Despite the successful resurrection of the American flag to reify an imaginary national consensus, accompanied by the anti-secular stylings of so many “God Bless Americas,” words still matter and symbols still have meaning, even in politics. Especially when those words and symbols have two meanings. Take, for example, the controversial redeployment of words originally meant to dehumanize–“nigger,” “queer,” “faggot,” and “dyke”–and sartorial symbols like the army fatigues anti-war protesters wore in the late ’60s or the pink triangles displayed by queer activists of the ’80s. History speaks to us through these reappropriations, even when we’d rather not listen.
The monumental task of recapturing the potency of political words and symbols haunts Harvard Professor James T. Sears’ new book, Rebels, Rubyfruit, and Rhinestones: Queering Space in the Stonewall South. Sears, who visited the Triangle in October to read from this work, may be best known for his Growing Up Gay in the South. His recent Lonely Hunters: An Oral History of Lesbian and Gay Southern Life, 1948-1968 was also a finalist for the American Library Association nonfiction gay/lesbian book award. Because they focus on queer political and social activity throughout the South between the ’40s and the ’80s, the books pay homage to and question the dominance of Stonewall and urban, coastal experiences in Martin Duberman’s Stonewall (1994), George Chauncey’s Gay New York (1995), and John D’Emilio’s Sexual Politics/Sexual Communities (1998). The meticulous iconography of Sears’ titles signals his revisionist intentions: He invokes bisexual Southern writer Carson McCullers and rewrites the history of hunting as the search for gay community in Lonely Hunters, and in Rebels, Rubyfruit, and Rhinestones, he audaciously calls forth the Confederate rebel while orchestrating the juxtaposition of “Stonewall” and “South,” conjuring up both the uprising at New York’s Stonewall Inn bar in 1969 and Virginia’s Civil War hero General Stonewall Jackson.
These titles alone hint at the complex task of queer and Southern historiographies. But before considering Sears’ chronicle of the ’70s, some groundwork needs to be laid that attests to the critical importance of scholarly histories like Sears’–work that participates in the contest of words and symbols that is American politics.
In researching Sears’ book, I visited a Web site named “Stonewall Revisited,” thinking that it, like Sears’ books, might complicate ideas about queer life in the Unites States. But instead of enriching historical perspectives, the Web site offers a very different lesson in the politics of appropriation. An introductory page emphasizes the historical importance of Stonewall. Pink-triangle and rainbow-flag graphics organize the site, delineating numerous internal links like the “personal pages,” which feature the testimony of “ex-lesbian” Anne Paulk and “ex-gay” John Paulk. The Paulks’ childhood traumas (sexual abuse and divorce) are causally linked to their homosexuality; their subsequent religious conversion induces not only spiritual, but also gender and sexual, transformation. Anne becomes “secure in [her] feminine identity” and John is able to “[take] off the mask” of his drag queen alter ego, Candi; the two marry and have children.
The most fascinating and frightening aspect of the site is its stealthy reappropriation of queer symbols. The site uses Stonewall, pink triangles, and rainbow flags to denounce pro-gay theology, to tout books titled, You Don’t Have to Be Gay, and to proclaim the impossibility of being “an obedient Christian and [remaining] involved in sexual behavior which God has prohibited for His children.” The site isn’t about “revisiting” Stonewall or offering “alternatives.” Instead, it’s part of the movement toward a faith-based government, and our constitutional protections begin to seem trivial, insubstantial, even irrelevant in its wake. Consider Stan Oakes’ sketchily attributed observation on Stonewall Revisited: “As some have said, the only difference between homosexuality and pedophilia is the ‘age of consent’ laws.” But the same could be said of heterosexuality. Is this Stonewall Revisited, or Stonewall Obliterated?
Following the trail of Stan Oakes leads to the Christian Leadership Ministries (“professors changing the world for Christ”). There Oakes, the ministries’ director, recounts a celebratory tale about conservative Christians who mobilized and ultimately compromised the academic freedom of a University of South Carolina professor. The faculty member redesigned his “Christian Fundamentalism and Public Education” course to include Christian fundamentalist perspectives. Because those perspectives reject any separation between Christianity and public education, their inclusion renders the second term (public education) irrelevant. Once again, appropriating the structure of intellectual debate hides the fact that the content is anything but an “alternative” perspective. In a bizarre coincidence, that USC professor was Jim Sears, author of Rebels, Rubyfruit, and Rhinestones and the “Satan of the University,” according to Pat Robertson. Sears discusses that episode in his 1997 book Curriculum, Religion and Public Education.
Clearly, Web and campus evangelism are defensive gestures whose appearance mimics the reclamation work that Sears’ scholarship performs, but whose content is religious dogma masquerading as meaning. Its roots lie in the mobilization of conservative Christians during the Anita Bryant-led repeal of the Dade County Gay Rights Referendum, which Sears writes about in Rebels. The rhetoric of these evangelical Web sites echoes that of Bryant’s movement, which countered the words and concepts of gay activists–“Gay is Good,” “We are Family,” and “human rights”–with “God’s moral code,” “Save Our Children,” and “Kill a Queer for Christ.”
The ability to force readers to consider the rhetorical manipulation of words like “family,” “Southern” and “Stonewall,” may be the most innovative, and threatening, aspect of Sears’ work for both queer and mainstream historians. Rebels is the fifth installment and second volume written in a planned six volume series called Generations: A Cultural and Oral History of Lesbian and Gay Southern Life, 1895-1999. Sears’ use of the term “generation,” a word with at least two meanings, is as profound a choice as Lonely Hunters and Stonewall South. Linked to heterosexuality through its resonance with biological reproduction (procreation, offspring, and progeny), the gerund form of the word (“generation” means beginning or causing) nevertheless suggests the possibility for intervention in that closed reproductive circuit.
More importantly, Sears’ queer and Southern histories subvert the historical notion of a generation, which refers to the life span of a body of individuals born at the same time. Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation comes to mind, and it strikes me that a group of men of roughly the same age going to war may be the only situation where that notion of generational experience makes sense. A generation is measured as the difference between the birth year of parents and that of their children, typically computed at 30 years, or three generations to a century. But, in gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender histories, what counts as a generation? And can any political movement or historical period adequately be addressed through this framework? This reductive and ageist concept must be rethought, and Sears is just the historian to do it: The multivolume Generations project spans the 20th century and argues for at least six queer “generations” to a century. What Sears calls the “rubyfruit” generation of the 1970s is not a cluster of like-minded, same-aged radical activists, but, rather, a group of Southerners from Texas to Virginia engaged in social and political activities including drag, softball, religious organizing, writing, publishing, political protest, and communal living experiments. Relying on oral testimonies, Sears produces a history rich in detail without the limitations of a filial model.
According to Sears, “Southern history is never simple and seldom straight.” Judging from his new book, there are at least three reasons for that; first, the numerous connections between queer activities and other political movements. Sears cites the influences of Vietnam protests, the Women’s Movements, the New Theology, and the Green Revolution on Southern activists including North Carolina’s Bob Bland, Florida-born academic Julia Penelope, Catherine Nicholson, Vicki Gabriner, and Milo Pyne [aka Milo Guthrie].
Another reason the book is so complex is its large cast of characters and broad dispersal of activism. Sears’ purview is extensive, from Troy Perry, who founded Metropolitan Community Church, to Louie Crew, who established Integrity, to Delores Berry, co-founder of National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays. He documents life among the members of the radical Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance and within the network of lesbian publishing. He relates the determination of Leonard Matlovich and Vernon “Copy” Berg, two Southerners who sacrificed their careers and anonymity to challenge the anti-gay policies of the military.
Finally, Sears addresses tensions that existed between gay and lesbian political approaches (often, but not always, hierarchy versus consensus), between social groups versus political organizers, and between those whose goal was gay liberation and those working toward assimilation. In constructing a complex representation of Southern queerness, Sears attends to the race and class differences that, particularly in the desegregating South, circumscribed political and social experiences.
Sears’ mission is clear: to pass these stories on to a new “generation” of Southerners, to create a queer “community of memory” using the oral traditions of the South. Sears relates these stories with a consciousness of Southern traditions and an understanding of the way both reactionary and rebel traditions are recycled and sometimes rejected. One tradition Sears rejects outright is what he describes on the Web site for the book as the “Jesse Helms hypothesis”–that there aren’t any queer Southerners. Another is the mistaken belief that the South has contributed little to queer history.
Sears uses the diversity of the Stonewall South not only to enrich Southern history and to reconsider historical methodology, but also to counteract the “homogenized political history of the ‘gay community’ that crowds bookstore shelves, relegating to footnotes rebel faggots, rhinestone drag queens, and rubyfruit lesbians.” In accounting for these important historical figures, Sears’ heart seems to lie with the radical liberationists. Reading Sears’ interviews, it’s easy to be captivated by the exuberance of radical faeries, by the conviction of democratically minded lesbian softball players, and by the “immediacy, confrontation, and resoluteness” of these various Southerners. The comment of one “old activist” captures the excitement and the eclipse of radical politics during the ’70s: “When we fought back at the Stonewall 10 years ago, we didn’t think the benefits would be 700 leather bars and the right to join the army.” In the ongoing struggle for civil rights and sexual liberation, well-researched histories like this one play a crucial role in reminding us of the meaningful words, symbols and actions of those who have gone before us.