Queer History is Southern History; Queer Women are Southern Women

The following is a guest post by La Shonda Mims, author of Drastic Dykes and Accidental Activists: Queer Women in the Urban South, which is available now everywhere books are sold.

When I first conceived of Drastic Dykes and Accidental Activists, I knew that I wanted to address the lack of queer people in southern US histories and the lack of queer women in southern women’s histories. What I wasn’t prepared for was the post-Trump landscape of the US when my book launched and a renewed focus on erasing queerness and queer people in states like North Carolina and Georgia, where my research is situated.

As I have spent the last several months celebrating my book in a southern state that is actively denying rights to queer people, I have become increasingly aware of what it means to have Dyke on the title of my life. That’s right. My book represents my life. The research idea formed as I entered my graduate program and took shape alongside my own coming out (we are constantly coming out) and my family’s fight to be taken seriously in North Carolina and Georgia.    

It might seem crazy, but I never really considered what it might mean to attach my name and my identity to the word “dyke.” How could this be possible you ask? Well, I am a historian. I have always understood the Drastic Dyke title as emanating from its origin story: the women of Drastic Dykes in Charlotte, North Carolina, a 1970s lesbian-feminist separatist group. Somewhere along the way I forgot about context, the core of what we study and teach as professional historians. Buried as I was in my work, I labored on with my own firm understanding of the Drastic Dykes in context. The women of Drastic Dykes were fierce in their challenges to heteronormativity and toxic masculinity.  

In their predominately white neighborhood near the Charlotte Country Club, with a Ku Klux Klan leader neighbor, the Dykes lived and fought for women’s visibility. With their neighbor glaring at them as they came and went, littering their driveway with broken bottles, and ultimately killing their cat, the Dykes kept writing and showing up–putting out their national lesbian journal, Sinister Wisdom. They supported local dykes as they fought for the ERA and against sexism, ageism, and racism. They were southern women who defied the stereotypes of southern and woman. First of all, they created physical space for women to congregate and share ideas. Secondly, they built their lives without men. The Dykes scraped by financially and put women’s words in print. It is hard to overstate how radical this act was and how difficult it remains to find published women’s words that are not focused on, or financially supported by men. The work the Dykes performed to print copies of Sinister Wisdom eventually led to a small group of women in the US and Canada who recorded the journal on cassette tapes for blind women. Although it did not make it to the final version of my book, these Sinister Wisdom readers extended the notion of drastic dykeness beyond its original formation in Charlotte. They faced several barriers because putting “lesbian” in the title of their organization or their requests for blind services would have barred them from those benefits. Instead the women found a way to do it themselves, securing 501(c) (3) tax status for what Susan Robinson (at that time known as Susan Wood-Thompson) called Women’s Taping for Handicapped Readers. 

When I first conceived of Drastic Dykes and Accidental Activists, I knew that I wanted to address the lack of queer people in southern US histories and the lack of queer women in southern women’s histories.

This type of workaround seems well suited to today’s political and social climate. As I have worked to promote Drastic Dykes, I have found myself faced with minor marketing concerns. For example, although I include my hyperlinked book title in my campus email signature, I occasionally remove it for students and some community leaders. Divisive concepts legislation in Tennessee means that students are empowered to challenge my right to teach queer history here, and I do not yet have tenure. Having dyke at the end of emails and on my tenure packet feels like a risk. And for different reasons, marketing my book on TikTok has been a challenge because the platform works to censor all uses of the word dyke because their algorithm doesn’t understand historical context. 

As I sit with my research road for Drastic Dykes and Accidental Activists in the rearview, one thing is clear: People are willing to fight for this history. Drastic Dykes in 1970s Charlotte fought to have women’s history and literature courses taught at the local community college just as queer scholars, allies, and students fight today to maintain academic freedom and access to all histories. Unfortunately the states making national headlines for attacking queer lives and diverse histories remain in a South full of queer people, which includes queer southern women.  

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