Skip to main content

The subfield of southern LGBT history really has come a long way since John Howard's edited volume Carryin' On in the Lesbian and Gay South was published in 1997. Since then, books such as Men Like That: A Southern Queer History (also by Howard, and a book I'd really like to review for this series at some point), Carlos Dews' Out in the South, and James T. Sears' Rebels, Rubyfruit, and Rhinestones: Queering Space in the Stonewall South have documented both a familiar and a distinct LGBT history in the American South. Last year, I presented a paper on a "Queer South and Southward" panel at the American Historical Association in New Orleans, and it's safe to say that historians are not going to stop producing work on the queer South any time soon. My own dissertation on hate crime in Texas will be, in large part, a southern LGBT history. The point being that we now know a great deal--and will know a great deal more--about the queer South, and it all began with this volume 17 years ago.

Prior to Carryin' On, historians largely ignored queer southerners. There was certainly no dearth of books on southern history, which some might consider a "queer history" even without the presence of LGBT people, but as Howard notes in the introduction:
Some Southerners and Southern historians may take pride in eccentricity and difference here in "the perverse section," as C. Vann Woodward called the South. But we queers are just a tad too perverse.
Not to mention, as will be made clear in the first article from the volume I highlight below, some southern archivists have very actively sought to scrub queerness from the historical record.

The field of LGBT history, which by 1997 had been in existence for about 20 years, did an equally poor job at including LGBT southerners in the narrative, although perhaps we can chalk that up to historians in a young field necessarily focusing on the obvious urban queer meccas. What had resulted by the 1990s was an LGBT history that had what Howard calls a "bicoastal bias," with historians focusing on gay communities in New York or San Francisco. To some extent, that bias persists today, but we have come a long way. The urban, coastal focus of LGBT history had left entire swaths of rural-dwelling queer people out of the historical record. Howard makes an even more poignant point about the limits of LGBT historiography in 1997:

The history of (homo)sexuality, as currently framed, is less about sex or desire than it is about identity, community, and politics. Southerners, rural people especially, don't fit. Industrialization and urbanization don't figure prominently enough in their lives. Many never move to the city and "come out" in the traditional sense. But to say that individuals don't become a part of an urban culture, don't self-identify as lesbian or gay, doesn't preclude the experience of same-sex desire. Nor does it preclude acting on that desire.
Absolutely true, as is made abundantly clear by the research highlighted in Carryin' On.

At the same time, Howard cautions us that we cannot universalize southern LGBT people or try to fit them tidily into one cohesive group. But he does offer a few common threads that seem to run throughout the queer South and distinguish southern queer history from other regional histories. He calls these threads "the three r's": race, religion, and rurality. Race is obvious when we're talking about the American South. Not that racism didn't exist anywhere else:

The South holds no monopoly on racism. However, legally sanctioned racism (including the Indian Removal Acts of the 1830s), statutory segregation, and their legacy distinguish the South from other parts of the nation over much of its history.
Racial categories inform and structure homosexual interactions in profound ways.
As I've found in my own work on the queer South, you simply cannot separate race from gender and sexuality, especially down here. It just doesn't work. Many of the articles in Carryin' On necessarily feature an analysis of race prominently.

Similarly, religion is not confined to the South.

But in teasing out the legal, medical, and religious discourses shaping the lives of lesbians and gays, Christianity--particularly Protestant evangelicalism--proves vital in the South.
This is not only true when it comes to anti-gay persecution, either. As Howard and proceeding authors note, queer southerners themselves possess a "continued, insistent religiosity." That southern LGBT people have carved out a space for themselves in a heavily evangelical atmosphere makes the topic all the more worth considering.

Finally, rurality--and this is where LGBT historians' heavy focus on identity has failed us. Space and movement become extremely important to figuring out how rural LGBT people have lived their lives, something Howard really fleshes out in Men Like That.

Any person, all alone, can experience same-sex desire. Acting on that desire requires the meeting of two of more people, the traversing of distances, great or small.
Howard adds one more "r":
As I have spoken to many, many people about queer Southerners across time and place, they have helped me to see the incredible resilience of our friends and forebears. To carry on means, perhaps most profoundly, to persevere, to get through, to resist, to endure...Despite the odds, we have carried on.
I should probably briefly discuss that phrase: "carryin' on." As Howard details in the introduction, it is a complicated southern phrase with many meanings. Spoken to children, it could mean "misbehaving." Spoken between those children's parents, it could mean having some "naughty" fun, likely with alcohol or dancing. To gay and lesbian southerners, it had different meanings--depending on the person, it could mean same-sex foreplay, oral sex, or fucking. Or gender noncomformity. Or any number of transgressive behaviors.
Of course, carryin' on--for folks of all sexual persuasions throughout the English-speaking world--might refer to almost any human exchange: boisterous conversation, laughter, amusements of all kinds. But for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender persons, it often also marks a crossing, a stepping over some perceived line of propriety. It's having a good time while being bad.
And with that, let's get into some of the articles. I'm only going to highlight a few of them, the first being Martin Duberman's "'Writhing Bedfellows' in Antebellum South Carolina: Historical Interpretation and the Politics of Evidence." This just might be my favorite article in the volume. It revolves around a series of letters exchanged between 22-year-old Jeff Withers and James H. (Jim) Hammond. You probably don't know Withers' name, but you might have heard of Hammond. He was a U.S. Representative, Governor of South Carolina, and U.S. Senator, and, long story short, he was one of the most vocal and powerful supporters of slavery in the South, whose arguments in favor of slavery became cornerstones of the South's "Pro-Slavery Argument."

Hammond also had quite a salacious and varied sexual appetite, one dimension of which is examined in this article. Consider this portion of a letter written by Withers and addressed to Hammond in 1826:

I feel some inclination to learn whether you yet sleep in your Shirt-tail, and whether you yet have the extravagant delight of poking and punching a writhing Bedfellow with your long fleshen pole--the exquisite touches of which I have often had the honor of feeling? Let me say unto thee that unless thou changest former habits in this particular, thou wilt be represented by every future Chum as a nuisance. And, I pronounce it, with good reason too. Sir, you roughen the downy Slumbers of your Bedfellow--by such hostile--furious lunges as you are in the habit of making at him--when he is least prepared for defence against the crushing force of a Battering Ram.
Or this portion of a letter written by Withers to Hammond, also dated 1826:
I fancy, Jim, that your elongated protuberance--your fleshen pole--your [two Latin words; indecipherable]--has captured complete mastery over you--and I really believe, that you are charging over the pine barrens of your locality, braying like an ass, at every she-male you can discover.
This side of "Jim" doesn't quite jibe with his image as a conservative moralist and a staid traditionalist of the Old South, now does it?

Now, of course, as Duberman is careful to note, we cannot categorize Hammond as, well, anything--except, perhaps, as a man with a very strong sexual appetite. We don't have enough supporting evidence. We must also be careful when we try to draw larger conclusions about sexuality in nineteenth-century South Carolina from this series of letters. Nevertheless, the question necessarily arises: Were same-sex erotic experiences as indicated in these letters anomalous or representative at the time? Duberman is cautious in his answer to this question, but he makes a strong case that we can draw some very careful conclusions based on existing evidence. For one thing, he notes the campiness and jovial nature of the letters; they lack any sense of moral fervor or shame. This may indicate that their behavior was closer to mainstream mores than we might realize. These conclusions are shaky at best, but as Duberman aptly notes, we don't have much more evidence for heterosexual relations during this time period.

As I mentioned above, the difficulty in conducting the research that went into this article is an example of how difficult it can be to excavate queer records in the South. If you want the details, you can read the article for yourself, but suffice it to say that Duberman had a very difficult time gaining access to and publishing the letters because of their keepers' desire to "straightwash" Hammond's story. Thankfully, due to some good legal advice, Duberman was able to publish the letters in full, but the experience is, sadly, not particularly rare for historians who write this kind of history.

Margaret Rose Gladney's "Personalizing the Political, Politicizing the Personal: Reflections on Editing the Letters of Lillian Smith" recovers the queer history of another southern figure, albeit one more likable than Hammond. Lillian Smith is, of course, the author of Strange Fruit. She was a white southern liberal who was unafraid to speak out against racism at a time when very few other whites were doing so. This side of Smith is well-known. Something you may not know is that she was in a long-term lesbian relationship with Paula Snelling, whom she met when Snelling was her assistant at Smith's Laurel Falls camp for girls in Georgia.

As a scholar who studied Smith's life and work, Gladney was aware of the rumors about the relationship between Smith and Snelling. But it was an area into which she didn't venture for quite some time, even though Snelling was still alive and available for questioning. Why?

How could I ask Paula Snelling about her sexual relationship with Lillian Smith? That was her private business, wasn't it? What difference did it make? That was the question I asked myself. That was the question my closeted lesbian friends and lovers asked me. And I could not give an answer.
Gladney continued to maintain that "we simply cannot know" the particulars of Smith's and Snelling's relationship. That is, until Smith's brother and sister asked her to help go through the papers at Smith's old house. It was there, in a small packet marked "private," that she got the answer she wasn't looking for. In it, she found this letter from 1952, among others, in which Smith struggled with her sexuality:

What a nice letter you write me! It did you good to go through the old letters, didn't it. The picture of you swung me back through the years. You were so darned cute and attractive. You are "sweeter," "finer" not but you had something then that was so young and--nice, that bi-sexual charm which no one dares admit is seductive--except in real life.

I am sorry my letters are burned, that is my ambivalence. My shame about something different and completely good. It has been that shame that has destroyed the keen edge of a pattern of love that was creative and good. Blurring it, dulling it.

Finally, Gladney approached Snelling about it, and she got the truth. Snelling said about their relationship:
We shared everything; we loved each other very much, and sometimes we expressed that love physically.
Gladney also learned that, while Snelling self-identified as a lesbian, Smith was bisexual and did not identify based on her sexuality.

What ensued was a more sexuality-focused project, something Smith's siblings were not happy about. Her brother maintained that Snelling was sick and threatened to sue if the project went forward. Her sister even went so far as to say, "You have killed my sister." This stalled publication for four years. But work on the book continued, and when faced with a finished manuscript, Smith's siblings finally gave permission to publish. Again, we see the attempted straightwashing of southern history, not to mention the limits of an identity-centered historiography that leaves complicated stories such as Smith's out of the narrative.

I'd like to very briefly discuss one more article: John Howard's "The Library, the Park, and the Pervert: Public Space and Homosexual Encounter in Post-World War II Atlanta," a fascinating piece that you will want to read in its entirety. Howard analyzes two major incidents of anti-gay persecution in Atlanta, the first being the "Atlanta Public Library Perversion Case of 1953" and the second being the anti-gay sweep of Piedmont Park (also in 1953). Both cases represent excessive government crackdowns on same-sex sexual activity in public places. But, taking place in a southern city, Howard maintains that there are some dimensions to anti-gay persecution in post-World War II Atlanta that are distinct.

First, Howard demonstrates the deep, deep influence Protestant Christianity wielded over city government. City officials, law enforcement, and the judiciary itself turned to religious leaders in their vicious campaign against queer Atlantans. Which, as I noted above, forced gay Atlantans to traverse some complicated waters when it came to their own religion and spirituality. Howard argues:

The nature of these linkages--between religious conviction and social tolerance, between spirituality and polity--suggests a cultural configuration unique to the Bible Belt South.
Howard draws a second, larger conclusion related to post-World War II anti-gay persecution at large:
The discourse generated in Atlanta over the use of public spaces for sexual activity, while pointing to peculiar religio-political formations, also offers new explanations for the increased surveillance and persecution of male homosexuals across the United States following World War II. More than an effort to resolidify gender norms tested by the trials of war, 1950s-era condemnation of homosexuality resulted from a heightened awareness of nonconforming sexualities made possible by the increasing movement of middle-class, heterosexual courtship into public spaces, the very spaces long occupied by marginal groups. Seemingly incompatible sexualities collided on the city's public terrain, forcing a binarized heterosexual/homosexual culture clash. Gay men became the scapegoats, as appropriate and inappropriate public sexualities were articulated.
As you can tell by this somewhat cursory glance at Howard's article, it is something that needs to be read in full.

So if you haven't yet, pick up a copy of Carryin' On and give it a read. There is so much more to read, and most of the articles really are page-turners. Above all, I think you will really appreciate that resilience Howard finds in queer southerners. They certainly did continue to carry on.

Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule:

DAY TIME (EST/EDT) Series Name Editor(s)
SUN 6:00 PM Young Reader's Pavilion The Book Bear
2:00 PM What's on Your E-Reader? Caedy
2:00 PM Bibliophile's Wish List Caedy
Sun (occasional) 9:30 PM SciFi/Fantasy Book Club quarkstomper
Bi-Monthly Sun Midnight Reading Ramblings don mikulecky
MON 8:00 PM Monday Murder Mystery michelewln, Susan from 29
Mon 11:00 PM My Favorite Books/Authors edrie, MichiganChet
TUES 5:00 PM Indigo Kalliope: Poems from the Left bigjacbigjacbigjac
alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM LGBT Literature Texdude50, Dave in Northridge
alternate Tuesdays 8:00 AM All Things Bookstore Dave in Northridge
Tue 8:00 PM Contemporary Fiction Views bookgirl
WED 7:30 AM WAYR? plf515
Wed 2:00 PM e-books Susan from 29
Wed 8:00 PM Bookflurries Bookchat cfk
THU 8:00 PM Write On! SensibleShoes
Thu (first each month) 11:00 AM Monthly Bookpost AdmiralNaismith
alternate Thursdays (on hiatus) 11:00 PM Audiobooks Club SoCaliana
FRI 8:00 AM Books That Changed My Life Diana in NoVa
alternate Fridays 8:00 PM Books Go Boom! Brecht
Fri 10:00 PM Slightly Foxed -- But Still Desirable shortfinals
SAT (fourth each month) 11:00 AM Windy City Bookworm Chitown Kev
Sat 12:00 PM You Can't Read That! Paul's Book Reviews pwoodford
Sat 9:00 PM Books So Bad They're Good Ellid

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Tue Mar 25, 2014 at 05:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Remembering LGBT History.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site