Always Queer, Never Quiet

Queer folks in the South generally don’t enjoy the limelight reserved for heterosexuals. When light is cast on the LGBTQ community, it’s generally around much-deserved human rights: whether members can exist safely in their identities in public spaces, or marry with the same benefits afforded to members of the straight community. While SFK emphasizes the importance of minorities in Southern culture, finding works by—and thus properly representing—openly queer Southerners proves a challenge. This is especially disheartening considering that 35 percent of America’s LGBTQ community lives in the South, according to The Williams Institute. Still, it’s no wonder members of the LGBTQ community cautiously stick to the shadows in our neck of the woods when support has declined, and the victims of hate-crime violence includes the majority, as stated by NCVAP‘s 2017 media release.

But heroes still exist, courageously coming out of the shadows to claim their identities as both Southern and queer. One such individual is Douglas Ray, a Mississippi native, author, teacher, and poet who openly identifies as queer. This is no small feat in the Deep South. Just this year, Ray’s native state passed laws further implementing the legal discrimination against those who openly identify as LGBTQ on the grounds of “religious freedom.” Despite the odds stacked against him, threatening to topple like an unbalanced tower of Jenga blocks, Ray remains open about his identity. In his article for PBS News Hour, he outlines his goal to create “a safe space for my students to be who they are or to explore their many selves” without commentary from an unaccepting world.

Ray accomplishes this through literature and teaching. His poetry explores concepts of existing as a queer person, exploring identity, and the heartbreak that inevitably comes with being a part of an underappreciated minority. “Ground Rules After Orlando” deals with the dismal aftermath of the 2016 Orlando Shooting at the Pulse nightclub and the brief moments of queer appreciation that followed. It encourages queer folks to take advantage of their brief moments of acceptance before the rawness of the tragedy wears thin, leaving the LGBTQ community once again in darkness.

“…These
are the swipe-right moments, the undress and say
yes because the boulder goes up again tomorrow.”
The poem further evokes images of finding tenderness and contentment amidst the pain:
“I bruised an orchid this morning because I looked
too hard. I’m not sorry, darling, for wanting more.”

In addition to writing about instances specific to the LGBTQ community, Ray also evokes emotions common to all people, such as betrayal from a lover. “Costume Heart” examines the relationship between the speaker and the counterfeit loyalty of his lover. After giving the lover a wooden pendant in the shape of heart, the speaker realizes too late that the apple of his eye “played the part / of kept man as we pranced from bar to bar.” Most Southerners can relate to misjudging the character of an object of infatuation through rose-colored glasses. Both the innocence of a crush and the depth of true love can be tainted by the person who’s on to the next best thing.

“‘Make your bid
on this hot piece.’ I laughed and gestured
to the necklace.”

Despite the binding experiences that come from poetry, the creation of unity is preceded by the acknowledgement of diversity, and how differences can color the experiences of others. The LGBTQ community is no exception to that rule. When an individual’s safety—physical, emotional, professional—is at stake, their ability to express such experiences is limited. “When we understand who each person is and how that person sees the world, there’s an opportunity for richer dialogue,” Ray states in his PBS News Hour article. “It is an act of violence to silence queer people and queer energy in schools.” Pushing the literary works of queer writers to the side also normalizes such silencing. Normalizing queer Southern literature as an integral part of the New South’s culture reminds Southerners that it is “worthy to be studied, sanctioned and accepted knowledge.

Tagged: Douglas Ray, LGBTQ, Orlando, Pulse, queer, Southern Lit Presents