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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August 22, 2010

Pledging the Southern Sorority of Sassy Omega

The founding mothers of Sassy Omega the week they invented the air kiss

Sisterhood  is powerful — unless it is accompanied by back-stabbing rivalry and hazing.  I am learning, having lived down South for some months now, that sororities have an enduring influence — often discouraging free thought and encouraging with every turn more and more group think.

Perhaps living in a house with other young women, wearing the  same haircut, attending numerous mixers with group-think boys in order to “snag” one, and engaging in the occasional community service as a substitute for real political engagement sounds more appealing than the bohemian and often solitary intellectual and artistic pursuits in which I have engaged ever since I saw the B-52s perform on Saturday Night Live and started dressing (back then, not now) New Wave and spiking my hair up (again, now I wear my hair unspiked).  I was never cut out for sorority life of any kind, at least until now.

One of the advantages of sorority life is an instant and institutionalized circle of friends.  I am a stranger here, and I find myself alone too much of  the time.  When I have managed to snag an invitation somewhere, I feel like a pledge about to be blackballed.  My haircut is just not standard issue, and neither  is the worldview under it.  I have been thusfar utterly NOKD — Not our kind, dear.

This all changed when I went to the Mississippi Writers Guild conference and met my Dixie Doppelganger — Lauretta Hannon. There I met a sister of a sorority I would LOVE to join  — the  one that has been occupied by women like Politico  Molly Ivins, Comedienne Brett Butler, and the shockingly frank and original girl gone wild Rosemary Daniell — that of incredibly funny and iconoclastic Southern women.  Let me call them the Ha-Ha sisterhood.  No, because it’s a  form of political subversion, not just empty laughter, the sharp collection of words these women have written, let me call them the Southern sorority of Sassy Omega.

We Northerners, Lauretta discussed in brief during her lecture at the conference, have the misconception that women down here are either manipulative and archly feminine a la Scarlett O’Hara or Super-cheerleader Republican Femmebots.  In fact, there is another breed of woman down here who dances between the expectations of ladylike behavior and subversive liberation.  They are funny in ways that men down here find a bit intimidating, unless they themselves are really, really cool.  They are sexually and politically demanding.  They are  not generally mean.  They are, however, stubborn.

The Southern sorority of Sassy Omega would appreciate my manicure and bodacious blondeur.  However, they would love it more that I’m funny and naughty and smart.  I  am pledging this Sorority.  I am willing to be hazed if necessary.  Please, oh sisters, please, invite me to the next tea dance!

Lauretta is about my age, spent time in Europe, as I did, and she, too, coped with her family’s dysfunction with bad 1980s  hair dos.  Later, like I did, she became a writer, publishing and promoting the bejeezus out of an autobiographical  book of humor and pathos entitled The Cracker Queen.  Lauretta is wickedly funny — called by one magazine “the funniest woman in Georgia.”  While I’m beginning to believe  that being the funniest woman in Georgia, given the general lack of irony present at most Greek Life functions, may be easier than being the funniest woman in Brooklyn, where unladylike funniness is generally encouraged, I nonetheless see this as quite an accomplishment.

Here’s a photo or two of  her from back then, and I think she looks marvelous.

Lauretta Hannon, a.k.a. The Cracker Queen, before she was ever a biscuit.

Okay, the hair is NOT spiky, but today, she has short, stylishly feathered hair that COULD be spiked, and today, my hair looks enough like her hair in Amsterdam, that — well — it sort of fits the matching haircut paradigm for sorority conformity, despite the time warp.

What is definitely in conformity is the sense of humor.  She is,  as some would say up North, a pissah.  She’s not a little bit funny — she’s hugely so.  She made me laugh so hard I almost fell off my chair.  I apparently have made her laugh, too.

I tried to scan in my photo just now of my bad hair days from Paris, not spiky so much as bright red and frizzy, with my white leather bomber jacket and my absurd combat boots, but my scanner is not cooperating.  Just take it from me — I am also stocked up on silly photos from the same continent and era.

Lauretta looks like this now:

Lauretta recounting a drole episode with all her Sassy Omega charm

If she looks hilarious, well, she is.  She tells her stories about her completely redneck and utterly provincial childhood in small-town Georgia in such a way that she makes the poignant absolutely side-splititngly comic.

Her stories, in the oral tradition of the Southern tall tale, are at least as much about the spoken word as about the page, but that said, run, don’t walk to your local independent bookseller and buy at least twelve copies of  The Cracker Queen (2010, Gotham).  Make my sorority sister rich so she’ll let me wear identical dresses with her at the cotillion — and then we can take our husbands, doubtless both brothers from the fraternity of Messy Mu Delta, out on the dance floor and give each other the thumbs-up and the okay sign over their shoulders during the foxtrot.

Lauretta and I laughed a lot at the conference at each other’s comments, and she impressed me to no end when she told me  she  was having lunch at a snooty tea salon with Rosemary Daniell before the end of the month, that they intended to “defile the temple” of Southern smug womanhood that this institution constituted with its cucumber sandwiches and sweet tea.

I have asked her for absurdly precise details about the lunch.  She has, much to my great honor, promised to include me in the conversation — at this point, possibly given this blog entry, preceded by the comment, “I have this odd Yankee stalking me,” but I’m hopeful they may just let me decorate the float with them this year for homecoming.  I can crumple tissue paper with the best of them.

I am pledging.  I am baking cookies.  I am hoping they will let me clean their peau de soie heels with my toothbrush, then give me a Sassy Omega pin in a ceremony involving a rubber chicken and some Jack Daniels.

I am ready, girls.  I am desperately ready.

February 1, 2010

Sexy Tractors

Richard Harris of NPR News shared the following with listeners:

January 25, 2010

Can a man’s technology make him more attractive to women? A new study says it can. But before you run out and upgrade your smart phone, take note.

The technology in this story includes stone axes and other basic tools of agriculture. And the smitten women are the hunter-gatherers of prehistoric Europe. Those technologies were not simply cutting edge about 10,000 years ago; they were revolutionary.

“You can regard it as the most important cultural change in the history of modern humans,” says Prof. Mark Jobling at the University of Leicester in England. “It allowed people to generate their own food, and populations to grow and society to become specialized.”

…He says, is that “as the populations expanded from the Near East they contained men and women. But then the indigenous people, the hunter-gatherers who were already in Europe, the women were incorporated into these societies and had offspring…the result is the genetic pattern we see in many Europeans today: male genes from farmers who hailed from the Near East, and female genes mostly from women who had been hunter-gatherers in Europe after the last Ice Age.

So, to the punch line: Does technology make men more sexy?

“That would be one way to interpret it,” says Peter Underhill at Stanford University. But it’s not necessarily just sex appeal at work; it “might be in terms of not just physical appearance but also in terms of ability to provide for offspring.” — from NPR News.com

That’s all very cerebral and fine.  However, for me, Kenny Chesney has more pertinent things to say on the topic:

Yes I said yes I will yes

“She thinks my tractor’s sexy
It really turns her on
She’s always starin’ at me
While I’m chuggin’ along
She likes the way it’s pullin’ while we’re tillin’ up the land
She’s even kind of crazy ’bout my farmer’s tan
She’s the only one who really understands what gets me
She thinks my tractor’s sexy”

Ladies and gentlemen, long oppressed by urban sensibilities, I am coming out of the closet — I am an agrosexual.  I dig guys with farmer’s tans, tool-wielding hands, a certain boot-wearing gait, a laconic way of stretching out the word “ma’am” into four or five syllables.  I dig the Earth, the Earth they plow, the practicality of what they do, the profound necessity — no one has ever told me in a manner that I can honestly believe that poetry was truly a matter of life and death, and yet it is what I do best, but agriculture is.

I’ll be honest.  In ancient Europe, if I had seen those stone-axe-wielding studs headed toward my cave, I would have given it up faster than you could say “paleolithic archeology.”  My genes scream now for some jeans, faded and American blue, not torn at the boutique but out on the back forty.

It feels good to tell you all this.  On my way back and forth to the University of Southern Mississippi, I cruise by fields and see the occasional tractor.  Finally, National Public Radio has given voice to my Stonewall, or my stone implement, anyway.

At the University of Southern Mississippi, I am taking a class in queer and gender theory in literature.  Reading texts that go into the minutia of the habits of men in the Greco-Roman world and their anthropological implications, I cry out for a text that at last expresses my sexual preference — I am talking about a clearer definition of my “straight.”  The closest I have ever found before this was written by a very naughty Southern woman named Rosemary Daniell.  It’s called Sleeping With Soldiers, and while I don’t intend to be anything other than absolutely monogamous with my sexy implement-wielding husband (okay, he’s not a farmer; he’s a chemist, and the implements are generally metal, not stone, but, hey!), she describes the things that get me hot under the church lady collar.  She talks about her promiscuity of a certain era of her life with verve and a guilty pleasure of muscles, guys who get their hands dirty at work, soldiers of  fortune, oil rig grease monkeys in bed. To all this, I say yes, I say yes I said yes.

I’ll be honest.  New York, for all its kinky, twisted sexual energy never quite scratched my itch with all the men who got manicures on Wall Street, the tortured artists, the metrosexuality.  It’s not quite the same as Marlboro Man manliness, is it?  I’m not in favor of cancer cowboys — don’t get me wrong, but there is something about a guy who gets up before dawn because the cows need milking which is just, well, sexy.  There’s nothing abstract about it.  He’s solid.  He’s real.  He’s capable.  There’s milk in the bucket.  There’s food on the table.  I think his tractor’s sexy, and now I know that my ancestresses agreed with me.

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