The Un-Natural State: Arkansas and the Queer South
reviewed by E. Patrick Johnson - July 18, 2011
Title: The Un-Natural State: Arkansas and the Queer South
Author(s): Brock Thompson
Publisher: University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville
ISBN: 1557289433, Pages: 260, Year: 2010
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The South often gets a bad rap when it comes to sexualityany form of sexualitydespite the full range of sexual expression being practiced in the land of Dixie. While sexual dissidents have been a mainstay in the American imagination of southern sexualitye.g., incestuous relations, miscegenation, and bestialitysomehow even the possibility of homosexuality being a vibrant part of the southern landscape seems unfathomable. Brock Thompsons The Un-Natural State, similar to a number of recent studies of southern (homo)sexuality, pulls back the veil on this misconception by historicizing how homosexuals played a vital role in the making of queer community in Arkansas.
Thompsons title riffs on the common disparaging discourse of the religious Right who distinguish heteronormative sex from homosexual sex, the former of course being of the natural order of things and the other being unnatural. Throughout the book, however, Thompson unravels this designation of homosexuality as unnatural by demonstrating through archival research, oral history, and his own life narrative how homosexuality in Arkansas was and is currently integrated into its physical and discursive landscape. Admittedly, heterosexuals attitudes towards queers have changed over the years, which has had many implications on the legal rights of homosexuals and the ways in which they have been allowed to participate as citizens of the state. Nonetheless, Thompson argues that in each historical moment in which the current events affected the ideas about homosexuality and attempted to police sexual expression, the queers of Arkansas have adapted and still found ways to create and maintain communityand to resist unequal treatment.
The Un-Natural State is divided into three sections, each owing to what Thompsons archival research unearthed about the ways in which queer community emerged within the history of Arkansas: The Diamond State, The Natural State, and The Land of Opportunity. Each of these slogans is a part of the history of the development of Arkansas as a state trying to distinguish itself from other states in the union and in the South in particular. As a corollary, Thompson uses each slogan to demonstrate how Arkansas queer history developed alongside the states various debates about its own identity. These three units work well to structure the book, although the number of chapters under each unitfive to six in eachis unnecessary given that some chapters are as short as two pages. Indeed, the book would work simply as three long chapters since the ground covered in the five mini chapters sustains the same theme. Despite this structural issue, Thompson unearths many fascinating stories about the queer history of Arkansas.
The first unit, The Diamond State, chronicles the emergence of a queer community through the history of a rich drag tradition. Thompson shows that as early as the 1930s straight white men hosted womanless weddings, a popular folk production and a farcical parody of a Protestant wedding ceremony (p. 19). These performances were fundraisers hosted mostly in churches and schools by not-for-profit organizations like the American Red Cross. Not only were these heterosexual white men cross-dressing, but many were in blackface as well. Thompson rightly reads this later component of the womanless weddings and cross-gender performances as a play on popular themes of race and sexual violence, perpetuating images of a buffoonish, perhaps animal-like, negro capable of morphing at any moment into the black beast rapist common in American popular culture of the period (p. 26). Indeed, blackface minstrelsy and drag coincided with Japanese internment camps located in Arkansas, all of which, according to Thompson, worked to portray white masculinity as stable and impenetrable, and femaleness, blackness, and Asianness as unstable and frivolous. Thompson recounts this complicated history of gender play and racist appropriation to demonstrate how the homophobic, misogynist and racist motivations of these events actually laid the groundwork for what would become one of the most vibrant queer drag scenes not just in Arkansas, but around the country. Chapter Four, for example, tells the story of how Norman Jones, a sailor from Hot Springs, went from doing a few drag numbers at the local bar, The Royal Lions Club, to winning the Miss Gay America Pageant and later buying the rights to the pageant franchise.
The Natural State examines the ways in which Arkansas struggle over the definition of natural versus unnatural had a direct impact on queer desirequeer here meaning non-normative as opposed to homosexual, as many heterosexuals, Thompson demonstrates, engaged in non-normative sex actsand how that evolving definition shaped the implementation, repeal, and reimplementation of the states sodomy laws. The chapters that make up this unit render a fascinating history about how what constituted sodomy went undefined until cases brought before the courts forced lawmakers to define a crime unfit to be named. It is here where Thompsons archival research pays off as he cites obscure legal cases traced through court records and newspaper accountsone based on a 1921 case involving a wife accusing her husband of performing fellatio on her and the other involving a 1925 case about a man performing oral sex on two young men. In the former instance, the husband is convicted and in the latter the accused is acquitted. Race also features prominently in this history of sodomy laws in Arkansas given that the penalty for black offenders was much harsher, death by hanging (p. 86). What Thompson demonstrates throughout these chapters is how important the discursive landscape was to the ideas about sodomy and how those ideas led to material consequences vis-à-vis the shaping of the legal definition of sodomy. Early on in its history Arkansas had one of the most vague and lenient sodomy laws of any state and then got rid of it altogether in 1976, only to reinstate it in 1977, and specifically defining sodomy as sex between two people of the same sex.
The final section, The Land of Opportunity, focuses on community and community building in the various regions of Arkansasfrom the urban center that comprises Little Rock to the mountainous terrain of the Ozarks to rural towns such as Eureka Springs. With each community and region comes a different set of politicsand possibilitiesfor queer desire. For the most part, these last chapters focus on lesbian communities with Thompson explicitly and implicitly noting the gendered ways that queer Arkansans built communities namely, that lesbians did so in communes in the Ozarks while gay men did so through drag bars and rest areas. Although they were off the beaten path and isolated, Thompson argues that these rural and mountainous communities also provided economic opportunities for queers in terms of the acquisition of vast amounts of land for little to nothing and entrepreneurial ventures in the spa business, particularly in places like Eureka Springs.
In The Un-Natural State readers learn a great deal about the history of queer Arkansas. Thompson does an admirable job of linking contradictory discourses around gender, sexuality, class, and race to show how they affected the emergence of a queer community across the state. At times, Thompsons analysis could go much further to help the reader make sense of some of these historical events and discourse and their impact on queers in Arkansas. This is particularly true for the black queer Arkansans whose voices remain muted throughout the book as none of the oral histories Thompson gathers are from that population. Nonetheless, what Thompson gives us with The Un-Natural State is a birds eye view of the queer South in all its contrariness, complexity, and irreverence.