Friday, May 30, 2014

The Mixed Allegiances of Southern Queers

Southern queers have a long tradition of being passed over in their native region. One such example is Truman Capote, who was born in New Orleans but moved as a child to the small South Alabama town of Monroeville. There he met his close confidant Harper Lee. It wasn’t until Capote’s literary successes made him a household name that he was praised for his writing skills. Until then, his homosexuality was a liability in his home state.

Capote is only one such example.  Fannie Flagg wrote the book Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop CafĂ© in 1988. Three years later, the book was made into a successful screenplay and movie. The movie took some liberties with the original text, deliberately toning down the lesbian subtext. The film was an unqualified success in Flagg’s hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, but one crucial detail about her work was always left out. Underneath the surface, which few could bear to pierce, was the truth. Flagg is a lesbian and had once been the partner of fellow writer Rita Mae Brown, of Rubyfruit Jungle fame.

In the current day, the transgender activist Laverne Cox, also an Alabama native, has boosted her profile considerably. Much as before, her fame and profile has grown elsewhere. To this day, many would register their complaints to her gender non-conforming ways and her unwillingness to hide or at least severely downplay who she is. Though born in Mobile, a port city on the Alabama Gulf Coast, Cox attended high school at the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham, a liberal oasis in the state’s largest city, the city where I grew up. Cox came to fame through her role in the Netflix show Orange is the New Black.

In a conservative area of the country, LGBTs from the South have to make a decision of how visible they choose to be. In this regard, acceptable attitudes in the city must be balanced by rural ones. If I’d chosen to remain in Birmingham, I probably would have chosen to live in two distinct parts of town, either on Southside or Crestwood. The former is a place for libertines and misfits, the latter of which is the official unofficial part of the city where queer residents live. Unlike Midtown in Atlanta, the so-called Queer Mecca of the Southeast, no proudly waving rainbow flags confirm the identity of this part of town and it is not advertised in slick brochures by clever advertising firms.

I shouldn’t overstate the intolerance. While it is true that a different standard of privacy is in force for those not heterosexual, no acts of violence or lynchings are found. At most, being gay and proud is cause for extreme discomfort for many heterosexual residents. Upon my first visit to the city’s longest lasting and most heavily attended gay bar, the bartender made special effort to let me know exactly into what I’d just walked. Unsure if I was able to handle it, and perhaps unsure of my sexual orientation, he felt he needed confirmation on my part. In large lettering, a sign affixed to both doors let me know that if I couldn’t handle the “alternative” (a euphemism) orientation of the club, I needed to leave.

How many people walked in and found it wasn’t to their liking? If that had applied to me, I would have beaten a path to the door and gotten out as soon as I could. I have to admit that the thought did come to my mind, inhabiting a strange environment where the demographics of regular life had been flipped inside out and upside down. I’d never seen so many queer people in my life. The fight or flight response kicked in and I could feel my pulse racing.

And yet, I stayed. I heard a familiar voice calling to me at the darker outskirts. It was a lesbian friend of mine, who had set up shop in a dark corner, chain smoking cigarettes as was her habit. In those days, I was a half a pack a day smoker, and found myself quickly trading one-liners with my friend. Though she rarely engaged with any of the club-goers, it made her feel better to be around other gay people. In a self-deprecating sort of way, she often referred to herself as “a gay girl”, the way I’ve observed Sarah Silverman and other Jewish comedians reference their cultural and religious tradition as a kind of running joke.

Until recently, it was said that LGBT people stuck to the cities for a reason. Had I grown up in a small town, the very real threat of physical violence might have existed. The queer kids I knew who were from the country might never have been roughed up, but they experienced many indignities like walking through the cafeteria and having ice cubes thrown at them from all angles. Most that I encountered at gatherings like Gay/Straight Student Alliance had experienced some form of harassment and threats unfulfilled, though they were utterly incapable of distinguishing bluffing from reality.

There is much about the region of my birth, my home state, and the city I grew up that I love. The other day, I recognized that I cannot find the proper cornmeal to make cornbread. Silverqueen corn is impossible to find within a 750 mile radius. I’m a rabid Alabama football fan, part of a generation of boys who on the playground imagined themselves in the roles of the players playing in front of a huge, screaming crowd. College football is so culturally ingrained that even the television above the bar in the gay club is set to the game on Saturdays. Every so often, I feel homesick, though I am thankful for where I live now.

I know that I am not alone in these mixed feelings. Instead of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, I am a Stranger in a Friendly Land. People here take much for granted, not realizing that things could be very different elsewhere. I feel the same way when talking to what we call birthright Quakers, those who find the traditional worship I experienced in my young life off-putting and who have always eaten a steady diet of organic food and quinoa. At the risk of being preachy, they have no idea how good they’ve had it.    

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