Drastic Dykes and Accidental Activists

The following is an excerpt from Drastic Dykes and Accidental Activists: Queer Women in the Urban South by La Shonda Mims, available wherever books are sold.

Writing candidly about her struggles to understand sexuality, Carson McCullers identified herself as a sexual invert. She sought inspiration in the work of sexologist Havelock Ellis, who was active in an early twentieth-century community of sexologists. Ellis advocated for placing sex outside of the procreative realm and linking sexuality with personal identity. In Ellis’s work, McCullers found confirmation that her “inversion” was inborn, functioning at the core of her authentic self. She regularly turned to Ellis’s writings for understanding and clarity.

In his Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Ellis asserted that homosexuality in women usually took on a masculine cast, much as homosexuality in men would show itself in a feminine display. Ellis suggested that homosexuality in women mirrored the findings on homosexuality in men. Yet homosexuality in women would be harder to detect, according to Ellis, because homoeroticism between women was often overlooked or deemed acceptable. He argued that women might not understand how to process their affections, noting that “a woman may feel a high degree of sexual attraction for another woman without realizing that her affection is sexual, and when she does realize this, she is nearly always very unwilling to reveal the nature of her intimate experience.” Ellis’s positions on inversion served as a guide to McCullers, who confronted her own masculinity by developing boyish female characters, wearing mannish clothing, and setting aside her given name, Lula, to adopt the masculine name “Carson.”

Yet homosexuality in women would be harder to detect, according to Ellis, because homoeroticism between women was often overlooked or deemed acceptable.

In passionate letters to her friend David Diamond, a successful American classical music composer, McCullers revealed her internal dialogue as she wrestled with her own desire. Having studied music as a child, she originally traveled to New York to pursue her education in piano. Although she transferred her artistic energy to a pursuit of writing, she remained fascinated by classical music. In Diamond, McCullers found a shared love of music but also a fellow queer traveler, to whom she detailed musings on her own sexual tumult. She expressed to Diamond a gnawing need for love and recognition; her turmoil became the basis for her famously troubled tomboy character and queer icon, Frankie, in The Member of the Wedding. Writing to Diamond in the early 1940s, she confided the details of her crumbling marriage to Reeves McCullers. She described a “brotherly” love for her husband but a passionate love for Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach, a married Swiss scholar and writer for whom she felt an immediate affinity.

Yesterday I read Havelock Ellis’s My Life. His wife was an invert, and there was so much in her situation that is exactly my own. What a great man Ellis was! But even he could not help her at the last, and she went mad. I think about Annemarie often here, I shall always love her. I play Mahler and Schubert. I wonder if ever a woman will love me, and answer the part of me that so needs to be answered. But I ask so much, and expect to give so much—I am so deadly serious about such things.

Schwarzenbach, who was famously connected to many female lovers, displayed an androgyny and “physical fearlessness,” which fascinated McCullers. Her infatuation consumed her imagination, drawing her attention away from her husband. When she could not spend time with Schwarzenbach, McCullers turned to bars and bourbon for comfort. Longing for meaningful companionship with others and obsessed with Schwarzenbach, she distanced herself from her husband. Schwarzenbach’s death in a 1942 bicycle accident devastated McCullers, leaving her divorced from her husband and permanently separated from a passionate love.

Because she had no children, and her milieu, “dominated by gay editors and writers,” allowed for unconventional freedoms, McCullers indulged her troubled mind. Her class status consistently offered access to privileged outlets where her queer appearance and interests were a matter of fascination. At private parties, in her travel to Europe, and during summers at the Yaddo artist colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, she surrounded herself with bohemians who, like Diamond, sympathized and supported her as she grappled with her loneliness, mental health, and queer emotions.

To Diamond, McCullers expressed substantial concern when Reeves McCullers faced a term of service in World War II. His impending military requirement would play a role in Carson and Reeves’s eventual reunification. Yet in the four years between their divorce and remarriage, Reeves McCullers enjoyed an intimate relationship with Diamond. Carson McCullers loved Diamond but was also aware of a deep connection between the two men, writing to Diamond, “I don’t know just what your relation is with each other . . . and I would not ask. I only sensed that there was something for me to withdraw from.” Queer desire surrounded McCullers and shaped her view of the world.

La Shonda Mims is assistant professor of history at Middle Tennessee State University.