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New Book, Performance Look At Gay Black Men of the South

Northwestern professor has given voice to a group rarely acknowledged in writings about the South.

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September 23, 2008 | by Wendy Leopold
EVANSTON, Ill. --- In the first book-length study ever to look specifically at gay black men living south of the Mason-Dixon Line, a Northwestern University professor has given voice to a group rarely acknowledged in writings about the South.

From 2004 to 2006, Northwestern's E. Patrick Johnson did face-to-face interviews with 70 gay black men born and continuing to live in the South to find out why they choose to live and how they survive in what many presume is a region of the country hostile to gays.

The title of Johnson's just published "Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South" riffs on the South's favorite beverage, the South's use of "tea" for gossip (as in "spilling the tea") and derisive expressions about homosexuality. But the book is a serious, absorbing effort to validate its subjects' lives and reinforce storytelling's role in both African American and Southern cultures.

"Gay culture is not solely the province of urban, northern spaces," says Johnson, who interviewed subjects ranging in age from 19 to 93 and representing at least one gay black man from every former slave-holding state. Whether corporate executives or drag queens, ministers or hairdressers, or architects or nurses, the men of "Sweet Tea" inhabit Southern large cities and small towns and are sometimes and sometimes not openly gay.

"Histories of gay life have focused elsewhere perhaps because the South is looked upon as 'regressive' or 'backward,'" says Johnson, who challenges those stereotypes. He suggests that many of his subjects "draw upon the performance of 'Southernness' -- of politeness, coded speech and religiosity -- to legitimize their status in gay and Southern culture."

(Johnson is doing a national college campus tour of a performance piece called "Pouring Tea" to coincide with "Sweet Tea's" publication by The University of North Carolina Press. At 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 2, he will perform on Northwestern's Evanston campus, assuming the voices of some of his subjects, including 60-year-old Atlanta artist Freddie, 93-year-old New Orleans "Countess Vivian" and gay activist Duncan.)

The stories of the South's black gay men have been "hidden in plain sight because all things taboo in the South are hidden in plain sight. To be Southern is to be indirect, to be passive-aggressive. So everybody knows that the proverbial choir director is gay but no one talks about it," says the Northwestern associate professor of African American studies and performance studies.

For example, "Sweet Tea" tells the story of Chaz/Chastity of Hickory, N.C., who lived as a woman six days a week but dressed as a man Sundays so he could sing in the choir. "No one ever questioned his right to participate," says Johnson, who also hails from Hickory. (The town officially declared "E. Patrick Johnson Day" on July 20, 1996, to celebrate Johnson as the first Hickory-born and –raised African-American to earn a Ph.D.)

The public face of gay life -- of visibility and gay rights and what it means to be gay -- is lived out in big cities. But, ironically, Johnson has found that being part of a small town community often guarantees black gay men a kind of safety, familiarity and comfort to build and maintain community in ways that New York, Chicago or San Francisco cannot.
Topics: Research