Reviewed by Jim Grimsley
Vol. 21, No. 4, Winter 1999 pp. 16-17
John Howard, Men Like That: A Southern Queer History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999)
Growing up queer in the South, it took me a while to learn to spot others of my kind. The problem was never exactly that there wasn’t serious sex going on between the boys I knew. It’s nearly a truism that boys start to play with one another pretty early on, and by playing, I mean having sex with one another in various ways. Queer sex attracts some boys for life and for others its pleasures are later replaced by heterosexual ones. I’ve always been struck by the notion that rural areas were an unfriendly place for gay people. Struck by the fact that rural life actually fits many of the needs imposed by a gay identity quite well. The country is a good place to find privacy, to make a big comfortable closet. That’s been true as long as queers lived in the country, all these tens of thousands of years; or, to state this in John Howard’s terms, people have acted on queer desire in the country for as long as it’s been there.
Men Like That offers a fresh look at these same presumptions about queer life in the South, long held as truisms, and in so doing points clearly to the complexity of human life and human sexuality in all ages and times. The commonly held wisdom among nearly all queer theorists has been that people who wanted to live “that way,” to borrow one of Mr. Howard’s constructions, had to move to the city to find the necessary environment. Men Like That constructs careful arguments to demonstrate that this was never the only option queers had.
His arguments are forceful, his writing clear. Though he is trapped in the terminology necessary to a scholarly work, his prose nevertheless unfurls a detailed argument that is remarkable in its debunking of the notions that there is only urban queer history to deal with, and that the South has always been the most hostile of all regions toward anyone who wanted to be queer. Howard demonstrates, convincingly, that before the Civil Rights Movement, queers had a vibrant place in the hierarchy of sexual behaviors available to people who lived in the South, in the case of his book, focused on the state of Mississippi in the years from 1945 to 1985.
While the whole of the book is thoughtful and readable, the most interesting chapters are the first three, in which Howard uses oral histories obtained from many queers who lived in Mississippi during those years. The histories, coming from Mississippians of all stripes and economic backgrounds, offer a convincing portrait of a South in which men dabbled in one another’s trousers whenever it was convenient, much less concerned than we are with a
sexual identity, much more concerned with where to drive to find the best cruising spots, be they bars, bathrooms, movie houses, or parks.
Sounds pretty much like the men I used to meet in the bars in New Orleans right after I got out of college, some of whom had taken their wedding rings off for the weekend in order to enjoy a moment of sport with the boys.
Jim Grimsley is Senior Writer-in-Residence at Emory and author of four novels, including the recently published Comfort and Joy (Algonquin Books, 1999).