Rebels, Rubyfruit, and Rhinestones: Queering Space in the Stonewall Southby James T. Sears
While Scarlett O'Hara may resemble a drag queen, and Mardi Gras inspires more camp than a gay pride parade, the American South also boasts a rich, authentic and transgressive gay and lesbian history. In this chatty, free-ranging cultural survey, Sears (Growing Up Gay in the South) presents a vivid kaleidoscope of the mores and political activities of many gay… See more details below
While Scarlett O'Hara may resemble a drag queen, and Mardi Gras inspires more camp than a gay pride parade, the American South also boasts a rich, authentic and transgressive gay and lesbian history. In this chatty, free-ranging cultural survey, Sears (Growing Up Gay in the South) presents a vivid kaleidoscope of the mores and political activities of many gay Southerners following the 1969 Stonewall riots and leading up to the 1979 march on Washington. Sears unspools this history through portraits of activists and community organizers including Merril Mushroom, Jack Nichols, Lige Clark, Vicki Gabriner, Minnie Bruce Pratt and Sgt. Leonard Matlovitch who helped shape the social and political climate below the Mason Dixon line and often in the rest of the country. While giving a nod to historic events like Anita Bryant's Save Our Children campaign, Sears focuses more closely on obscure but important local political events, like the founding of the lesbian journal Sinister Wisdom, the emergence of the Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance and community response to a deadly firebombing that killed 31 patrons in a New Orleans bar in the mid-1970s. Sears's multifaceted approach pays off when he sketches such relatively unknown players as comedian Ray Bourbon and radical fairy Faygele ben Miriam, and he conveys well the complexity and intensity of the political activity of the decade. While not as historically conclusive or theoretically astute as John Howard's masterful Men Like That (2000), Sears provides a panoply of emotionally riveting snapshots that aptly portray Southern gay experience in the 1970s. B&w photos.
- Rutgers University Press
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- New Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 6.51(w) x 9.61(h) x 1.15(d)
Read an Excerpt
A Psychedelic Wedding
Unmoving, infinite, standing alone, never changing,
it is everywhere and it is inexhaustible.
It is the mother of all.
I do not know its name.
If I must name it,
I call it Tao.
As Baba Ram Dass reads from the Tao Te Ching, Francis Lee, a photo-animator who had earned an Academy Award for Black Fox, films a flaxen-haired matron. Clothed in a cotton gown and with flowers in her hair, Merril Mushroom strolls barefoot through a running brook.
Nothing in the world is weaker
or more yielding than water
yet nothing is its equal
in wearing away the hard from the strong.
Thus the weak can overpower the strong,
flexible can overcome the rigid.
Lee's camera scans New Jersey meadowlands and olive-hued forests, centering on birds, flowers, leaves, and insects. A scarlet rose unfolds to the cadence of syncopated drums, a solo flute, and an Indian sitar. Wedding celebrants, simply garbed, walk singly toward a man in a lotus position. Bliss, oneness, love.
Merril kisses John, and they exchange rings. A hundred tribal companions of their beat-turned-hippie generation peer beyond the couple's gaze.
From the still ground within the rings of desire
comes the power that rules in peace.
The yin and yang are drawn together
to create new forms,
which God speaks.
Bearded men and beaded women encircle the couple, embracing one another and swaying to the sitar, now mixed with the music of the Rolling Stones.
Thought divides us from truth,
the mind inhibits our feeling,
representation disguises the real.
It is only in love that love can be experienced....
In silence, truth enters.
Celebrating the jewel in the heart of the lotus, youthful bodies roll in the grass and frolic in the woods. Caresses and kisses between women and men, women and women, men and men commemorate the festivity. John, a gay man, and Merril, a lesbian, are wed.
If you understand love's laws
you will dance through your days in the wind of the spirit.
* * *
"Since I first laid eyes on him in the gay section of the student union, I had always felt a bond with John," reminisces Merril. During that fall semester of 1959, she was recovering from her college experience with Charley Johns. This Joe McCarthy-like senator and his "pork-chop gang" of politicians brought terror to Florida homosexuals during the late fifties and early sixties. Lives were ruined: student expulsions and faculty dismissals, divorce and suicide.
During that year of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee, John was "in the process of coming out and meeting a lot of gay people." With a false ID, he sometimes ventured into the Miami gay bars with Merril and "her dyke friends." Some of Merril's favorite bars were the Googies, the Onyx Room, the Coral Bar, and the Hi Room. It was at the Onyx Room, which sometimes featured female impersonators Charles Pierce and Jackie Jackson, that Merril and her lesbian friends Connie and Penny had performed male drag as the Tongueston Trio, a scene Merril describes:
I was still living at home and underage. I had to sneak out for rehearsals, posing as a typical fifties teenager going out to do homework and listen to records with a girlfriend.... We fancied up our usual duck's ass hairdos with pompadours, and we wore black pants, white shirts, black neckties, white socks, black loafers and sunglasses.... The curtain parted and hot red and blue lights moved over us as we trotted onstage in perfect step, waving and smiling. Three separate spotlights came on each of us, merging into one big spot. All the girls in the room screamedfaggots, too! ... The lights went down, all throats hushed, and out over the speakers came the opening instrumental notes of our first number, "Bad Boy," by the Jive Bombers.
In 1961, Merril escaped family scrutiny and the Sunshine State by eloping with Jacka friend of John's who was also gay. She joined Jack in Gadsden, Alabama. In this small southern town nearly devoid of organized homosexuality except for "one notorious local fairy," she taught school and worked as a salesclerk. This was the first time she witnessed the evil of Jim Crow. Expected to drink at "White Only" drinking fountains, deferred to by "Negro" men with eyes turned downward, and watching Ben Hur in the town's segregated movie theater, she remembers, "my eyes got real big. This is really real!"
Sometimes she and Jack drove their VW beetle down Highway II to Birmingham with its handful of gay-friendly taverns like Theos and the Twentieth Century Lounge, or the bars in the Bankhead and Redmont Hotels that catered to the limp wristed. During their first visit, Merril recalls, "We didn't have much to go on except hearsay. We went to the Red Room of the Redmont Hotel where we met a couple of drag queens, Lonnie Dare and Billie Bell."
On future visits, the couple stayed overnight at the men's home. "But it was not the same as having a girlfriend." Merril sighs. "It was a very long year. I really missed lesbians." On one occasion, Lonnie and Billie fixed Merril up with a "skinny hooker with bleached, teased hair and pasty, pale skin. She chased me around the house because I didn't want to hurt her feelings."
In 1962 the couple moved to New York City. Merril taught in a two-story brick elementary school in Harlem while Jack worked for the Social Security Administration. "Some of the kids had really good families, but it was still the inner city: they were poor; junkies were on the streets and in the doorways," she remembers. Like Sylvia Barrett in Up the Down Staircase, Merril confronted the realities of the chalkboard jungle. She learned that "life was not a white middle-class paradise everywhere. There was a nine-year-old who had to steal in order to feed his younger siblings because he was in charge of the family.... There were teachers who really hated the kids and called them names. They were terribly racist but they had contracts and the union."
For five years she taught in her "classroom box with not enough desks, not enough books, and not enough chairs." She spent her money on materials and crafted visuals for the classroom. Working with thirty-six children and observing other teachers, Merril "began to understand how insidious and hurtful racism really could bebesides the obvious discrimination. It was the beginning of my political awareness."
While Merril was living with Jack in a middle-class Italian neighborhood in Queens, John was living on Fifty-seventh Street with another gay man and two women. Soon, Merril moved in with one of the "girls" to a West Greenwich Village flat, keeping most of her belongings in Queens.
Merril enjoyed lesbian couplehood, playing softball and riding bikes and taking her schoolchildren to Central Park, as well as frequenting the bars on weekend nights, particularly the Sea Colony and occasionally Washington Square or Page Three.
The bars themselves weren't that much different from those that Penny and I hung out at in Florida. Washington Square could have been Googies, the Sea Colony the Coral Bar, and Page Three the Red Carpet. The Sea Colony was your typical working-class Mafia two-room plushish bar with a dance floor and tables where the bouncer and managersall tough hoodstreated us fine.
Since Charley Johns's investigation was still going strong, it was terribly dangerous to frequent Florida bars. But when the New York bars were raided, all that happened was the cops told us to leavenobody got arrested or harassed!
In 1964 Merril broke up with her girlfriend and moved back to Queens with Jackwho continued to party with John. John had just been turned on to marijuana by a fellow social worker. Euphoric, he told Jack. Merril telephoned John later: "Jack just said you had a wonderful experience with marijuana! He's terribly worried about you. I want you to know that I smoke; Jack doesn't know. We should get together!"
One day Merril told John of Timothy Leary's psychedelic experiences and experiments. Leary, a Brooks Brothers-clad Harvard psychologist, had begun research with his fellow faculty member, Richard Alpert (who, already tuned in, would soon drop out, becoming Baba Ram Dass), into the effects of a synthetic drug secretly being tested by the CIA: lysergic acid diethylamide. At the Center for Personality Research, the Harvard professors hosted experimental drug sessions with undergraduates and celebrities, using LSD (legal until 1965) and psilocybin in a laboratory with an aroma of incense laced with Indian music, decorated with Buddha posters, and lined with mattresses.
Merril and John began attending lectures sponsored by the International Foundation for Internal Freedom. There, Leary, the Billy Sunday of acid, preached weekly use of LSD and daily litanies of marijuana. Like the counterculture homosexual pied pipers Allen Ginsberg and Ken Kesey, Leary celebrated the "holiness" of mind-expanding drugs, opening the League of Spiritual Discovery (LSD) in a Greenwich Village basement ashram. Writing in the East Village Other, Leary observed:
The "turned on" person realizes that SHe is not an isolated, separate social ego, but rather one transient energy process hooked up with the energy dance around hir.... "Tune in" means arrange your environment so that it reflects your state of consciousness, to harness your internal energy to the flow around you.... When this person "turns on," SHe sees at once the horror of hir surroundings. If SHe "tunes in," SHe begins to change hir movements and hir surroundings so that they become more in harmony with hir internal beauty.... Do not "drop out" until you have "tuned in." Do not "turn on" unless you know how to "tune in," or you will get "hung up!" Every "bad trip" is caused by the failure to "tune in."
Inspired, Merril set up John's first acid session: "When you do LSD with someone, it's not just dropping it and going out and partying," she explains, "it's taking it as a sacrament with a religious structure around ita transcendental experience. We spent three days together setting up for it, doing it, and processing it. We got real close."
It changed my whole life! LSD helped me to recognize that there were all these other ways of being. It made me realize that I had become a horse with blinders. At the age of twenty-three this had become what was realeverything else disappeared!
I was sitting on the bed with this orange in my hand. Suddenly, the side I was looking at began to bubble and become ugly. I got really nervous and turned the orange around to the part that was smooth. I realized that the orange was me: I had this ugly side and this good side. As I was thinking about the "good side," the orange started to bubble. Then I couldn't find a good side to the orange. I cried: "What's going on? Am I really rotten through and through?"
As "psychedelic gay hippies," Merril and John participated in LSD studies at Princeton. "The researchers would come to our parties and we would do acid while they talked to us and took notes." That research, described in the anthology Psychedelics, found that "our groupthe only mainly gay oneevidenced the most profound changes!"
While all LSD trips taken by the two were not equally good, each yielded lessons. Taking acid one night without anyone's guidance, John found himself in a maze of logical patterns. Coming to his rescue, Merril guided John. At that point, John says, "I realized how indispensable she was to me and how she was a really important part of my life."
The next day John sent her an unconventional Valentinea card of hearts laced with LSD. Later, while Merril was "in a state of fantasy," John offered: "If you and Jack ever get a divorce, I'd really like to get married." Unbridled by either a marriage of convenience or conventional beliefs about family life, Merril responded in a heartfelt manner: "That's really nice, John. I'll go home and ask Jack for a divorce!"
Following their karmic marriage during that "summer of love," the couple separated from New York's gay life. "We weren't really into the gay or feminist scenes," Merril confesses. "We were more involved with the antiwar movement. We weren't even aware of Stonewall." The couple stepped to the lyrics of Pete Seeger and chanted, "Hey, Hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?" in the first peace march through Manhattan. They dropped acid at the first Easter "Be-In" at Central Park. They abandoned their car on a hopelessly jammed New York highway and themselves to the sanguine balladeers of a Woodstock Nation one weekend on a rain-drenched farm.
Back in the city, the unconventional newlyweds opened Paranoiaa four-room head shop in the East Village. Here they sold psychedelic crafts handmade by local artists, fed street people, and counseled runaways. Stepping into Paranoia, customers fancied the "pressed-metal-plate ceiling which we painted different colors like a stained-glass window." In the next room, Merril goes on,
we had a kitchen with free food for all the street kids. Then we had our "carousel room" with the wooden horses that was all done in day-glow with a black light which showed the day-glow merchandise. We started the back room as a clothing give-away room, but soon a friend turned it into the "rain forest room" with cattails, jungle plants, and a parrot.
Merril and John also hawked crafts on the Long Island circuit. They camped out for five days at the Forest Hills Country Club for the First International Psychedelic Exposition. After the exhibition closed for the night, the couple enjoyed communal dinners and drugs with other hippie entrepreneurs. Merril thinks back to those conversations, which centered on the peril of city life and the promise of intentional communities: "We didn't like all of the waste, all of the dirt, all of the consumerism. We wanted to live in a simpler fashion doing our little part in making the world a better place. We talked in great detail about adopting children who needed homes and doing community education."
As the sixties burned themselves out in Icarus-like fashion with Altamonte, the Manson family, and Belfast, Merril and John rented a house in upstate New York with other friends. The couple made weekend pilgrimages to learn organic farming and experience collective living. Over time they amassed some money and a bit more knowledge about communal life.
Merril's marriage to John was one of neither convenience nor necessity. Each cared for the other, and they shared a homestead dream of raising a tribe of "hard to place" children. In February 1970 the couple contacted Human Services. Was there a child under the age of six with mild or moderate disabilities in need of a loving couple? After their application form was completed, a petite and pleasant social worker paid a two-hour home visit. Sporting dark hair cut in a short fifties style, she efficiently went through her questions, as Merril recalls:
Of course, she wanted to know about our family life, religion, and growing up experiences. Since we didn't say, "Hey! We're a queer couple and we want to adopt," there was absolutely no discussion about our sexuality.
Three months later, as college campuses erupted in protest against the Cambodian invasion and the student massacres at Kent and Jackson State Universities, Human Services telephoned.
"Will you consider a foundling?"
"What's a foundling?" asked Merril.
"An abandoned baby. Of course, we can't provide you any of his medical history."
They felt little hesitancy about accepting the child. "We've always felt that whoever we're offered is the one we're supposed to have," Merril affirms. The couple, though, was caught off-guard by the pace of events.
Merril and John visited Social Services the very next week to see the child and meet again with the butch-appearing social worker. As she rolled the ten-week-old out in his crib, they knew immediately that this baby with oval brown eyes was to become part of their family.
"We really love this baby!" Merril excitedly told the social worker. "How long will it take? A few days? A couple of weeks? Will we have to come back and visit him some more?"
"No," she replied. "I'll get his things."
They were stunned. "We didn't have a bottle, a diaper, or a crib!" Merril muses. Picking up the necessities of parenthood on their way home, Merril carried J'aime upstairs only to realize, "I didn't even know how often babies ate!"
The following spring John and Merrilwith one-year-old J'aime and their street dog, Foundloaded their possessions and hopes into a pink schoolbus with an outrageous red stripe painted down its middle. With their last paychecks cashed, they drove it across the Verrazano Bridge.
And so this is how a boy and his gay parents and his dog began a yearlong search for "hippie pie-in-the-sky"a journey that would take them across the country, into Canada and Mexico, and ultimately, back to their southern roots.
Excerpted from Rebels, Rubyfruit and Rhinestones by James T. Sears. Copyright © 2001 by James T. Sears. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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