When Devin Ladner left Kiln, Mississippi, to head out West, her new life plan had no mention of the small town that raised her.
It was 2012. Devin was 20 and had just gotten out of a long-term relationship with her high school sweetheart. Her heart was broken. She lost most of her friends.
She wanted to explore the things she was most passionate about. She wanted to write, to act, to create. But she needed new scenery.
"I hated Mississippi for a little bit," Devin said, and took a chance in Los Angeles.
At her new home in West Hollywood, Devin's life changed when she looked outside.
"It was crazy to walk down the street and see queer people holding hands," Devin said during an interview for "Out Here in America," a podcast by the Sun Herald and McClatchy that explores what it's like being LGBT in the Deep South and in America's heartland. You can subscribe now on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher.
LGBTQ couples embracing in public wasn't something Devin was used to seeing. While she dated the same man throughout high school, Devin did have sexual experiences with women. But that wasn't talked about much.
But at that moment in California, Devin said, "I was given so much freedom to be me ... I kind of rolled with it."
Devin did a lot in Los Angeles. She worked as a bartender, wrote a screenplay, starred in a short film and wrote a book called "Anaya." She even held events promoting the novel back home on the Coast.
But the South was calling her back home.
New Orleans has a film hub, and it's close to home and close to her parents and brother, Devin thought.
"I was out in LA for four years. I hate LA. A lot. For me, it left a really bad taste in my mouth when it came to things I was passionate about.
"It was more about what they could do for you and what you could do for them ... not, let's create something that's going to change the world."
In January 2016, Devin moved down South and needed a job. She went into the famous Rum House on Magazine Street to apply for a bartender position. Little did she know the first person she'd see would be the love of her life.
"Alex was working that day, and I walked up and Alex asked, 'Are you applying for a job?'" Devin said.
Needless to say, Alex convinced manager's to get Devin the job. In four days, Devin was in her first queer relationship.
"We went out and hung out one night and ever since then, we've been inseparable," Devin said.
Today, Alex and Devin are engaged and live in a quaint shotgun house in the Broadmoor neighborhood in New Orleans. They have dogs and cats, and Alex, who is transitioning and identifies as gender queer, is in school to become a barber. Devin is a sex activist and stripper and works at Penthouse in the Vieux Carre Entertainment District in the French Quarter.
Stripping is lucrative and helps pay the bills, and it's also helped Devin learn about self-worth, consent and the power of sexuality.
"I love it because it has been authentic to me," Devin said. "I'm getting paid large amounts of money to hold a space for men ... I'm being paid a large amount to listen to them in a vulnerable and kind way ... I'm getting paid hundreds of dollars to do this."
And while home is where the heart is, it's still the conservative Deep South.
While her immediate family is very supportive, a lot of Devin's family members have quit speaking to her.
"Who knows if it's because I'm gay or because I'm a stripper?" she said.
But there's more. In this episode, you'll here:
- A journey to find happiness far away from home
- Why moving home isn't always a bad thing
- Finding love and happiness in a queer relationship
- Exploring sexual identity and female empowerment inside a strip club
- How family ties are more complicated when you're LGBTQ
Got ideas for "Out Here in America?" Email suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.