Rural Queerness and the KKK

 

Rural Queerness and the KKK

Author: Nick Marsellas, PhD student in Rhetoric and Composition in the Department of English and Making Advances Workshop participant

The project of whiteness in America has always been a project of gender and sexual oppression as well. One can see this quite clearly in the way that violence based on race, sexuality, and gender intertwines in the pages of local Pittsburgh newspaper Planet Q (“Planet Queer” until August 1995). I came across this newspaper in Pitt’s Special Collections of local underground presses during Pitt’s Making Advances workshop. Planet Q provided a radical voice for Pittsburgh queers, publishing articles on local and national politics while rejecting the assimilationist energy of national newsletters like The Advocate that were also publishing at the time. Digging into these local papers can offer us a glimpse of the more radical, leftist, rural politics that are left out of queer historical narratives that build on assumptions of the cosmopolitan, white, affluent queer.

Michael Hames-García, in his chapter “Queer Theory Revisited,” critiques queer activist histories for what he sees as their invisible whiteness: “gay liberationism and lesbian feminism [have been made to] appear to be developed by whites without significant participation from people of color, with the consequence that their histories can be told without reference to works by people of color.” (24-25). The way that current genealogies of queer activism are written is not only false, Hames-García argues, but also whitewashes the importance of queers of color in developing the theories and practices of resistance that would eventually be translated into “queer theory.”

One might assume that there has always been a substantial rift between white queers and people of color, but this was not always the inevitable, or even most likely, conclusion. The trajectory of early queer activism could be traced through both institutional and individual patterns of white supremacist violence against queer people just as easily as it could through poststructuralism and battles for legal rights. Many early scholars talk not about the importance of visibility and institutional recognition but about sanctioned and unsanctioned state violence at the hands of the police and the AIDS epidemic. There is relatively less mention of the KKK as an institution of homophobic violence, likely because those early scholars who are traditionally understood as inaugurating queer theory were writing in and about cities rather than the more rural sites of conflict where the KKK posed a threat (though queer people were certainly aware of this violence as well). In fact, archival evidence suggests that queer people (both white and people of color) had far more in common with other marginalized groups in the 90’s than with the institutionalized whiteness that seems so fundamental to the typical genealogy of queer activism today. The newspaper showcases the imprecise violence of white supremacists, among whom the KKK featured heavily but not exclusively. A few of the acts of violence reported in Planet Q are as follows:

  • In Montana, the KKK mailed a flier on gay pride weekend that urged the public to “wear surgical masks outside for protection from airborne transmission of the AIDS virus. (June 97)
  • In Arkansas, two men beat and strangled a black cross-dresser and pled a trans-panic defense, though they also scrawled “KKK” in blood on his wall. (Aug 97)
  • In Minnesota, a gay bookstore was vandalized for the fourth time in six months, with the words “fag,” “KKK,” and “187” (the police code for murder) spray-painted on the store’s window. (May 98)
  • In Alabama, a gay man was killed and his body set on fire by a “racist skinhead” who frequently wore a KKK t-shirt. (Apr 99)
  • In California, two brothers with white-supremacist ties shot and killed a gay couple after committing a string of arsons at three synagogues. (Aug 99)
  • In New York, the skull and pulverized bone fragments of a 19-year-old murdered by his white step-father were found with his social security number, a racial epithet, and a derogatory term for gays scrawled on the skull. (Mar 00)

Not only did Planet Q record higher-profile national violence, but it also chronicled the ongoing violence and intimidation occurring here in Western Pennsylvania. A right-wing preacher and local chapter of the KKK joined together to harass, damage property, and threaten violence against Johnstown’s “alternative” bar, the Casa Nova. These acts of intimidation, which lasted over three years, resulted in a variety of creative resistance efforts like the “Burn in Hell” bus trips from Pittsburgh to Johnstown and the fire-eating Lesbian Avengers, who came up from Washington DC to perform in the Casa Nova parking lot. Rather than providing assistance, it was believed that the police chief was running the plates of Casa Nova patrons and passing that information along to members of the KKK.

After three years of intimidation and protest, the owners were forced to sell the Casa Nova in April of 2000. The experience of Western PA queers – witnessing the nationwide terrorism of the KKK and experiencing it firsthand at home – forces us to rethink queer activism’s origin stories. Tracing local grassroots resistance and activist work reveals a different set of priorities than what we are usually taught about (white) queer history. The queer publishers and readers of Planet Q knew the importance of racial solidarity – not from a sense of charity or obligation but out of the very practical sense that, for both people of color and white queers (and certainly queers of color), the same people wanted us dead.

 

Citations:

Hames-García, Michael “Queer Theory Revisited.” Gay Latino Studies: A Critical Reader, edited by Michael Hames-García and Ernesto Javier Martínez, Duke University Press, 2011, pp. 19-45.

Planet Queer, Pittsburgh PA, c1994-2000.

Further Reading:

Compton, Julie “Why Are So Many White Nationalists 'Virulently Anti-LGBT'?” NBC News, 21 Aug. 2017, https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/why-are-so-many-white-nationalis.... Accessed August 27, 2018.

Hobson, Emily K. Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left, University of California Press, 2016

Learn more about the Making Advances Workshop here

Categories: 
  • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh