A Southern Lineage Retraced: Excerpt from An AutoEthnography

Hooper Schultz (New York, NY)

My great-uncle Charles never attended college. He was a harbor pilot, and attended an abbreviated pilot-ship course in New York City before returning to his home in Virginia Beach, Virginia. A story I often heard growing up recounted about my Uncle Charles highlights his sense of personal control as well as his stubbornness. My namesake walked out of his highschool during the lunch hour, marched to the orthodontist’s office, and demanded to have his braces removed. Great-Uncle Charles never went back to the orthodontist’s, his mother fussed and his father grumbled, but he never did. His life was one of great personal success – he was the harbor pilot for the Port of Virginia in Norfolk, Virginia, making a great deal of money and having an indispensible position due to his unique knowledge of the estuary and it’s eccentricities. However, there was a dark side to his story, piqued by debilitating alcoholism and social anxiety. My great-uncle was constantly paranoid that he would be found out. My uncle had a secret. None of the children of my generation were told until after our well-loved great-uncle had died in 2006. I didn’t know his secret until nearly three years after his death. Great-Uncle Charles was gay.

Alcoholism and anxiety were the wages of my uncle’s self-suppression, the hiding within himself that broke his spirit and gradually broke his body. A study of queer Southerners I recently read estimated that up to 25% of queers in the South directly correlate their substance abuse to an effort to forget who there are and how they feel 1. A quarter of our brothers and sisters trapped by drugs and fear and hate.

My aunt, a generation between, felt it too, the need to hide from family and friends, to be acceptable. However, as Baltimore community organizer DeRay Mckesson recently quipped, Love is never a request for Silence. My aunt was married before she came out in the midst of an alcohol and violence fueled divorce. There is a battle call that Queers must answer, to act out in love and unity and health so that we are not lost to despair and sickness, to alcoholism and fear. The only true happiness is in Self-Love. We are the source of our own holy joy.

Aunt E is happy now with her wife in Asheville. In the weeks before I came out to my family I often put myself in her shoes, examining her Broughton high soccer photos full of bushy brown hair and her college photos with short hair and sweatshirts. She taught me to always love to dance and not to care what’s playing.  With wide eyes, a big smile and strong body, she is the first person I both knew was gay and knew that I loved. Although we’ve shared so many meals, so many memories, a childhood of running down asphalt streets, swimming pool games, and running through family pastures dodging cow patties, we’ve never talked about our shared queer politics. We are family-within-a-family. She does not know the marks that she has made, the well of strength she placed in a young boy.

My greatest regret is that my Uncle Charles and I did not know each other fully in the time that he was on this earth. The two queer people in my family, those who came before me, do not know what seed of hope and knowing they planted in a young boy through the bright flashes of their teeth and the deep broad waves of their laughter. I can call my aunt, talk with her, but the real head of this Queer Family Tree passed too soon to know me so well in this world. In the South there is a certain history of celebrating the downtrodden, the battles without victory, the destructions of the past. Should not we Queers of the South – like our family and neighbors who hold up their Civil War dead or their ancestors in bondage – celebrate the Queer who came before us? The man called faggot, the woman called unnatural, the jeers for being “in-between” – our collective ancestry should not have died in the dark in vain. In the South, families hold their lineages, their closeness, and the stories of their past in high regard. Tales are woven, made, and shared to pass from generation to generation – you are told who you are through whom you came from. In this inheritance of the South, I look to hold up a new ancestry – and celebrate the Queers in my family. Varied, vibrant, beautiful, successful, and intelligent, we have always been here and always will be.

1 James T. Sears, “The Impact of Gender and Race on Growing up Lesbian and Gay in the South,” NWSA Journal, Vol. 1, No.3 (Spring, 1989) pp. 422-457.