Badpuppy Gay Today

Monday, 29 September 1997


An Oral History of Lesbian and Gay Southern Life, 1948-1968

Interview by David Scott Evans


Occasionally--though rarely--gay and lesbian communities get treated to historic imagery that defies academia's usual allegorical abstruseness. Such an instance of historic tale-telling, spellbinding yet clear, is now available at local bookstores everywhere.

James T. Sears' Lonely Hunters; An Oral History of Lesbian and Gay Southern Life, 1948-1968 (Westview-HarperCollins), is a new work of history that reads almost like a gripping novel, and gives us not just the opportunity to associate several interesting faces with each little-known legend, but artfully introduces an innate sense of drama to complete the book's intricate, intimate portraitures.

Without sacrificing accuracy, Dr. Sears eschews bland archival claptrap. He invites the reader into the lives of bold gay men and lesbians by giving voice to those who were at the forefront of what we've since dubbed the modern gay rights movement. He accomplishes this by acting as an expert guide into that varied but almost entirely neglected area of our country we call The South.

By sharing the stories of the pioneering Southerners featured in Lonely Hunters, Sears' striking evocations provide us with moving insights into the very means through which the modern gay movement originated and continues to advance.

Sears' credentials make him aptly suited to write a book such as this. He was a Fulbright Scholar and is a professor at the University of South Carolina. A course he taught on Christian fundamentalism attracted national attention as well as the ire of Pat Robertson who dubbed him "Satan in the university."

He is also the author or editor of seven books, including Growing Up Gay in the South, and Overcoming Homophobia. He serves as the acquisitions director for Southern studies at the International Gay and Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles, and presides on the editorial boards of a variety of journals, including The Journal of Homosexuality, and the Journal of Sexual Identity.


David Scott Evans: Lonely Hunters evokes, beautifully, imagery and the sensibilities of the South and reads much like an historical novel in the Vidal or Haley tradition. Can the reading public look forward to more?

James T. Sears: The way Lonely Hunters was written was to tell the stories of individuals in a compelling and literary manner against a backdrop of larger cultural and historical events. To me history isn't just the Battle of Hastings, or the date that the Confederacy was born. To me history is people…is our source.

Depending on their age, some of the people [depicted in] Lonely Hunters may be featured in the next volume, which goes from 1969 to 1983. The volume that will precede Lonely Hunters, that basically goes from the Great Depression to WWII, features some, such as Arlen Davies. You're going to learn a lot more about him, for example, his experiences back in WWII as well as being introduced to other people.

There will be five books spanning a hundred years, chronicling Southern gay history of which you'll literally see Arlen Davies going from a young boy to an old man. What I hope to establish with Lonely Hunters is that people will say "Great…can't wait to see the next volume.

David Evans: Do you think that sodomy issues are a burr in the collective Southern gay butt, or should we side step the issue?

Jim Sears: If the question is: "Are people being persecuted and prosecuted, like Hardwick was, for engaging in consensual sodomy (as defined by a particular state's law)?" Then the answer is, no. People are not being systematically persecuted for that, although there are occasional instances of it.

As we in the South know it's less important what you do in the still of the night than what you're perceived as during broad daylight, in front of people. The South has always been a place where people can gossip but one's place within the community really plays [the decisive] part in deciding what sexual parameters one has. So sodomy statutes did not affect a lot of people, ever.

But I think that there are two perceptions here that lead me to the conclusion that the issues of sodomy statutes do need to be addressed. One is obviously the sodomy statute is used in a lot of ways systematically to deprive people of their rights, custody rights in terms of a lesbian mother or a gay father.

Or in terms of saying: "How can we allow these people who are, by definition, engaging in homosexual acts which is against the law." Which was used fifteen years ago when student groups started organizing in the South. They're used by and large by people who aren't going to support gay rights anyway. They're used as a convenient excuse why those rights should not be extended to people.

Secondly, addressing those [activists] outside the South is the question: how do we organize, develop and foster gay communities, culture, politics in the South? Clearly using what we call "northern tactics' does not fit in with Southern sensibility.

In addressing legal tactics like sodomy or custody issues, I think it demands that [our tacticians in] H.R.C (Human Rights Council) or Lambda Legal Defense seriously think in terms of culture or cultural context [regarding] how to go about making a change. A parallel there is with the Civil Rights movement.

I know [with some] that it's politically incorrect to make parallels between the Civil Rights movement and the gay movement…but some of the same arguments were made [back in the 50s and 60s]: "Why are we so concerned about what's going on in the South? Why don't we work where we already have some freedoms?" (Like NYC or Chicago allegedly) It was the South that really became the Rubicon that we had to cross to really address issues of desegregation across the country.

And so [respectively re: the gay movement] we can have movies like In and Out that talks about gay life in Greenleaf, Indiana, and the difficulties of coming out- until we begin to talk about strategies for dealing with statutes like sodomy in the South and the Midwest we're really--Castro Street will not cross Main Street.

David Evans: I'm happily surprised to see Florida dealt with as the South. Many people I've spoken with are under the mistaken impression that Florida is not- has never been a Southern state.

Jim Sears: A lot of people have told me it's not supposed to be there either…(Laughs).

David Evans: Is there actually a "Southern gay sensibility"?

Jim Sears: I think saying that there is a Southern gay sensibility is redundant. I think that gay sensibility is Southern.

You can look at that in terms of demeanor; you can look at that in terms of the development of art forms such as drag and female impersonation. Southern sensibility, the art of the entendre, the what isn't said and is said- theatrics- I think if you took the Southern out of gay you'd have a lot closer image of what some gay rights people want us to be--more like the heterosexual…

David Evans: …Boring? (Laughter)

Jim Sears: If anything, what we're witnessing over the last twenty years is, particularly in politics and to a lesser degree in culture, is the Southernization of the U.S.

The thing that I like about the South is its wondrous diversity and complexity. What one experiences in the Blue Ridge Mountains is very different from what one experiences in the panhandle of Florida. And different from what one sees in East Texas. And all that is framed within a larger Southern culture defined primarily in terms of--it goes back 150 years.

When people say they don't want to hear about Florida [as Southern] what they're saying is my concept of the South is either Deliverance or Gone With the Wind- which may be one element of Southern culture but that's no more of the South than the burning of buses in Anniston, Alabama. What one can get away with in south Beach is very different from what one can get away with in Greenville, South Carolina.

David Evans: Do you think people's stereotypes of the South are evolving?

Jim Sears: As defined by whose standards? Clearly I think things have changed in terms of the South being viewed as in Mandingo, Gone With the Wind, etc. But when you scratch beneath the veneer of [people's] politically correct responses there is probably within many non-Southerners a sense of either moral superiority or intellectual superiority that says noblesse oblige. This being one of my reasons for having written Lonely Hunters, to say, well, that's bullshit.

It's a product of either arrogance or ignorance when people believe in terms of the gay rights struggle--It's a bi-coastal arrogance between L.A and New York--Clearly what transpired at Stonewall was important--but Southerners were involved in that--Jim Kepner, Morris Kight, Jack Nichols were Southerners.

By the time we get into the sixties and early seventies it is reacting to some of the negatives of the South that has actually helped to expand the scope and progress of gay rights. I talk about in detail, in my next book, Anita Bryant. Who else could have reduced the Orange Juice Queen, the Beauty Queen- the woman who sings God Bless America--except Florida? Had the South not existed where would the gay rights movement be?

As you know, I'm not from the South. I'm from the Midwest. I came to the South fifteen years ago with many of the same superficial stereotypes that many people have.

By virtue of living with a Southerner for the last thirteen years, being embraced by his southern family and of experiencing both the positives and the negatives of the South that I can, maybe, appreciate in some ways better than even a native Southerner.

David Evans: How do you think we can promote historic individual events (other than stonewall) that are less imbedded in the gay psyche.

Jim Sears: Well, Stonewall was more important as an icon than as an event because there were mini-Stonewalls, as pointed out in other histories, both on the west coast and east coast.

The challenge for people who want to write history is to begin to think in terms of the context of the general. The journalistic problem here, and the place perhaps where people can criticize me, is I see myself as being a cross between an academic and a literary journalist.

The way I've laid out Lonely Hunters, and all my books, is I focus on key events, like the Johns Committee, and then try to find someone who was actually persecuted and prosecuted and fired by the Johns Committee and that's hard to do.

If I simply wrote about it in the abstract…that certainly would have been historically accurate, but I think you lose a lot of the human component.

What does it mean for someone like a Rose Levinson going to school at that time, what's going on internally in terms of struggle. We don't know that unless we talk to people.

David Evans: The afterword by Barbara Gittings is interesting. Do you believe, as she states, that political "decentralization" is best for the Gay movement?

Jim Sears: I think it's a provocative idea. Obviously, as talked about in Lonely Hunters, this was an issue with ECHO et al. in the fifties and sixties. Certainly there were divisions during that time, as well as today, among people who feel very strongly that we should just have one or two big national organizations.

I think that we're just socialized to think that large organizations and key people, individuals, is the route toward [political] success[es]. Clearly we can look toward heroes and heroines in gay history.

But I think that historical evidence supports Barbara's position that lots of individuals make the difference. Although you may have individuals like a Gittings, a Harvey Milk, or Leonard Matlovich who was a southerner, or, like, Pedro Zamora. Th[ey as] individuals were pursuing issues important to them.

I think the examples that Barbara gave were more social examples, such as the gay flag. All those elements, I think, make up a much more powerful group or people.

I think that I side much more closely with Barbara's position because not only is it more historically accurate, but it also invests both power and responsibility on everyday people…for enlarging our equality and human rights whether it's in Anniston Alabama or Anaheim California.

David Evans: Anywhere in particular in the South that strikes you as a hotbed of gay political activism?

Jim Sears: There are some third tier cities (and I don't mean that as a pejorative) like Jackson Mississippi, or Columbia South Carolina, Birmingham, Alabama that are much more Southern--not tied to universities or urban, they're not communities that are one or two industry towns. That is where the hot beds of activity are. Not that's visible--I'm talking in terms of organizationally. If you look at MCC churches, gay community centers.

Look at the little publications, look for the core groups of people that are involved in AIDS issues, education, fund raising etc. Those are the hot beds in my opinion.

Precisely because they aren't [plainly] visible, they're the ones that are going to make the difference ultimately--referring to your sodomy statute question--those are the people who live with and have to interact with heterosexual Southerners.

If I live in Austin, Texas I can live in my own "ivory tower", or South Beach…I hate to break this to ya', but we don't have a gay enclave [in Columbia, SC.] We have to interact and live with local politicians and neighbors in the community.

That's where change is gonna take place. Southerners by-and-large, as you know, are willing to defend the right of so-and-so to be left alone because that 'queer" is my friend.

A generation from now these [small towns] will be the hotbed of political activities. These are the cities in the Midwest and in the South that are the key in terms of bringing about change.

As long as we're willing to settle then we don't have to worry about the Midwest and South. If we really want social and sexual justice then these are the areas that we need to be concerned with. We can't act and work the people in Tipton, Indiana or Tupelo, Mississippi unless we understand the history and the culture of that place.

David Evans: Any final thoughts?

Jim Sears: Each of us has the opportunity to preserve history on our own. I encourage anyone, alone or in a group to collect and donate materials for archival cataloguing and entry.

It's easy to imagine that a late twenty-first century historian trying to research for a centennial remembrance would be able to obtain information on any of today's most celebrated gays and lesbians—but localized history--the everyday gays and lesbians are the truest components of our legacy as a community.

Even if you're so far in the closet that only your dog knows you're gay- preserve it for posterity!

David Evans: ARF! and Thank You...

More information about Dr. James T. Sears' work and his city-to-city speaking schedule on behalf of Lonely Hunters can be found on his Web page:


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