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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March 30, 2011

Is This Feminism? I Don’t Know. This is Texas.

Earlier this year, I wrote about young women who are learning at a disturbing antebellum pseudo-reenactment to be Southern belles of a highly disempowering kind.

Check out this photo of my wonderful step-daughter Alissa, and notice that she is not exactly behaving like a hoopskirted and helpless young lady:

There's a time to talk feminism, and then the time for talking ends.

Now, Alissa has not attended a consciousness-raising encounter lamenting the violence against women.  She did witness physical violence in her home — her mom with her step-dad — bad fights.  Her father (my husband) is a wholly non-violent guy, but her mom preferred another man with whom she used to have physical fights regularly.  Alissa learned about violence, and she will have none of it, and she has not chosen any kind of consciousness raising support group that might be the choice of a woman from the Northeast to achieve this clarity of purpose.  Is she a survivor?  You bet.  Could she also shoot to kill?  You bet, without apology, if necessary, to protect herself.

Is this feminism?  I don’t know.  This is Texas.

Alissa is in a relationship where she and  her future husband (they’re engaged) talk like the most traditional of Southern couples.  Toby, her guy, thinks of himself as the man of the house, and she understands herself as a lady.

But just look at her — would you mess with her?  Don’t try breaking into her apartment late at night, because even if Toby isn’t home right then, she will mess you up but good.

A lot of women in the South, particularly in Texas, use the rhetoric of Southern belledom, but what they really mean is never quite what their ancestors meant.  They mean more what Molly Ivins meant.  They mean more what the late governor of Texas Ann Richards meant.

Texan women refer to themselves as ladies, but don’t mess with them.  They are women, too, and as they say down South, they ain’t too saved to whup yer hide.

Alissa has a job where she earns more in salary and benefits than her fiance does at present.  This is a problem for neither of them, at least in the short term.

She intends to wear a  poofy white dress on her wedding day.  All shot guns may be left at the door.

An armed society is a polite society, a male friend of mine from Texas often remarks.  If you get an invitation, you’d better RSVP.  If you RSVP yes, you’d better bring a nice gift.

Here comes the bride.  Go ahead, make her day.

February 20, 2011

Fiddle-dee-disempowerment — Why every feminist should watch the movie SOUTHERN BELLE

Last week at the Oxford film festival, I saw the scariest film I had seen in a good, long while.  The monster that re-emerged from its crypt was not a slime-covered zombie, exactly.  The thing that made me afraid of things that go bump in the night was not a decaying ghoul.  She was wearing a hoop skirt, a corset, and she was about sixteen years old, very cute, in fact.  My horror was not due to her so much as the people who were using her image to try to take away twenty-first century women’s sense of their own rights and leadership potential.

This girl is beautifully dressed for her disempowerment lessons

Makewright Films, run by two outstanding documentarians, Kathy Conkwright and Mary Makley, documented without apostrophe, for no comment is really necessary, the 1861 Anthenaeum Girls’ School in Columbia, Tennessee, where the antebellum South attempts to rise again, at least the version of it that a man who is clearly at odds with twenty-first century uppity Yankee women like me, founder and historical revisionist Mark Orman has concocted.

The sad thing is that the actual Anthenaeum Girls’ School in Columbia, Tennessee in the actual year of 1861 (not the undead reenactment version) was a place that was exploring the possibility of conferring empowering educations to young ladies of the South.  The actual place, shut down some time after shots were fired at Fort Sumter, was a four-year college for young women — this at a time when women’s post-secondary education was a very new thing in this country, North and South.  However, Mark Orman, with the conspiracy of several older women, is painting a version of that academy’s past that has no historical foundation.  Rather, he gives a speech where he claims to twenty-first century high school girls that the war was over states rights (a view recently decried yet again by credible historians in The Washington Post as recently as this past week) and not slavery, that a greater percentage of freed negroes who remained South owned slaves than did white people in the South, which even if it proved to be true would in no way justify the institution of slavery.  He even draws on Paul’s epistle’s exhortation, “Slaves, obey your masters,” as a God-sanctification of the institution as it was practiced in Tennessee in 1861.  Let me tell you what I REALLY think, in that offensive Yankee way I have — Mark Orman’s views are repellent, they stem from a clear insecurity about real women’s agency in our current society, and if I were not a Christian (who by the way, would never own slaves or think God wanted me to), I would be out looking for him to kick his ass right now, preferably in front of a bunch of men who would laugh at him later for being beat up by a girl.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I have spent a year in the New South — and believe me, brother and sister Yankees, it is not like a black-and-white film strip with fire hoses plowing down scared African-American students praying on courthouse steps.  It is a place of vibrant questioning and repositioning, not always smoothly, but always toward a better place.  New Southerners are optimistic, progressive, intellectual, curious, and excited about new possibilities in their region and beyond.  Guys like Mark Orman are part of a South that New Southerners reject.

Again, I say don’t misunderstand me.  Look at this blog — you’ll see a hundred references to Gone with the Wind, a seminal document for Southern Culture.  However, at the 1861 Anthaneum Girls’ School, they tell the young women who come there to participate in what can only be loosely called a reenactment that Southern ladies are not allowed in hoop skirts  to behave as Scarlett O’Hara.  Instead, they exhort them to behave like Melanie Wilkes.  Even if I were the most racially and gender-issue insensitive teenage girl bitten by the fashion bug of 1861, I would drop my bustle and get out of the hoop skirt right then — because Scarlett is awesome, and Melanie is mealy-mouthed.

Once they have laid the foundation of  a false construction of racial issues in the South, they then proceed with their primary project — that of teaching twenty-first century girls that being a lady means being self-effacing, having no right to decide to move even from one part of a room to another without a proper escort, that it means never standing up to a bully in any direct manner.

Understand that the girls who attend this so-called school are marvelous young women — one was there poignantly looking for a trace of her deceased mother, whom she had seen in a period costume photo taken at Dollywood.  Another was clearly bitten by the aforementioned fashion bug, and with the complicity of her mother, she had a million outfits that were spectacular — making her the belle of any Edith Head Hollywood production set in the Old South.  Another girl, who won a prize for being the best lady of the term, was bright, lovely, kind to others, beautiful in old-world terms (think not slutty-looking), and mentioned a desire to climb the corporate ladder, but she had decided she wanted to do it — she actually said it — without equal rights.  If I were a relative of  hers, I’d be staging an intervention right now.  The last, and possibly the most disturbing story of the whole film, was a rather geeky girl who had tons of personality, lots of opinions.  The film leaves her looking more poised and grown-up, but she says that she has  learned that a lady is someone who doesn’t stand out — she is a part of the background, only part, as she put it, of the big picture.

That’s why I’d go to Tennessee, but for the love of Jesus, and beat that fat Mark Orman to a pulp if I hadn’t made a promise to God to behave in a manner not more ladylike but more Jesus-like — for that girl, the one whose character he apparently crushed.

Why do I take this so personally?  Because, I, too, received without irony the disempowerment lecture that these girls received.

When I was in eighth grade, I attended a girls’ school — Castilleja School for Girls.  On Founder’s Day, back in the 1980s, the year I was in eighth grade, they made us listen to a lecture from the vice president of the alumni association.  She told us in no uncertain terms that ladies  do not pursue careers and marriages — that the few most spinsterly among us might just need a career, but those of us with the slightest feminine charm should go trolling for a rich husband whose career we would support with our intellectual efforts and whose children we would raise without seeking something that credited us apart from this family unit.  Even in eighth grade, some of the girls there had already begun trolling, with their mothers egging them on.

This vice president of the alumni association was eloquent — I remember most distinctly something she said, even today.  She said that any woman who had ever protested or fought in any indirect way for her rights, including the right to vote was “a wingless valkyrie of questionable sexual orientation.”

What a vivid turn of phrase!  Clearly, she had done well in English before she quit thinking for herself.

I remember, at age 13, sitting there, in the front row (because I had arrived almost late), realizing that I had just seen it all spelled out for me.  On one side of an insuperable barrier — there were the ladies, like the woman with the face lift and the slicked-back bun in front of me, talking, insulting my grandmother and great-grandmother and mother, who were all pioneering heroines for women’s rights.  On the other side of the barrier — there were my ancestresses and women in viking garb, singing  but not flying, Marlene Dietrich, who had already impressed me with her powerful, pan-sexual ethos sizzling on the screen in fishnets in black and white, and other women, complicated, maybe not all happy.  However, at least they were not pretending to be happy like the women on the other side, the ladylike side, of the barrier. These wingless women were apparently talking in loud tones about things they really cared about, not like the Castilleja’s mother’s club, that pretended to like each other but stabbed each other in the back while wiping their vampirically lipsticked mouths with monogrammed napkins when any of  the others of them would leave the lunch table — yes, I had heard them, too.  I knew whose party I wanted to be invited to — it wasn’t the smug supper club.  It was the wingless valkyrie rave.

I thank Castilleja School for Girls for trying unsuccessfully to disempower me for the twenty-first century.  It clarified a bundle of things.

I left the next year and went to public school in no small part because of this speech.

I thank the makers of Makewright films for clarifying things, too.  I have never  been prouder of my ancestors who fought with the Yankees against slavery.  I have never been prouder of myself for speaking loudly, having opinions and demanding that others who may not find  them palatable hear them, for getting arrested for women’s rights and for the end of Apartheid.  I know which side of the barrier between Old South and New South on which I belong, and that Mason-Dixon Line I will never cross unarmed.

Every feminist should watch this film.  The fight isn’t over.  The grapes of wrath are still in the field waiting to be trampled.  If anyone wants to come trample them with me, let me know.

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