‘We Are Everywhere’: A Reading List for the Queer South

It is time now to listen. We are not going anywhere.

By Spencer George

The first person I kissed was a boy, on a beach, late in the evening. The stars were bright overhead, his mouth tasted like tobacco, and I remember thinking that one day I would kiss someone and I would hope that it would never end. It was summer in the American South and the air was sticky with rain. Sometimes, standing in it, I would find myself hoping for the clouds to clear and show me who I ought to be, or, even better, a path toward outwardly becoming the girl I knew I was inside. Somewhere deep within me, there was a truth I was uncovering, and it was one I felt I had no guidance for. I had never imagined what it would be like to live fully as myself in this place; I had never seen what it looked like to be here and love someone else, someone else who looked like me.

In popular culture, the stories I saw of Southern queerness often involved leaving. Queerness in these narratives was a secret shame, one that, if revealed, led to loss and disappointment. If there were happy endings to these stories, it was only because the characters left everything behind, escaping to distant metropolises where they could begin anew. There seemed to be no bridge between lives once lived and futures where the possibility of joy existed. Most of all, there seemed to be no way to have that joy without removing oneself from home entirely.

I often think that I would have come out years earlier if I had been able to see myself represented in different ways. If I had witnessed queer characters fall in love and thrive and build lives — joyous, wonderful, full lives — in the places they are from. As soon as I started to realize I fit outside of the binaries of sexuality, I assumed I would have to leave if I were ever to explore that side of myself. And I did leave, eventually, running to New York City for college. I did not anticipate how much I would miss the South; I did not anticipate how isolated and far from home I would feel in the city. I had come for community, after all. But it seemed to constantly evade me. I was alone, more than ever before. And all I wanted to do was go home.

Most people assume that the South is a monolith of conservatism and tradition, a place where not only is queerness unable to thrive, it ceases to exist. But while the Northeast holds 19% of the LGBTQ+ population, the South holds 35%, the largest of anywhere in the United States. It is here, back in the places that raised me, that I have found community and hope — in the students I teach, in the friends I have made, in the voices of those speaking up for change. It is not that we don’t exist, but that our stories have not historically been given the representation they deserve. We have long been telling them; it is the world that has not always listened. It is time now to listen. We are not going anywhere.

‘We Are Everywhere’: How Rural Queer Communities Connect Through Storytelling (Nicole Blackwood, National Geographic, September 2020)

This beautiful piece follows the story of Rae Garringer, creator of the oral history project Country Queers, which originated from a road trip through rural America to document the stories of queer people. I deeply relate to the sentiments Garringer expresses in this piece, especially in their drive to record these stories so that not only would they feel they could exist in community, but so they could show anyone else struggling with the same feelings that they are not alone. It’s why we are artists in the end, I believe — to show, through sharing our stories with the world, that none of us are alone.

“Rural queer lives look so different, across space, across people’s identities,” says Garringer. “I came back like, ‘Oh yeah, we are everywhere.’ Which I’d felt to be true, but I didn’t have personal evidence for it.”

The Rib Joint (Julia Koets, Creative Nonfiction, Summer 2019)

This story absolutely floored me the first time I read it. I thought about it for days. I still think about it, and about the parts of myself I saw within it, and the power that feeling held. Julia Koets follows the story of an age-old queer experience: that of falling in love with your best friend. It’s easy to joke about how this common experience is most people’s first realization of their queerness, but it certainly doesn’t make the experience any less painful, messy, confusing, or complicated. The transition of friends to lovers to something else between the narrator and Kate in this piece is raw, made exceptionally complicated by the backdrop of a small Southern college town. It is so easy to picture the two of them driving at night, hidden by the pines, as Koets describes. It is so easy to feel the way love blooms, a feeling between the ribs, a connection that seems like it will never disappear.

One night, I told Kate about how I had kissed my best friend in middle school. “It’s not that strange,” she said as I concentrated on the dimly lit road. “Lots of girls have crushes on their best friend. I don’t think it means you’re a lesbian.” I was relieved. I also wondered whether Kate meant that I shouldn’t worry about the ambiguity surrounding our own friendship. I wondered if she felt the ambiguity between us, too. Kate moved closer to the blue center console and rested her head against my shoulder. “I’m getting tired,” she said.

I imagined driving through thousands more towns just like that, with her head on my shoulder and some country song on the radio. Every store would be closed. Every field would be empty. Every house would be dark.

Jericho (Silas House, Ecotone, Issue 28)

In “Jericho” Silas House writes about God, friendship, belief, grief, and love. Another piece about the transition of friendship into romance, it follows teen boys William and Joshua over one summer as they navigate self discovery and the loss of innocence. This is a piece infused with longing, and it is felt in every interaction between the two boys. It also gives a glimpse into the intersections of religion and sexuality, with the church an ever-present force in the background, as it is in so many small Southern towns. Joshua is grappling with his feelings for William, but he is also grappling with belief, redemption, and where to find them. House himself is a queer author who has written candidly about his upbringing in Appalachia, and does so beautifully.

William ran into the water and so Joshua followed, diving in and slicing through the water as he blew air out of his nostrils. This was the only time he felt free, speeding underwater. As soon as he came up William was splashing him and laughing like they’d known each other their whole lives. He felt like they had. He felt like he had been wishing for William before he even knew he existed.

What I Learned on My Road Trip to Meet American Homophobia (Morgan Thomas, Vice, January 2018)

Of course, none of this is to say that there are not challenges queer individuals in rural and Southern areas face. In many Southern places, homophobia and deep prejudice still run rampant. There are some things, as Morgan Thomas explores in this piece, that might never change. Thomas, who hails from Florida and is the author of Manywhere, a recent collection telling stories of Southern queerness, visits anti-LGBTQ groups to attempt to foster understanding. What she found was a mix of acceptance and hardship, with many individuals perpetually reciting Bible passages they believe demonstrate queerness as something rooted in sin. They often refused to entertain conversations about their own personal beliefs with her and instead stuck to the same narratives they have been telling for years. But there is always a space for new narratives, and the more we share our stories, the more we open up space for those narratives to shift.

Luckily, many organizations nationwide have invested time and resources in fostering tolerance, whether efforts explicitly aimed at nurturing LGBTQ acceptance within the church or those who work to advance queer tolerance in general. Near the end of my trip, I volunteered at a pride event where an LGBTQ-friendly church was tabling. I told them about my trip. They said, ‘Many interpretations come from the letter of the law.’

I said, ‘I’m glad you’re here.’

They said, ‘We’re glad you are, too.’

It was enough.”

The Queer South: Where the Past is Not Past, and the Future is Now (Minnie Bruce Pratt, Scalawag, January 2020)

Activist, organizer, and out lesbian Minnie Bruce Pratt has been working within the queer South for years. In this piece for Scalawag, she talks about the hold of the past on the American South, and the way it confines us. Like other pieces on this list, there is an overwhelming sense that one of the main challenges in advocating for Southern queerness is the region’s difficulty in letting go of the stories it has long held on to. They bleed into everything here: into the fogged fields at sunrise, into the pines swaying in the breeze, into the flowing creeks and cragged mountains. We cannot escape the past, nor can we change it. What we do have, however, is the ability to change the future, both through reexamining our histories, uncovering the stories that did not get told, and creating space for younger generations to tell their own.

The Queer South is centuries full of such stories, both known and the untold. A red thread of resistance binds those of us who have been “in the life.”… In the Queer South, we are still fighting and we are still singing.

Fat Tuesday at Dixie’s (Sarah Wilkerson-Freeman, Southern Cultures, Spring 2006)

This piece is a deep dive into the life and work of photographer Jack Robinson, who grew up in Mississippi and spent his 20s photographing life in New Orleans’ French Quarter in the ’50s. Robinson later became a celebrity photographer featured in Vogue over 500 times and helped build the careers of artists such as Tina Turner, Joni Mitchell, Clint Eastwood, The Who, and more. A gay man, his photos of New Orleans offer a glimpse into the eccentrices of Southern artists and the spaces they gathered in, many of which also served as queer spaces. A large portion of his photographs take place at Dixie’s, one of New Orleans’ first gay bars and a hangout for artists and writers such as Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and Gore Vidal. Robinson’s photographs show another side to the South, one of creative expression and community, helping to rewrite the narratives of Southern queerness that have long been written out of history.

With his camera, Robinson documented the tensions between gender and sexual identities and the desire for free, open, creative self-expression in the South during the McCarthy Era. … Robinson’s photographs of Fat Tuesday at Dixie’s show another side of American life and culture, one that challenges the perhaps overdrawn history of the McCarthy Era as largely devoid of acceptance of homosexuality.

A Queer and In-Color Geography: From Mumbai to West Virginia (Anjali Enjeti, Scalawag, March 2022)

Anjali Enjeti speaks with Neema Avashia, author of Another Appalachia: Coming Up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place, in this interview about West Virginia, concepts of home, family bonds, and love. Another Appalachia is a beautiful — and necessary — tribute to the region, and tells a story that, without the book, many might believe does not exist. But both Appalachia and the South are far more diverse than they are given credit for. We do not need any sort of elegy; we are still here. We will always be here.

I definitely think that if we think of “queering” in its broadest sense, as being about breaking away from binaries and boxes, then my understanding of what it means to be in a relationship with people was certainly informed by growing up in a small place. I don’t have the same sense of there being strict rules that define what people are “supposed” to be to one another. Which is to say: Just as my neighbors on Pamela Circle and my aunties and uncles became family for me, I understand my role in the world as being to extend that kind of love without regard for normative lines.

***

Spencer George is a Writer and Teaching Artist hailing from the Carolinas. She holds a B.A. in English and Human Rights with a concentration in Creative Writing from Barnard College and is pursuing her M.A. in Folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her work focuses on narrative representations of the rural South and has been published in The Bitter Southerner, The Adroit Journal, and Medium, and once received a shout-out in the The New York Times. Spencer was the 2019 recipient of the Peter S. Prescott Prize for Prose Writing. She is the creator and writer of GOOD FOLK, a weekly newsletter about the people and stories of rural America and the American South. She currently teaches creative writing in North Carolina public schools as a Senior Fellow with ArtistYear. In addition to teaching, she is the Special Initiatives Assistant at Girls Write Now and is at work on her debut novel, Loblolly, which tells the story of two young women as they travel across the Southeast in search of a mysterious man who appears only in dreams and the individuals who worship him.

***

Editor: Krista Stevens

Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands


Want more recommendations? Sign up for our weekly #LongreadsTop5 email, sent to your inbox every Friday.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter