Monday, April 17, 2017

Brock Thompson's The Un-Natural State: Arkansas and the Queer South: Book Notes — Repudiating GLBT Family Members As an Old Arkansas Story

Perhaps my biggest takeaway from Brock Thompson's The Un-Natural State: Arkansas and the Queer South (Fayetteville: U. of AR 2010): the heart-breaking tragedy of how Arkansas families have, for so long now, treated their queer family members.

Brock makes central to his narrative the story of his grandmother's half-sister Opal — "Aunt Opal" — who had a relationship of many years' standing with a woman named Jerry. She was whispered about by the family, and only half acknowledged as a family member.

At the end of the book, we learn that Aunt Opal is buried in an unmarked grave.

This is an old, old Arkansas story. There is no monument anywhere to my best friend throughout grade school and high school, who died of AIDS in New York City in 1994. He asked to be cremated and have his ashes scattered, and a friend took them to England and scattered them where my friend had requested that they be left.

After he came out of the closet, his parents (his father was a deacon in our Southern Baptist church) bought an apartment for him in New York and let him know that they would prefer he not come home and embarrass them. That message grew louder when he was diagnosed with AIDS.

When he died, the scripture verse his parents chose to have printed on his funeral program for the Southern Baptist church they and my family attended: "The wages of sin is death."

Through marriage, my family has been closely connected to a family that encouraged one of their family members who was gay to relocate to San Francisco and not return home to Arkansas. They did not want to be embarrassed, to have their Church of Christ talk about them in their small Arkansas town if this family member returned home.

After he was diagnosed with AIDS, they discouraged him from visiting any family members in Arkansas. When he dared to visit, they put any dishes he had used into the dishwasher with bleach and washed, washed, and re-washed the dishes. This was long after it was known that the HIV virus is transmitted either through blood or sexual contact.

When he died, leaving his money to groups assisting gay youths who were repudiated by their families, they were livid. That money was theirs, they insisted.

One of my cousins married a very wealthy woman in southwest Arkansas. She had a gay brother. Her family bought that gay brother an apartment in New York and instructed him never to return to Arkansas again. He would be an embarrassment to them.

When I asked this woman, who has contributed quite a bit of money to the Democratic party in Arkansas over the years (and to the Republican party: she hedges her bets and has fluid principles) if she would use her influence to try to challenge the homophobia in the structures of the Democratic party in Arkansas, she became furious with me and went around informing people that I come from a family with trashy roots — the family of her ex-husband, that is.

All of this is an old, old story in Arkansas: the shame of families with gay or lesbian family members (and those families are everywhere: MOST families have gay or lesbian family members); the pretense of so many Arkansas families to be loving and Christian and accepting, while they repudiate and run off their gay and lesbian family members, deny them, tell them never to show their faces in Arkansas; the unmarked graves with these gay and lesbian family members who were told that they were embarrassments, that their lives did not count, when they contributed to the state of Arkansas in manifold ways, often providing care for aging relatives and family members when no one else would take up that burden.

The graphic is from the Amazon page for Brock Thompson's book linked at the head of the posting.

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