Living Out Here
Reviewed by John Howard
Vol. 15, No. 3, 1993, pp. 36-39
Greetings from Out Here by Ellen Spiro (1993, 57 mins., video Data Bank, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 37 South Wabash Ave., Chicago, IL 60603).
Intuitively, we know that life for lesbians and gays in the South is difficult—perhaps more difficult than for those in other sections of the country. In The Construction of Homosexuality (1988), sociologist David Greenberg summarizes recent studies which seem to support to this assumption: “In survey research, respondents from the South, from small towns, and from rural areas, who are older, poorer, and less well-educated, are more likely to think homosexuality wrong and to oppose gay rights” than other Americans. “Religion is a more powerful predictor than any other individual trait,” and evangelical Protestants, who are proportionally more numerous in the South, “are the most likely (88.7 percent) to think homosexuality immoral.” Such findings obviously mask the great variations that exist across the regions of the South. Yet, the section as a whole would appear to have warranted its reputation as a distinctly inhospitable place for sexual non-conformists.
Despite or because of these conditions, lesbian and gay Southerners have become increasingly visible lately in both the cultural and political realms. Anger over President Clinton’s failure to lift the military ban, due in large part to the obstinate Sam Nunn, has brought many previously apolitical and apathetic lesbians and gays into
the streets, especially in the South. Stressing responsibilities over rights and emphasizing the desires to serve the country and form families, organizers have capitalized on the “mainstream” appeal of the military issue, along with domestic partnership, to broaden the base of support for gay rights—though not without considerable misgivings from more leftward-leaning critics.
The vitality of the movement has been evident in the sheer numbers of casual participants and in the daring of committed activists. Atlanta, considered by many the gay urban mecca of the Southeast, witnessed over. 100,000 people marching through the streets in late June as part of the annual Lesbian and Gay Pride celebration. The Houston event also drew large crowds, while organizers in less populous cities like Chattanooga defied contentious city council members and neighborhood and religious associations to proceed with smaller-scale parades and picnics.
Activists successfully lobbied for domestic partnership registries in Atlanta and New Orleans this summer, but both municipalities balked at extending health insurance and other benefits to the registered partners of city employees. By vetoing this provision, Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, blatantly at odds with campaign promises made to the lesbian and gay communities, sparked numerous, riley protests throughout the city. (Jackson later signed a virtually identical bill.) Demonstrations have not been limited, however, to the major urban centers. Last year in Alabama, with lesbian and gay student organizations spreading from campuses in Tuscaloosa and Huntsville to Birmingham, Auburn, and Mobile, state legislators in Montgomery flouted two decades of federal court precedents and outlawed funding and the use of public facilities by such groups. Students responded with a rally of hundreds at Auburn, a splashy kiss-in at the University of Alabama, and an ACLU-backed lawsuit. Even a day at the beach became a hot political issue: In May 1993, Pensacola city councilman Doug Proffitt railed against lesbian and gay tourists, said to number 30,000 over the Memorial Day weekend. He decried “their disgusting acts,” while they stamped “gay money” on their dollars as a sign of economic clout.
Certainly not a recent phenomenon, today’s activism derives from political engagement begun after the Second World War, reinvigorated by the 1969 Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, and informed in the sixties and seventies by the women’s and, especially in the South, the civil rights movements. It reached a new crest during the Reagan-Bush era, when indifference to the AIDS crisis was construed by many activists as genocidal neglect the willful murder of thousands of undesirables. Now, a lesbian and gay political structure, albeit a fractured and incohesive one, is firmly, intractably in place.
Cultural workers in the South have kept apace of political developments. Writers particularly are wresting control of lesbian and gay representations away from the historically hostile, so-called experts—pastors, politicians, policemen, and physicians. Lesbians and gays increasingly are telling their own stories, writing of their own experiences. And the publishing houses have gladly provided the medium: “Publication of gay and lesbian authors is at an all-time high,” says Mississippi-native Stella Connell, a publicist with Pantheon Books, a division of Random House. “Gay and lesbian subject matter is no longer taboo. Hardly. It’s all the rage. Though I don’t know as many Southern writers being published, there’s no question in my mind that houses want gay material.”
Indeed, a number of Southerners boldly address gay issues in recent books. Although readily apparent and empowering to many readers of their time, the veiled, ambiguous protagonists of Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams are no more. A new generation can and does speak openly of sexual diversity. Essayists Minnie Bruce Pratt and Mab Segrest forthrightly engage lesbian life in the South in revealing, autobiographical accounts, while gay male novelists write fiction that clearly draws upon personal experiences. Greg Johnson’s first novel, Pagan Babies (1993), tracks the coming-of-age of a Texas-born Catholic through the gay nightlife of Dallas and Atlanta, whereas Joey Manley in his powerful first novel, The Death of Donna-May Dean (1991), exposes a minute but significant portion of Southern gay culture-the busy melange of men and would-be women who frequent the public park after dark in Manley’s hometown of Florence, Alabama.
These authors’ words, read by an increasingly large audience, are not going unnoticed by a wider population. Reactions in the South, as elsewhere, can be less than
congenial. A National Book Award finalist for her novel Bastard Out of Carolina (1992), Dorothy Allison toured the country earlier this year and was shocked to learn that her Oklahoma City appearance had been cancelled by local event organizers because she is a lesbian. Southern lesbian and gay writers furthermore face the persistent bi-coastal bias inherent in almost all cultural and intellectual production in this country. Much remains to be done so that the experiences of those living outside New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles can be disseminated and the diversity of lesbian and gay cultures in America can be fully represented.
Enter Ellen Spiro. This Richmond transplant to New York has given us the first major work of the visual arts to chronicle the experiences of lesbians and gays across the South. Her new fifty-seven minute video, Greetings from Out Here, is the result of a year-long sojourn through the region. She shot, edited, produced, and directed the documentary, which will be shown in September at sites in Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, and North and South Carolina, as part of the Southern Circuit filmmaker series administered by the South Carolina Arts Commission.
The recipient of numerous awards, many for her video on South Carolina beautician and AIDS educator DiAna DiAna (DiAna’s Hair Ego: AIDS Info Up Front, 29 min., 1990), Spiro broadens her focus in Greetings from Out Here. As she shoots footage of her journey through nine Southern states, Spiro’s goal, she tells us, is to document the lives of those individuals “who don’t flee, but who stay home and do the bravest thing of all—be who they are, where they are.” In her attempt “to explore Southern gay subcultures and to find people who stayed in their small towns instead of joining the anonymous masses of the big cities,” she has created a work of some significance and power. She has provided a forum for a host of lesbian and gay Southerners who otherwise might never have shared their stories.
Early on, the audience meets Isis, an African-American lesbian living in a converted bus in a wooded section of the Ozark Mountains. Despite her Baptist upbringing and her mother’s intense religiosity (“She used to have a wonderful sense of humor before she became a born-again”), Isis does not feel chastised for her sexuality nor compelled to leave Arkansas: “My family doesn’t mind that I’m gay. I’m just supposed to be gay at home. I’m not supposed to be fifteen hundred miles away from family.” Though we meet none of her friends, it seems Isis has a social network of sorts that allows for an expanded definition of family: “There’s blood family, the family that you were born into, and then there’s heart family. And for me, anybody who’s gay that I hear about, I consider them family—just loosely related family.”
Over in north Mississippi, Spiro talks with John Blansett, a young white man living with AIDS in Okolona. Blansett explains how his diagnosis enabled him to more fully come out of the closet, to acknowledge his sexuality, and to be more truthful with friends and neighbors about his illness:
I don’t wear a shirt that says I’m gay, but I don’t lie about it. And at the same time I decided not to call AIDS cancer when I got it …. It’s HIV, it’s a disease, it’s an epidemic that’s sweeping this country. And my little brothers shouldn’t have to get it because somebody didn’t want to talk about it. I mean that is the stupidest reason I can think of for somebody getting sick.
Blansett adds that he knows of four people who have died of AIDS in Okolona.
Content to let Southerners be seen in their daily rituals, to let them share their personal histories, and to let their actions speak to the uniqueness of the Southern gay experience, Spiro rarely probes her subjects thoughts and seldom asks them to examine their region and compare it with others. Yet at the Rhythmfest women’s festival in the mountains of north Georgia, a twenty-something white lesbian explains the geo-politics of female gender conformity:
It is kind of true about the South [that] women tend to be a little more feminine in their ways, in their image. And I like that. I think that’s great. But I think that there’s not as much acceptance of people who are, maybe, more androgynous.
Such observations ultimately are subjective though nonetheless significant. They point to the need for more serious, comparative regional analysis within studies of sexuality in America. Spiro’s work must be seen as intro-
ductory and exploratory, proof of her thesis that lesbians and gays can and do live meaningful lives in the South. And as Atlanta Pride participant Duncan Teague tells us, sporting pearls and rhinestone-studded, cat-eye sunglasses, “This isn’t a New York thing. This is not San Francisco. This is Atlanta, Georgia. And no you don’t have to pack up and move to San Francisco to be gay.”
In truth, Spiro’s notion of the South is a romantic, pastoral one, which colors her perceptions and distorts her analysis. Ostensibly in search of lesbians and gays who “invent their own lives outside of big urban support systems,” she tellingly does much of her filming in the large cities of Texas, in Atlanta and New Orleans. If her mission primarily is to “explore Southern gay subcultures”—this remains rather unclear—she must necessarily look to these urban centers where the vast majority of lesbian and gay Southerners live and work. The South is not so different in this regard from any other part of the country. While lesbians and gays can (and should) be found (and filmed) on farms and in hamlets in every state of the Union, rural to urban migration has largely shaped gay experience across the country, and that is no less true below the Mason-Dixon. Spiro would better serve her subjects by acknowledging this historical pattern and explicitly addressing its effects in the South. She could then do more than simply juxtaposing images of country life against pictures from the largest of Southern cities. A more balanced composite of the lesbian and gay South not only would include portraits of the likes of John Blansett, but also would contain group shots of his rural Mississippi friends who migrated to small and medium-sized cities like Jackson and Memphis; Tennessee hill people who moved to Nashville and Knoxville; Alabamians who clustered in Birmingham and Mobile; and Carolinians who built communities in Columbia and Charleston, Charlotte and the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area.
As if her project were not already broad enough in scope, Spiro rather self-indulgently sets up her video as “an attempt to look at the Southern world that formed me.” Now a “full-fledged gay activist” in New York, Spiro tries to make of her film a personal quest of discovery, a Kerouacian road story. Thus we are made privy to random observations about her ex-girlfriend. We trudge along with her on more than one occasion to see a mechanic about her failing VW bus. And we view constant self-referential shots of Spiro catching her own reflection—in the rear-view mirror, in DiAna’s styling mirror, in the vanity of her room at a cheesy motor lodge, in the windshield of a wrecked car, in her passenger-side window, in storefront windows, and, as John Blansett soberly discusses employment discrimination in Mississippi, in his aquarium.
Furthermore, we are subjected to a postmodern barrage of images of equally questionable relevance. While obviously intended to keep the audience laughing (at whose expense, one might ask), Spiro’s choices seem flip and gratuitous, often trading on stereotype. We see funny road signs-one crudely lettered “Booger Hollow Tabernacle,” another advertising “Front End Alignment / 16.95 / most cars / Jesus Saves.” Spiro points out a Dollywood billboard with a larger than life depiction of Ms. Parton. Ever alert to innuendo, she spots markers for Gaywood Camp Ground and the Homochitto River, the welcome sign to Beaver, Arkansas, and two street signs at the corner of Camp and Cherry. From the opening shot of Herefords grazing to Spiro’s condescending reparteewith an Elvis car tag salesman, the video becomes a discourteous and distanced portrayal, filled with caricature and parody.
Most troubling of all, Greetings from Out Here could easily be interpreted as further marginalizing the very subjects Spiro wishes to chronicle. While clearly honoring those individuals courageous enough to be out here, that is, out of the closet in the South, her title also underscores the assertion that we gay Southerners live out here—outside the “mainstream” gay world, in the boonies, in the hinterlands, away from the gay cultural capitals. Wandering the backroads of a seemingly foreign land, Spiro comes off as a bewildered tourist as her prominent postcard motif revealingly suggests. Her images are like vacation snapshots, varied but depthless. The residents of her travel destinations, the natives, are never fully understood, quickly bypassed as the stranger presses onward.
A dizzyingly ambitious project, Greetings from Out Here takes on too much. Limited within its one-hour time frame, this ground-breaking work inevitably fails to examine Southern lesbian and gay cultures with adequate depth. Large groups of people (Latinos in Texas, Cajuns in Louisiana, Asian-Americans throughout the South) go ignored, while significant cultural centers are allowed scant minutes of explication. Short Mountain Sanctuary, for example—the Tennessee rural retreat where several Radical Faeries make their home and several hundred non-residents converge twice a year—merits a feature-length or book-length study of its own. A region-wide synthesis, which Spiro admirably attempts, is almost impossible given the paucity of background work done in the area—community studies, biographies, oral histories, and the like. This dilemma may soon, in part, be remedied. As successive generations of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgenderal Southerners mature, recent experience suggests that a host of political feats and cultural products is forthcoming.
A native of Brandon, Mississippi, John Howard is a doctoral student in American Studies at Emory University. He is the editor of Carryin’ On: An Anthology of Southern Lesbian and Gay History, forthcoming from New York University Press.