Uplifting Black, Brown, and queer voices across the South—no matter who's in office.
Author's note: This past March, the Southeastern Women's Studies Conference met at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. SEWSA is the oldest and largest regional women's studies conference of its kind. This was a return to home for me—I had served as SEWSA's newsletter editor in 1980, when that meant running the publication off on a purple-stencil machine. For this year's conference, I made the four-hour drive over from my home in Alabama to offer some personal and political memories. I gave these words in honor of three ancestors from Mississippi who are no longer with us: Eddie Sandifer, a gay, white, anti-racist communist from Jackson who died in 2016 at the age of 87 after serving as a "drum major for justice and equality;" Brenda Henson, who died in 2008, a refuge from anti-woman and anti-lesbian violence who opened Camp Sister Spirit in Ovett, Mississippi, with her partner Wanda in 1993; and Laura Cates, who died in 1984 in her 80's, an African-American farm, factory, and domestic worker who migrated to Alabama from the Mississippi Delta and was the person who raised and taught me. What follows here is an adapted version of the speech I gave.
In Alabama in 1925, when my aunt Gilder Brown was six years old, she walked by herself two miles on the dirt road into town to Mr. Hick's barbershop and asked him to "cut her hair like a boy's." He laughed and asked if her mama knew what she was doing. Gilder mendaciously said yes, and he indeed gave her a boy's haircut, which she wore when she started to school that fall, where she fell in love with a pretty, very poor little red-headed girl that her mama wouldn't let her get near.
When she died with me at her side, 80 years later, her hair was still exactly that short. She never married, never told me she was a lesbian, and never used the word "trans" to describe herself. But when I brought my transgender lover home, Gilder welcomed Leslie as her younger self. And the day Gilder lay dying, she recited this fragment of a poem to me:
Say I'm weary, say I'm sad,
Say that health and wealth have miss'd me,
Say I'm growing old, but add,
Jenny kiss'd me.
She knew she could trust me with this bit of her story, because I myself had come out as a lesbian to her, my family, and the world in North Carolina in 1975, despite the fact that I'd lose custody of my two children as a result.
The queer South is centuries full of such stories, both known and the untold. A red thread of resistance binds those of us who have been "in the life."
The South is full of our queerness—35 percent of the LGBTQ population in the U.S. lives here (the Northeast is home to only 19 percent). In the Deep South—Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and Louisiana—almost 40 percent of us identify as people of color; In Texas that figure is over 50 percent. In most Southern states, 20 to 30 percent of us are raising children.
We have power in our numbers—and we need that. According to a study published by the UCLA School of Law, compared to other U.S. regions we queer Southerners are "more likely to lack employment protections, earn less than $24,000 a year, and be unable to afford food or healthcare." We are living through a terrible period, when the voices of the unashamed racists, woman-haters and queer-bashers of my segregated childhood are broadcast from the highest public offices in the land. We are living in a time when—as William Faulkner of Oxford once said—"The past is never dead, it's not even past." And yet we are also living in the now, the only place where the future can be created.
In this now, how will we bind ourselves to each other in solidarity? How will we strengthen each other towards renewed resistance, to create a future where justice and mercy triumph? I humbly offer a few observations from my own Southern queer life to that end.
One lesson: In the 1970s I was part of the Feminary collective in Durham, when Sinister Wisdom Magazine was migrating from North Carolina to Nebraska, and Mab Segrest suggested Feminary become "a lesbian journal for the South." At that time the collective was made up only of white lesbians.
Poems and stories began to come in from around the region, including a story sent by an Indigenous lesbian in Oklahoma. Then the depth of our collective's colonized ignorance and learned racism was revealed to us as we debated: Was this a "Southern" story?
In fact, we had only a fourth-grade white supremacist understanding of Indigenous Southern peoples. We had to redraw the map of what we'd been taught was "Southern." We had to educate ourselves about the death-dealing massacres, occupations, seizures of land, and forced migrations that had persecuted Indigenous nations out of the South, sending them west to Oklahoma like the Cherokee of North Carolina, the Chickasaw and Choctaw of Alabama and Mississippi, south to Florida like the Creeks and Seminoles—or north to New York state, like the Tuscarora of the Carolinas.
To create ties of solidarity in the struggle means continually correcting our ignorance and learning from the depth of resistance of those who have come before us and those who are struggling now. But learning about the history of resistance is not enough.
Lives of sex and gender complexity, represented by the term "two-spirit" and other tribally-specific terms, were integral to cultures of Southern Indigenous nations, and were rooted in the collective shared work and pre-patriarchal, matrilineal nature of their communities.
Late last year, a Choctaw two-spirit socialist correspondent now living in California wrote to me in an email: "I am from the Choctaw Nation, Oklahoma. The actual correct way to say who I am and where I'm from would be Oklachahta. Chahta… is a form of [the] Muscogee [language]. [For the two-spirit concept] we use the words Hatukiklanna (masc.) or Hatukholba (fem.) depending on how [people] define themselves. Chickasaw uses the same words; the Creek and Seminole both use Hokkolen Este, and Cherokee uses Asegi. These terms translate to 'all of them.' My tribe hold the belief that we are all two-spirited and… what is going on in one's life would dictate where one is at. An original ancient concept of gender fluid."
Southern queer lives include Southern Indigenous peoples now living "all over the map" because of colonial violence. This must not only be acknowledged, but also dealt with as an issue of justice and reparations. This is one way to thoroughly strengthen the ties of resistance binding us together in struggle.
Another lesson: My mama was deeply homophobic—she shuddered physically whenever I tried to talk to her about my love for women and my lesbian life. Born in Alabama in 1911, she was also thoroughly homosocial. All her significant emotional ties were to other women—that is, to white women like herself. As a social worker for the state of Alabama, she enforced deeply racist laws on other women—women of color.
To complete the contradiction, Mama lived through many inequities as a woman, despite her whiteness. Around 1970, she told me she was about to serve on a jury for the first time in her life. Neither she nor I knew that this justice came about because of the fierce, unrelenting struggle of the Black Freedom Movement in Alabama, and the efforts of a gender-nonconforming person of color, the legal genius Pauli Murray.
In 1966 Pauli Murray co-wrote a brief that ultimately struck down the constitutionality of the all-white, all-male jury system in the South. A group of Black women activists in Lowndes County, Alabama, asked for Murray's help after all-white juries there acquitted white supremacists in the murders of civil rights workers.
To strengthen our ties of solidarity for resistance in the Queer South has meant engaging in action, digging into the lessons of the past and the present, and deciding to be brave to create the future.
Murray, who had coined the term "Jane Crow" to describe the sexist and racist discrimination she experienced, first filed the brief to put Black people on the jury rolls in Alabama. She then expanded that challenge to a law that kept all women from serving on Alabama juries. Murray's senior law school thesis at Howard University had previously provided the strategy that brought down U.S. segregated "separate but equal" school systems in the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.
Both my mother and I were completely ignorant about where her right to sit on a jury came from. I would say that was—and is—typical of white Southerners' ignorance of the degree to which their lives, and the South as a whole, have been created by the resistance to oppression of people of African descent in the South. To create ties of solidarity in the struggle means continually correcting our ignorance and learning from the depth of resistance of those who have come before us and those who are struggling now. But learning about the history of resistance is not enough.
Queer Southern resistance is not just an intellectual struggle, but a material one. Students on the University of Mississippi are now waging a ferocious struggle about how history will be used on their campus. In the Mississippi hills where Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest once roamed with thousands of confederate cavalry to maintain white supremacy, students are working today to remove the 1904 confederate campus monument. This statue was errected as part of Reconstruction Era white supremacist backlash, a reactionary wave that rolled through the U.S. establishing the so-called Black Code "Jim Crow" laws and segregation, leading to the second Klan rising against immigrants in the 1900s, as well as the 1960s Klan assassinations of civil rights leaders and white supremacy at the federal level today.
Earlier this year, the racist Hiwaymen and Confederate 901 rallied at the Ole Miss statue with a disgusting prayer of thanks to enslaving plantation owners. Counter-protestors drowned them out with anti-racist chants.
In November 2011, I stood in the streets of Birmingham outside the 16th Street Baptist Church as immigrant rights activists joined forces with Black civil rights activists to fight the most repressive anti-migrant law passed up to that moment in the U.S., Alabama HB56. There, the fiercely strong migrant families at the Una Familia, Una Alabama event carried "Juan Crow" signs. There I also met organizer Mary Hooks, of Southerners On New Ground, holding a placard that read "Gays against HB56, Queers against HB56." I saw firsthand that resistance in the Queer South also means learning from and acting on the traditions of resistance that people bring to the South from outside of our region.
In 2014, when I was teaching up north in Syracuse, one of my students—an undocumented, gender-nonconforming Korean from Georgia—gave me a deeper lesson in expanding the map of resistance in the Queer South. Throughout the classes we shared, they were also responsible for translating long distance for parents in Atlanta who didn't know English, worrying about those parents getting arrested for having no drivers' licenses, struggling to write theory papers to weave together their own complex identities, and working as an organizer on a Freedom Bus Ride for migrants through the South in the summer. As we got to know each other, we talked about the way they and I both knew persimmons, but differently—theirs from Korea, mine from the woods of Alabama.
Repression inside the South has forced migrations outward, while U.S. aggression and economic exploitation in other countries has forced people to try to migrate into the U.S. and into the South, only to be met with the hatreds built into U.S. structures.
I saw firsthand that resistance in the Queer South also means learning from and acting on the traditions of resistance that people bring to the South from outside of our region.
To strengthen our ties of solidarity for resistance in the Queer South has meant engaging in action, digging into the lessons of the past and the present, and deciding to be brave to create the future. In 1978 I was invited to read my poetry—my lesbian poetry—as an out lesbian at the SEWSA convention in Charlotte. That was a life-altering decision for me. I was just finishing my dissertation and wondering how I was going to earn a living. At the time, everyone I knew who was a teacher who came out as queer, even at the college level, was fired from their job. But I had lost custody of my children, and as a lesbian and a woman I knew that the only hope I had for a future was to struggle. So at this professional conference, I came out as a lesbian.
I didn't haul my hope out of thin air. My decision came only a year after beauty queen Anita Bryant launched her homophobic Save Our Children campaign in Florida. Bryant specifically focused her attack on queer teachers in their jobs and workplaces, but local opposition was led by the Dade County Teachers Association—specifically by queer teachers, who even when they were afraid to identify themselves individually as lesbian or gay, organized collectively.
This organizing by Florida queer teachers, even while closeted, sparked other national campaigns, including the California "Come Out" campaign that defeated the infamous Prop 6 Briggs initiative aimed at teachers there. Ultimately, the progressive solidarity of many groups enacted protection in Dade County against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.
All of this organizing certainly gave me courage as a queer teacher and worker, though the impact of homophobia on my ability to get teaching work has been life-long. I have never held a tenured university position—in fact, during my 45 years of teaching, I mostly held one-year or even one-semester contracts, generally at low wages.
Our queer struggle in the workplace continues to be imperative in the South. We say "There are no borders in the workers' struggle," and that means no internal borders as well. That means not letting LGBTQ-phobia sabotage our worker unity. Education worker organizing in Mississippi is being led right now by people also actively involved in SEWSA. The United Campus Workers was formed under the auspices of the Communication Workers of America. The UCW will be a union for all public higher ed workers drawing a paycheck from the state of Mississippi. Linking workers from maintenance people to tenured faculty, the UCW will provide "wall-to-wall" solidarity. The significance of SEWSA from its beginning as an organizing site for the worker rights of women, and of queer people, can't be overstated.
In the Queer South, we are still fighting and we are still singing.
In 1975, I went to Atlanta to the Great Southeast Lesbian Conference when I was just coming out. One evening, along with several hundred other queer people, I crammed into a theatre in Little Five Points to watch the Dykes of the American Revolution. They called themselves the socialist DAR and transported us with a sexy queer anti-capitalist lesbian-feminist butch-femme drag show. After they sang a sizzling "Steam Heat," they led us—hundreds—in singing: "I've been cheated, been mistreated, when will I be loved?"
That's the question we are still striving to answer with our lives. We have a vision of a world of justice, where racism is vanquished, where woman-hating is ended, where gender-phobia and queer oppression is eradicated, where prejudice against people with disabilities is over forever. We are clinging to a vision of a world where capitalism crumbles forever—where the workers create a just and fruitful socialist world from the ground up.
In the Queer South, we are still fighting and we are still singing.