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Crooked Letter: Essays on Coming Out in the South

by Christopher Davis

November 16, 2015

Photo: (below) UNC Charlotte Professor of English Christopher Davis.

In America, a new social acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer people—members of the LGBTQ community—has been signaled and reinforced by recent Supreme Court decisions, statements from the military high brass, pronouncements from the Oval Office, as well as countless movies, reality shows, sitcoms and pop songs.

But clearly this “acceptance” varies from region to region: the County Clerk’s office of Rowan County, Kentucky, seems to be a different institution, essentially, if not technically, from that of Riverside County, California, where Palm Springs is located and where at least 45 gay marriages are certified per week. It may be that although “acceptance” of gay people is, generally speaking, the new normal, some local cultures have been, and currently are, more welcoming to openly gay citizens than others. That’s made it easier for the people living in those regions—both gay and straight—to have more real exposure to, and understanding of, gay lives. The South, with its complicated blend of conservatism and sensuality, is one of the more challenging parts of America for LGBTQ people to live in comfortably. Even gay people born and raised here can have a difficult time, such as the poet and prose writer Jeff Mann, who had to look at Southern Living magazine regularly to remind himself of “what pleasures the South had to offer,” being “more than aware of what nastiness {his} native region contained.”

Those dichotomies and struggles are the subject of a new book of essays, Crooked Letter i: Coming Out in the South, released in paperback September 15 by New South Books (208 pages; $20.69/$9.99 Kindle).

This collection of deeply moving, entertaining and enlightening essays, does great, noble and necessary work to communicate the vulnerability, complexity and beauty of “being who you are” in an area where “who you are” can be labeled “alien,” primarily because your loves, fears, dreams and commitments—the emotional and cognitive realities of all human lives—are not perceived, much less understood. Each essay tells a unique story, by a writer (some widely published, some less so) who self-identifies as “Southern,” about “coming out,” that is, revealing to friends, family, or a broader public, a “non-traditional” sexual orientation. As editor Connie Griffin writes in her Introduction, “Our daily lives necessitate the sharing. ‘My partner, she ...’ or, ‘my partner, he...’ are phrases that implicate our personal choices and have consequences for our lives. Straight people refer to children and husbands, and births and deaths, sickness and health with little thought to the implications of such sharing. For LGBTQ individuals, each sharing can be highly charged from the moment the personal pronoun is used.”

The voices we hear in these essays are those of candid, introspective, sensitive, bright, humble, active people. Good people. People who speak and feel in ways which are familiar, especially to anyone attuned to the sounds and characteristics of the South. They are people who have been hurt, but who, instead of retreating into self-protective quietude, are committed to communicating, not because they need attention or revenge, but because they know themselves to be part of a “we” that includes all of us, and needs to be seen as such.  As poet and essayist Ed Madden writes, “It is the story of a call from home.”

For instance, is the youthful romance described by Elizabeth Craven, in “Almost Heaven,” more like, or more unlike, anyone else’s? The young Elizabeth fell in love with her friend Julia at their Southern Baptist church camp. Months later, Julia confronts her:

“Beth, you’re in love with me.”

The phone line went dead. After several seconds I slowly placed the receiver on the hook. Then I cried. Tears of joy that my feelings had a name; tears of shame that my feelings were forbidden by every social and religious conviction I had ever defended. What a glorious, awful, amazing, sinful torrent of emotions flooded me. When the tears finally subsided, one question burned above all others: what would Julia want to do now?

In concise, powerful sentences that make a fictional work such as Anne Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain seem almost distant, she tells us that, surprisingly, Julia and Beth became lovers, briefly, and that, for Elizabeth, “the closet door was blown off forever.”

The particular dynamics and contours of LGBTQ experience which are “different” from heteronormative experience are fully explored here, as well. Just as recent important works of creative nonfiction, such as Fire Shut Up in My Bones, by Charles M. Blow, and Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nahisi Coates, have made it easier for all of us to not just understand, but to feel, the actual experience beyond the headlines of being an African-American man in our country, we have the opportunity in these essays to see behind what might appear to be “masks” worn by gay people in society. As Mann explains, “Being LGBT anywhere except in the most liberal setting is bound to create in us a siege mentality, a paranoia that is sometimes reasonable, sometimes not.” Or, as Beth Richards relays, in “The Third Time,” “If puberty is hell for straight kids, it’s something like hell with double-crooked road maps for those who aren’t.”

There is a moving tone of generosity, of sharing, in each of these essays. These writers do not feel themselves to be alienated from the community, even in a South which offers very little overt welcome. These writers take pleasure in reaching out to the reader. The sensibilities of these writers are prepared for a time—maybe not very far away now—in our culture when the categories of “straight” and “gay,” “masculine” and “feminine,” like other formalities that most often function to separate us from each other rather than open pathways for intimacy, are as outdated as the idea that marriage is only possible between one man and one woman. These writers speak as spokespeople for our shared community here, in a part of the country famous for, among other traits, its hospitality.

Christopher Davis is a professor in the English Department at UNC Charlotte. He teaches poetry and creative writing courses and is working on his fourth book of poems.

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Tags: Crooked Letter i, coming out, LGBTQ, essays, Connie Griffin, the South, Elizabeth Craven, Palm Springs, gay marriage, Christopher Davis

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