The Prancing Elites: Navigating the Landscape of Love and Hate

The Prancing Elites of Mobile, Alabama
The Prancing Elites of Mobile, Alabama

When I moved to south Mississippi in 1991, I joined a diverse community of gay people.  One of the most fascinating individuals I ever encountered was a black man known throughout the community as Miss Bootnanny.  She stood 6′ 5″ tall and when I saw her, it was usually at the little gay bar in Hattiesburg called Le Bistro–affectionately known as the Cha Cha Palace or simply “the Cha Cha.”

Taken circa 2000.
Taken circa 2000.

The ‘Burg was not a large enough city to have segregated gay bars–by gender or race–so we ALL went to the Cha Cha. Miss Bootnanny’s story, the little bit I gathered, was that she had been a drum major at Jackson State University, that out of drag she worked for a local garden center, and on any day you might see her twirling her baton on a public street or in the parking lot of the Sunflower grocery store.

While I never actually saw Bootnanny during the day to confirm the latter, she left no doubt that she had once led a marching band and knew how to twirl batons.  Her talent extended to fire, as I learned when I watched in amazement as she twirled flaming machetes, an impressive talent, to say the least. On a “normal” weekend at the Cha Cha, though, she always made an entrance.

One night, it went like this:  I was standing around chatting with friends when all of a sudden there was a commotion and we all stopped to look, because Miss Bootnanny had arrived. In she walked, dressed in a sparkling, sequined onesie, carrying one of those flag corps flags. She marched her way around the entire bar hoisting it into the air like the Pied Piper of Fabulous, which she was. (Note: Currently seeking a photo of Miss Bootnanny to add to this piece.)

And yet, I know that her life could not have been easy despite those moments of pure joy. Growing up black in America is difficult enough. And while I have written elsewhere that gay acceptance can be found in the rural Deep South, I know very well that there are limitations–particularly when LGBT expressions are further complicated by race and evangelical religion. To say nothing of poverty.

Having one Miss Bootnanny in a small community makes her eccentric, one of “our own,” and “non-threatening.”  But when more than one come together, much less five, and demand to be seen, that’s another story entirely.

Enter the Prancing Elites–the subject of a new reality TV show currently airing on Oxygen.

prancingelites

The Prancing Elites Project follows a dance team made up of five openly-gay black men who live in Mobile, Alabama, and model themselves after the J-Settes–the all-female dance team that performs with the Jackson State University marching band. The Elites wear make-up and dress like the J-Settes, too.

The Prancing Elites live to dance–whether that’s in the stands while a marching band plays, being part of a parade (any parade), or performing for a New Year’s Eve party full of white folks. The latter has elicited some harsh criticism on YouTube, which makes one long for the voice of Langston Hughes to offer his critique of the ways of these white folks.

You may have also seen The Elites on America’s Got Talent or a talk show called The Real.  Yet in their new reality show on Oxygen, the realness is not just the love showered on the Prancing Elites from across the nation, a result of the media attention they’ve received.  It’s also the hateful responses from both black and white members of their local community and, in some cases, even close relatives.

And while they put on a brave face, and even regard their passion for dance and being openly gay as part of a longer tradition of southern civil rights, one can quickly discern that navigating this landscape of love and hate can be difficult for these young men to endure, as they must carry the added weight of being black and gay in a region that so often despises both.

When I watch the Prancing Elites, I have several reactions.

I fear for their safety.  I feel the pain of rejection of a  community that uses religion to justify its hate and disapproval.  And yet, I admire their courage to stand up to the bigotry of racists and homophobes.

I cheer them on in their bid to change the world for the better not by leaving the South, but by remaining here and trying to make a difference for those who want to follow in their dance steps. And I am buoyed by their confidence and the positive reactions they get from the same community.

I hope they squeeze all they can from the fame rollercoaster before the cameras go away and, in the process, help to make a better way for those like Miss Bootnanny who, all those years ago, simply wanted to be herself.

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RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 7: All Hail the Southern Queens!

Ginger Minj, cross-dresser for Christ.
Ginger Minj, “cross-dresser for Christ” from Leesburg, Florida.

I’ve written about RuPaul’s Drag Race here before, exploring the fabulosity that drag queens from the South bring to the larger drag world.  Southern queens are pros at drag performance, because they’ve often had great role models in straight southern women who also love big hair, wear tons of makeup, and compete in pageants.

Kennedy Davenport from Dallas, Texas.
Kennedy Davenport from Dallas, Texas.

On this season’s Drag Race, there are two southern standouts–Kennedy Davenport from Dallas, Texas, and Ginger Minj from Leesburg, Florida, who proudly proclaims that she’s a “cross-dresser for Christ” and recently told the Orlando Sentinel that she based Ginger on “strong, funny, outgoing churchwomen I spent my life around,” adding “She’s very Southern.”

Both are talented performers in their own right (Kennedy Davenport was a contestant on America’s Got Talent), but I live for the unadulterated comments they make during interviews out of drag. It’s very often the humor, or simply a turn of phrase, that fellow southerners who enjoy drag instinctively get.

I’m biased, but I believe the southern queens on RPDR are often the most talented, funniest, and polished.  Last year’s winner, Bianca Del Rio, hails from New Orleans.  One of the most popular contestants from the show has been Alyssa Edwards, also from Texas. And she didn’t even win the contest!

Regardless of who becomes the next Drag Superstar, we all win when southern queens are in the mix.

Note: All told, there are actually four southern queens. Violet Chachki, is from Atlanta but does not present herself as “southern.” Jaidynn Diore Fierce, is also on the show. She hails from Nashville, Tennessee.

 

Freedom of Speech? Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson quacks about homosexuals and “the blacks”

Phil Robertson from A&E's Duck Dynasty
Phil Robertson from A&E’s Duck Dynasty

Duck Dynasty, the enormously popular reality television program produced by A&E, is under fire thanks to some eye-opening statements made by Phil Robertson, the family patriarch, in an interview with GQ magazine.  That’s Gentleman’s Quarterly, in case you were wondering.  And, the comments weren’t so, shall we say, gentlemanly.

Essentially, Daddy Duck equated homosexuality with being one train stop short of bestiality.  And, he seems to believe that “the blacks” who worked for white farmers in his home state of Louisiana were “happy,” going so far as to say “I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!” (from “The Gospel According to Phil,” GQ Blog, December 18, 2013).  Since Robertson quacked the truth, he’s been suspended indefinitely from the show.

No one should be surprised by this and it was just a matter of time before we were going to hear it, if not from Phil, then perhaps one of his sons.  We can expect religious conservatives to make negative comments about gays.  We can also expect a white southerner of Phil’s generation to refer to African Americans as “the blacks,” as though they are a separate species.  In that regard, he has something in common with Paula Deen.

Yet the focus has been on his statements about homosexuality. Gay advocacy groups like The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) have been been quick to call Robertson out for what it says are “anti-Christian” views. That’s red meat for conservatives, who have jumped to his defense saying that liberals are “hysterical” (Rush Limbaugh), or “intolerants” (Sarah Palin), and that Phil was just expressing his First Amendment Rights (Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal).

No one seems to have taken much issue with A&E who has crafted a statement distancing itself from Robertson’s remarks.  Yet producers knew.  Robertson was quoted in the GQ article as saying “we’re bible thumpers who just happened to end up on television.”  The network understood this going into its contract (and re-negotiations) with the beards.  And anyone paying attention knows that the more popular Duck Dynasty has become, the more free the family has been about sharing its conservative values and, in Phil’s case, strict interpretation of the bible.

For what it’s worth, I believe that Phil Robertson has a right to his opinions and his beliefs. The problem, of course, is that he’s on an enormously popular television show with millions of viewers over whom he has tremendous influence.  And while he has since given a statement “I would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me,” what he fails to realize is that there are people who are fans of the show who would disrespect others.  Or worse.  And therein lies the problem.

Perhaps the profits for A&E have outweighed the risks. The network has certainly been down this path before with Dog the Bounty Hunter.  Remember him? People may have forgotten that Dog was recorded using the “n-word” and not too long after, A&E cancelled the show.  It may come to this, much to the chagrin of Duck Dynasty fans, but for now it will be played out as a culture war cast by conservatives as a battle royale between “defenders of free speech” and the “Gay Mafia.”

Let’s all grab some popcorn.

Another Kind of Southern Pride: What we can all learn from the town of Vicco, KY

Facebook and Twitter were all aflutter this week about Vicco, Kentucky, thanks to a wonderful segment on The Colbert Report about “People Who Are Destroying America.” The segment zeroed in on Mayor Johnny Cummings, the openly gay major of Vicco, which also happens to be the smallest town in the country to pass an LGBT fairness ordinance.  In typical Colbert fashion, the segment exposes the hypocrisy of the idea that if the LGBT community is offered any kind of equality then we are all going to hell in a handbasket.

One would assume that Vicco, a coal-mining town in eastern Kentucky, would be repressive on such issues.  It’s in a conservative southern state and we all know that gays and lesbians cannot possibly live openly in the South–at least that’s what mainstream media usually tells us.  But as I argued in an op-ed in the New York Times last October, the South is far more nuanced about LGBT issues than its often given credit for. A few months later, the Times concurred with its own piece on Vicco from which the Colbert Report probably got the idea.

This is not to say there isn’t room for improvement.  Here, in North Carolina, citizens voted to amend the state constitution to make doubly sure that there would be no such thing as gay marriage in the Tarheel State.  It was already illegal, but conservatives felt the need to batten down the hatches in order to protect traditional marriage.

And yet, today marks the beginning of Charlotte Pride Week celebrating all things LGBT.  It will culminate with a two-day festival in Uptown, which last year attracted more than 20,000 people and is increasing its number of corporate sponsors.  This South exists, too.

We could all learn something from Johnny Cummings, his friends, and the town of Vicco–namely, that the South is not a monolith and while religious, right-wing zealots within the region may push their own agendas, they don’t always win.

Being Gay in the South–Uncle Poodle Is Beside the Point

I wish to take a few minutes, in the spirit of civility, to respond to Jonathan Capehart’s Washington Post columns (in spite of the condescension and the personal barbs) which have taken aim at my New York Times op-ed “We’re Here, We’re Queer, Y’all.”  For the record, the idea of using Uncle Poodle’s appearance on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo as a hook (not an argument) was not my own, but that of an editor. The real argument was based on my own personal experience.  I could have shared dozens of stories, because as he learned from my friend Helen, both she and I and all the other gays and lesbians I know living in the South are indeed consequential and not because we were or were not raised in an urban environment.  I made it clear in my editorial that there was a real limit to acceptance in the region.  The point was that being gay in the South should not be seen in black or white, all or nothing, because there are clearly shades of grey.

What I saw coming out of Capehart’s columns and also some messages I received was a disagreement with me for countering the narrative about the South as a cold, angry, place where gay people could not possibly want to live and would set out for New York, DC or San Francisco as soon as they got the chance.  Some of them surely have, but many others have not.  And the decision to leave may have to do with the limits of acceptance, and maybe not. Perhaps they simply want to experience a different part of the country. The decision to stay, however, is often (in my personal experience) that they don’t want to leave their families or communities.  If they leave the small town South, they often move to larger cities in the South.  New Orleans, Dallas, Atlanta, even Charlotte.

As this map shows, New Jersey had the highest hate crime rate in the nation in 2008–more than any other southern state, including Texas. For more recent statistics from the FBI see: http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/hate-crime/2010/tables/table-12-agency-hate-crime-reporting-by-state-2010.xls

Capehart used the case of the gay Texas couple who was recently harassed by the local minister and received threatening messages from his followers to make his point “that this says more about the South than ‘Uncle Poodle’ ever will.” Really?  Is this a southern phenomenon?  To read his piece, you’d think it is.  I know that it was timely in that it fit his argument, but hate crimes take place in the urban North (New York, DC, Minneapolis, etc) that don’t receive nearly the same amount of media attention. Yet when it takes place in the South, the national media makes hay of it, because it supports the narrative of a sinister South where such things must only happen here.  This does not mean that I don’t condemn what happened to the couple in Texas because I absolutely do.

The Uncle Poodle reference–again, an editorial decision–was used because of it’s pop culture relevance, but is beside the point.  I have lived a very rich and wonderful life in the South and wouldn’t choose to leave.  Has it always been easy? No, but I could have said this had I been raised in another region of the country.  Are there problems still? Yes, and here in my own state of North Carolina I voted against the marriage amendment and will support Equality NC in its efforts to derail it. I’d also have to do this in several other states, not all of which are in the South.  However, neither that amendment nor a hateful evangelical minister (there is one who proselytizes in the free speech zone on the campus of UNCC with some regularity) is enough to make me flee because this is my home.

In the end, and despite the criticism, I am pleased that my editorial ignited a conversation about the South as a place where LGBT people can and do live happily, work, and have families, etc. because it’s a much more complicated and nuanced region than it’s given credit for being.