Karen Cox meant well. Her op-ed piece in the New York Times last Thursday — “We’re here, we’re queer, y’all” — was supposed to be a celebration of openly gay people in the rural South. Instead, the author and University of North Carolina at Charlotte professor presented a rather dispiriting view of Southern gay life that isn’t much better than the closeted days Cox would have you think are largely gone.
Cox builds her argument around “Uncle Poodle,” the beloved gay uncle of the improbable reality TV star Honey Boo Boo. The 7-year-old beauty queen affectionately calls gay men “poodles.” But because “Uncle Poodle,” a.k.a. Lee Thompson, is openly gay to the family, that’s taken as a sign of progress.
“[H]is appearance on the show has opened people’s eyes to something many have never considered: that you can be openly gay and accepted in the rural South,” wrote Cox. She cited other examples of rural Southern gay living that left me scratching my head.
It’s an unspoken truth that Helen and Kathleen are in a committed relationship, and yet they’re invited to social gatherings as a couple, and only a few months ago Helen gave the graduation address at the local high school. People know who they are and very likely understand the nature of their relationship, and it’s clear they value the investment that Helen and Kathleen have made in their community....
I don’t think [Sandy’s] mother ever openly acknowledged her daughter’s sexual orientation, which she certainly knew, because such things usually go unsaid in the South.
Most Southerners who aren’t comfortable with homosexuality don’t use terms like “gay” or “lesbian.” They’ll use euphemisms. A gay man is a “little light in the loafers” or has “sugar in his britches.” If a lesbian has a partner, the partner is often referred to as her “friend.” But everyone knows exactly what it means....
“Unspoken truth.” “Such things usually go unsaid in the South.” “They’ll use euphemisms.” This is nothing to be proud of. This is shameful.
My friend and MSNBC colleague Jimmy Williams penned a powerful piece last week on “The art of dog whistling” for the Grio. In it, he wrote about the racial dog whistles and code words he learned growing up as a white child in South Carolina. But he also recounted how he endured anti-gay code words in silence.
I waltzed into my teenage years and figured out two things very quickly: that the woman who was raising me to be a gentleman with a firm moral code was, in fact, a black woman named Bertha. I also figured out that I was very different from most of my white male friends, that I was a young gay man growing up in that conservative South. And I hid it from the people that mattered most to me. I “butched it up,” so to speak, so no one would know who I really was. There were code words for me: “sissy,” “queer,” “f*g,” “gay” to name a few. I’d hear things like “he’s a little light in his loafers” or “I know which side his bread is buttered on.” It felt terrible to hear them and to cope, I transferred my hurt towards the only group of people I could find more vulnerable than me: southern blacks.
More than 30 years later, as Cox shows with her “Uncle Poodle”-praising op-ed, gay men and lesbians in the South are still dealing with code words. Yes, they are living lives more openly than Williams could have imagined in his teen years. But the combination of self-policing and strict social custom can’t be healthy. Not for the gays and not for their communities.
“Sure it’s progress that LGBT people aren’t being disowned or abandoned, but is that the best we can do? LGBT legal inequality has a real and profound negative impact on people’s lives and this weird quasi-closeted culture only perpetuates that inequality,” said Jeff Krehely, vice president for LGBT research and communications at the Center for American Progress (CAP).
“All Children Matter,” an eye-opening report last year from CAP, the Movement Advancement Project and the Family Equality Council, revealed that six of the 12 states where more than one in four same-sex couples were raising children were in the South. Mississippi is at the top of the list. Surprised? I certainly was. Arkansas (4), Texas (5), Louisiana (6), Alabama (9) and South Carolina (12) round out the list. If you take the time to read the full report you’ll see the income inequality suffered by same-sex couples and the precarious legal standing of their families.
Now, imagine what could be accomplished if all those folks who love the Uncle Poodles in their lives worked with them to demand equality, fairness and equal protection under the law for them. In order for that to happen, the love that still dare not speak its name in the South must speak up openly and loudly. Only then will “we’re here, we’re queer, y’all” mean something.