Monday, March 10, 2014

Southerners and Being Gay

The Atlantic Monthly has taken note of what it considers a "stunning" fact--i.e., that "contrary to what one might expect, today Texans and Southerners are evenly divided on the issue of same sex marriage--as opposed to being ready to lynch them, which is the attitude I guess the writer assumes most Southerners would have.

Well, DUH. Southerners have always been hospitable to, and tolerant of, gay people. We're talking about the region that has given the world this guy

and this guy
    and THIS guy

 and this lady           and this lady 

....who are, in order, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams and James Baldwin (and yes, I know he was born in the Bronx and grew up in New York City, but we're talking about the grandson of slaves and a writer whose whole career was focused on the problem of race, especially in the South, so I'm counting him as a kind of honorary Southerner)...and then there's Lillian Smith and Moms Mabley, bona fide Southern ladies both, and both of them women who loved women.

I could go on, but you get my drift.

Southerners have always known about gay people, and we have always been perfectly happy to live with them--provided they were willing to be discreet about their sexuality. As a child, I remember my parents having a certain "Uncle Millard" over for dinner fairly often. Uncle Millard was a "confirmed bachelor," my mother explained (I was too young then to know what that euphemism meant) and my dad would invite him home for some of my mom's cooking when Uncle Millard started to look starved (this was back gender roles were so rigidly divided that few men, even gay men, knew their way around a kitchen). Uncle Millard was later murdered by one of his lovers, and who knows how much pressure they both lived under, in a time and place where it was okay to be a "confirmed bachelor" as long as you pretended to like women and did not appear in public with the person you loved? Couldn't be good for one's mental health.

And how many youth ministers or preacher's kids did we all know growing up who white-knuckled their way through adolescence trying to appear to be someone they were not, and not fooling a soul? I remember a friend from high school who told her mom she was going somewhere with a guy we both knew, and her mom said, "Oh, ______! Well, you'll be safe with him." We all thought that was hilarious at the time, and everybody knew what it meant, but nobody talked about it. We were too polite for that.

And I'll never forget the high school classmate who was so clearly, so obviously gay, and almost willing to be "out" about it even back in the 1970s, who was so brilliant and so much fun to be around, and whose father was determined to send him away to college at The Citadel, where he would "learn to be a man." We all knew that our friend was doomed to get the living crap beat out of him there at the very least, and I remember the sudden silence when he told us this. But again, nobody said what we were all thinking. Too polite.

So Southerners have always been totally comfortable with gay people, and very tolerant--as long as nobody ever said what everybody knew. In that respect, The Atlantic Monthly is about a hundred years behind the curve--and demonstrating, once again, that what everybody "knows" about the South is often warped by stereotypes. One thing, however, really may be changing: all us older straight folks who grew up in those years may finally be unlearning the hypocrisy we were taught as kids.