A Conversation With...E. Patrick Johnson, author of "Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South - An Oral History"
In black Southern culture, a strong family unit is the premise for nurturing, growth and success. However, like any family, there are secrets and sometimes an unspoken pact that these secrets are never to be discussed. But author and Northwestern professor, E. Patrick Johnson recognized another subset of the black family unit, some of whom are pillars of respect in their communities. A deacon, a hairdresser and a transgender woman are just a few of the subjects Johnson interviewed for his book, Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South – An Oral History.
Johnson edited a series of narratives between 2004-2006 from black gay men born and raised in the South, and who have continued to live there, either closeted or openly. He is currently on tour for "Pouring Tea: Black Gay Men of the South Tell Their Tales," a one-man performance based on the narratives of Sweet Tea.
Johnson spoke to GLAAD’s Stephanie Barnes about his personal experiences growing up in rural North Carolina and the paradigm the narratives provide—validating self, exploring self-love and hate, family and the beloved South.
GLAAD: What are some of the stories in “Sweet Tea” that still resonate with you and have become an intricate part of your life?
EPJ: I relate to stories about how people came out to their families, the reactions that their families had, to the euphemisms people in the South use for gayness, and their relationships to the geography of the South. One of the things that make growing up in the South different from the North is that you play outside in the yard, field or garden. And that really shaped how people explored their sexuality. For instance, a number of men talk about being in an open field and finding places to experiment. It was in the country, so you weren’t under the watchful eye of an adult, and it provided opportunities to explore your sexuality that northern urban places don’t allow you to do. So, I definitely can relate to that and of course religion.
How big of an impact did religion have on their sexuality and were some of them forthcoming about it in their churches?
EPJ: I think black churches are complicated because some are homophobic, explicitly and implicitly. On the other hand, the church is a place where black gay people can find community and explore their sexuality. One of the people I interviewed said, “It’s not the Army where you can ‘be all you can be’ – it’s the church” [laughs]. Church folk will give you your props. Especially to children. You can be the worst singer ever, but if you’re standing up in front of the church, they’re going to encourage you to, “Sing baby!” For a little gay boy who’s doing that and being supported, that’s a way for him to express his sexuality. There’s flexibility in performing to express your sexuality. That was certainly my experience when I was soprano – singing with all the little girls and I would wear my robe, twirling down the aisle and leading the song.
A lot of men have also said that even though their churches may be homophobic, they go to have a communion with God. So, they’re not concerned about what the church members think about them. Or even the pastor. They want to have a personal relationship with God and they separate God from the church.
Why do you think the men you interviewed have this unyielding loyalty to the South and religion? And, why did they choose to remain in the South, especially for those who’ve dealt with extreme cases of homophobia?
EPJ: For some of them, it was about not being able to leave the South for economic reasons. Some of these men are working class. Their families depend on them and vice versa. Leaving was not necessarily an option. For others, it was privileging one’s race and family over one’s sexuality. Or, it was about not wanting to disappoint their family so they tried to conform to what their families felt they should be, which was straight. And some said “to hell” with their families and they chose not to have a relationship with them.
As far as the church goes, I try to explain it to people this way: Imagine going to church from conception until you’re an adult [laughs]. I talk about going to church while in my mother’s womb and experiencing “gospel comas.” When you’re born into the church and grow up in the church, that’s the center of your community and your family. Later, when you start to come into your sexuality, you can’t just turn off or turn away from it. It takes some negotiating.
I think we sometimes seek out homogenous ideologies and we forget that we all have different cultural backgrounds and experiences as black gay people. What do you think are some of the issues that are unique to the black LGBT community?
EPJ: I’ve been thinking a lot about the acronym “LGBT” because that “T” is often silent. And the “B” is often silent. We have a lot of work to do in our own community around discrimination of folks in our group. There’s femme phobia, transphobia, biphobia and we need to work on that because we can’t ask people outside of our community to accept us until we accept us.
Our history as black folk, regardless of our gender and sexual identity, makes us different. We have experienced our race alongside those identities. Within the black LGBT community, we have discrimination and we also deal with discrimination with the black community. Religion also plays a huge part in this. But, I never buy into the ideology that black people are more homophobic. Homophobia is simply homophobia.
You also mentioned in your book that while growing up, you felt the need to overcompensate in other areas of your life because you weren’t comfortable with being gay. Do you still feel that pressure now as an adult?
EPJ: I don’t, but it took a while for me to work through that. I would be lying if I said I don’t feel some sort of claustrophobia when I go home. Everybody knows that I’m gay, but it’s something about being in that home context that takes me back to this different place in my life and I do still work through that. I’m actually going back to do a reading of Sweet Tea in my hometown library in the black neighborhood. There’s a circle of older black women who are reading or have already read Sweet Tea, which I think is so cool.
Being gay has been peripheral to the other accomplishments I’ve made over the course of my life. I think some people wish I wasn’t gay, but they’ve never expressed that to me or to my family, and it hasn’t diminished their pride in one of their own.
Watch a preview of E. Patrick Johnson performing "Pouring Tea: Black Gay Men of the South Tell Their Tales":