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American Quarterly 53.1 (2001) 178-184
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Gay Men and the Rural South:
No Contradiction in Terms
University of Rochester
GAY MISSISSIPPI. FOR MANY RURAL SOUTHERNERS WHO ARE ACCUSTOMED TO maintaining a pretense of ignorance toward what they do not want to see or hear about, those two words together have represented something of a contradiction for much of the twentieth century. Male-male desire and gender insubordination might exist in the seemingly less normative and more anonymous environment of major, mostly Northern cities but largely not in their homes and communities. Ironically, such a mindset also informs the beliefs of many non-Southern lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activists and historians who assume that individuals who are attracted to others of the same gender will come out--and if they live in a rural part of the country, move out--and settle in a large metropolitan area where they can supposedly express their sexual identities more openly. These activists and historians cannot fathom the possibility that individuals interested in pursuing same-gender relationships could live satisfying lives in Jackson or Biloxi, much less in Brandon, Mississippi, the town in which John Howard grew up.
Howard's work demonstrates that "men like that," as well as men "who liked that" (men who had sex with other men but who did not identify themselves as gay or bisexual), not only survived but flourished, [End Page 178] whether living in the Mississippi countryside, in a small town, or in a relatively more populated city neighborhood. Neither completely isolated nor invisible, they acted on their desires within the main institutions of local society--home, church, school, and workplace. In a sense, sexual and gender nonconformity were homegrown experiences in Mississippi.
Men Like That examines male-male sexualities and male-to-female transgender sexualities--what Howard refers to as expressions of "queerness"--from the end of World War II to 1985, the year that seems to have marked the onset of the AIDS crisis in Mississippi and the culmination of a rural to urban shift in the state. The first part of the text describes how queer Mississippians both shaped and were shaped by their particular social and physical landscape. While readers familiar with LGBT histories of cities such as Buffalo, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Flint, Michigan will recognize some commonalities, Howard provides a history that is specific, if not entirely unique, to Mississippi. For example, given the predominantly rural nature of the state, men who were attracted to others of the same gender did not necessarily seek out or look to belong to a community of people like themselves. Instead, they developed distinct ways of enacting their sexualities. For this reason, Howard argues that gay community "is not simply a phenomenon lacking at this place and time. Rather, it is a concept lacking in explanatory power, a notion that incompletely and inadequately gets at the shape and scope of queer life" (15).
However, the fact that many Mississippians did not structure their lives around membership in a gay community did not mean that they refrained from creating and occupying spaces specifically marked as gay. In chapters entitled "Sites" and "Movements," Howard vividly describes how men who desired other men met and circulated, moving back and forth between rural and urban, local and more distant places. While bars with a predominantly gay clientele played an important role for some men, as they did in other locales, most Mississippi residents, according to Howard, had limited access to them. For much of the period he considers, few cities in the state other than Jackson could sustain an exclusively gay bar, especially for African Americans, and the bars that did exist were divided along lines of race and gender presentation. As a result, men-desiring men more often went to local African American or white establishments, where they socialized with individuals of different sexual persuasions, or they met each other for [End...