Democrat congressional candidate Michael Aycox wants to put it out there: Yes, he's gay.
An investigator with the Newton Police Department, Aycox said he's heard whispers of folks questioning his sexuality. It's no secret, he said, but he views his sexuality with the same relevance as his hair color.
However, he's also aware that he is the first openly gay candidate in a Mississippi congressional race.
Aycox is one of two Democrats on the ballot in the June primary for Mississippi's 3rd congressional district seat. Neither he or Michael T. Evans, a current state representative, is the front-runner in the Republican dominated race but, at first glance, they're pretty similar politically.
In a crowded race — with eight candidates vying for one seat — distinguishing one candidate from the next on policy can be difficult. The five Republicans largely agree on issues such as gun rights and abortion.
Aycox and Evans both agree on the importance of supporting members of law enforcement and the military, the need for quality infrastructure and funding education. That's where the similarities end.
Aycox is a supporter of same-sex marriage. Evans believes marriage is meant to be between a man and a woman.
Aycox, a 30-year-old Navy veteran, married his husband, Mario, in New York's Central Park in 2013, before same-sex marriage was legal in Mississippi.
The two eventually settled in Florida at the Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville. While in Florida, Aycox's interaction with his Mississippi congressman would eventually spur him to run for office.
Aycox was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2016 and reached out to Republican Rep. Gregg Harper's office for help with his medical treatment. However, Aycox was disappointed with Harper's response time and vowed to one day run against him. Although Harper chose to vacate the seat this term, Aycox said he wants to run for office so he can be a congressman that's "easy to get in touch with."
After a medical discharge in June 2017, the couple moved back to Mississippi and settled in Aycox's hometown of Newton. They have a black lab, Sasha, that they rescued from a local humane society and a garden full of tomatoes.
Mario is currently serving in the Florida Air National Guard and is preparing to be deployed so Aycox has been doing the majority of his stump speeches solo. But, he said, he's encouraged by his husband's support from afar.
Evans, 42, is a state representative and chicken farmer. His colleagues at the Capitol call him "Big Country," but he said folks back home call him "Worm."
After being elected to his second term, Evans retired from being a full-time firefighter in 2016 but still serves as a volunteer firefighter. In addition to his job on at the Capitol, he and his wife, Heather, "pick up eggs for a living." The two have three poultry houses for Pico Foods.
As a representative, Evans initially voted in favor of HB1523, a controversial bill that allowed businesses to deny services to people based on religious beliefs. He voted "nay" on the second vote, after the bill had been amended because he felt the bill was "controversial" and "brought a lot of negative attention to our state."
Evans, who has been married for 25 years, believes marriage is intended solely for a man and a woman.
"I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman but, I'm the type of person, I really don't care what anyone else does with their life, that's just my Christian belief," he said. "What anybody else does that's their own business, really."
Evans is currently in his second term as a state representative. While he voted for HB1523 the first time, he's not sure if he would again.
"I think people should have the right to express their religion or their non religion," he said. "I don't know if I'd vote for it again or not. I don't know if anyone has been refused services on that bill. I haven't had anyone tell me that it has. Once we voted on that bill, I have not heard anything else about it, nothing."
Aycox said he doesn't understand how anyone could look at HB1523 and not see the potential ramifications it could have on LGBTQ Mississippians. He gets emotional when he talks about giving stump speeches and meeting constituents who feel they've been discriminated against because of their sexuality.
"1583 literally shoved the community into the closet under penalty of law," he said.
While he told his parents about his sexuality when he was 20 years old and lived openly as a gay man, Aycox said he didn't feel the need to tell people "I'm gay." That changed after a recent event hosted by the Human Rights Campaign. Aycox said he felt encouraged being surrounded by other members of the LGBTQ community and wanted to speak out on their behalf.
"Until the campaign, I never really 'came out.' I didn't," he said. "This is me. It's not who I am, it doesn't define me, it's just a part of me," he said. "It's like having brown hair, it doesn't change who I am...I didn't do this to be the voice of the LGBT community. I did this for change. I did this to make a difference."
Aycox, who's raised around $2,300 in campaign funds, admittedly has zero political experience. He's betting on that fact appealing to voters to win the June primary.
"The reason I'm the people's candidate is because we've got lawyers, we've got doctors, we've got all these people who are playing the political ballgame and forgotten where they've come form," he said. "I appeal to the blue collar workers, and the white collars workers. I believe in service before self."