I normally don’t talk about nonfiction very much, which is often because I don’t feel qualified to do so. There are very few things I feel expert enough to discuss, and even then I’m always wary of making mistakes, and so, when it comes to the nonfiction I read, I usually just do so without much fuss. Where I do sometimes step outside my comfort zone and discuss nonfiction is in the world of the autobiography—people telling their own stories is something that gives me comfort. I get to learn about new people (and often new places and new cultures), and I like hearing new voices. It’s like finding a new way to look at the world. Biographies grant me a new eye, so to speak.
More, I seek out LGBT biographies because our histories don’t have the inborn inheritance of other cultures. Queer kids aren’t (usually) born to queer parents. At family gatherings, the trans grandparents don’t tell the stories of their surviving Stonewall to the gay grandchildren. It’s different for queer people; If we want to know our history, we have to go find it. If we want our stories passed on, we have to tell them.
Crooked Letter i: Coming Out in the South is a collection of personal essays edited by Connie Griffin, written by LGBT folk from “The South” (as in the United States). As a Canuck, the notion of The South is an area somewhat nebulous and ill-understood. I profess to really only understanding the whole idea of The South from a few trips to Texas and Louisiana, and friends I have from West Virginia. My understanding of what it is is loosely gathered from their stories, their character, and reading fiction set in the area.
It’s safe to say I was surprised, then, by this collection. Some of it was less startling: I imagined going in that I would be reading a lot about how religion has shaped the experiences of the LGBT people growing up in The South. I was correct, but what I had not expected was to be shown a few times how religion was a caring and loving start (and sometimes even continued to be so) for some of the writers. My experiences with Christianity run somewhat shallow personally. I did not grow up with any overt religious activity or organization as part of my upbringing, and so it was only as a queer young adult that I really bumped into religion. Usually? It was a destructive force of intolerance and hatred aimed my way by the loudest of the faith I encountered. But for many of those writing these essays, faith formed a solid foundation. True, often they parted ways (and less than amicably), and I don’t want to downplay the very real damage many suffered at the hand of their religious families or communities, but there was not the total acrimony I expected. It was a surprise.
The personal essays also touch upon living under the shadow of potential homophobia (Jeff Mann’s piece touches on this: how every slight makes you second-guess yourself for the cause), family acceptances, Sororities (I raised a fist in the air at Susan L. Benton’s volleyball game), AIDS (B. Andrew Plant’s essay is particularly touching), racism, gender, McCarthyism and integration (Merril Mushroom’s piece was outright frightening to read), motherhood, the evolution of our language and self-descriptors… The 50’s, the 60’s, the 70’s and beyond are explored; There’s a wide range of personal experiences here, and I was enthralled.
In most LGBT writings I’ve read that touch the subject, I’ve seen The South described as a place survived, or as a place escaped from, but rarely have I seen it given any due as a positive experience by LGBT folk—at least, that’s been my experience. Reading this book, however, I found a series of new voices I’d never heard before. Ultimately, I think what I took from Crooked Letter i was how The South itself was such a source of strength and comfort for so many LGBT people—even for those who did choose to leave, but especially for those who remain or who came back.
My next visit to The South will be with a different eye.