Sunday, January 07, 2018

New book with personal essays give spotlight to South Carolina's diverse queer community

One of the complaints I've lodged on numerous occasions is when it comes to the LGBTQ community and our history, certain areas of the country have been ignored or omitted. Specifically, the South. To many in our community, the South is portrayed as a virtual prison for LGBTQs, with our wardens being ignorant and stringent adherers of the Bible Belt.

Nothing can be further from the truth and thanks to a group of us in South Carolina, the diversity of our community is receiving  spotlight.

A  friend of mine and the author of four nonfiction books and several short stories, Sheila Morris, collected personal essays from several South Carolinians. These essays give a wonderful view of how the queer movement began in this state and has continued to successfully grow:

In Southern Perspectives on the Queer Movement: Committed to Home, Sheila R. Morris has collected essays by South Carolinians who explore their gay identities and activism from the emergence of the HIV-AIDS pandemic to the realization of marriage equality in the state thirty years later. Each of the volume’s nineteen essays addresses an aspect of gay life, from hesitant coming-out acts in earlier decades to the creation of grassroots organizations. All the contributors have taken public roles in the gay rights movement. 
The diverse voices include a banker, a drag queen from a family of prominent Spartanburg Democrats, a marching minister who grew up along the Edisto River, a former Catholic priest and his tugboat dispatcher husband from Long Island, the owner of a feminist bookstore, a Hispanic American who interned for Republican strategist Lee Atwater, a philanthropist politician from Faith, North Carolina, and a straight attorney recognized as the “Mother of Pride” who became active in 1980, when she learned her son was gay.

Southern Perspectives on the Queer Movement challenges the conventional understanding of the LGBTQ movement in the United States in both place and time. Typically associated with pride marches and anti-AIDS activism on both the east and west coasts and rooted in the counterculture of the 1960s and “Stonewall Rebellion” in New York City, Southern variants of the queer liberation movement have found little room in public or scholarly memory. Confronting an aggressively hostile environment in the South, queer political organization was a late-comer to the region. But it was the very unfriendliness of Southern political soil that allowed a unique and, at times, progressive LGBTQ political community to form in South Carolina. The compelling Southern voices collected here for the first time add a missing piece to the complex puzzle of postwar queer activism in the United States.

Southern Perspectives on the Queer Movement: Committed to Home has garnered a lot of attention since it was published late last year and some really good reviews, including:

"I've got a sign up on my wall, a quote from Lillian Smith that says "The winner names the age" and I know that is mostly true. But I know too that we can defy ignorance and prejudice and fear with our own matter of fact stories of how all of us dangerous provocative people account for our lives. Thirty years of history retold from the inside is in this anthology. The people who stood up and risked their homes, their families and their very lives to make the world safer and more just for all of us tell us how they did it, day by day, year by year. So put up another notice, one that defies denial as this wonderful anthology does. We can claim our history one story at a time, and the stories rename the age."--Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard out of Carolina and Cavedweller 
 "In Southern Perspectives on the Queer Movement, Sheila Morris has curated a gallery of queer activists' stories. If the SC Historical Commission ever casts around for some new figures for all the surplus bronze, this book has a hero for every platform."--Kate Clinton, feminist humorist, contributor to the Progressive and the Huffington Post

Lastly, I should mention that one essay in Southern Perspectives on the Queer Movement is by yours truly. The essay isn't my usual fare about the anti-LGBTQ industry. Instead, I chose to give y'all fairly comical, bittersweet view of what it was like to be an African-American gay college student just coming out and coming to grips with certain realities (realities, I might point out that I have fought very hard to change at least a little).

I don't think there is anything wrong with posting a little excerpt of what I wrote:

. . . the one thing I wasn’t able to escape was the isolation, the inability to get into a good relationship or at least a nice friendship with other gay folks because so many of us were so scared to come out of the closet.. It’s an ugly feeling to go through every day, and feeling isolated from the folks around you even though you may sit with them at lunch or converse with them after classes were over. It was a terribly lonely feeling to be at a party and watch the heterosexual couples slow dance to some nice romantic song while knowing that you couldn’t even if there was another gay man present for fear of being “discovered.”  
 And worse yet, while heterosexual couples had the luxury of openly dating, fighting, breaking up, getting back together , or finding new partners – the lovely rituals of having a relationship, us gay men were reduced to clandestine relationships after dark, sneaking into each other’s dorm rooms where we fumbled our way through meaningless physical encounters. We fooled ourselves into thinking that we had something nice until we realized that while heterosexual couples went through the day-to-day drama of relationships, we were stagnant because society put it on our heads that we would be best served to let things stay as they are. We were fooled into thinking that sticky encounters in which desperation took the place of simple affection, was all we could have. 
 In that unfortunate backdrop, I was able to forge at least one good relationship with a freshman when I was a junior. And it is here that I want you to know that a lot of first time gay encounters don’t resemble what you see on television with two innocent, albeit sexually responsible but very good looking skinny white twinks having intercourse complete with fire, music, and serious ambiance.

This time, it involved a gangly black guy with thick glasses and a chubby white younger guy with equally thick glasses who both had libidos which had no patience with waiting for “better choices” on the bottom half of a bunk bed with a really awful Chuck Norris movie playing on television in the background.  
 That’s my nice way of saying that the first encounter I had with my friend didn’t resemble any scene from that cable series Queer As Folk or even a scene from the television show Glee. It was more like that scene between Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton from the motion picture Monster’s Ball but with no desperate passion fueled by tragedy, no destroyed furniture, and no ripped clothing (that came later).

If I had to use one word to describe this book, it would be "victorious." There are no sob stories in these essays, no overt or covert cries for pity, and especially no bellyaching about how the South is supposedly a terrible place for the queer community and our allies.  In telling our stories, LGBTQ South Carolinians and our allies show that strong people with pride in who we and where we live. And it because of that, we are working to make a change for the better, either by working for that change or simply living with the God-given dignity we were blessed to have.

Southern Perspectives on the Queer Movement is available where all books are sold, including Amazon and Barnes and Noble.