Confederacies of Desire


Standing in a corner of the room was a mannequin dressed in Confederate soldier regalia. I didn't notice him, in the shadows, when I first came into the apartment, and he startled me when he did catch my attention, my eyes wandering the room, bored by the small talk with the guy I'd recently met. All around the room, in fact, were Confederate icons and emblems-a gray cap, a picture of Robert E. Lee, buttons and braid, the historically accurate knife and pistol, and, of course, the battle flag. The sex toys on a nearby table just seemed to blend in with all the other perverse accoutrements of costume and role play.

I had always thought a Civil War reenactor a kind of drag queen - cross-dressing history rather than gender, yet just as concerned about the right cloth, the right colors, the right accessories. I had just moved to South Carolina, and I was very aware of the flag, very aware of the Lost Cause, and at this moment very aware of the boys in the blue and gray-the soldierly mannequin watching us, and a guy in blue jeans who had invited me to stop by his apartment for a drink.

I had always thought a Civil War reenactor a kind of drag queen - cross-dressing history rather than gender, yet just as concerned about the right cloth, the right colors, the right accessories.

I was also very aware of drag, a staple of Southern gay culture. After all, at the time Columbia was the home of the Lady Chablis, the African-American drag queen of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil fame, who not only passed for a woman in daily life but who also called herself an uptown white woman on stage, adding social class and race to the performance.

I had met, in only a couple of months in Columbia, a few "straight" married men who just liked having sex with other men (a thriving if shadowy subculture in this city). For all I knew, this guy probably passed as straight. Clearly, identities could be up for grabs in a city like this.

The fact that I knew few people in Columbia made this moment strangely comfortable. It was raining outside, a Saturday evening. We were two Southern white boys, thinking about sex, and there was a mannequin in full Confederate drag watching us from the corner. I'm a farm kid from Arkansas, where my rural, working-class Irish roots have little to do with plantation life, but a lot to do with the racism and class resentment that so often masquerade as Southern pride. The fact that what we were thinking about doing was probably against state law didn't seem to bother this particular devotee of all things Southern.

At a recent pro-flag rally at the state capitol, where partisans protested the removal of the flag from the capitol dome, one man spat out his hatred for gay men, denouncing "sodomites" as the ultimate symptom of a land that has departed from its Christian and Confederate roots. Sitting in that apartment, I remembered a famous essay by gay historian Martin Duberman about the homoerotic letters of two South Carolina gentlemen-both staunch defenders of slavery, secession and traditional morality. They left behind a steamy correspondence, still simmering in some Columbia archive of Civil War era documents. I remembered that Duberman quoted from the letters, despite restrictions from the archives. A line from the letters-something about two antebellum bedfellows poking each other with "long fleshen poles"-leapt to my mind.

When the guy went to the kitchen, I poked through his bookshelves-and a shelf of videotapes. What to my wondering eyes should appear but cowboys and soldiers in full leather gear. My erotic confederate was into the reenactments of historical porn, buff muscle boys in nineteenth-century costume. This should not have been a surprise, but it was. I couldn't help but wonder more about that costume in the corner.

What scripts, what roles were we acting out? What lost cause were we re-enacting? What histories, public and private, were playing themselves out in this dim, small apartment?

I had always held to the feminist tenet that the personal is political-a phrase that has odd resonance in a state where health insurance covers Viagra but not birth control, where a gynecologist famous for his experiments on black women has a monument at the state capitol. In the small and private space of the re-enactor's apartment (in a state where erections are subsidized), it seemed the political could also be very personal, in the most exotic and surprising ways.

I had come out as a gay man in Austin, Texas, in a community in which to be gay meant to be interested in social justice and progressive politics. Our progress was not to be achieved in isolation. This idea, which seemed self-evident to me at the time, does not seem so to others. The failure to link gay civil rights to larger social justice movements marks, in fact, a fundamental rift in gay and lesbian politics. There are those (mostly white, middle-class and male) who think gay marriage, the end of sodomy laws, perhaps military service are the ultimate goals of gay politics, and there are those who think that gay and lesbian rights must be linked to other agendas of social and economic justice-justice for all achieved only through alliance and coalition.

In a state like South Carolina, the issue of alliance can play itself out in the strangest of ways. I know, for example, that the gay community's best allies in the state legislature are to be found among African-American legislators, not among the powerful white men living in glass closets. I also know that there are many African-Americans who, because of deeply held beliefs, are not comfortable incorporating gay issues into their political agendas. I know that the state gay and lesbian movement is a member of the South Carolina Progressive Network, and I know, too, that the gay organization (at the moment predominantly white and male) desperately feels a need for stronger African-American, lesbian and transgendered voices.

Yet when it came to supporting the NAACP boycott of the flag, and when it came to marching as a visible presence in the MLK march last year, there were gay white men for whom the flag was a sticking point. Not just among those still closeted or those still deeply wed to their normative social identities, but also among a few who have spent a decade in gay and AIDS activism. Family histories and perceptions of cultural allegiance outweighed political idealism and the pragmatic need for demonstrating alliances with African-Americans. Cultural nostalgia also outweighed the need to acknowledge common enemies. Only a few years ago, another Southern partisan sent a letter to the editor of The State newspaper, explaining that the Confederate flag represented a Christian nation-that is, one opposed to multiculturalism, feminism and, of course, gay rights.

At a political conference I attended in Atlanta last fall, there was a session on why the flag should matter to gays and lesbians, a session that was clearly designed to enlist gay support for the flag controversy developing this year in Georgia. Many, including an African-American state legislator, spoke of the need to develop alliances for social justice. One white man told of how his Atlanta-based gay softball team, only a few years ago, used to distribute Confederate flags unselfconsciously. Others talked about racism in the gay community.

I know gay men can be racist, just as they can be sexist, but it still surprises me at times-just as that Confederate mannequin surprised me, watching dumbly, standing just outside the closet door.

In our lives, we must make uneven and sometimes uneasy alliances-alliances sometimes complicated by fascination, shame, desire, complicity. I had just moved to Columbia, I had just broken up with a long-term boyfriend, just come out to my parents. It was a moment of transition. What identity could

I assume in that Confederate re-enactor's apartment?

After I came out, my father wrote to me saying that he would rather I had killed another man than admit that I loved one. In front of me was a man who regularly re-enacted his treasonous loves by pretending to kill other men, by marching in the costumes of men long dead. There was a military mannequin in the corner. There was a gun, a knife and a leather cockring on a nearby table. I never went back to that apartment.

I have since found the love of my life, my life partner, another Southern white man with a zeal for social justice and a fascination with material history. I hang pictures of Elvis in my office and talk about miscegenation laws with my colleagues; he owns furniture made by turn-of-the-century South Carolinians and sells antiques at a local antique mall.

Gay men are re-investing in and re-inhabiting the old homes of our neighborhood, only a few streets from predominantly African-American neighborhoods, only blocks from a community named for its nineteenth-century cotton markets. In the Confederate cemetery near our house, we once saw a beautiful red fox, scavenging through a pile of food wrappers, probably from the nearby barbecue restaurant. Under the cold, white sky of a new year, we walk the paths of the cemetery, where small battle flags dot the graves, nodding, occasionally, to the other gay couples who live in our historic but changing neighborhood.

Poet and educator Ed Madden has lived in Columbia since 1994, when he moved here from Texas, after completing seminary and doctoral degrees in Austin. A child of the South, Madden grew up on a farm in rural Arkansas, where he developed his love for gardening, men in pickup trucks and all things Elvis.

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