Hidden Southern Gay History

Source: Instagram: invisiblehistoriesproject

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.

Designed to be a repository for the preservation of the history of LGBTQ life, first in the state of Alabama and then the entire Southeast, the Invisible History Project (IHP) acts as an intermediary between the queer community and repository institutions, providing vetting through a team of interns and archival history experts to ensure that our history is properly documented by us for the larger public. 

Recently Instinct Magazine’s Buck Jones had the opportunity to learn more about the IHP from its two founders, Maighen Sullivan and Joshua Burford. With their slogan “Unapologetically Southern, unapologetically Queer,” the duo began actively curating the legacy of the gay South on a full-time basis in 2018. The following year they received an important Andrew Mellon grant that has been extended for another three years, enabling the team to continue to expand into Mississippi and Georgia.

When asked what makes Southern Queerness unique, Joshua responds that it is based on resoluteness. “There is this concept of shame that we as Southerners, and as queers, are supposed to have. We’re supposed to be ashamed of being Southern because we might have a thick accent, or because of our rural country ways, and likewise there is the supposed stigma of being Queer on top of that… but I think people are missing the point. Queer Southerners are a people with a story of resoluteness, of finding solutions, of surviving and making a go out of life surrounded by our people, our family, in often poor and working class small towns.”

“Southern Queerness is a rooted in community, of looking to change people perceptions in their own hometowns, with a commitment to personal interaction that is a form of local activism in its truest form,” he continued. 

Joshua provided an example of this sense of community, with another story the project discovered from their work. From Starkville, Mississippi, at the local university was a photo from the late 1980s or early 1990s. A group of college women were wearing matching tee-shirts that said “Lesbian Avengers” on it, as a kind of public cry that “we’re here” before Bob the Drag Queen was probably even born. Joshua and his team at IHP began hunting down the women in the photo via social media, and within a day of posting the photo one of the women in the photo had contacted him and provided not only with the names of everyone, but was able to send the last remaining “Lesbian Avengers” tee-shirt to the archivists for curating. 

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 

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