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What a Search for Hidden Queer History in Rural Louisiana Reveals About the Deep South

Casey Parks on the Enduring Mysteries of the Past and the Present

A few months after my pastor asked God to kill me, my mom ran to the bathroom, and I ran after her. She shut the door before I reached it. I knocked, but she didn’t answer. The rest of our family was in the dining room, eating spareribs at my grandma’s good table, or maybe, by then, they were listening to hear what I’d say to my mother. I pushed the bathroom door open. My mom was sitting on the toilet, bent over, crying into her hands. It was a small bathroom, only as wide as my wingspan, and my mom was heavy enough that she often told people with some mix of pride and horror that doctors considered her morbidly obese. I stepped around her, squeezed myself into a space between the toilet and the tub, then I touched her back. She spoke without looking at me.

“I could lose my job,” she said, half whispering, half crying. My mom answered phones at a church for nine dollars an hour, and my dad sprayed bugs for less than that. They had no savings account, no reserve to cover whatever my love life cost them. I knew my mom was right: One disapproving preacher could bankrupt our family.

Maybe if I didn’t see Ellen, maybe if I kissed the right guy, I would feel straight again.

“Mom,” I said. “I’m not going to be gay anymore.”

I had kissed only one girl one time. Her name was Ellen. We’d been listening to Pink Floyd and drinking Jones soda in the dark when Ellen leaned toward me. My twin-sized dorm bed felt like a gulf I’d never cross, but then the song crackled, my heart beat triple speed, and the space between us disappeared. Her lips had been so much softer than a boy’s. We’d kissed for just a moment, not even the length of the chorus, but those few seconds felt like a revelation I wasn’t sure I could forget. I told my mom I was gay a few weeks later, in church, on Easter Sunday. I did not tell her about the kiss.

In the bathroom, my mom cried so hard her body shook, and I racked my mind for ways to fix myself. It was 2002, the summer after my freshman year of college, and I was stuck in West Monroe, Louisiana, until at least August. I wouldn’t see Ellen all summer. She lived in Jackson, Mississippi, a few miles away from the private liberal arts college I was attending on scholarship. Maybe that break was long enough, I told myself. Maybe if I didn’t see Ellen, maybe if I kissed the right guy, I would feel straight again. I thought, suddenly, of the tall teenage boy who worked alongside me Friday nights at Blockbuster Video.

“Mom,” I said. “I’m going to date Richard from Blockbuster. He’s six foot five, like Aidan in Sex and the City.”

My mom’s nose started to run, so I pulled a few squares of toilet paper off the roll and handed them to her. I wished I could tell her about that transformative kiss. I had told my mom about every kiss since I was fourteen, when an exchange student from Mexico smashed his lips against my teeth during the homecoming dance. I’d come home late and beaming, and my mother had driven me straight to Waffle House, even though it was after midnight and my hair spray had stopped working. I’d described everything—his cologne, the way his spit had overwhelmed me, the moment he’d whispered, “I love you.”

My mom ordered a second plate of cheese-covered hash browns and asked me what song had been playing. I told her it was “Love of a Lifetime,” then she slow-danced with her fork toward the jukebox to see if the Waffle House had it. I’d told my mom about every other boy I’d kissed—six in the four years since—but watching her sob in my grandma’s bathroom that Fourth of July, I knew I would never tell her about the Jones soda or the Pink Floyd song. I would never tell her about the girl whose lips I imagined every night while I fell asleep.

My mom cried without words or sounds, and I told her about Richard’s car. It was a beat-up sedan, and his head touched the top of the sagging roof. His hands were big, and his Blockbuster uniform was so short it showed his torso. My mom listened, but she didn’t say anything. I sat on the side of the bathtub. I knew she thought Satan had claimed me. She’d told the president of my college and any professor whose phone number she could find on the school’s website that I would spend eternity in Hell. She’d even persuaded a campus security guard to barge into my room periodically to make sure I wasn’t doing anything gay. Aside from that one kiss, I was never doing anything gay, but it didn’t matter. Just a few nights earlier, she’d told me that thinking of me made her want to throw up.

“Mom?”

I wanted to tell my mother that I didn’t want to lose her, not forever, not for the summer, but when she looked up, I saw that her mascara had run black rivers down her face, and I lost my will. She’d forced me to wear mascara in middle school, but I’d never learned to put it on myself, so I didn’t wear it anymore. I knew she would reapply hers before we left the bathroom—she believed in makeup the way she believed in God—and I considered asking her to put some on me, too. Maybe then, I thought, she’d love me again.

I wanted to believe that people would accept me just because I was good. I wanted to believe that my mother would forgive me, that she’d love me again.

The bathroom door banged open before I could ask. My grandma stood in the entryway, wearing black slacks and a lime-green V-neck T-shirt. She threw her hands up, exasperated, then she jigsawed her way into a spot near the sink.

“Rhonda Jean,” she said, jabbing a finger at my mother. “Life is a buffet. Some people eat hot dogs, and some people eat fish. She likes women, and you need to get the fuck over it.

“Now come eat,” she said, then let herself back out.

I waited a minute, stunned. Some people eat fish? I swallowed hard. I asked my mom if I could do anything, but she didn’t answer. Instead, she pulled a stream of toilet paper from the roll and used it to wipe away the ruined mascara. Neither of us mentioned my grandma’s speech. My mom threw the paper into the little trash can under the sink, then she looked at me from the toilet.

“Can you get my makeup bag?”

*

The rest of the day passed in a blur. I ate banana pudding alone in the carport. I read Beowulf in the backyard. I had started to imagine myself as someone outside of my family, and I believed then that if I read all the classics, the rest of my years would somehow be better than the eighteen I’d already lived. I barely understood Old English, but I pressed on until the voices in the house quieted, until my mom and everyone else went to the carport to smoke. I opened the back door. I found my grandmother in the kitchen, washing the serving spoons we’d left behind. She turned off the water, then wiped her hands on the dish towel she kept tucked into her pants pocket.

“Sit down,” she said.

Though she’d defended me in the bathroom, I was nervous to spend any time alone with my grandmother. She was tough, foul-mouthed, and prone to yelling. She wanted the TV off, the screen door closed, and everyone’s shoes wiped free of dirt. I couldn’t remember a time she’d ever told me she loved me. She’d already cleaned the cherry dining table, so we sat down at the smaller, rustic pine frame she kept in the kitchen. She’d found it in a dumpster years ago, painted it white, then declared it “good as new,” but it wobbled as I leaned into it. We sat there awhile without talking. My grandmother fumbled with a pack of Virginia Slims, and I ran my hands over the buzz cut I’d given myself in Jackson. My grandma cleared her throat.

“I grew up across the street from a woman who lived as a man,” she said.

I leaned closer. This was 2002, years before people began signing their emails with their pronouns. There was no Caitlyn Jenner, no transgender tipping point. There was only my grandma, making the most unlikely of declarations at a wobbly pine table while our family members smoked nearby.

My grandmother had spent her childhood forty miles away, in a rural town called Delhi. Though Delhi was spelled like the capital of India, people in Louisiana pronounced it Dell-HIGH.

The man’s name was Roy, my grandma said. He was five foot flat with a sandy blond crew cut and skin so fair it blistered in the sun. Roy made his living out in the elements, picking cotton or mowing lawns, and his face stayed freckled because of it. In the evenings, my grandma said, he sat on his porch and strummed Hank Williams songs for a dozen neighborhood kids. Roy sang, too, but his voice never dropped low enough to hit Hank’s deeper notes. 

His whole existence, she said, was a mystery.

“It was the most beautiful music I ever heard,” my grandma told me. I’d only met one trans person—a trans guy who hadn’t changed his name or pronouns yet, just the hoped-for trajectory of his life—and I asked my grandmother questions that day I wouldn’t ask now. I asked about Roy’s body. I asked if anyone knew he was really a woman. My grandma shook her head no. Roy’s real identity, she said, was a secret.

He was raised by a lady named Jewel Ellis, but Jewel was not his real mother.

“On her deathbed,” my grandma said, “Jewel pulled my mother close to her, and she said, ‘Roy is as much a woman as you or I.’”

Jewel said she’d met Roy when he was a little girl named Delois. My grandmother couldn’t remember where they’d lived—maybe Arkansas, maybe Missouri—but Jewel said that Roy’s real parents abused him.

“So Jewel stole Roy,” my grandma said. “And thank God she did.” My brain short-circuited with questions. When had Delois become Roy? Had Jewel told anyone else? Did Roy want to be a man? I bit my fingernails and looked at my grandma, a sixty-two-year-old with short gray spokes for hair. She wasn’t wearing makeup, I realized. She never wore makeup.

“What did you think of Roy?” I asked. “Were you shocked?”

My grandma reached for my hand. “Honey, it didn’t matter. Everyone loved Roy, because he was a good, Christian person.”

I wanted to believe my grandma. I wanted to believe that people would accept me just because I was good. I wanted to believe that my mother would forgive me, that she’d love me again the way Jewel seemed to love Roy. But could I call myself a Christian? When Ellen kissed me, I’d felt a light inside. So that was what kissing was supposed to feel like. There’d been no extra spit, no time to worry whether our tongues would meet up right. It was the kind of magic I’d only experienced in church.

“Grandma? Was Roy happy?”

My grandmother said she didn’t know. Once, long ago, Roy had been the most important person in her life, but she’d lost touch with him in the 1950s, and she wasn’t sure if he was still alive. His whole existence, she said, was a mystery.

“It’s eaten at me all these years,” she said. “Am I going to die without finding out?”

My grandma picked up her cigarettes, then she headed to the carport to smoke. I sat at the table, alone for half an hour, imagining Roy. My grandmother said he wore Wrangler jeans and a big belt buckle. Still, he was fuzzy in my mind. I pushed my brain to fill in the outlines, and eventually, I scooted away from the table. Over time, my reasons for wondering about Roy have changed, and I can’t remember anymore what compelled me that day. I stood. I traced my grandma’s path toward the carport. I stepped down into the fog of her cigarette smoke. I know the rest of my family must have been there, but when I think about that day, all I see is myself, standing in the smoke, head angled up as if I were brave.

“I’ll go to Delhi,” I announced. “I’ll find out about Roy.”

__________________________________

Excerpted from Diary of a Misfit: A Memoir and a Mystery by Casey Parks. Copyright © 2022. Available from Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.

Casey Parks
Casey Parks
Casey Parks is a reporter for The Washington Post who covers gender and family issues. She was previously a staff reporter at the Jackson (Miss.) Free Press and spent a decade at The Oregonian, where she wrote about race and LGBTQ+ issues and was a finalist for the Livingston Award. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The Oxford American, ESPN, USA Today, and The Nation. A former Spencer Fellow at Columbia University, Parks was most recently awarded the 2021 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award for her work on Diary of a Misfit. Parks lives in Portland.





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