The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

June 29, 2015

The Open Chiffarobe: The Uncloseted Closet of the South

Down the street from my house in Vicksburg, Mississippi, when I would take walks at 5 am in July before the day got really hot, I would often see a couple of elderly gentleman on a stroll together.  These men lived down the street from me, and they looked like any other pair of men one might see at a VFW barbecue — golf caps, t-shirts with brand names on them that might endorse a NASCAR car, jorts, sneakers with gym socks.  But these men strolled close to one another, not holding hands, but close enough to murmur secrets to one another in hushed voices.  They had lived together for decades in a house down the street from mine, only theirs had an impeccably manicured garden that they lovingly tended together.  They would often sit on the front porch together, talking.  They waved at neighbors who had known them for years.  Everyone was polite, though the men generally kept their own close counsel.

No one ever referred to these men as a gay couple in my presence, though I have trouble imagining that their relationship could have ever been construed as anything else.  Without benefit of the right to marry legally, they had nevertheless constructed a permanent relationship together that had a quiet warmth, the way I hope my husband and I share a warmth in our golden years, only nobody ever officially acknowledged this couple’s relationship out loud.

In Vicksburg, it was entirely possible to imagine someone shouting the word “faggot” at someone else, with all the bitterness and hatred the word contains.  There wasn’t a pulpit in town from which one might not hear a sermon that decried same-sex relationships as unnatural.  And yet, in a town of about sixty thousand people, there were a number of such couples.  At Shonee’s, I would often see a younger pair of men, stylishly dressed quietly enjoying a meal together.  I would on occasion see a pair of women with matching short haircuts and tattoos at Kroger’s buying organic vegetables.  But nobody quite acknowledged the presence of these relationships before their eyes.  One lesbian couple I know would go home for Christmas every year, and under the tree would be two presents waiting for them, one labeled “Teresa,” the daughter of the family, and another one labeled “Teresa’s friend,” although Teresa had brought home for Christmas the same “friend” for over fifteen years.  The gifts were carefully chosen for both specific recipients in mind, but the family, who knew these women slept in the same bed, needed to live with a pretense that this relationship was the same as if one’s college roommate invited one to visit home over holiday break because one had no other fixed plans.

This is the strange system by which the South can exist in a schizophrenic denial and in a deep division regarding their own LGBTQ communities.  In Southern red states, a great many people honestly believe they have no personal acquaintances who are non-heterosexual because they have accepted a form of omerta regarding these entirely visible relationships around them.  As a result, they are able to believe the idea that Christian marriage is specifically under attack from radical Yankee queers in a manner that would limit their own civil rights.  The civil right that many heterosexual conservatives seem to cling to in this instance is the ability to deny what is in fact really none of their business.  I think only a few people in the South still think that gay is contagious, that proximity to someone who loves people from his or her own sex will make others do the same.  Most people have understood that it would be a wider-spread phenomenon were that true.  But they feel that openness and officially acknowledging these relationships would destabilize their basic ideas about how relationships work.  This in fact may be true, but they have willfully missed the obvious for so long now they have been living a longstanding  lie.

Let's get real.  There is so much queer life in the South, they have a postage stamp that commemorates it!

Let’s get real. There is so much queer life in the South, they have a postage stamp that commemorates it!

The irony is that the South not only has a longstanding public LGBTQ populaiton, although its communities tend, as they do in the North, to concentrate in urban areas, the South has produced the most notable gay and lesbian writers in American literature.  What are the seminal works of queer literature in America?  The first ones that come to my mind are Music for Chameleons by Truman Capote, Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, Every single Tennessee Williams play, so rich in queer subtext, the novel The Color Purple by Alice Walker — and all of these works are by Southern writers. Being queer is not only a thing that happens in the South; it may be that the South actually has more people born here who want to have sex with same-sex partners than people born in the North, given the literary production of the South on the topic is so rich and diverse. It’s hard to know, though, as this firm commitment by the South to silence on this topic masks the real statistics.

Gay Southern writer Allan Gurganus once remarked that one reason why many Southerners used to be so blind to the sons and daughters of Dixie who were gay and lesbian was that a lot of those people left town the second they could.  The story people told at the church picnic about these absent relatives was that George had moved to Chicago because he got a fantastic career and loved his life as a playboy bachelor surrounded by pretty ladies. Harriet went North to teach at a girl’s school in New Hampshire, and bless her heart, she just couldn’t seem to meet the right man.  The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s made many Southern families confront the reality of certain male relatives’ lives because cousins and brothers came home to die from the disease, and this meant beyond any doubt that confirmed bachelors were not out looking to meet ladies in bars, though they might have met gentlemen in bars quite regularly.  The suffering and death of these men brought many instances of acknowledgement in private and forgiveness of past offenses, but few families declared the reasons for these deaths in public forums.  Things went along in communities the same as if these successful, beautiful sons had died of cancer, not a disease spread by sex.

I think that one of the reasons the South has resisted a closer examination in all frankness of its LGBTQ community is that the straight community would also be up for scrutiny if this ever happened.  Southern straight men cheat with comparative impunity (think of Bill Clinton’s rather prolific track record, and I am not just talking about Monica Lewinsky and Jennifer Flowers), and Southern women, while not all as committed to promiscuity as Rosemary Daniell is in her still-astonishingly-honest memoir Sleeping with Soldiers, nevertheless have a lot more extramarital sex than the Junior League is ready to announce in its monthly newsletter.  There’s a reason why STD rates are so high in Mississippi, and it’s not just because people don’t use condoms as often as they ought; people in Mississippi screw around at least as much, possibly more, than people in the North do.  But after the debauchery of Saturday night, people around here go to church on Sunday morning, where the pastor tells them that Christians don’t act like they actually did the night before.

This lack of openness about people’s actual choices in the South has led to a mismeasurement of Southern life as it is actually lived.  This mismeasurement has led sinners to feel isolated rather than forgiven. It has led to many Billy Joe McAllisters jumping off of many Tallahatchie Bridges. It leads certain others, almost as an overcompensation for their own transgressions, to vote for people who condemn their own behavior during election cycles. The rhetoric of the South does not match the life of the South, and as a result, a kind of Blanche-DuBois-like unwillingness to stand under direct light for examination can explain some of the Southern politics that Northerners find so confounding. It’s the whole South’s sex life that is really in the closet, not just the non-heterosexual sex, but any sex that isn’t fully sanctioned by marriage within the limits set by old anti-sodomy statutes.  The South wants to pretend there are more virgins on wedding nights than there really are.  The South wants to pretend that marriages are more faithful than they really are.  They want to pretend there are fewer sluts, male and female, than there really are.  And they want to pretend they don’t know any queers, unless you mean Georgia queer — a guy who likes women better than football.

I acknowledge that my Stanley-Kowalski-like desire to rip the paper lantern off the light bulb here in the South and expose the raw truths of its existence is a Yankee impulse if ever there were one.  I admit this very blog would like to wrap its arms around the South, smother its neck with kisses, and say to it, “I pulled you down off them columns, and how you loved it having them colored lights going.”  Given my many Southern readers, I have to believe that like Stanley does for Stella and Blanche, my frankness at once horrifies and fascinates.  All I can say to the South, as I lift it up in my brutal, sensual arms, is that we’ve had this date from the beginning.

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January 6, 2015

On Literary Ambition North and South — or Why My Cat is Smarter than I am

I write this on the Feast of Epiphany, having had an epiphany at 3 am, while my cat, very sensibly, is curled up in a basket of my clean socks in my bedroom, sleeping.

The greater genius is purring on the lap of the great author,

The greater genius is purring on the lap of the great author,

My epiphany: I am eating my heart out.

My other epiphany: I can read all the Eudora Welty I want to read.  It won’t make me think like a Southern lady when it comes to my personal ambitions.  This lady wrote brilliant, redolent fiction, made a dent in the American language with her words.  She said, “To write honestly and with all our power is the least we can do, and the most.”

That is awfully modest of her.  She was somewhat reclusive.  Me — I write still because at some level, I want to be a rock star at it.

I knew from the time I was young that I was okay looking but nobody’s casting choice for Bay Watch.  I could get invited to parties in Paris where there were supermodels present, but i was the funny one, not the cute one.  I was unlikely to invent something to replace the automobile, to find a sustainable energy source, to form a company that could dominate Wall Street, or to marry a viscount.  But i could write fairly well, and with some practice, and a slew of self-promotional stunts (like this blog), I figured I could make some kind of a name for myself.

Pray for me.  I have issues.  I have always had issues.

“I am called to write,” I still tell myself.  Because I am called, why am i not yet a household word?  Why is there furor over somebody’s twerking and not over my writing?

Furthermore, I cut my teeth in Manhattan, the island of the elevator pitch, the self-promoting capital of the universe, where ladylike modesty is a cover for some kind of Stepford wifery or a sign of mental illness.  Everybody, everybody — even the hot dog vendor and the man sweeping the floor in the barbershop — blows his own horn.  To brag is to breathe.  As a result, it is only the already phenomenally successful people who affect an air of modesty.  This way, people hate them less for winning at the game we are all playing.

But in the South, blowing one’s own horn is considered rude.  Star athletes only half-manage it.  The proper gesture is to look down at one’s toes, then look up, and shrug while saying something like, “Well, I do my best.”

The first time I went to a literary reading in the South, it was the author’s first novel, and he was in a room of unpublished people.  He shook our hands one by one and inquired of us who we were and what we did, then began his reading with an apology, saying he was sorry to interrupt our getting to know one another so he could share a few pages of his work.

Apologize?  Getting to know us?  That’s lunacy to the New York writer!

A possible, maybe typical, stance of a New York writer at a public reading of her first published novel looks like this:

“Good evening.  I congratulate you all on being discerning enough to understand the great occasion of my first novel, and you are ahead of the curve in hipness, better than your neighbors, for realizing my impending greatness.  Without any more delay, let me dazzle you with my prose.”

And yes — that IS why half the people in the audience came to the reading — to feel hipper than the people in the apartment next door.  That is the commerce of status in New York.

The South resists such a commerce.  Perhaps it is like the lack of snooty wine shops, the intolerance of the maitre d with an attitude at a trendy restaurant.  Perhaps it is a sense that if words matter, they matter without authorial rank.

I have adapted to this sensibility, taking cues from Bill Clinton, who when campaigning thanked everyone in the room where he was stumping, to the greatest degree possible on an individual basis, before beginning his speech.  I may seem stuck up to you.  However, I can promise you I am infinitely less stuck up than I would be in New York, where my jaw-dropping self-assurance and swagger would make (and once actually did make) Rudolph Giuliani shut his mouth.  The South has not made me a Harper Lee recluse of a writer, but it has made me understand that I was inadvertently offensive when I was just acting like writers do below Fourteenth Street and above the Wonder Wheel at Coney Island.

But another writer I know, wholly deserving of recognition, both brilliant and beautiful, gracious and personable, just got a moment of fame, and I am jealous.  I have sunk to the level of dissipation that makes me paraphrase a passage from the screen play for the movie The Interview: I am sitting at home, sulking, eating a peanut butter and jealous sandwich.  I have been swimming off the coast of Coney Island, and I have gotten stung by a jealous fish.  I am looking lady Bey in the eye, and I am singing to her, “I don’t think you’re ready for this jealous.”

I hate myself for being jealous.  Instead of being jealous, I should be winning.  I should be world-frigging-wide.  I should be beating you at breathing.  i should have groupies.  But I am sitting on my bed in the middle of the night, typing this.  Pray for me.  I have issues, big issues.  I make you look perfectly sane.

I moan to myself, “But I am CALLED to this!  Why has my career not been one Michael Jackson moon walk at the Motown Music Awards after another?”

And it is now, on cue, that my cat comes and curls up in my lap, purring.  She is so much better adjusted to her existence than I am to mine.  She is called to be a cat.  She is called to chase things like grasshoppers and the occasional bird.  She is called to stretch on the sunny spot on the floor.  Yet, she has no ambition to be the best birder on the block.  She is content to lie on the thighs of her neurotic mistress.  She will eventually go downstairs and drink from the toilet if she gets bored.  Right now, though, it is enough to rub her face against my leg, to flex her claws gently so she does not hurt me.  Why can’t i be more like her?  What kind of adulation do I think I might get?  I was a disappointment to my parents.  Winning the Nobel Prize for Literature would be awesome, but i would still have other issues.  Pray for me.

The only comfort I have this evening is that I am quite a lot like one Southern writer, a man so ambitious that he wrote much of his Southern literature up North — Mark Twain.  He made up that funny name for himself because it was more rock-star-ish than Samuel Clemens, which, let’s admit, is kind of blah as names go, kind of gaze-downward, foot-shuffling, aw-shucksing.  But “Mark Twain” is something a steamboat pilot shouts.  He was wildly ambitious, albeit in a rather discreet, Connecticut sort of way, too ambitious for a Southern man to comfortably be known to be by his neighbors down South.

Perhaps if I wore a white suit and bolo tie… Perhaps if I changed the spelling of “Babson” to “Baubson” like Faulkner changed his Falkner.  I found a picture of Twain with a pet cat.  I dare say that little cat on his lap was at greater peace than the man who imagined Tom Sawyer conning the neighborhood boys into whitewashing his fence.  I am looking around here for things to whitewash now.

This woman could write without needing to make a spectacle of herself.

This woman could write without needing to make a spectacle of herself.

October 14, 2010

Ole Missed Opportunities — why voters should re-elect Childers, then dump him in two years

 

this man's staff is incompetent, or he is

 

The voters of the first district of Mississippi should re-elect Travis W. Childers (D-MS) to Congress on November 2, and on November 3, the local Democratic Party should start looking for someone to back against him in a primary, since he is bad for the Party.  He had an opportunity to make fellow and sister Democrats running locally matter in this election, and he kept the opportunity all to himself — stupidly, since the resulting political commerce, with every Democrat within a hundred miles owing him a favor would have made him a State Party Chairman with presidential potential.

Out of a combined sentiment that this election matters and a possible nostalgia, Bill Clinton chose to stump for Childers today in Oxford at the Ole Miss Grove of football mania fame.  He gave a speech far more humble than he needed to as a former President, and his Good Ol’ Boy charm remained intact despite looking tired.  He spoke to the people at Ole Miss the way one speaks to a Rotary Club luncheon if one is running for City Council — unpretentiously, with clear facts and figures related to fiscal issues that should make any — fill in the blank here — Democrat a desirable candidate.  He spoke in football metaphors and down home vernacular, in that Clintonian way that he does so masterfully — where we see that Bubba, or “Brother Bill,” as State Attorney General Jim Hood called him at the rally, is a genius.

Before Bill Clinton got there, the mayor of Oxford, the State Attorney General, a minister, and a very good Gospel Choir, took up perhaps fifteen minutes of a two-hour tardiness not uncommon when ex-Presidents go on the campaign trail for candidates.  What was glaringly obvious was that there was a crowd, for once, of thousands gathered in Mississippi, and there was an empty space of one hour and forty-five minutes when politicians could have addressed them.

Why weren’t the candidates of the Democratic party invited to speak, even under a “time permitting” invitation?  The crowd was restless.  Delays in such situations are predictable.  So why were there no other speakers invited?

Only two answers are possible, both of them quite plausible:

1) His campaign staff was incompetent.  If I were the candidate, I certainly should choose to fire them.  They could have made him bigger locally than he currently is, and his campaign communications director is the rudest woman I have ever met in politics.  She should be fired before the sun goes down tonight.  Understand that campaign communications directors are supposed to smile and nod at everyone, even when they think they are crazy, and they are there to promote the campaign’s agenda to the electorate.  She was snotty to me in a surprising way when I asked her for the campaign manager’s name — some kind of rookie since Joel Coon abandoned him — and she did not offer her own.   I wish I could type it here.  I also wish that I could think of a more sophisticated  word than the one that comes to mind to describe her — I only think of something that one might have drunk on a now-defunct airline — TWA tea.  She’s a rude cup of that kind of tea, and she has no business working in politics in any quarter.

2) Travis W. Childers is only interested in the good of Travis W. Childers, not the good of his electorate, and not the good of his party.  I have read that he said he had an “obamatross” hanging around his neck.  I somehow doubt he said it — it’s a bit cleverer than I imagine him to be, quite frankly, so I don’t think he said that.  “Let them eat cake” is more probable, as he voted against the Health Care Bill, and he did so in order to be reelected here.  He is probably not on the best of terms with the rest of the Mississippi Democratic Party.  He is short-sighted, because he could have, by sharing the limelight just a little bit, made a good number of friends here today, even among his enemies in the Party and his frenemies in the Party. A man that short-sighted is probably myopic because of an enlarged ego.

In either case, Bill Clinton is right.  The Democrats need not to give up this seat in Congress.  However, I have to believe that there are nicer, smarter and more forward-thinking Democrats in the Oxford area, and I believe that one of them needs to run against him in a primary in 2012.

Ex-Presidents carry a cachet with them.  This election is a tough one for Democrats.  Hoarding the wealth is a recipe for defeat.  Bill Clinton is eloquent and makes me proud to be a Democrat in Mississippi.  Childers should be ashamed of the way he played politics today and owes his Party an apology.

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