- Crooked Letter i: Coming Out in the South ed. by Connie Griffin
Over the past decade southern studies scholars have produced compelling reassessments of space and place in relation to queer identities. Those reassessments might, for example, be institutional, as Michael P. Bibler has demonstrated through his conceptualization of the southern plantation as a fundamentally queer space in Cotton's Queer Relations: Same-Sex Intimacy and the Literature of the Southern Plantation, 1936-1968 (Charlottesville, 2009); be archival historiography, as in Brock Thompson's The Un-Natural State: Arkansas and the Queer South (Fayetteville, Ark., 2010); or be through rural stylistics, as evidenced by Scott Herring's Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism (New York, 2010). Other publications, including James T. Sears's Rebels, Ruby fruit, and Rhinestones: Queering Space in the Stonewall South (New Brunswick, N.J., 2001) and E. Patrick Johnson's Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South (Chapel Hill, 2008), have drawn from literary studies, oral history narratives, and critical performance ethnography to structure LGBTQ sociality in the South. Mississippi native John Howard emerged as an authority in southern sexuality studies with his research on the intersections between queer identities and southernness in Men Like That: A Southern Queer History (Chicago, 1999). Howard identifies race, religion, and rurality as holding a central place in structuring those two identities.
Connie Griffin's edited collection of personal essays illustrates the extent to which region and rurality continue to influence and shape understandings of coming-out narratives. As Dorothy Allison movingly writes in the foreword, "Most of these people's deepest struggles were with themselves, their families, and their faith, their most personal convictions" (p. 11). Retro self-examination and the feminist movement's aphorism "speak truth to power" generatively propel this volume's insistence on writing and speaking against open-secret sexual politics and practices, for "[t]he courageous step of sharing one's personal story, an act at the heart of cultural visibility and engagement, is a powerful way to shatter the silence within which so many live" (p. 15). [End Page 484]
First-person narrative chapters tell the coming-out stories of lesbian, gay, transgender, and queer-identified southerners; Florida, Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, West Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, Missouri, and Texas are all represented. Cultural resonances and heart-wrenching topics range from Tio Jacob and the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s in James Villanueva's "The Gathering," McCarthy-era-esque raids on college students in Merril Mushroom's "The Gay Kids and the Johns Committee," sorority bildungsroman love and betrayal in Susan L. Benton's "The Other Side of the Net," and the fear and acceptance of family and Jesus in Elizabeth Craven's "Almost Heaven" and Christina Holzhauser's "The Answers."
While the volume asks readers to envision a collection of truths, nuanced by experience and textured by memory, it is unsettling to note that gender, sexuality, and class intersectionalities do not extend to race and ethnicity. Some silences ring loudly in this volume. As Griffin notes, of the sixteen chapters, just one features an African American account; in "Ben's Eyes," Ernest Clay's story is shared posthumously by his longtime interracial partner, Louie Crew. These down-home and out, homegrown, and growing-up down South stories offer readers affirmation and a sense of being and belonging. Indeed, this collection's strength is also its weakness, in that it purports little by way of critical intervention, often trading in troubling southern exceptionalisms. Crooked Letter i: Coming Out in the South lauds the merits of overcoming the humpback, humpbacks of growing up queer in the South, even as it illuminates those whose voices still wait.