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E. Patrick Johnson on Southern (Dis)Comfort: Homosexuality in the Black South

Courtesy of E. Patrick Johnson

Scholar and author E. Patrick Johnson writes about Black, gay identity in the South. He is giving a virtual lecture Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the University of Tennessee.

He spoke with WUOT’s Claire Heddles, and started by explaining the title of his lecture “Southern (Dis)comfort: Homosexuality in the Black South.”

E. PATRICK JOHNSON, GUEST: I am sort of trying to point out that, of course, riffing off of Southern Comfort, which is a whiskey that a number of Southerners drink either neat or putting a little bit in their tea. But also riffing off the notion of how sexuality, and particularly homosexuality, in the South fits both comfortability and uncomfortably within Southern culture.

JOHNSON: My lecture is specifically talking about intracultural relationships, for instance how Black communities sort of deal with homosexuality. What I'm hoping to capture in the lecture is dispel the myth that African American communities are more homophobic than other cultures, because that is a prevalent myth. At the same time, point out some of the challenges within Black communities around sexuality in general, and in the South in particular. 

CLAIRE HEDDLES, HOST: In what ways does your own experience growing up in Hickory, North Carolina, which is just a couple hours from where our listeners are tuning in from, continue to shape your research?

JOHNSON: You know, in my film, “Making Sweet Tea” a part of the narrative is about my return home to Hickory as an openly gay man. I'm really proud of being from Hickory. It is a small town in the foothills of North Carolina, still very conservative, but also it was a very nurturing place for me. So, I think that sometimes people think that the small town is the most inhospitable place for people who are different, and sometimes those are the most welcoming spaces. 

HEDDLES: When collecting oral histories how much is being Southern a central part of identity?

JOHNSON: There's a lot of people now who know about shade, throwing shade that's so Southern. We would just call it being passive-aggressive, but if anyone adds bless her heart to the end of a compliment, they know that is not a compliment, that's throwing shade. And shade is so much a part of gay culture.

JOHNSON: For the people I interviewed, I think their Southern heritage plays an integral role in their sexuality. Whether that is their relationship to the landscape, some of the men and women I interviewed talked about their first experimentation, sexual experimentation, happened in the fields. Whether they were out picking vegetables, or in the cornfields, or up in a treehouse or whatever. Food plays a very important role, we talked about sweet tea and how people come together around food is really, really important. And religion, whether one is religious or not. If you live in the South, you're going to be affected by religion. So all of those things: food, language, landscape, and just the way people interact with one another in the South all are a part of one's sexuality in the South.