The Denial of the South
The South was not founded to create slavery; slavery was recruited to perpetuate the South. Honor came first. The determination of men to have power, prestige, and self-esteem and to immortalize these acquisitions through their progeny was the key to the South’s development… [I]n the South today devotion to family and country, restrictive views of women’s place and role, attitudes about racial hierarchy, and the subordination of all community values remain in the popular mind to an extent not altogether duplicated in the rest of the land.[i].
W.J. Cash, in his influential 1941 work, The Mind of the South, advanced the idea that the southern mentality is defined by its natives’ supreme conformity to their own invented status quo. Inhabitants unable to homogenize efficiently into southern culture find themselves often ostracized and shunned by the larger community. “Southern polite society has not yet faced the fact that gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgenders exist in its midst”.[ii] As Cash might argue, The War of Secession destroyed the framework of the Old South, yet its culture is preserved within Southern families—both African-American and Caucasian. Any challenge to the integrity of the family unit undermines its still shaky foundations; Homosexuality is no exception.[iii]
Sears states the immense impact that southern queers have made upon their native soil, but notes with sadness how their contributions were often relegated to the shadows. Playwrights such as Tennessee Williams, botanists like George Washington Carver, jazz singers like Bessie Smith, and novelists like Rita Mae Brown can be appreciated so long as their sexual orientation is not mentioned. “The interior contradictions of honor [hold people] in shackles of prejudice, pride and superficiality.”[iv] Skillful deniers of reality, Southerners are concerned at all costs with keeping up appearances. Thus, eccentricity is often tolerated, if only as a means not to confront private idiosyncrasies directly.[v] “This storehouse of collective private knowledge, in part, is what identifies a Southern community”.[vi] So long as “dirty little secrets” remain so, the fabric of Southern communities holds together. An expectation of flamboyance and politeness enables the South paradoxically to honor Tallulah Bankhead and Tennessee Williams, while at the same time censuring school libraries that contain homosexual material and passing legislation that denies same-sex couples the right of marriage.
Sears takes pains to separate African-American family life from its Caucasian counterpart, but the reality remains that, aside from a few trifling variations, both are rooted deeply in the same traditions. African-American society, after all, based itself upon the template of Caucasian society.
“In most cases, the social differentiation of the [African-American] community is not built upon occupational differentiation of the population, but represents the efforts of those who have achieved some culture and education to enforce standards and recognize distinction…In a Southern city, for example, the small elite will be composed of a few school teachers, a couple of physicians, a dentist, postal employees, and one or two other families who have acquired a superior status because of family property, or sometimes because of some unique position in the white community.”[vii]
Notwithstanding, the Protestant Church is a powerful influence in the everyday life of each Southerner, regardless of skin color. As Sears himself argues, “this is a culture in which the antebellum, patriarchal ethos is rooted in Southern honor, Christian faith, and an extended family.”[viii] “Americans [and Southerners] have a long history of seeing themselves as God’s chosen people. While tolerating a diversity of religious beliefs ranging from Judaism to Mormonism, Americans, in general, remain no less committed to belief in God, the specialness (sic) of their New Zion, and the righteous certainty of their earthly role to evangelize the world for God and Democracy”.[ix] This self-righteous attitude often excludes GLBT persons, as they are often perceived as antithetical to Christian morality, family cohesion, and general decency.
Furthermore, a tumultuous past and a tradition of shared misfortune unify Southerners together above all else. “Enduring great economic misfortunes and rooted in the chivalric ideals of their antebellum past, Southerners have placed more importance on family and family honor than on outward manifestations of wealth.”[x] Many Americans are aware of the large socio-economic gap that exists between North and South. As Sears argues, what often are not discussed are the differences within the South itself. Vast disparities of wealth and influence exist between rich and poor Southerners and among various Southern subcultures.[xi] The South has a long history of electing populist politicians and much scholarly research has been undertaken to prove that working class Southerners are much more liberal on economic issues than is generally assumed. Unfortunately, on issues of gender norms and stereotypes, the South remains unwaveringly conservative.
Unlike the North, where a discrepancy between public sexual image and private sexual behavior is viewed as an act of hypocrisy, clandestine homosexual behavior escapes public retribution and regulation so long as such acts do not violate the code of family honor.[xii] Sears recognizes this as a freedom peculiar to the South. Northern society adopts a more live-and-let live attitude towards its queer residents and at least acknowledges their presence; many Northerners, in particular, place higher priority upon individual expression, rather than mass conventionality.
The phenomenon of repressed distinctiveness, particularly within the context of sexual expression, cuts across the racial divide but has increasingly come to light in the African-American community. The concept of “the down low” has come to define a subcategory of African-American men who have sexual contact with other men, but do not consider themselves queer.
Sears interviews a working class African-American male, who puts the picture neatly into focus.
“First, the South is conservative. When you’re black in a black society and you’re gay it’s even harder. Blacks don’t want it to be known because they don’t want to mimic or imitate white people. They see it as a crutch and they don’t want to have to deal with it. That’s what they have been taught. They would do all sorts of things to deny that someone in their family is gay.”[xiii]
Southerners produce numerous rationalizations to explain why members of their family and prominent figures in their community cannot really be queer. In their modicum of thinking, queer men, for example, merely are more emotional and creative. Queer women merely enjoy sports and more masculine pursuits. So long as GLBT southerners do not “flaunt” their alternate sexual orientation, they are perceived as slightly eccentric and atypical to the norm.
As Sears himself proclaims, “People who grow up gay in the North are jaded. The conservative views on gender and sexuality take on an air of ambivalence in the Southerner’s imagination.”[xiv] Due to this conditioned denial, one can find many men willing to act and even dress the part of the opposite gender, if only in good fun. Sears recounts a South Carolinian ritual called “the womanless wedding” in which men dress as bride, groom, flower girl, and even soprano soloist—all of this within a strictly heterosexual context.[xv] The primarily Pennsylvanian tradition of the Mummer’s Parade, in which men dress up in flamboyant costumes and often as females, echoes this ceremony.
Sears also reveals the many intrinsic flaws that exist within the context of “hear no evil, see no evil.” The flip side, of course, is that Southern honor often reveals itself to be shallow, superficial, sordid, and ignoble. “Its reliance on shame distorts[s] human personality and individualism, forcing even the good man to lose himself in the cacophony of the crowd.”[xvi] Many queer Southerners find themselves unable to live inside the paradox. Further compounding the problem as Sears points out, the sad reality is that many GLBT southerners deliberately refuse to add their talents towards improving their homeland. Perceiving themselves as the South’s last socially acceptable scapegoat, they leave in droves to escape rampant homophobia. The South remains an unkind place to those who dare to be different. For men and women unfortunate enough to grow up particularly different, it can be an outright liability.
In defiance of these prejudicial attitudes, which are nurtured in ignorance and fear of the unknown, many southern queers refuse to take a defeatist mentality. By refusing to tiptoe around uncomfortable truths and in refusing to take a passive-aggressive approach towards their sexual orientation, they consider themselves the new rebels of their homeland, with a cause every bit as revolutionary as those espoused by their Confederate and Civil Rights ancestors. “They are a reflection of the South’s strengths and tragedies; they are the inheritors of the Southern inclination to rebel.”[xvii] With a bold tenacity as shocking as it is sublime, southern queers lead a new charge up Cemetery Ridge and stand unbowed before the threat of lynching, police dogs, fire hoses, and homemade bombs.
[i] Wyatt-Brown, Betram. Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South. New York: Oxford U.P., 1982. pps. 16-17.
[ii] William, Walter L. Growing Up Gay in the South. Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park P., 1991. p. 5 (Introduction).
[iii] Sears, James T. Ibid. p. 144.
[iv] Wyatt-Brown. p.114. qtd. in Sears, p.190.
[v] Sears p. 190-91.
[vi] Ibid. p. 191.
[vii] Frazier, E. Franklin. The Negro Family in the United States. Chicago, U. of Chicago P., 1939. p. 79
[viii] Ibid. p. 72
[ix] Ibid. p. 24.
[x][x] Wyatt-Brown. p. 22
[xi] Ibid. p. 10
[xii] Ibid. 185.
[xiii] qtd. in Ibid. p. 135.
[xiv] qtd. in Ibid. p. 247.
[xvii] Williams, p. 5