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The Un-Natural State

Arkansas and the Queer South

Brock Thompson

Publication Year: 2010

The Un-Natural State is a one-of-a-kind study of gay and lesbian life in Arkansas in the twentieth century, a deft weaving together of Arkansas history, dozens of oral histories, and Brock Thompson’s own story. Thompson analyzes the meaning of rural drag shows, including a compelling description of a 1930s seasonal beauty pageant in Wilson, Arkansas, where white men in drag shared the stage with other white men in blackface, a suggestive mingling that went to the core of both racial transgression and sexual disobedience. These small town entertainments put on in churches and schools emerged decades later in gay bars across the state as a lucrative business practice and a larger means of community expression, while in the same period the state’s sodomy law was rewritten to condemn sexual acts between those of the same sex in language similar to what was once used to denounce interracial sex. Thompson goes on to describe several lesbian communities established in the Ozark Mountains during the sixties and seventies and offers a substantial account of Eureka Springs’s informal status as the “gay capital of the Ozarks.

Published by: University of Arkansas Press

Front Matter

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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xi

There are so many people that deserve my gratitude that the task of thanking them all is near impossible. My roommate at the time this project was wrapping up joked that a more accurate title for the work should have been The Un-Natural State and Acknowledgments. All kidding aside, what follows are my attempts to include...

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INTRODUCTION. Outing Opal, Outing Arkansas

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pp. 3-13

Let me start with telling you this. She was actually my great-aunt, my grandmother’s half sister, but everyone, including me, referred to her as simply “Aunt Opal.” I have few memories of her that are entirely my own. The vague recollections I do have of her are of a kind woman who was fanatical about college football...

PART ONE. The Diamond State

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pp. 15

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ONE. Powder-Puff

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pp. 17-18

Aged thirteen, eighth grade, junior high, I was a female cheerleader. Not a male cheerleader but a female one. I safely wore my miniskirt and danced with pompoms in front of my fellow students and proud parents in what was the most anticipated football match of the year, or at least it was...

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TWO. Drag and the Politics of Performance

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pp. 19-41

Internees had their weekly dances and other social events, but causes for any real celebration and merriment must have been few and far between. However, on August 19, 1944, the Rohwer Outpost, the newspaper for the Japanese American interment camp just south of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, announced that the camp...

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THREE. Drag in the Daylight

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pp. 43-50

If the war enjoyed an interesting union with drag, the war’s end made drag a most peculiar widow. The atmosphere following the war dictated a return to a normalcy that truly never was. The new look-a-like American suburb was evidence of an increasingly homogenized national culture. New television...

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FOUR. Rags to Drag Riches

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pp. 51-62

In less than ten years Norman Jones would go from a dental assistant on an aircraft carrier to the belle of the southern drag-queen circuit.1 Soon after, Jones would amass a small fortune owning and operating the Discovery Nightclub, one of the South’s largest drag venues. In Arkansas drag was moving from...

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FIVE. The Current Reigning Symbol of Excellence

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pp. 63-71

Alone in his house, he put on his mother’s dresses and applied her makeup for his own personal amusement, a personal experience and a private pleasure. Drag was just a hobby really, something David Lee enjoyed doing but nothing he ever would consider as a career. After all, the future...

PART TWO. The Natural State

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pp. 73

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SIX. A Crime Unfit to Be Named

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pp. 75-82

Many Arkansans saw it as inconceivable. Many more thought it was about time. Arkansans sat over their breakfasts the morning of July 1, 1986, peering at the Arkansas Democrat headline that read “High Court Upholds Georgia Sodomy Law.”1 It had been nearly four years since an Atlanta policeman...

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SEVEN. The Ingredients of Offense

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pp. 83-88

I have pieced together the following two episodes from sparse court and newspaper records. As far as I can tell, it might have happened like this: it was cold in the train station, and two young men quickly grew tired of waiting for the irregular holiday trains. It was New Year’s Day 1925, and Sam Jackson, sixteen, and...

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EIGHT. Race, Sex, and Queer Renegotiated

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pp. 89-93

Johnson, a strict segregationist and one of the nastier figures to come out of Arkansas politics, faced a tough fight in the 1966 governor’s race. It was the first governor’s race after the Faubus era, a governor’s race still well within the long shadow of Central High. The unthinkable was about to happen. The man of boots of leather and...

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NINE. Redefinition

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pp. 95-108

Seven days after receiving the above letter, Arkansas governor David Pryor was told that representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union were outside his office. This was expected. However, the Quakers, representatives from the Society of Friends, were a bit unexpected.2 In fact, both groups were part of a long parade of...

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TEN. Public and Private Prejudice

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pp. 109-120

Begun in the 1950s, the interstate highway system, the great victory of the automotive lobby, soon symbolized the postwar economic boom, connecting far-flung cities and the citizens therein, and so began the American love affair with the automobile and leisure in general.2 The highway rest area offered...

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ELEVEN. Constructing a Gay Life

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pp. 121-127

According to sociologist Laud Humphreys in his work Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Public Places, the Morgan rest area would easily qualify as a tearoom. A tearoom, used here in the context of what Humpheys calls “a homosexual subculture,” is a place forged by reputation and facilitated by gay men...

PART THREE. The Land of Opportunity

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pp. 129

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TWELVE. Creating Space, Separating the Self

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pp. 131-136

You couldn’t miss it: two men walking down the winding streets of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, holding hands and nary a cross word or disapproving glance thrown in their direction. In fact, any negative comment or gesture toward them would have been seen not only as rude but as out of place...

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THIRTEEN. Losing Space, Separating Identities

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pp. 137-156

Gay men could claim a variety of spaces reserved for them in and around Little Rock. Few such spaces in Arkansas were reserved for lesbians. The exception lay in the mountains of northwest Arkansas. Settling around the then liberal college town of Fayetteville, a short drive from Eureka Springs, lesbians...

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FOURTEEN. The Mansion on the Hill

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pp. 157-165

The Ozarks never offered land of great value. Rocky, hilly, unsuitable for farming, the Ozarks had a reputation as a sanctuary for the hillbilly, the subversive, the outlaw—a place where polite, educated people dare not tread. Then something of value was discovered and with it the possibility of generating...

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FIFTEEN. Economic Opportunity and the Queer Community

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pp. 167-176

The town had an appeal, especially for those seeking independence; longhairs, hippies, artists and others flocked to Eureka Springs. An advertisement was posted in Ms. magazine to attract this very set. Barbara Scott fled New Orleans, Louisiana, and a bad marriage. After coming out as a lesbian, she often traveled...

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SIXTEEN. And Then She Came

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pp. 177-181

Despite how AIDS had changed the landscape of Eureka Springs, gay and lesbian tourists, many unaware of what had happened there, still flocked to the mountain town for weekend getaways. Queer tourists wanted desperately to take advantage of what People magazine dubbed “the gay capital of...

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EPILOGUE. Queer Comes Home

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pp. 183-190

On May 18, 1992, Bill Clinton entered the crowded Palace Theater in Los Angeles, California. It was a full month before the crucial California Democratic primary, and Clinton was lagging behind and fighting hard to be the party’s presidential nominee. There, in front of an audience of hundreds...


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pp. 191-224


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pp. 225-238


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pp. 239-247

Back Matter

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E-ISBN-13: 9781610754439
E-ISBN-10: 1610754433
Print-ISBN-13: 9781557289438
Print-ISBN-10: 1557289433

Page Count: 275
Illustrations: 21 photographs
Publication Year: 2010