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Spencer George
Spencer George is a Writer and Teaching Artist hailing from the Carolinas. She holds a BA in English and Human Rights with a concentration in Creative Writing from Barnard College and is pursuing her MA in Folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her work focuses on the intersection of storytelling, folklore, and empathy in 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. Currently, she serves as an ArtistYear Senior Fellow in Creative Writing and the Special Initiatives Assistant at Girls Write Now, through which she has been the editorial co-chair for four anthologies of youth writing published by Dutton and one by Tin House.

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

Costumed figures walk down Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras, New Orleans, Louisiana, early 1950s.
Costumed figures walk down Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras, New Orleans, Louisiana, early 1950s. (Photo by Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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.

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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.

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Editor: Krista Stevens

Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands


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Low Country, High Water: A Reading List for a South Under Climate Change

A boat moves through the marshland and water in Lake Borgne on August 23, 2019 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
A boat moves through the marshland and water in Lake Borgne on August 23, 2019 in New Orleans, Louisiana. According to researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Louisiana's combination of rising waters and sinking land give it one of the highest rates of relative sea level rise on the planet. Since the 1930s, Louisiana has lost over 2,000 square miles of land and wetlands, an area roughly the size of Delaware. In the past 30 years, as subsidence continues and the effects of climate change increase, Louisiana has been losing its coastal landscape at the rate of almost a football fields worth of land every hour. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

By Spencer George

I don’t remember the first time I saw the water rise. There is no moment in my memory that stands out as a shift; the water has always been impossible to ignore. I spent my teenage years in Charleston, South Carolina, floating on paddleboards down roads turned to rivers, wading through floodwater to reach my car. There was joy and then fear as school would be canceled for days at a time due to incoming hurricanes, all the businesses on the peninsula boarding up their windows in preparation. All the while, it seemed normal, an essential facet of life in the coastal South. The water was always there in the background, rising and then falling. I did not think to worry, or wonder, or wait for the places I call home to sink.

Now, as I have grown older and the water has grown closer — and higher — I worry. I pore over statistics about how long these places have, imagining life without them. Every time I am home and I walk along the wall that holds the coastline below, I wonder how long it will be before this path is gone, before this street is gone. Before this whole place is gone, and me with it. Because, whether I like it or not, there will come a day where we will not be able to hold the water out. It might be in 20 years or it might be in 80, but it is inevitable.

How do you cope with that reality? How do you love a place that is sinking? I spent my entire life waiting to leave the South, thinking I would only find happiness away from here, but now that it is disappearing I find I cannot look away. I am desperate to find ways to archive my home. To preserve it. To create a memory of a place that can last beyond it — a memorial of sorts, I suppose.

But that memorial does not have to overcome; it cannot — and should not — be the only story we tell ourselves, even in the midst of it. There can still be celebration, appreciation, and hope existing at the same time. There is, of course, pain in these places, dark histories and troubled waters, but there is newfound joy, too. There is love and hope and a belief in resurrection being poured into the modern South by the artists, writers, musicians, documentarians, and individuals who call it home. It is beautiful, and it is redemptive. These stories show that force; they are at once both love letters and critiques, memorials and memories, creating an archive of a common place.

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Under the Wave (Lauren Groff, The New Yorker, July 2018)

This story from Lauren Groff about a climate refugee and the aftermath of a wave that wipes out a whole coastline in minutes is beautifully done. Groff has written candidly about her home state of Florida, but this story speaks in descriptive prose about an experience bound to become more frequent as natural disasters increase:

Then she stood and the two held hands and picked their way over the sleepers and went out the door and into the dusty yard, first to the ad-hoc showers, while the water was still warm. The woman put powdered soap all over their clothes and stomped the filth from them with her feet, then wrung them with her strong arms until they were almost dry. When they went back into the yard, the girl trotted behind her, a good dog. They visited the porta-potties, then they went to the men who were solemnly unloading boxes of food from a truck at the gate. No, the men said, looking away. They couldn’t take the woman and the child with them. They had to be registered, they had to wait for the Red Cross to come.

Atchafalaya Mud (Boyce Upholt, The Bitter Southerner, January 2022)

At The Bitter Southerner, Spencer George reflects on how artists in Charleston, South Carolina, are responding to climate change. Read “Common High Ground.”

The Bitter Southerner is one of the best publications right now, truly. Much of their journalism focuses on climate and nature in the modern South. I love this piece from Boyce Upholt about the largest river swamp in the United States, which is slowly sinking. He poses a great question that I find especially relevant for today’s South: How do you preserve a landscape when the only constant is change?

The Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana is a floodway that protects the entire South from rising water levels. In this piece, Upholt reflects on the history of the swamp, the mythology of the region, and learning to live with change — a lesson especially important as time goes on. As he says:

The first people to live in these swamps knew it was a place of constant change. They expected to move at times to accommodate its flow. Now modern scientists are finally catching up to this idea: Ecosystems are dynamic. Restoration, then, is always arbitrary. We have to decide what conditions to restore. The fight in the Atchafalaya is not against nature, but among humans who disagree about what to build next.

Unreliable Narrators (Belle Boggs, Ecotone, March 2022)

Belle Boggs writes about how we tell stories about our world, especially in regard to how we process a changing climate. Through a reflection on parenthood and raising her daughter in rural North Carolina, she looks at our communal role as unreliable narrators who want to be both honest and optimistic about where our future with climate change stands. She also examines the education system and the ways we teach climate change in the rural South, if we teach it at all.

I appreciate — and agree with — Boggs’ view that one of our roles as artists is to become documentarians, chronicling this specific moment in time. Art movements such as The Dark Mountain Project often discuss how our art must begin to engage with the new world around us rather than living in a fictional past, and I think Boggs does a great job of showing that intersection of documentation, reflection, and cautionary hope in this piece.

I’m also aware that we are documenting a moment in time that may well be gone too. Not the last snowstorm in our area or the last hatch of leopard frogs, but the time in which we still had time to mitigate the damage, and “avoid the worst consequences” of climate crisis, as youth climate activist Greta Thunberg tweeted after the most recent climate report from the United Nations. In 2030, the year by which we must halve greenhouse gas emissions to prevent unlivable future conditions, Beatrice will be seventeen years old, still too young to vote or have any meaningful say in what happens to her future. My hope is that what we are doing now is a tribute to the potential beauty of that future—not only for kids, but also frogs and squirrels and beavers and snakes and spiders and trees.

Songs for a South Underwater (Sergio Lopez, Scalawag, February 2022)

In moments of crisis, art is a force that can help us process. When we cannot find the words ourselves, we turn to the words of others, whether those be in music, poetry, fiction, or film. For Scalawag, Sergio Lopez reflects on the history of music in response to coastal flooding, tracing it back to the Great Flood of 1927 that washed out the Mississippi and the Black musicians who poured out music testifying to the destruction. Then and now, music has helped us to bear witness, and from that, to ask for change. But Lopez also warns of the consequences of separating these songs — which he compiles in a playlist including everything from Eric Clapton to Lil Wayne to Charley Patton to Led Zeppelin — from their historical and intended meaning, asking:

Nearly a century after the flood, hurricanes from Katrina through Ida continue to leave their own indelible, mud-stained mark on popular culture and the Southern landscape. Lil Wayne, Big Krit, Jay Electronica, and other Southern rappers from cities devastated by horrific storms have continued to respond with songs of grief and anger, just as gravel-voiced Charley Patton and his 1920s counterparts did. But will these songs be remembered anymore than their predecessors’ when the pain Black folks faced during the Great Flood of 1927 has long receded from national memory—like floodwaters after a storm?

North Carolina’s Coastal Highway Is Disappearing— So I Took a Road Trip to Capture It (Megan Mayhew Bergman, The Guardian, February 2022)

Writer Meghan Mayhew Bergman reflects for The Guardian on the disappearing highways in her childhood home of coastal North Carolina. As she drove along Highway 12 — a road along the Carolina coast’s barrier islands — she ruminated on change, and the inevitably of it.

There is a precarity to loving places that we know will disappear, a tenacious joy in finding home in what we are bound to lose. It has been one of the core facets of my own Southern journey as I grew up here, left, and returned, only to learn what I returned to could never last. Beyond climate, coastal towns thrive on tourism, and in turn have suffered the effects of rampant gentrification; the places I once used to find familiar are at best changed and at worst gone.

The main theme I have found in all the writing of the coastal South I have pored over the last few years is that change is inevitable. Whether in the form of climate disasters, rising floodwaters, or small towns falling to development projects, it will come. The point to stop it is long past us. What is important now is how we learn to live with it — how we learn to make homes in all of this ruin. How we can even learn to love them.

Around here, change is non-negotiable: the highway lies atop a series of barrier islands – dynamic mounds of sand designed by nature to shift.

Want Proof We Need a Civilian Climate Corps? Look No Further Than Louisiana (Delilah Friedler, Rolling Stone, July 2021)

Delilah Friedler looks at Louisiana and the Gulf Coast as a test ground for a Civilian Climate Corps, a program being debated in Congress. Similar to Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, a Climate Corps would mobilize following natural disasters, building a more resilient, prepared South along the way. Friedler follows families who have struggled to get relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the wake of hurricanes hitting the Gulf Coast season after season, a process failing everyone, but especially families of color.

“‘They need to start paying us for the work we’ve been doing just to survive,’” Friedler quotes from Rogelip “Rojo” Meixuro, a student who marched with the Sunrise Movement in Louisiana, ‘For too long we’ve seen environmentalism be about conservation. That mindset is over. We can no longer conserve what we have completely damaged. We need to innovate.’”

Hurricane Watch (Eileen Elizabeth, Joyland Magazine, November 2021)

So much of our work with climate in the South is related to memory — what we remember now, and what we will remember when the waters rise, when the fires burn, when the hurricanes and earthquakes flood and shake. Eileen Elizabeth reflects on her relationship with her father, Appalachia, coastal Florida, and their varying approaches to climate safety in this beautiful story.

One morning this summer I heard the news about a hurricane coming up the gulf coast. I asked my father, as usual, if he would evacuate. He said he wouldn’t, that he was ready for the rain. He wrote back to me like some kind of solem prophet:

“For me water is everything needful yet hiding the wrath of God. Quench my thirst, yet I can drown in 2 teaspoons full; cleanse my body, there could be a deadly virus lurking. Leap or dive into the sudden cold embrace and smash my spine or head on a rock; the undertow, the river current, the giant wave, the hurricane all can take me away.”

He speaks about water in a holy language I can understand.

Further Reading

 

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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.

 


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