AUTHOR’S NOTE: Slow down and sit for a spell. Quickly scanning this article will make you miss its larger point. C’mon… enjoy some tea with us. Your Facebook and text messages will be there when you’re done, I promise.
So, last night I attended a live performance of Y’all Come Back: Stories of Queer Southern Migration, a collection of confessional poetry, rap, film, and theatre from queers who grew up in the South. I expected it to be a wrist-slicing night of self-pity, but I’m happy to report that I’ve never been more wrong. Instead, the show was intensely funny, sincere, vulnerable and creative in distinctly southern ways that are easy to forget.
And that’s why I wrote this article: to share what it taught me about my own home with those who don’t know and those who need a reminder.
1) Yes, we’ve been hurt, but the South has toughened us up…
Queerphobia abounds throughout the nation, but the South serves up additional jambalayas of conservative politics, antiquated racism, religious prejudices, cultural misogyny and non-stop family reunions full of pearl-clutching and sex-shaming… all mostly dished out with a smile and a “Bless your heart.”
Throw in some poverty, drug abuse issues and other social injustices and no one leaves the South without some serious scarring (whether they realize it or not). Those of us with good sense however get a great deal of strength, empathy and self-awareness from the devil’s bargain: enough to call out hypocrisy and shadiness when we see it, to endure (and have a good time) when things get rough and to provide some serious southern comfort and joy to souls who need it most.
2) … and we’re not just abused lovers.
We secretly hate when you say things like, “Oh, you’re from Arkansas? I’m soooo sorry,” or “I bet you’re glad you got the hell out of there the first chance you could, huh?” That’s our birthplace you’re talking about: we may call another place home now, but those are our roots you’re pissing on.
We don’t want your pity. In fact, your pity conveys that you don’t (or are too snobby to) understand all the things that make the South worth sticking around for, like actually its natural beauty, the stars, comfort foods, sno-cones and the fucked-up but good-hearted weirdos we love there too. We grew up in those fields, our spiritual ancestors thrived and died there… and you hating on our homeland is like you hating on us all.
3) It takes strength to leave the South, but it takes even more to return and help make it better…
Of course we wanted to leave the South. We outgrow our fishbowls and long to swim in weirder waters, but know this: NYC, LA, and SF ain’t all that. Yeah, they may have international flavors and queer culture coming out of the ears, but they also think they invented queerness and the best sex in the world… and believe us, they didn’t.
You’ve never cruised until you’ve cruised a church picnic or family reunion, sex is hotter when it’s still outlawed by your state constitution, surviving HIV means more when you have to outsmart your state’s shitty health funding to do it and true genderfuck happens when your every high-heeled step could be your last. We own that shit — respect and know that it comes in bold, dangerous flavors you’ve never tasted, child.
That being said, we also grew up seeing other southerners who moved off and made it in the big city — performers like Beyonce, Oprah Winfrey and Carol Burnett. We knew we couldn’t learn everything in a cotton field. So those of us who could, left… but many of us came back — even if just for the holidays — because we knew the only way to re-plant our home fields was to bring back the seeds collected elsewhere. Imagine what happens to the racist, classist and misogynist South when mixed-race, poor, gender-fucked queers take over.
And, to mix all my metaphors, there’s also immense power in being a big city fish in a smaller southern pond. It feels supernatural.
4) … because we’re worried that Southern young queers will have no role models otherwise.
We remember the pain of being a young queer surrounded by bible-thumping bigots and beer-guzzling morons. And we also remember the sheer jubilation of finally finding weirdos like us and making a family of those fellow tribe-members.
But many of us had to leave the South to find people who finally understood our particular brand of weirdness: people kind enough to teach us how to dance, dress and fuck; people who taught us the names of our spiritual ancestors, our cultural forbearers, our contemporary counterparts and who taught us to stand tall in their strength and glory. We didn’t learn that shit from our southern public school textbooks and most of us certainly didn’t learn it from our families.
Young queers in the South who have no heroes, mentors or dreams might commit suicide, commit a crime or just go crazy if they don’t learn how radiant they really are. If they find their “family”, they can transform all the region’s hatred and judgments into soul butter, sweet tea and moves that could seduce the world; but they can’t do it alone.
We in the South are not your red-headed stepchildren, your ugly cousins or embarrassing relatives you wish would go away — we’re your brothers, sisters and mixters. We form a big part of your national family and we need (nay deserve!) your love because we too dream big, just like you.
And if we leave the South and never return at all, it’ll never change for the better. There are people, places and dreams there worth fostering and we ignore them at our own peril.
(all images from YallComeBackShow.com)