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Coming Out in the South

An excerpt from Crooked Letter i, a collection of 16 nonfiction narratives that reflect the distinct “coming out” experiences of gay, lesbian and transgendered Southerners. 

Crooked Letter i, Coming out in the SouthEdited by Connie Griffin and with a foreword by Dorothy Allison, the experiences represented in Crooked Letter i pivot around a central theme: finding language to understand one’s identity and then discovering we were never the only ones. Revealing a vibrant cross-section of Southerners, the writers of these narratives have in common the experience of being Southern and different — but determined against all odds.

With family deeply rooted in the South, Griffin approaches these Southern literary works with the compassionate eye of one who has lived the experience. Published by NewSouth Books, Crooked Letter i brings to life an Appalachian widower who, following the death of his wife, decides it’s time to tell his church community; an adolescent girl who refuses to surrender her soul to Jesus because she is not yet certain of her own beliefs; and the ones who survived the frequent bar raids, arrests and beatings, along with the first kiss and the first love.


When Heaven and Hell Meet 

by Vickie L. Spray

I tried to save her for Jesus and then I slept with her. It wasn’t
her fault. Her nonchalance concerning the book by Pat
Boone I gave her on how to be free from homosexuality,
the fact that at twenty she was a worldly three years older than
me, and the absolute draw-in—she knew how to fix cars—all
overrode my commitment to heterosexuality and, for a short
while, to Jesus. She worked at the hospital and would come
into the diner where I worked as a waitress. The place was
actually one of those leftover American structures with an ice
cream fountain within a pharmacy on the corner of a mostly
deserted downtown. It was All-American but with a Southern
twist. You could get grits by the bowl and cornbread with your
chili. We served breakfast in the morning and hamburgers and
a dinner special in between orders for banana splits, root beer
floats, and sundaes in the afternoon.

In the way that Southern small towns create personas
around people via the grapevine of hearsay, I had learned
she might be one of those people. My sources were friends
who were mildly curious, others who were very curious, and
a peripheral mutual acquaintance who had found herself at a
party once with friends of a friend who knew some people who
knew some of those people. The timing of all this dependable
information reaching me, if not for the subject matter, could
have been divinely inspired. All my years of having a crush on
my gym teacher, my preference for being within the realm of
female energy and my night visions of women’s lips, women’s
hair, and women’s touch became concentrated on the woman
who sat in my booth as I leaned in for her order.

There was more to it than that. She lived with a woman
at the time. I had no doubt, given my inside scoop into her
life, that they were living as a couple. This was such a blatant
rule breaker that I wondered how she could possibly look so
normal, simply sitting here ordering her lunch, given her overt
life of degradation. The incongruence of her way of life and the
normalcy of her appearance snapped in my mind each day as
she gave her order for a hamburger, extra mayo, and sweet tea,
no lemon. She ate like a normal person. She paid her bill like a
normal person and left a tip like a normal person.

Due to having been born into a crazy family, I was, at seventeen,
living on my own in a two-room apartment. I would
go home after work and churn with the strange possibility of
a woman living the life of a lesbian. My experience with males
thus far had lacked any real significance. Whenever I found
myself within the realm of romantic possibility, I always felt I
was in one bubble and he was in another. There wasn’t anything
wrong with his bubble. It was just that we would never be able
to remove the thin layer of our differences and I found that
intolerable. But did that mean I was a lesbian? The word itself
was, in 1975, one of the most degrading words a woman could
be called. A lesbian was the antithesis of what a woman should
be, was meant to be, and—the most damning—who God created
her to be. Lesbians were too ugly to get a man, could not
be trusted around children, and hated all men.

I was a girl living in a small Southern town where the lines
between what should be and what should not be were clearly
demarcated for everyone from age two and up. Women did
not live together as a couple in this world. Women loved men.
Women got married to men and went shopping with their girlfriends.
Women had babies and then they had grandchildren.
Then they took care of her parents and then they took care of
his parents and then they died and the pastor would say how
giving and loving they had always been. I was wise enough
to see that women lived within a tight tube of self-sacrifice,
and I was desperate enough to imagine myself falling into the
reproachful world of love between two women …

Painting With Spirit
Literary Friday, Edi