Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South

Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South

Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South

Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South


Giving voice to a population rarely acknowledged in writings about the South, Sweet Tea collects life stories from black gay men who were born, raised, and continue to live in the southern United States. E. Patrick Johnson challenges stereotypes of the South as "backward" or "repressive," suggesting that these men draw upon the performance of "southernness" politeness, coded speech, and religiosity, for example to legitimate themselves as members of both southern and black cultures. At the same time, Johnson argues, they deploy those same codes to establish and build friendship networks and to find sexual partners and life partners.

Traveling to every southern state, Johnson conducted interviews with more than seventy black gay men between the ages of 19 and 93. The voices collected here dispute the idea that gay subcultures flourish primarily in northern, secular, urban areas. In addition to filling a gap in the sexual history of the South, Sweet Tea offers a window into the ways that black gay men negotiate their sexual and racial identities with their southern cultural and religious identities. The narratives also reveal how they build and maintain community in many spaces and activities, some of which may appear to be antigay. Ultimately, Sweet Tea validates the lives of these black gay men and reinforces the role of storytelling in both African American and southern cultures.


The South, like all regions of the country, is a site of contradictions. The central role once played there by America’s “peculiar institution,” however, perhaps makes its social and cultural inner workings more complex. Race relations in the South are literally the stuff television shows, movies, and novels are made of, and they have directly affected the lives of most of its inhabitants. The region’s long history of grotesque racial violence—slavery, lynching, cross burnings, etc.—is etched in the American imagination, laid bare like a freshly laundered sheet hung out to dry on a clothesline, a sheet that, after sundown, might glow blood orange before a torched home, car, or body. Yes, these images of insidious race hatred pervade the physical landscape and cultural backdrop of the land of Dixie.

But for every yin, there is a yang. Complementing the tortured past of the South is the gentility, civility, and general “good manners” of folk. The right to co-exist as neighbors across racial and class lines has been hard won on the very soil that was once taken from indigenous Americans and tilled by enslaved Americans. The past haunts the air, but one does not choke on the stench of flesh as before. The scent of magnolia is not spoiled by ashen bodies, but rather broken by the savory scent of collards, cornbread, and cobbler. Also wafting past most visitors are the local colloquialisms and diphthongs that can try the patience of the untrained ear. By and by, however, all of the senses “raise up” a harmonious hymn to take in all the South has to offer, not the least of which is a glass of sweetened iced tea.

What neither of these views of the South reveals, however, is the sexual other who is implicated in both the region’s guts and its glory, its horrific past and its present graciousness. And yet, black gay southerners have co-existed in communities throughout the region for as long as there has been a “South.” Beyond playing the stereotypical roles of florist, interior designer, musician, teacher, retail salesperson, and hairdresser, they have also served as doctors, dentists, entrepreneurs, lawyers, policemen, pastors, and pimps. They were reared in the same country kitchens and on the same front porches as their heterosexual siblings, cousins, and extended family. They speak the same colorful language, eat the same artery-constricting food, and deploy the same passive-aggressive techniques to circumvent unwelcome or seemingly inappropriate questions by addressing everything but what was asked. Indeed, black queers are a part of the patchwork quilt that is the diverse (and perverse) social fabric of southern living. And contrary to . . .

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