It’s the late 1970s and disco was playing in every bar and club across the country, except perhaps in the vast patchwork of holes in the wall and private “social clubs” that dotted the rural Southeast where one might just as easily hear country music or funky R’n’B blaring from the jukebox. One night Juanita Eskew, a local lesbian and frequent drag king, went with her family to one of the gay bars in Birmingham, Alabama, to perform and receive an award for her popular act. As the audience cheered and got into Juanita’s performance, she revelled in the acclaim and got into the music, and did a hip move that was interpreted by undercover vice cops as an obscene gesture. The cops stepped forward and interrupted the show, arresting Juanita for public indecency.
But the story doesn’t end there.
This being the 1970s AND the South, Juanita’s momma was there in the audience, and she was having NONE of it. With her big, bulky leatherette pocketbook she went up onstage to “shoo” away the police, wailing her holy fury onto the two unsuspecting vice cops, with the audience cheering her on. At this point if you, like me, are picturing the iconic LaWanda Page as “Aunt Esther” from the TV sitcom “Sanford And Son,” you’re not far off.
The story ends with a happy ending. The police do indeed haul off both Juanita and her momma, and drive around in the paddy-wagon for a while until finally the police relent and realize that they probably don’t have much of a case and release them both without charges. If anything, their case would have been a classic example of Birmingham’s police abuse of power, an image they were hoping to change following the tumult of the previous decades.
This tale, a glorious example of our Southern queer history, was collected via the Lambda Inc. (founded in 1977 and Alabama’s first LGBTQ center). But now it has been curated by a duo who’s passion is finding and preserving our collective story for future generations.
If you’ve ever walked through a well curated museum and marvelled at the wealth of artifacts on display, it doesn’t just happen. This is the mission behind an innovative team in the heart of Dixie — the Invisible History Project in Birmingham, Alabama.
So if you are from the Deep South and have a story to tell, or even better, if you have a treasure trove of old memorabilia from your youth as a queer stashed away in the garage somewhere from your first Pride march, flyers and posters from queer activism, participation in a pageant, or anything else that might be of interest to someone (you saved that stuff for a reason obviously) contact Maighen and Josh on their website: https://invisiblehistory.org/
They have a great Instagram page as well, go follow them!
Sources: Invisible History