Portrait of Truman Capote by Carl Van Vechten, 1948. Library of Congress, LOT 12735, no. 187.
Portrait of Truman Capote by Carl Van Vechten, 1948. Library of Congress, LOT 12735, no. 187.

For at least a decade, since I started writing my undergraduate dissertation back in 2006, I’ve been academically interested in the way history looks from the margins and particularly the margins within margins. I said as much in a recent article for the journal Llafur. ‘The active recovery of the history of the margins and the marginalised is one of the most important and vital legacies of … historians’. I added further that the point of the article was to shed light on the ‘margins-within-the-margins’. But as I was writing that article I was struck by the thought of how I might go about blending that interest with the wider motifs that dominate my academic writing – borderlands, regions, and a non-national emphasis. In other words, is it possible to think about the margins-within-the-margins in a borderlands framework; and, as Tim Stewart-Winter asks in his great book on Chicago, albeit the term is borrowed from Colin Howell, what happens when we observe the (queer) metropolitan fallacy? Today’s blogpost is the result of those considerations. How successful it is, I leave to the consideration of the reader.

A word, first, about regions and borders. I’ve written about regions in a four nations context previously, so I won’t reiterate too much, but it seems to me that once you move beyond queer metropolitan centres – New York, London, Manchester – life becomes that little bit more complicated. Populations are smaller, finances are tighter, transportation less effective, and the possibility of falling into the trap of living in a provincial ghetto is all too real. Part of what makes Stephen Jimenez’s reconsideration of the Matthew Shepard murder, The Book of Matt, quite so compelling a read is precisely because it reorients the mind away from the innocence projected at the time towards some of the most dangerous effects of life on the margins-within-the-margins. Most especially, we must recognise, at a time when Shepard’s sexuality was treated with open disdain – and illegality – by wider American society. Just as history looks different from the margins when considered from the point of view of miners or women teachers, so it does from young LGBT men and women. Each marginality worn, as Linda Colley put it in her iconic phrase, not like hats but simultaneously. The effects, as might be imagined, multiplied over and over again.

I’m attracted to the idea of regions and borders because, as I said on the four nations blog, ‘regions pose pesky questions of neat, comfortable syntheses. Regionalists […] frequently adopt the stance of “well, it wasn’t like that for everyone” and can easily get on the nerves of [the] synthetically-inclined’. Imagine, if you will, a field of scholarship so dominated by the general liberalities (and dangers) of the metropolis; which recognises the ‘pink pound’ on the one hand and domesticity on the other; which observes the cat-and-mouse nature of policing; which revels in the glances that no-one really notices in the bustle. This is the nature of a lot of queer scholarship. It makes sense, but it leaves a lot of the page uncoloured. Yes, migration of the otherwise marginalised to cities is a common feature of postwar urbanism and in America, Canada, Ireland and Britain, helped to shape the atmosphere of large centres of population. ‘Unprecedented numbers of émigrés from smaller cities, towns, rural areas, and suburbs left their families of origin’, writes Stewart-Winter, ‘and joined urban gay society, where they could find both anonymity and community’. At the same time, as a lot of the identifiably LGBT literature of the immediate post-war period serves to remind us, works by Truman Capote or Tennessee Williams, for example, those other places were not completely denuded.

Capote and Williams focused at least some of their artistic energy on excavating the social relationships of the South. Williams was born in Mississippi in 1911, and it was in that clime that he set his iconic Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), where sexuality, suicide, and mendacity, are all on display. Wouldn’t it be funny if it were true, Williams asks repeatedly in the play, insisting on the veracity of Brick’s feelings for Skipper and the debilitating effect on Brick of Southern social order. Capote, born in the neighbouring state of Louisiana in 1924, but with an early childhood in Alabama, was also shaped in part by the mores of the American South. Although he steadily wriggled out of them, made all the easier by his move to New York in 1933, Capote never forgot his experiences and would turn them into the subject of his controversial first (published) novel Other Voices, Other Rooms in 1948.  He would later write of the book that it was

an attempt to exorcise demons, an unconscious, altogether intuitive attempt, for I was not aware, except for a few incidents and descriptions, of its being in any serious degree autobiographical.

Few readers would really share Capote’s “surprise”. The novel is really about a boy on the verge of puberty (and queer awareness) coming into his own, absent a father. It contains many of the standard issue inferences of such an experience – alienation, isolation, loneliness, sexual understanding. It is a bildungsroman but with a twist. The irony – particularly given the severity of the animosity that developed between the two men – is that Capote’s debut was published in exactly the same month as Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar which has somewhat overshadowed its contemporary. Whereas Capote’s Joel Harrison Knox is effeminate and a performer, more typically gay (if stereotypes are your thing); the protagonist of Vidal’s work, Jim Willard, as altogether more ‘all-American’. A good sportsman, a sailor, and less overtly homosexual, Willard skewered the prevailing perception of gay men as something more akin to Capote’s protagonist. The results are rather different, however, and like Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Jim Willard finds himself scarred by his experiences as a gay man. The prejudice of society warped what might otherwise have been an entirely healthy life. Capote offers a certain model of individual liberation; Williams and Vidal hold the lens up to society and illustrate just how damaging oppression is.

Gore Vidal, 1948, by Carl Van Vechten. Library of Congress, LOT 12735, no. 1141.
Gore Vidal, 1948, by Carl Van Vechten. Library of Congress, LOT 12735, no. 1141.

Thirty years after these books were published, give or take, the Alabama-based Poverty Law Report, a review of ‘advances in the legal rights of the poor’, ran an article on women in state penitentiaries in the United States. For the most part, the article is as might be expected – a consideration of the relationship between crime and drug use in urban areas and how this catches women in a vicious cycle. But for our purposes here, the article is of interest because it attempts to reach an understanding of the social and cultural lives of the incarcerated during their incarceration. What happened to women in prison and how did their lives alter? At one point the author writes, ‘homosexuality is an increasing problem. Inmates say they become involved in homosexual relationships because of the unnatural living conditions, feelings of dependency, self-condemnation, and most of all, loneliness’. That word again. To modern ears this is jarring, and places far too much stress on environment rather than genetic disposition, but forty years have passed since it was written and ideas about sexuality have changed. Gore Vidal would say at this point, well humans are naturally bisexual are they not, but I think we should also appreciate the relationship made between sexuality, loneliness and societal normatives – themes quite evident in all of the literary work mentioned thus far.

Ironically, prison, a place in which an individual’s democratic rights and responsibilities as a citizen are steadily eroded, became a freer environment for expressions of sexual alterity than the more ‘normal’ context outside the prison walls. Around the same time the article was published several other pieces described the threat of the Ku Klux Klan to the gay rights movement and to gay men and women more generally. The Klan were – still are in those places where they persist – part of a spectrum of prejudice in the American South. As John Howard observes in his work on Mississippi, ‘antiqueer sentiments extended from Ku Klux Klan directives on stoning perverts to subtle biases in everyday work and leisure environments’. Churches that ministered to the LGBT community were subject to relatively frequent vandalism; planned assaults by Klan members distinguished little between people of colour and those in the LGBT community, both were treated with equal malice. The university campus, a place provided considerable freedom in Britain and in the queer meccas of the Pacific and Atlantic seaboards of the United States, and which was central to the gay liberation movement, was clearly integrated into that spectrum of prejudice in the American South. Howard notes that the University of Southern Mississippi regularly engaged in ‘purges’ of gay students and that as late as 1985 no university campus in the state had an LGBT group.

In the state of Georgia, universities were no less restrictive, although there appears to have been somewhat more tolerance of LGBT in the pages of campus newspapers.  At Georgia State University in 1979, one student journalist wrote in the newspaper that gay life there was ‘an extremely alienated and alienating experience. There are no organizations, social or otherwise, to identify themselves with other gay students’. Although a Gay Student Alliance followed a few years later, it attracted controversy. ‘As a student here’, wrote one anonymous correspondent of the campus press, ‘I resent the fact that such a good university has a group like this’. Nor was support overly forthcoming from the university administrators or the student association, the latter only reluctantly providing funding to help the GSA in its work. Nevertheless, the GSA brought in guest speakers to talk about legal rights, coming out, the persistence of discrimination and other similar topics, and in the mid-1980s started advertising their meetings openly in the student press. Towards the end of the decade they convinced the university administrators to provide funding for AIDS awareness and prevention campaigns too.  Persistence paid off.

There were similar moves in and around the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. In the student magazine, The Phoenix, in 1976, the members of the campus gay caucus took the opportunity of an article on ‘what next for the university’ to pose a number of appeals ranging from a relaxing of social and official attitudes toward gay people to the setting up of a gay studies class akin to women’s studies and the setting up a LGBT centre run by and for gay people ‘where we will meet, discuss and work with our peer problems, and celebrate our attitudes’. The Volunteer Yearbook, which detailed student activities, went one further that year with a full spread on several gay venues in Knoxville and a particular focus on the city’s drag artists. (By 1976, the article observes, there were three gay bars in Knoxville – the Europa Club, the Carousel Club, and the Huddle. The latter, founded in 1948, although the date seems to be contested, ‘attracts an older crowd with mixed drinks and beer’.) The Huddle famously finds its way into Cormac McCarthay’s novel Suttree, set in Knoxville in the early 1950s, and it evokes the alterity of the place. Patrons came ‘down the steep street and turned in two by two’; there was a ‘group of dubious gender’ amongst the clientele, and you could get beer in a fishbowl or whiskey from a jelly jar – take that hipsterdom! There were also pride parades in the early 1970s (something not seen again until the early 1990s).

With all this activity in Knoxville itself, it might be imagined that UTK was able to be an open environment – this was not so. Gay student organisations at the University of Tennessee had begun to develop in the early 1970s (compare that with Mississippi!), but never gained official status. After failing to gain university recognition for the gay student union, the early gay activist movement splintered into two organisations – the gay activist alliance and the more radical and politically-orientated gay liberation front. The latter had their own journal called Lambda. GLF fizzled out by 1973 and the gay activist alliance struggled to gain recognition from the university authorities. The gay caucus would eventually emerge as an off-campus organisation, with lack of recognition still lingering in the 1980s. As one article in the Volunteer Yearbook put it in 1985,

some might think a university community would be more open and understanding of the problems of gay students [… however] a lot of the professional staff is not open.

Even with the launch of Aware, the newsletter of the gay and lesbian student union, in October 1989, a little over six months after the establishment of the GLSU at UTK, there was still a need to convince reluctant university authorities to provide greater protection for its LGBT students. The GLSU nevertheless took encouragement from a ‘pen-pal exchange with the University of Manchester’ (aye, the one in Britain) and went so far as to debate issues like gay marriage and the gay student movement’s own history in Tennessee.

What was going on in Tennessee to some extent mirrored what was going on in Virginia. In the early 1960s, members of faculty at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg were sacked when it emerged that they were gay. Pressure on other gay members of staff increased and closets developed extra layers. By the 1960s, the underground nature of homosexuality in Virginia had gained a small number of outlets, notably, for those at Virginia Tech, the Elmwood Diner (a greasy spoon that had been there since the 1920s) or the Tradewinds bar, both in nearby Roanoke.  As one oral history interview about Roanoke in that period put it,

people look back at that time who didn’t live through it and they think it was all dark, and it was all bad, and it was all hiding in the chatters, well it wasn’t. We put up with a whole lot, and a lot went on, and there was a lot we had to deal with that we didn’t like, but during that whole thing we were laughing our butts off and having a ball – right underneath, a whole lot went on underneath the public’s notice.

The diner, located near Elmwood Park, served the younger and often working-class gay men who cruised in the park itself; the nearby bus-station and a busy motel frequented by travellers ensured a necessary degree of flux.

This underground culture continued through the 1950s and 1960s. Only in 1970, in the aftermath of the Stonewall Riots, as in most parts of the United States, did the liberation movement hit Virginia. An article appeared in the student alternative newspaper, Alice, setting out a student’s own experiences and ending with an insistence that ‘we are working for our rights’. The following year, the Virginia Tech branch of the gay liberation front was organised, partly in response to a gay bashing incident on the campus, and featured in a lengthy letter to the editor in the campus newspaper, Collegiate Times.  ‘We are not just homosexuals’, the correspondent asserted, ‘we are human beings’. The letter prompted a number of responses from other students, offering in some cases typically antagonistic attitudes, in others more tolerant ones. The links between civil rights for African Americans and for the LGBT community, explored in Chicago by Tim Stewart-Winter, were certainly evident in the minds of Virginia’s early gay rights movement, and it was on this basis that the Virginia Tech GLF appealed for acceptance. They were to be supported, a few months later, by the formation of the Gay Alliance of the Roanoke Valley, a community-based organisation based in Roanoke. That September it published the first edition of its newsletter, the Big Lick GayZette, a two-sided information sheet that set out the aims of the GARV and provided information about meetings and meeting places. It would late become the Virginia Gayzette. Although ostensibly an apolitical organisation, GARV soon became embroiled in the Democratic Party as one of a number of new political organisations pressing for change and a transformation in the party from the plaything of Southern Democrats and Dixiecrats – that is, old white men, with old white men’s perspectives on politics. Those who involved themselves heavily in politics were clearly focused on the 1972 presidential election and George McGovern’s ill-fated attempt to remove Richard Nixon from office; only Massachusetts plumped for the left-winger.

Entry into political campaigning shattered the GARV and members went their own way. ‘There were eight people involved in trying to keep it together’, members wrote later, ‘but I think the whole idea was just a little ahead of its time’. The Gay Alliance of Virginia Tech was a little more stable but struggled financially because university authorities refused to recognise the group as an official club. This impasse continued for several years even as other universities in the state, notably the University of Virginia, began to recognise LGBT societies officially, but it did not impact on the determination of GAVT members to develop awareness and understanding. In 1975, the performing arts department at Virginia Tech put on ‘Winter Foliage’ a play focused on the experiences of LGBT people; and from 1976 onwards the student newspaper advertised gay association meetings openly, one such advert published in 1978 ran under the quest ‘are you in a closet?’ Virginia Tech’s first gay awareness week was held in January 1979 with events such as ‘wear denim day’, radio talks, a day where ‘gay students are encouraged to tell a friend about their lifestyle’, and an open panel discussion around LGBT matters.  The wear denim day turned out to be controversial with the vice president for student affairs, James Dean, complaining in 1980 that he had received 25,000 letters in protest. The day was dropped that year in favour of a ‘gay prayer day’.

The subtle differences, and stark similarities, even in a brief amble such as this, serve as a reminder that despite its uniform reputation, the American South contained within it quite different possibilities for LGBT people even in otherwise less tolerant times. The link with Manchester University reminds us too that the Atlantic was a vital avenue of exchange across the spectrum, from produced goods and financial services, to questions about identity. The gay liberation front itself was a model shared – inspired is the term most often used – across the ocean, as an obvious example. If we now turn our attention to the other end of eastern North America, to the maritime provinces of Canada. Like the American South, the Maritimes have their own reputation within a Canadian context; often seen as sleepy and small-c conservative, a perception promoted by the tourist industry through the Anne of Green Gables motifs on Prince Edward Island or Nova Scotia’s own self-presentation as ‘Canada’s Ocean Playground’, the region often gets side-lined or overlooked in a historical literature (and profession) orientated towards the central Canadian dynamics of Ontario-Quebec and the major cities of Montreal and Toronto.

As the largest Canadian settlement east of Montreal, and many hours’ drive from anywhere equivalent to its size, Halifax was always likely to become a haven for LGBT people in the Maritimes, certainly more so than, say, Wolfville or Charlottetown, although both are university towns, and this proved to be the case. The gay rights movement was most advanced there and Halifax became something of a ‘queer mecca’ on the Canadian Atlantic. But what of the other places? What, indeed, of Charlottetown, the capital of Prince Edward Island? In the early 1960s, there was clearly an anxiety around homosexuality on the island, advice columns in the newspapers such as the Guardian revealed housewives concerned that after years of marriage and children they had in fact married a gay man. ‘Have you ever heard of such a situation before’, one woman wrote. But there was openness too. A decade earlier, in the same advice column, one man had written to lament that ‘I am a young man … considered one of the most brilliant students ever enrolled at this university. About a year ago I met [a girl] and I think I love her but can’t be sure, as I am homosexual’. He was advised, in typically fifties fashion, to seek strength from god and to try to be less sensitive an individual. Another young man appealed for a cure, but insisted ‘I prayed for deliverance but things get worse’. It’s hard to imagine this kind of openness, even when it generated bad advice, being present in the newspapers of the American South in the 1950s or, indeed, in most parts of Britain.

But we ought not to mistake willingness to talk for willingness to accept. Indeed, as late as 1985, the student newspaper at the University of Prince Edward Island could carry letters from students reflecting that the island disliked ‘anything that differs from the established norms’ and that most islanders felt that since sexual preference was never discussed there was no oppression there. ‘This may be true’, the letter noted, ‘but it is assumed that we are all straight’. Being labelled as gay, they concluded warily, ‘would mean certain trouble on the Island’. PEI’s relatively lethargic approach to tolerance can perhaps be related to the strength of the island’s Roman Catholic social order, which developed strong roots in the lat nineteenth century. A survey conducted in the late-1960s showed that among non-Catholic students (of which there were relatively few) around a third believed homosexuality to be a serious fault, and a quarter never. Amongst the Catholic cohort, however, which was six times larger, the number who regarded homosexuality as a serious fault leapt to more than half. Overcoming that divergence of attitude was difficult, particularly given the population ratios and the strength of Catholicism on the island. Indeed, PEI was generally the last of the Atlantic Provinces to extend non-discrimination laws to the LGBT community.

The implication here, or at the very least the inference, is that religion – something also evident in the formation of social mores in the American South – played a strongly negative role in framing attitudes towards homosexuality. Indeed, certain nonconformist protestant denominations in the English-speaking world have led the way in opening up religion to greater tolerance of homosexuality, but traditional religious institutions have always been more conservative. One effect of life on the margins is a lack of plurality, in religion quite as much as anything else, and the presence of those more traditional institutions and attitudes can be felt more readily especially where their authority is not challenged either by competition in a pluralist environment or by the community itself. Political activism helped to confront that authority and to change the character of wider movements. It’s for this reason that it’s easier to write histories of activism than of social life, of the visible emergence of a movement rather than the underground cultures that persisted for decades before that. And yet it’s obvious that both existed and experienced ups and downs. This is true whether we look at the past from the queer metropolitan centres or from the margins where life developed on its own terms.

When viewed through the lens of large metropolitan centres, life on the margins can appear more conservative and less developed. To some extent that is true, infrastructure is less effective, opportunities are fewer, and plurality – which does exist – is often an invisible plurality. Yet this supposes that the margins develop along pathways and with cues taken from the metropolis, this is the crux of the metropolitan fallacy, for it is not really the case. Imagine if Knoxville had had to wait for cues from New York City. Imagine if Cardiff relied on a guidebook from London. Or, Halifax the loan of Toronto’s tip sheets. It doesn’t make a great deal of sense, no one living on the margins is sat twiddling their thumbs waiting to be rescued by a great metropolitan benefactor. It was, and remains, a two-way process of adaptation and innovation. As I’ve written elsewhere, sport offers one possible lens, but it’s quite apparent that LGBT activism and life on the margins-within-the-margins offers an equally tangible possibility. Recovering these geographies of sexuality is, as Gavin Brown’s work demonstrates, a vital form of scholarship that helps to balance out centres and peripheries and may well lead to a more rounded appreciation of the complexities of historical and modern humanity. At least, that’s the idea!