History · Nonfiction · Queer

Historiography of the Queer South

I’ve spent the past few weeks frantically trying to finish up the semester. Here’s the first of the two papers I’ve been talking about — a summary of the history books that have been written about LGBT history in the South up to this point. I’d intended to add an annotated bibliography, but that’s pretty much what this is! I may post more full reviews in the next month or two, so feel free to comment if there’s a book you particularly want to hear more about, and I’ll link those in the text if/when they’re posted. As always, I’ve removed the footnotes but am happy to provide more information about sources if needed.

Historiography of the Queer South

While LGBT history has existed as a field in the United States since the 1970s, queer history books rarely address the concept of regionality or acknowledge how different Americans’ experiences of queerness might be, based on their regions of origin. A queer person in Alabama would have a significantly different history than a comparable person from Oregon, no matter what time period is being discussed, because each state is located in a region with a distinctive character, and these differences can be historicized and analyzed. Still, even without involving theory, very few works discuss queer Southern history in any form. However, from the late 1990s into the present day, historians have begun to fill in details about the South and broaden their concepts of gay and lesbian history. For the purposes of this study, the terms “gay,” “queer,” and “LGBT” are used as interchangeable adjectives.

Gay American History — Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. : A Documentary History by Jonathan Ned Katz, published in 1976, essentially launched gay and lesbian history as a viable genre for history books. Katz’s 720-page tome collected hundreds of primary sources relating to queer American history, with the simple goal of proving such a thing existed. The book offered its content topically, without regional or even chronological divisions. It also offered little historical commentary, nothing beyond short introductions to each section, but it formed an important base of knowledge which both the public and academia could access and helped to mainstream gay and lesbian history.

Lonely Hunters James T. SearsQueer history thus established itself as a field in the 1970s, although most works were not as broad as Katz’s. They might focus on recent history, or take a single city as their historical field, as in George Chauncey’s influential Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. However, it was not until 1997 that a work focused on the American South. Following Katz’s example, this was a work of primary sources: Lonely Hunters: An Oral History of Lesbian and Gay Southern Life, 1948-1968, collected by sexuality professor James T. Sears. He conducted interviews of queer Southerners and converted those oral histories into narratives, resulting in a substantial collection of queer stories from the region. His purpose for the project was to begin correcting a “bicoastal bias” he perceived in gay and lesbian history, and indeed the LGBT movement as a whole.

At the same time that Lonely Hunters was published – actually in the same month, August 1997 – native Mississippian John Howard released Carryin’ on in the Lesbian and Gay South. An edited set of essays from variety of historians, the collection ranged from microhistorical epistolary analysis to theory-intensive studies of how gay men conceptualized spatial relationships. Like Sears, Howard sought to fill a gap in LGBT historians’ attention. Not only did he see a “bicoastal bias,” but a gap in theory as well. According to Howard, “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.” Seeking a new approach with meaning for Southerners, one that did not simply adapt existing methods of urban and political gay history, Howard structured his thought around “the three r’s: race, religion, and rurality.” He believed that urbanization and identity politics played small or insignificant roles for queer Southerners, who navigated complex interpersonal statuses without the secularism and anonymity of cities.

Men Like That coverHoward expanded on these ideas two years later in his monograph, Men Like That: A Southern Queer History [my review]. This book, essentially a case study of queer Mississippi history from 1945 to 1985, was the first historical monograph to address the gay South in its own right. Presumably aware that he was the first to address the topic in any depth, Howard spent significant portions of his book on theory and the lived relevance of his three r’s in Mississippi. Using a combination of new oral histories and traditional documentary history, he explored the deep racial and hierarchical structures of the South, the relationship between organized religion and identity politics, and the complex spatial considerations of a rural queer demographic. He rejected the typical historical narrative in which LGBT people began in a mass “closet,” experienced urbanization, and eventually came out of that closet by labelling themselves gay or lesbian. Instead, queer Mississippians accessed mobile networks of other “men like that” or “men who liked that” without the need to label themselves or reject their personal religions. Race also constituted a significant factor of Southern regionality, affecting interpersonal relationships and political organizing.

James T. Sears published his own follow-up in 2001, titled Rebels, Rubyfruit, and Rhinestones: Queering Space in the Stonewall South. He viewed it as a “second volume of a multivolume work,” continuing into the seventies some of the narratives he had begun in Lonely Hunters. Intentionally or unintentionally, it also formed a kind of sequel to Howard’s Men Like That, tracking the South’s changes in the wake of Stonewall and increased LGBT visibility. This is a significant chapter in Southern queer history, and addresses the South’s defining relationship with religion as it developed along with the Religious Right. However, as a story about a transition from marginalization to political activism, it almost by definition overlooks stories that do not fit the traditional closet-to-label narrative.

Gay and Lesbian AtlantaAfter Rebels, Rubyfruit, and Rhinestones, the field of gay Southern history remained quiet until a flurry of activity in 2008. On June 9, historians connected to the Atlanta History Center in Georgia released their Gay and Lesbian Atlanta entry in Arcadia Publishing’s popular Images of America Series. While books in this series largely consist of photographs and captions, thus occupying a historical space similar to the above-mentioned books of oral histories, the series is intended to be popular history. Credentialed historians compile the photos, assign descriptions, and write captions, lending a sense of accuracy and historical significance to the work. In this case, historians Wesley Chenault and Stacy Braukman take a highly regional approach, innovative compared to the few previous regional works. They discuss the mostly-rural South, but do so by literally looking at Atlanta, the region’s central urban hub. Their approach to interpretation, although limited by the book’s structure, blends political progression with the knowledge that LGBT experiences and opinions can vary widely even within one city, due to the mix of traditional and challenging cultures.

Just a few weeks later, the University of Georgia Press released Other Souths: Diversity and Difference in the U.S. South, Reconstruction to Present, an essay collection edited by Pippa Holloway. Although only one piece specifically analyzes homosexuality, (“‘Nothing Else Matters But Sex’: Cold War Narratives of Deviance and the Search for Lesbian Teachers in Florida, 1959-1963” by Stacy Braukman), Holloway’s collection explores Southern regionality as a whole through gender and race. Homosexuality is not offered as an example of difference in the South, but rather as one element of an interconnected web of diversity. In Holloway’s view, the South seems to be defined by attempted hierarchical structures, but she successfully stresses the importance, variance, and power of the people not found within the dominant groups.

Sweet Tea E. Patrick JohnsonThe final “queer South” book of 2008 was Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South by E. Patrick Johnson. By narrowing in on this demographic, Johnson approaches the heart of the intersectionality every queer-South historian describes. He identifies slavery and race relations as the defining characteristic of the South as a region. He then makes it his mission to reveal the existence of black gay Southerners in communities all across the South, “the sexual other who is implicated in both the region’s guts and it glory.” He believes this is a group not previously identified within the typical narratives of slavery or Southern gentility, and although he acknowledges writers like Sears and Howard as important precursors, he accurately asserts that no previous queer-South book had focused entirely on race.

In fact, even though previous works had included black histories as much as possible, most of them had been limited by a lack of sources. As a black gay Southerner himself, Johnson was able to access far wider sources and collect oral history interviews with people other historians could not. As with many works of queer history, limited by the South’s reluctance to commit queerness to paper, oral histories form the book’s foundation. At 568 pages, Sweet Tea thoroughly proves the existence of a black gay Southern demographic in modern history. (Johnson was not trained as a historian and does not identify as one, generally limiting himself to the time period of living memory). This demographic is not only important because of its numbers, but also its symbolic centrality, since the dominant narrative associated homosexuality with interracial relationships and based much of its oppression on this widespread idea.

Just Queer Folks Colin R. JohnsonSweet Tea is the most recent historical work to focus on the queer American South, but one 2013 title has significant bearing on the topic: Just Queer Folks: Gender and Sexuality in Rural America by Colin R. Johnson. This book takes up John Howard’s concept of a rural sexuality which sidestepped identity politics. Johnson traces the study of rural homosexual behavior back to the Kinsey Report of 1948, where Kinsey wrote “the highest frequencies of the homosexual which we have ever secured anywhere have been in particular rural communities in some of the more remote sections of the country,” explicitly calling this a contradiction of a popular impression that “homosexuality in itself is an urban product.” Johnson carries the topic into the present day, when the concept of rural queerness continues to surprise many people.

Just Queer Folks expands the topic well beyond the American South, but provides a valuable theoretical focus on rural communities and how queerness operates in those areas. While books such as Men Like That offered histories of rural areas, Johnson believes they do not address rurality as a concept distinct from regionality. He sees a “gradual normalization” to a national discourse of sexual identity, somewhat mirroring Sears’ treatment in Rebels, Rubyfruit, and Rhinestones, but with a very different analytical approach that he calls “queer historicism” after literary scholar Susan McCabe. While most queer history has written about “how Americans became who and what they supposedly are: heterosexuals and homosexuals,” Johnson’s queer historicism eschews this progression of identity in favor of illuminating all the sexual variance either overlooked by identity politics or actively extinguished by it. His study makes connections and distinctions across regional boundaries, but is particularly relevant theory for those studying the American South and the Midwest.

Finally, it is instructive to explore two popular works of queer American history to determine how they address regionality. The first is The Other Side of Silence – Men’s Lives and Gay Identities: A Twentieth-Century History (1998), by John Loughery. This book was hailed as the first wide-ranging history of gay men in the United States, came in narrative form rather than collecting oral histories, and was published by Henry Holt and Company for a general audience. While Loughery acknowledges works like Gay New York, Lonely Hunters, and Carryin’ On in the Lesbian and Gay South, he says “these explorations are only beginnings” and looks for a “version of a shared past” among American gay men. Perhaps because of this approach, and the broad scope of his book, Loughery did not address regionality in any meaningful way. Rural communities do not play a significant role, and neither do regions like California or New England, although significant turns in the narrative take place there.

A Queer History of the United States Michael BronskiIn 2011, gender studies professor Michael Bronski attempted to update the essential queer American history book with A Queer History of the United States, published by Beacon Press. This book encompasses lesbian and transgender stories rather than limiting itself to gay men, and it seeks to reveal the fundamental presence of queerness in the US from pre-Columbian time to the present. Bronski wants to avoid the “add one woman and stir” approach to gender history that was also used in queer history, and rather chooses to contextualize queer history within traditional historical topics like the Civil War and national labor movements, attempting to queer the entire narrative instead of simply naming and describing important LGBT people. He mentions the American South in the context of racial violence, but his desire to unify the United States in queerness precludes deep comparisons of American regions.

These popular books generally ignore the queer south in favor of wide American similarities, which is understandable given their chosen topics, but has the Understanding and Teaching U.S. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Historyeffect of silencing variant experiences. However, the 2014 book Understanding and Teaching U.S. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History edited by Leila J. Rupp and Susan Kathleen Freeman and published by a university press, provides a ray of hope for rurality and regionality in the field. Designed for college- and university-level instructors, the book offers a collection of essays by historians on different aspects of queer history and best practices for conveying those vital elements to students. It includes the essay “Men and Women Like That: Regional Identities and Rural Sexual Cultures in the South and Pacific Northwest” by Colin R. Johnson, author of Just Queer Folks. At a mere 12 pages, the essay does not go into detail about regional differences, but explains the vital starting theory that rural queer lives have existed and differed from urban queer lives in important respects. Including this essay in a book meant to convey foundational principles signals a degree of validation for non-urban and Southern queer history.

Queer history continues to expand as a field since its inception, becoming increasingly sophisticated and wide-ranging in the four decades since Gay American History. Queer Southern history in particular has taken important steps since its first stirrings in the late 1990s, developing both content and theories of its own, distinguishing itself from general gay and lesbian theory but also contributing to that understanding and body of work. Of course, more writing remains to be done in queer Southern history, for example in specifically lesbian and transgender stories, and in communicating the existence of queer Southern history to the general public. The concept of regionality may also remain absent from other subgenres of LGBT history, but those historical niches are outside the purview of this paper.

7 thoughts on “Historiography of the Queer South

    1. Hi! Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South is the only one I know of to specifically focus on African American queerness, although Men Like That: A Southern Queer History also included it as a major theme. Unfortunately I don’t know of any that center queer African American women.


      1. Thank you for your quick response. Did you end up publishing this paper (or a version of this paper), that I could cite? Also, regarding the information that you put in the books’ descriptions, did you get that from the books themselves or outside sources? For example, how do you know that “Lonely Hunters” was the first work to discuss Queerness in the American South specifically?


        1. This was a paper I wrote for a graduate class, so it hasn’t been published in any other form. The information is from the research I did conducting the project and putting together the historiography — I believe it says in Lonely Hunters’ introduction that it’s the first, but I also didn’t find any other books published before that, for instance.



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