"We don't exist -- you didn't know that?" he added. "We're zero. We're nothing."
'Those legs don't look too hard to break'
Over a three-day period in Franklin County, CNN videographer Brandon Ancil and I met nine gay, lesbian or bisexual people -- four of them in cohabitating couples. None answered the census, however, either because they were confused by the questions, did not receive a form or weren't living together at the time of the survey.
In the case of the man in the store, who didn't want to be named because of fears it would hurt his business, he doesn't live with a partner because it would draw attention.
To the government and their towns, they're largely invisible.
But they do exist.
Finding the first gay couple in Franklin County was the trickiest. On our first day there, a Saturday in early January, Ancil and I struck out in about a dozen interviews. People told us either there weren't gay people here, that there were but they didn't know them -- or that they thought people looked gay but weren't sure about the facts of the matter.
With our options dwindling and the rainy, gray skies getting darker by the minute, we resorted to a bit of gay stereotyping. When we saw a hair salon in Meadville that was open on a Saturday (most businesses close by noon), we decided to give it a try. (I know, I know. It's trite and offensive. But we were getting desperate.)
Inside the salon, we met three football-ready men who didn't exactly want to give interviews. One threatened (in jest, I'm pretty sure) to come to Atlanta to rough me up if the story didn't show Franklin County in a positive and accurate light.
"Those legs don't look too hard to break," he said, eyeing my thighs, which are toothpicks to his tree trunks.
I laughed and lied by saying I could probably outrun him.
The owner of the funky, bright-colored salon, Jennifer Whitehead, 38, and her husband, Braxton, 37, were happy to have a conversation about their gay friends, two of whom live right up the road. Both of the Whiteheads said the Christian church is the foundation of this community, and that's why people here tend to be against gay rights. They hate the sin of being gay, they said, but don't hold that against a person.
"A sin is a sin," Jennifer said. "I sin every day."
She called up her friends, a lesbian couple whose hair she cuts and asked if they'd be willing to talk to the national media about their sexual orientation.
No way, I thought. Too easy.
"You have my keys?" she asked her husband.
"They're in the cup holder."
Soon she was leading us to the lesbian couple's house.
'This is my home'
Kristyn Lovett and Bobbie Jones live only a block or two from the main intersection in Meadville. An iron sign on their front lawn declares it "Happiness Hill."
Lovett, a 28-year-old with cropped hair and an affinity for PlayStation, deer hunting and camo jackets, greeted me in the front lawn with a handshake. I said I was excited to meet her given that the census says she doesn't exist. She laughed and told me she and Jones, 35, are completely open about their orientation. If they had gotten a census form, she said, they would have answered the survey truthfully.
The couple sat down on the porch swing in front of their 1890s home to chat about their gay lives in no-gay land. A dog kept plopping itself down in their laps while they talked about how good life is here: Family members include them in bonfires and backyard barbecues; they're raising a 12-year-old daughter; both are from small towns in Mississippi and feel attached to the land. "This is my home," Lovett said, "and I'm not going anywhere. You couldn't get me out of this county."
But, despite their insistence, being out has caused them subsurface problems.
While we were in Mississippi, the couple were planning a commitment ceremony. It was scheduled to be held last weekend in Florida, a state that, like Mississippi, bans same-sex marriage by constitutional amendment. The marriage won't mean anything on paper, they said, but at least it will be a nice setting, and it will affirm them as a family in the same way it would any other couple. I spoke with Lovett's mother, Angie Watson, a 43-year-old with platinum bangs, about the ceremony, which she planned to attend because she loves her daughter.
When the brides kiss, however, the mother planned to look away.