son, Hudson Garner, away. They would plan to wrap him up in a blanket, go out the back, through the backyard fence, through the ditch and into the neighbor’s back room.
Hudson, to the government, was not Hrostowski’s son for the first fifteen years of his life. He had been born by artificial insemination to Garner in 2000. Even though Hudson called Hrostowski “mom”, she was not his legal mother like Garner was.
Garner and Hrostowski got married twice. The first ceremony was held in 1993 in their first Hattiesburg home with the blinds drawn shut. The couple had been living together for three years. About a dozen friends gathered, some knew what was going to happen, others thought they had come to a house blessing. The only family present was Garner’s brother, Michael.
The private ceremony was officiated by the couple’s close friend and priest. He knew by marrying the couple he was at risk of being defrocked.
Seven years later, Garner and Hrostowski’s family grew.
The couple chose an anonymous donor who shared the same Polish and English heritage as Hrostowski. They joked that many thought Hudson was Hrostowski’s biological son for his first few years because of their shared blond hair and blue eyes.
Garner and Hrostowski’s deep love for their son radiated through their words whenever they told an anecdote or recalled a memory. They both said they consider Hudson, now 23 and living in Madison, their greatest blessing.
It has been seven years since Hrostowski legally adopted her son. The couple served as plaintiffs in the Campaign for Southern Equality vs. Bryant case, which successfully overturned Mississippi’s gay adoption ban. Civil Rights Attorney Roberta Kaplan represented the couple.
“Every lesbian in the world became her Facebook friend,” Garner joked. “And so we were Facebook friends.”
Garner messaged Kaplan, saying, “We’re in Mississippi. We have all the rights and responsibilities of marriage. Now, does that mean that any adoption bans would fall? And she said, ‘That’s right.’”
Hrostowski did try to adopt Hudson in the years prior to 2016, but was told it was better not to push things. She recalled one judge telling her, “Just love that boy. He’ll be fine,” she said.
“But there was something else to it for me,” Hrostowski said. “I am his mother. The moment he was conceived, I was his mother. I just wanted it to be official.”
Politicians often justify laws such as the gay adoption ban by saying the lifestyle of gay couples are unsuitable for children. Hrostowski said she wants to invite those politicians to live with her and Garner for a few days to see just how normal their lifestyle actually is.
“Especially when Hudson was in school,” Hrostowski said. “We get up in the morning. We give him breakfast. We take him to school. In the afternoon, we pick him up. We come home. We do homework. We fix supper. We watch TV. We take him to soccer and basketball and everything he did, and then we’re exhausted. We go to sleep. We get up and do it again the next day.”
As for how they are fighting for equality in Mississippi, Garner said she considers just living their normal day to day lives their biggest contribution.
“I was a room mother. I fought many women to be room mother every year at Sacred Heart,” Garner said with a laugh. “We were active parents, and that’s what people care about.”
Early in their relationship, Garner and Hrostowski decided since they were so blessed, it was their responsibility to try to make things better for those who came after them.
“We’re still kind of on that journey,”Hrostowski said.
Garner, who has a background in city planning, has centered her career around helping the homeless population of Mississippi and those living with HIV, both of which she said disproportionately affect the queer community.
Garner has served as executive director of the AIDS Services Coalition for the past eighteen years. The program was defunct when Garner took over and she described the process as “if somebody gives you a piece of clay and says, ‘make what you want out of it.’”
The budget began at around $160,000 and now sits at $3.4 million. After retirement, Garner joked that she’ll still drive the company bus.
Hrostowski’s passions lie more in the political realm. Now a retired Episcopal priest — she was the first out clergy member to lead a congregation in Mississippi — she still teaches social work classes at the University of Southern Mississippi.
She, especially as a social work professor, is determined to help create legislative change within Mississippi to support its LGTBQ+ community.
“We are the poorest, sickest, least educated state in the country. Yet, what do we talk about during election cycles? Gay and lesbian and transgender people,” Hrostowski said.
Much of the 2023 Mississippi gubernatorial campaign focused on transgender rights, especially gender affirmation care for minors.
In his acceptance speech, newly re-elected Gov. Tate Reeves doubled down on his goal to keep trans minors from playing on their chosen sports teams saying, “We believe boys ought to play boys sports and girls to girls sports. Those threats are real.”
Hrostowski wants to shift the narrative surrounding transgender people and gender-affirming care.
“Children don’t just walk into a doctor’s office and say, ‘Hey, change my gender,’” Hrostowski said. “If you watch the (political campaign) commercials, you would think that there are probably thousands of people…dozens and dozens of men wanting to play on girl’s soccer teams. It’s just ridiculous. It’s a red herring. ‘Hey, look, we’re saving you from the trans people and the gay people.’ So, you won’t think about the fact that we are the poorest, sickest, least educated state in the country.”
Hrostowski pointed out the irony with politicians such as Reeves claiming the reason many are leaving the state is due to a lack of jobs or an uptick in taxes.
“No, that’s not what it’s about. It’s about the philosophy. It’s about the political philosophy here. That’s why people leave,” she said.
Hrostowski said recently they wanted to bring on a new faculty member at USM whom she described as “brilliant”. Before the candidate accepted the position, House Bill 1125 passed, banning gender-affirming care for minors in Mississippi. The candidate declined the position because she had a transgender child and didn’t feel comfortable moving here.
Garner has seen this same pattern while working with people in her organization.
“For many people, especially Black gay men and Black gay men living with HIV, if you have the means to leave Mississippi, you do,” Garner said. “We are having such an incredible brain drain of people who should be the future leaders of our state who can’t live here. They just can’t.”
Garner plans to continue to grow her organization so it can reach more queer Mississippians in need, even after she retires.
The non-profit recently expanded by placing an executive director in Greenville. Previously, in Mississippi, there was not an organization providing HIV prevention or care north of Jackson. Garner works with each new director for months or years before sending them out on their own.
The Greenville director, Garner said, is “a person living with HIV who is the only person in Mississippi who’s running an organization that is of lived experience.”
Garner hopes to foster an environment for more LGBTQ+ leaders.
“We’ve got to be able to provide those opportunities for folks to stay,” she said.
As the next legislative season rolls around in January, Garner and Hrostowski may not shout on the frontlines protesting and advocating for change, but they are quietly building a foundation for future generations.
“I think that’s one of the things that has been happening over the last few years,” Garner said. “My hair’s been turning grayer, and we’ve been getting older and trying to figure out, ‘Where are we relevant anymore?’ I don’t go into homeless encampments as much as I used to. You know, I don’t carry a banner and protest as much as I used to, but where am I relevant? Part of that is mentoring folks who are going to come after.”
Garner believes her and Hrostowski’s strength now lies in showing people their experience and lending others like them a helping hand.
The pair had some advice for young, queer Mississippians who might contemplate leaving the state: find your community.
Hrostowski said she and Garner have found strength in found family from their church, work and Hudson’s schools.
“Without that, we’d be lost, and it would be a really depressing existence here,” Hrostowski said.
Garner agreed and said she has found that Mississippi has actually gotten more socially conservative since her own childhood. Hrostowski added that the coastal town she grew up in has changed from progressive to conservative.
For young people who find themselves in an intolerant church, family or school, Hrostowski said to find somewhere where “people will hold you up.
“There are pockets no matter where you go of people who are open and loving and caring and who do respect the dignity of every human being and aren’t so quick to judge and block people out. So, you have to find those folks,” Hrostowski
Both encouraged young, queer folks to find their passion.
“There are many reasons not to be here,” Garner said. “But if you can find a reason to be here, whether you’re a teacher or you are an advocate or you’re an accountant, find your reason to be here, and then you can surround yourself. You can make your own community. I would encourage them to stay because Mississippi needs them.”