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Race & Demographics

Black. Queer. Southern. Women.

Scholar and author E. Patrick Johnson knew from experience what it was to be “othered.” As a black, gay man who grew up in the South, he belonged to multiple communities that were marginalized and attacked. He documented oral histories of men with similar identities in his 2008 book “Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South.”

Then, he waited for someone to write the companion piece about women. A decade later, Johnson realized he was the scholar to tell the rest of the story. He collected 79 oral histories from black, queer, Southern women and culled 4,000 pages of interview notes into a book. “Black. Queer. Southern. Women.” (UNC Press/2018) reveals how these women and their communities perceive their desires and identities.

Host Frank Stasio talks with author E. Patrick Johnson about the process of listening to these painful, hilarious and illuminating oral histories. Johnson is chair of African American studies and the Carlos Montezuma Professor of Performance Studies and African American Studies at Northwestern University. Johnson speaks at The Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Wednesday, Feb. 13 at 6 p.m.


On gay men and women’s different experiences of sexual identity:

Many of these women came out, as it were, much later in life. Many of them had relationships with men, married, [had] children, and also said that they were happy for the most part and found sexual satisfaction with men. But all of them talked about having this emotional connection to women the first time they were intimate with another woman wherein they describe it in multiple ways, you know: fireworks, light bulbs, and all this kind of thing. And that was the thing that clicked for them. Whereas most of the men said: Oh, I knew at a very early age. But with the women it was much more fluid.

On how age shaped how women wanted to be labeled:

Young people, you know, generation Z-ers, wanted not to be called anything. I'm just who I am or gender non-conforming, or … non binary, (or) masculine of center. Whereas the older generation ...They did not want to be called lesbian, because they associated that with being white, or they thought it was too clinical.They prefer gay, queer. Dyke was a common term, and even bulldagger, which, you know, in my circles, that was really not a nice word. But some of them really claimed that.

On collecting so many stories of sexual assault and abuse: 

It was a very humbling experience for me, and I talk a lot about that in [the]  introduction to [the] book — about what it meant for me as a man to be collecting these stories and how ashamed I was of being a man. Particularly listening to the stories of sexual assault. It was really difficult to listen to those stories over and over again. And yet for as much as I was feeling sorry for myself, it didn't hold a candle to what these women had experienced. And so it taught me a lot about how even though I can be a part of a community, I still have a particular privilege within that same community.

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