The modern South, and being a gay man there, is everything and nothing you’d expect it to be.
I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, a city that is both a mixture of urban sprawl and urban decay and a hub of international immigration. Its cultural milieu is diverse, and on the whole, economically impoverished. I was not diverse, being a white boy and now a white man, but I was certainly impoverished. Now, after graduating from a university that is ranked right behind Vanderbilt, I have a bit more perspective on things, chief among them the unhappiness of life, but that is all the more so because I embody the opposite of unhappy: I am a man, a man who is unquestionably gay.
Contrary to the popular image of a gay man as some innocent, or unwieldy, person, I learned to counter homophobia with my carrying of a pocket knife I regularly sharpen on a whetstone. I learned also to counter the general melancholy that can pervade the life of a subaltern gay man with the arts: I read voraciously, widely, deeply, of fringe and mainstream literature, academic and popular work, religious and atheist. The Medieval theologians believed that the world was a book written by God; now, in the 21st century, some of us can still agree with that sentiment without nodding our heads at the content. There is nothing like breaking a stereotype by adhering to its better elements.
I want to talk to you about the American South. It is the most contradictory place imaginable. All the rumors of its racism are true, but so are the rumors of its congeniality and willful overlooking of race. So, too with class, and the other entity so discussed in the humanities: gender, and with that, sexuality. I live in Knoxville, at once one of the most religious and the most pluralistically liberal cities in the South. There are churches wherever you go as well as rainbow stickers. People are as likely to proclaim the dominion of an ontological God here as they are to declaim the Patriarchy or tell you about their plans to dismantle capitalism. It is an interesting place, no doubt.
Your mileage may vary, so to speak, but my mileage has varied widely in my experiences of the South. I have been, at times, elated to discover the history, living and dead, of the region and of my state, Tennessee, in particular. Tennessee was the final voice in demonstrating the nation’s solidarity with women seeking the suffrage vote nearly a century ago; it was also the recent employer of state senator Stacey Campfield, a rabid bigot and economic illiterate who thought heterosexual men could not contract HIV. In case you did not notice, a gay man must be political; there is nothing but the political and nihilism in our lives, and I refute nihilism every day I live. So political thought it is.
Knowing that your state’s electoral body and economic regime is so designed as to oppress certain segments of the population of which you are a part is not a good feeling. Indeed, what feeling it inspires is less rational resistance and more irrational rage. I have been in a private mental hospital in Knoxville twice now for nervous breakdowns—to this day I sometimes exhibit a species of paranoia whenever the topic of sexuality comes up in conversation. The stress of playing incognito even on a level playing field is very difficult to cope with and even more difficult to discard. But I am getting better at the whole acceptance thing, both of myself—publishing in the arts helps that—and of others, of whom some historical figure once said “forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Speaking more of religion, I am an atheist, as is much of my generation. At no other point in history has religious thinking been on such a decline as it is now: three hundred years ago even the most virulent critic of organized religion would have been aghast to consider himself an atheist, and now, it is a rather commonplace identity marker. No God, only Glory, we might say. The various churches are liberalizing, I think, even as they have no more liberality to use without discarding their ancient theologies altogether. People my age, men especially, are realizing this only now. The South defines itself according to religion and it is so defined by the rest of the country in the same way. With the mystical robes thrown off, perhaps now it, as a region, and people like me, skeptics and homosexuals alike, might have a bit more breathing room down below Dixie as Dixie undresses itself.
In case you were wondering, yes, a Southern gay man is required to like fried chicken.
Most of us don’t pay all that much attention to dressing well; we’re usually comfortable with merely being presentable, and most of us, like everyone else but especially minority groups, scoff at the way we are represented on television and in the media in general. We do read books and peruse the arts, however—perhaps we’ll be the last frontier of the literature market if it does as the critics say it will and gasp its last breath, but we will be its imploring audience. We aren’t sassy; we’re brutal, and unfortunately, many of us struggle with mental disorders that are probably outgrowths from the social and economic repression we face every day of our lives. They say the child is the father of the man. If that is so, then we, with our indescribably painful adolescences and self-cognitions, produce some fucked up men. That is not to say we are not worth humane respect, because we are human; we are worth more than that, much more, but we should above anyone else know that honesty is the better policy. Mental illness in the gay man should come out of the closet, too.
And if one of us doesn’t admit this, if we merely blame it on that abstraction of “the South,” as in, “the South did it to me,” then one really doesn’t have much more room for complaint. Every other minority group in American history has struggled for self-determination. Such a project is fit for us, too. To self-determine means you are determined by no other: even solidarity can sometimes get in the way of this. Therefore, for any curious readers, and most especially the gay reader in the South, I offer this piece of wisdom in the way of advice: be yourself, modernize your forebears, reject what seems to you overly painful or overly narcotic, discard organized religion unless you understand its consequences, have a massive amount of safe safe safe sex, and read three times as much as you read now. Were you to follow my prescription I am sure you would not only be happier, but wiser, in a time and clime that seems all the more hateful of wisdom and all the more willing to adopt hate-speech as its foremost form of “loving the sinner.”
Sometimes the sinner, if indeed he is a good man, loves back.
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