Catch These Teas: Remembering, Re-centering, and Re-appropriating Black Trans Narratives
Patrick Johnson. Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South, An Oral History, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.
Sweet Tea is a collection of oral histories from sixty-three gay black men who were born and raised in the South, and those who remain there. Although there were stereotypes and preconceived notions, Johnson argues that gayness was not completely suppressed in Southern black culture and black gay men have carved out spaces within southern society. This is not to say that homosexuality has been accepted. Instead, Johnson attributes this to the South’s need to maintain a respectable image for individuals and families. He states, “The gentility, acts of politesse, and complicity of silence that form around taboo issues in southern tradition often take precedence over an individual’s need to name that identity” (4). While there may be knowledge about a transgressive behavior, it must not be talked about, flaunted, or publicly addressed out of fear of blemishing that respectable image. This image could be seen as a continuation of oppression and suppression, Johnson argues that this creates a space in which gay men can live, create spaces, and form relationships. Southern culture create boundaries of transgressions for gay men, it does not do away with gay (sub)culture.
Johnson discusses the infamous phrase “the closet” citing Marlon Ross who argued, “‘the closet’ is not necessarily an apt metaphor for the place where black men who choose not to announce or visibly articulate their (homo)sexuality in a public way find themselves” (109). To “come out” was not a strategy to make sexuality visible to society. Most of the men revealed their sexuality to immediate family members honoring the trust that supposedly exist among family. There is irony in “complicity of silence” or private gayness. For the most part, their sexuality is public although it is rarely explicitly discussed which goes back to Southern gentility. Johnson asserts that this notion of private acceptance without public acknowledgement is a way to accommodate taboo sexuality while still sustaining the veneer of southern religious morals (109).
I appreciate Johnson’s methodology of oral history. Using this method, allows the men to tell their stories and experiences of growing up and being gay in the South they way they want. He does not adhere to interviewer/interviewee power structures. He understands that the narrators have what he wants- their stories. He likens this approach to being invited to a Southern family’s home for dinner and the guest is asked to help with the meal. Basically, both sides are required to put in work and as a result, both sides get something out of it. This method is influential for my research as I contact people. I have to be mindful of my approach and representation of them.
Chapter 5, “Trannies, Transvestites, and Drag Queens: Oh My! Transitioning the South,” is especially relevant to my research. Johnson explores the ways in which trans-identities and drag culture are received in the South. More often than not, gender and sexual non-normativity are invisible and sexual subcultures are unacceptable. This may lead to some beliefs that non-normative sexual subcultures and activities did not exist. The narrators have dispelled this notion, arguing that black gay men negotiated their sexual identities in many ways within their social spaces. For individuals who occupy spaces within non-normative gender and sexual subcultures regardless of geographic location experience gender discrimination, homophobia, Transphobia, and trans-amnesia. What has been left out of the narrative is that the Stonewall Riots of 1969 in Greenwich Village started on the backs of working class queer African Americans who were big supporters of the bar. However, these individuals are absent from the photos from the three day riots and missing from the written history. The conflicts among blacks and whites within the LGBT community stems from white domination over the rewriting of queer histories such as Stonewall. By re-centering black trans individuals in riots and other events, I am re-appropriating blacks within trans and queer liberation narratives and struggles. This begins with denouncing trans-amnesia and remembering those individuals such as Miss Major Griffin-Gracy who was present in the Attica Prison riots as well as Stonewall.