A queer migration to the South: Week one

Also known as, announcing my new job as state politics editor for Scalawag, and we’re hiring!

The cover for Scalawag Issue 9 is a mural by Braylyn Resko Stewart, photographed by David Flores

This week in the South, I walked into a photocopy shop and started chatting with an older Black man who was making color copies. It was my first morning and my first conversation with a stranger in my new home, Durham, North Carolina.

“My friend passed,” he said. “We’re doing a memorial.”

He was wearing a shirt with a picture of two people hugging, the names of surviving family printed in italic font below. I smiled, showed normal-level sympathy while I waited to print out my lease and go to the DMV. You never expect what comes from strangers.

“Actually,” the man said, “he hung himself.” His blue eyes were reading me, watching me soften and trouble over the news.

“Oh god,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”

“His partner had left him.” A long pause while I winced, thinking of the partner in the moment he or she or they learned the news. Thinking of the implications of the word “partner” in this context, a suicide story. His eyes hung on me gently as I looked up into his salt and pepper whiskered face, both of us still waiting to be rung up.

He decided I was safe: “And his mother. She never approved of that. Of them being gay.”

A deep breath while my heart went to my stomach. He smiled at me.

“I used to perform,” he said. “That’s how we knew each other.”

So he’s family, as they say.

“That is a lot,” I said. I fished in my bag for something to give him, a token of some sort. Came up with just cigarettes and coins, and it was time to go. Nice talking to you, we both said, and he thanked me for being kind. But I wanted to stay forever in this story, to know the man who died, to ask his mother what scared her, to hear the music at the memorial, to learn what it was like when my new friend used to perform.

This week in the South, easily a half dozen legislatures were still considering a slew of new bills that would allow increased discrimination against queer and trans people in public accommodations, schools, adoption, and employment. In just the last two weeks, a state court in Texas and a federal court in Louisiana each ruled against gay people seeking spousal benefits and protections from discrimination, respectively.

But over the last year, comprehensive bills to protect LGBT people from discrimination were also introduced in southern states including Arkansas and Texas, and many anti-LGBT bills were shot down or shamed into submission through activism, protest, and the threat of boycotts. Perhaps even more importantly, grassroots queer life, real queer life, continued: Southerners on New Ground raised thousands of dollars to bail more than forty Black mothers out of jail on Mother’s Day; friends and family of the deceased in Orlando marked a year since the Pulse massacre with a mix of fierce analysis and loving grief, creating safe spaces out of scar tissue; people danced and played in clubs as they always have, sometimes still in secret.

And in the midst of all this, this week I dragged my queer white transsexual androgyne ass out of Brooklyn, a place teeming with people seemingly like me, and moved south to be a writer. People in New York asked me why. There are too many reasons: home and family, heat and humidity, and on a professional level, the desire to live and breathe as close as possible to the stories I want to tell, to stop parachuting in and put down real roots in the places I plan to cover. Of course, showing up in a place to live doesn’t mean you’re suddenly part of the community: growing into the South is what I now have to look forward to.

So, it’s serendipitous and fitting that this week I also started a new role as editor of state politics coverage at Scalawag, a hub for intersectional, emotional reporting about the South, entirely by people who live and love here. Over the last few months, in the pages (virtual and paper) of Scalawag, we heard those queer nightclub stories from Jackson; we also heard about queer Alabama and queer Appalachia and Black queer takes on Trump’s election and queer youth safe space in Atlanta.

Cover image for Scalawag Issue 8 by Imani Khayyam.

Queer-specific coverage aside, I’ve met so many people in the pages of Scalawag already, the kind you come to suddenly know, like my friend in the copy shop: a woman who died in New Orleans and turned out to be more lonely than she seemed; a group of former drug users who now advocate harm reduction in North Carolina; a man on death row in Raleigh who writes about a trip to the hospital as a taste of liberation: “I remembered another life, where sunsets were normal and I didn’t drink from this world as though dying of thirst.”

I feel that the unnamed fellow from the photocopy place belongs among these stories. And as usual, I have questions: how can we connect stories of queer suicide and family loss with stories about state legislatures and bills killed in committee? How can we talk about anti-gay legislation in the South without falling into stereotypes that suggest that homophobia is somehow particularly southern? How can we connect the right-shifting politics of our federal government with patterns that emerged over decades in southern states? How can we highlight the importance of grassroots activism, both from the left and the right, in shifting our country’s politics from the local level up? These questions are just the beginning.

Here’s the deal: the folks at Scalawag are ambitious, to a person. Now I’m in the mix, and our goal is to do a different kind of state politics coverage, coverage that makes connections among the states, that looks at power and money first, horse races last, that prioritizes grassroots and first-person stories and recognizes that local communities can change their own futures.

Want to be a part of supporting this new and much needed kind of state politics coverage? Yes? Great! We have a lot of ways you can do that.

Keep following me and Scalawag on Medium for more updates, and keep on with your fierce selves. Remember that no story is too small to be told, if you can figure out its meaning.

Scalawag Magazine

Scalawag sparks critical conversations about the many Souths where we live, love, and struggle. We amplify voices of activists, artists, and writers to reckon with Southern realities as they are, rather than as they seem to be. The stories we tell matter. In print, online, and i

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Lewis Wallace

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Independent journalist, editor and transgender rabble-rouser. www.lewispants.com

Scalawag Magazine

Scalawag sparks critical conversations about the many Souths where we live, love, and struggle. We amplify voices of activists, artists, and writers to reckon with Southern realities as they are, rather than as they seem to be. The stories we tell matter. In print, online, and i