Kevin Sessums has thrown down the gauntlet for sissydom. In Mississippi Sissy , his just-published memoir, there is no equivocation, no smarmy requests for tolerance and understanding, no demands for retribution or even sympathy (and lord knows growing up in the white, racist patriarchal South in the ’60s, where men were fighting to be men, and Southern belles trying hard to remain ladies, a sissy boy was always one step away from physical annihilation).
There is not even an attempt to negotiate with those who might secretly want to find a safe haven for the sissy. No. Kevin comes at you with arms akimbo, a sassy mouth, and an intelligent sashaying analysis that directly attacks the core of all of us men who have ever dared to travel close to the world of effeminacy and scarily denied any of those attributes-our limp wrists, slight lisps or empathetic sigh-that might have been perceived by others as girly and repulsive. Men who have committed violence are lost forever. Men, especially those of us who are gay, who have recoiled from their effeminate better selves stand guilty, with only a glimmer of hope for redemption. There is nowhere to hide once you start with this book. Kevin Sessums has written a sissy’s manifesto, and in it we can all see our trespasses.
And do we need it, because amid this upsurge of absurd cruelty and conformity, with fundamentalist wingnuts and their corporate agents around the world pushing warped values of maleness and militarism, shock and awe on an everyday scale, we all have to look toward the margins for lessons of courage and strength. The antiwar “movement” was wandering in the desert until a mother camped out at Bush’s ranch because her son’s meaningless death in Iraq forced her to beg for an end to the insanity. That was two years ago, and the war and torture go on and the movement is still wandering, and Cindy Sheehan is still raising hell and still marginal as we roll our eyes at spineless liberal Democratic politicians hiding behind their non-binding proclamations of ineptitude. Really, who is out there that is not mealy-mouthed? Are the Dixie Chicks really that brave? I mean, at least Sinead O’Connor had the guts to rip up the Pope’s picture on national television.
Those of us who are less than manly are especially desperate to find a candle in the dark. And where better to search than in the heart of such mean-spiritedness: in the white South, where pathetic attempts to define “American values” come to us via media transmissions from the mouths of nasty old men like the Falwells and Dobsons and (not-so-old) Scarboroughs; where a particular kind of hypermasculine kill-’em-all white sensibility has been so cultivated (think most of our military bases and genocidal presidents) and revived (think George Bush and his posse) that even Vermont’s Howard Dean was afraid to pursue the three G’s, God, Guns and Gays, below the Mason-Dixon line; and where it often seems we have come a long way from the amazing Southern movements in which the Fanny Lou Hamers, Rita Mae Browns and Ella Bakers gave new meaning to the word hope.
The lessons from those movements are not lost on us, only obscured, and Kevin Sessums is once more showing us how to be courageous by lifting the curtain from mighty maleness to reveal that bravery isn’t to be found in killers in Iraq or in the antiwar tough-guy Southern populist like Senator Jim Webb but in the sissies who defied the smothering moss of Mississippi.
Sessums is a success in the terms of conventional society today. A well-known celebrity journalist, long associated with Vanity Fair and Andy Warhol’s Interview , he hobnobs in the worlds of Hollywood and television and New York that were the stuff of his fantasies as a child growing up in the town of Forest, near Jackson, Mississippi, in the early ’60s. His father was a high school basketball coach who’d once had dreams of playing in the NBA, and his mother a not-quite-belle-ish Southern belle who dreamed of going to school to become an English professor after she had her children. Sex roles were starting to fall apart along with segregation, even if people could only dimly sense it, the atmosphere weighted with white fear of “uppity niggers” and male fear that the ground was shifting beneath them. As for personal dreams, those have a way of falling apart on their own. Kevin sensed things better than most, and his defining moment came at the age of 8 while reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to his cancer-ridden mother. She was dying, a young widow only a year after her husband had perished in a car accident, and this was only weeks before Kevin was to become one of those poor “Sessums orphans-Kevin, Kim and Karole, “KKK ain’t that just precious.” But there he was reading, and it was Oz that made him insist on going to the town Halloween party dressed as the “wicked old witch.”
His grandmother at first resisted, saying that his dead father would never have approved of the boy in a dress. That is putting it mildly. Sessums’ earliest memory is of his father’s first inkling Kevin was headed down the path to becoming the worst thing a boy could ever be-a big ol’ sissy. Kevin was 3 and a half, and he’d talked his mother and aunts into making him a pretty skirt out of material left over from a maternity dress they were whipping up out of a Simplicity pattern. Out they sent little Kevin in his new skirt to meet Daddy coming home from work. “I sashayed up to my father and began to spin and spin so he too could marvel at how cute I was,” Sessums writes. Well, Dad freaked and, chasing the small boy down, grabbed him by the neck and screamed, “You think you’re a goddamn girl?” Then he ripped the skirt off the boy, threw it in an oil drum and lit it on fire. “He lifted me again and made me stare down into the fire. ‘See that? Take a good look,’ he told me, shaking me extremely close to the sprouting inferno. ‘That’s what happens when boys try to be girls.'”
Indeed. Except that Dad must have sensed there was something awful in his hair-trigger brutality, and something remarkable, if frightening, in the self-possession of this little sissy boy. Sessums’ father wasn’t monstrous, like Tobias Wolf’s stepfather in This Boy’s Life ; he was just a man, a nice handsome athletic man doing the ordinary terrible things men learn to do. After holding Kevin over the fire, he got a copy of House & Garden , took the boy in his arms and showed him the kind of pretty house he hoped to buy Mommy one day.
At a very early age Kevin seemed to know more about the power of the sissy, more than his father or many of us young men dealing with the masculine impossibilities that were being forced on us at the time, could ever understand. Once when he was 5 his coach father “scooped me up from the cheerleaders” and carried him into the victorious basketball boys locker room, full of shower steam, hot naked raucous teenagers shouting and snapping each other’s red fanny cheeks with terry-cloth towels. Left alone there for a few minutes, Kevin couldn’t remember ever being happier. Then a player on his way to the showers picked him up, “lifted me to his chest, the sweat of his neck slick against my cheek.
“You ok buddy?’ he asked before kissing my scalp and putting me back on the concrete floor. I scampered over to his vacated locker area. I picked up his jockstrap.” So the kids start laughing, and then coach-dad arrives and pries the jockstrap out of Kevin’s hands. He sends Kevin to the coaches’ locker room, where the other coaches remark, “Can you believe this sissy is Ses’s?” Kevin throws up one of the coach’s shoes. His father comes in and he is wiping the shoes and Kevin is crying. “My father turns to me, he was even sadder than I was. Then, for the very first time, the sadness morphed into that more perplexed look of fear. I did not take my eyes from his. It comforted me to know that my father, who was afraid of nothing, was afraid of me. I unfolded my arm, I put my hands back on my hips.”
For those of us who were young and gay but thought if we tried hard enough we could pass, this bravery is something to behold. I knew all about the hands on the hips as a kid when my military father was stationed in Texas (my first venture outside an overseas army based-school). It was the gesture I’d want to make, I’d naturally make until, past a certain age, I knew I shouldn’t make-just as I knew I shouldn’t be in acting, which I loved, because everyone knew the theater arts were full of sissies and I didn’t want to be called a faggot, so I gave it up and said, “I’m going to be a doctor,” which I hated. A lot of boys did the same thing, but try as we might, many of us hardly passed. That look I gave to the pretty boys in Mineral Wells, Texas, was enough to get their dander and fists up. But lie we did. “I ain’t no queer,” I kept screaming as my head was being pounded into the sidewalk curb while some Texas brute’s girlfriend’s dirty used Kotex was being stuffed down my pants.
A lot of screwed up boys are now pounding others all over the world. Wars, domestic violence, murder, rape, other violent crime: Yes, I know, the numbers are rising among women, but we are talking something like 5 percent versus 95 percent of the violent crimes and wars that are committed by men. Women should not look at those small increases with pride, any more than they should see it as a feminist advance that more women are joining the manly sport of war or that Hillary Clinton proved that she’s more of a man than my career military father by voting to let Bush’s army kill and kill. They should take pause and understand why we all need to embrace our inner sissies, if only to save the children.
The heroic gift of the sissy-and I mean the real high swishing sissy-is that he can’t pass. He’s going to be a star or a drag queen or dead, but if he survives he’s not going to be able to find safety in a lie. As a Namibian friend of mine said in an interview for a documentary film I made about the dangers of coming out in the developing world, “I can’t help it if my hips swing from left to right when I walk.” While there might be some humor in it (who can forget the campy protagonist trying impossibly to learn to walk like John Wayne in La Cage Aux Folles ), there’s something far deeper, because the sissy’s inability to pass, to lie convincingly, exposes everything that’s warped and twisted about the supposed truth of masculinity. How much suffering does a father have to force on his son because of his fears of not fulfilling his masculine destiny? What about the coach, the bully, the torturer, the pledge master, the squad leader in Iraq, the CIA interrogator at Gitmo or that grand chickenhawk of a man, our commander-in-chief? If sissies ran the Pentagon, George Bush would be cheerleader-in-chief, preoccupied more with putting together a cheering squad for the Army & Navy game than a death squad in Baghdad. It all sounds silly, doesn’t it? Until you start thinking about the real crazy horror that’s called normal.
In a recent poll by AP-Ipsos about words Americans use in describing their “feelings” about the Iraq war, “women were more interested than men to feel ‘worried’ 81 per cent, and ‘compassionate,’ 74 per cent, than ‘proud,’ 38 per centdf.” Christopher Gelpi, a Duke University political scientist, who according to the AP “tracks public opinion on war,” says, “There is an emotional response to casualties that men don’t show. It could be some sort of socialization that men get about the military or combat as being honorable that women don’t get.'”
I wonder why they don’t poll sissies.
The truth is, if it weren’t for sissies, we’d never know how stupid masculinity is. Among gay men, even though we love the Lone Ranger, the Boy Scout leader who knows how to make the fire, the leading man, it’s all because we feel insecure about our own weaknesses. In the ’70s a lot of gay men took up the clone look, “men in jeans and boots,” as AIDS activist and playwright Larry Kramer said in my documentary After Stonewall . And they were all beautiful but kind of silly too, and the sissies made them see it, so then it was masculinity to the nth degree, in other words camp, in other words not masculinity at all-at least not the masculinity Kevin Sessums’ father grew up believing in. And once your eyes are opened to that, well it’s pretty clear that there is no Lone Ranger and maybe the Boy Scout leader is a pervert and there are only five Brad Pitts and they’re not going to marry you, so what you’re left with is an awful lot of Archie Bunkers.
What Sessums shows is that our weakness is our strength, and there’s nothing like some Southern gothic to reveal the rot at the core of all that’s meant to be strong and pure about American manliness-the essence of all those football games and statue soldiers and paeans to honor and glory, even if it was to defend slavery. It is sheer pleasure to see the Southern exposures of white manliness and race brought together from the perspective of a young sissy, the small ways white people’s sense of racial superiority and male prowess were indoctrinated day after day and in the oddest moments.
Sessums father the high school coach was also a peeping tom, spying on the pretty white neighbor lady while she undressed, and bringing little Kevin in on his secret. One day his mother eyed his father watching the lady working in her flower garden. “You can’t seem to get enough of her, as if she’s your flower bed. You’re always stealing a look at her,” said the mother.
“‘Thou shalt not steal,’ I said, a little something I had picked up sitting on that Baptist pew each Sunday down the hill,” writes Sessums.
“‘What’s that supposed to mean?'” my father brusquely asked my mother, ignoring my comment and keeping up the conversation they each considered a private one because I was still too young in their eyes to understand the implications of such language. Dumb Adults. Sissies always understand.”
Sissies certainly have an ear and eye for the racist reflex that a lot of people in the North seem to think existed only in the worst white nuts cases like Bull Connor, his dog-wielding deputies or the Klan. I remember as a young boy being on a public bus in Texas in the early ’60s, watching as a large woman was running alongside hoping to catch it. “Wait! Wait!” I shouted out to the bus driver before he drove off, and he paused. And then just as she reached the door, just as he saw that she was black, he slammed the door. I still see myself, standing up near him, hands on my hips saying, “How rude!” I don’t know if it occurred to me then that this was all about the woman’s blackness, or the bus driver’s whiteness; it was just mean. The bus driver just laughed and told me to “shut up and sit down!” I meekly obeyed. And that meanness I’d witness again in a thousand little ways. Like when the biology teacher, who was also the football coach, gave me the power to grade all the tests, and I did it honestly (even if I thought about giving lower grades to some jocks I didn’t like), and then the coach comes to check my work and, just like that, changes the grades of the only three black girls in the class from C’s to F’s. I wish I could tell you how brave I was then but I did nothing.
Sessums listened to the way his Grandma talked, and he describes her spouting out about how the “hordes of hateful Ivy Leaguers [were] descending on us all that summer and ‘looking down their noses at good God-fearing folks like us’; how Fannie Lou Hamer (the African-American civil rights leader from Mississippi) had “showed off her fat self up in Atlantic City at the Democrat Convention, making the whole country think we can’t handle our niggers down here: why can’t they be as sweet as Matty there, huh Matty?'” (Matty was the black maid.)
Reading Mississippi Sissy, it struck me that the sissy is the uppity nigger, the one who grates and irritates and says, “Fuck you. I will be what I am!” How many times in the 1980’s and ’90s would we hear our then “straight-acting” gay leaders telling the “sissies, drag queens and butch dykes” to lay low so as not to draw attention from the religious nuts; as if somehow those nuts were miraculously going to like the other gays, the ones who passed. Fat chance. Nothing gets the right wing up in arms more than well-meaning gay people insisting they’re “just like everyone else” and demanding equality like gay marriage. And the more straight- acting, marriage-loving, picket-fence-aspiring the gays are, the more the right wing hates them. A gay pride float full of prancing drag queens has a better chance to be invited to their bigoted dinner table than my Salvation Army Officer sister-in-law and her properly attired “female companion.”
But it is in the Oz story that, in the book, best lays out this confluence of disgust for the sissy and hatred toward blacks. Grandma and Kevin get the dying mother’s permission for him to dress up as the wicked witch. Now that her husband is dead, freedom from his manly fears allows her to agree easily to the wishes of her sissy son. Kevin’s father was not a brute, but certainly he felt the pressure and need to play one. When we take on the victim roles, the ones that liberals love us to play, we begin to see that we give straight white men more power. The sissies, the dykes, the blacks, the women of America need to stop oozing and fainting over patriarchal fantasies, no matter how sweet or charming the JFK’s can be. In the end they walk right over you as if this earth truly is a man’s world.
So Kevin’s mother had her finest moments in her short widowhood, released from the burden of pleasing a handsome, charming provider. It was only a few months earlier, before the cancer took its toll, that she announced she was going back to school and handed Kevin a piece of paper.
“‘Write it down,'” she said to him. “‘Write down the word. S-I-S-S-Y.’ I obeyed and wrote the letters as large as I could across the paper. ‘Now, whenever anybody calls you that again you remember how pretty that looks on there. Look at the muscles those S’s have. Look at the arms on that Y. Look at the backbone that I is to stand there in front of you.'”
The night of the Halloween party, Kevin rushes into her hospital room to show off his witch’s outfit. He whispers in her ear, “Dare I?” and she gasps with delight.
At the party, after the townsfolk realize that the witch is really a little boy, the laughter leaves and a sense of shock appears on their lily-white faces. “I made sure my ‘Dare I’ demeanor did not crack. This was for my mother. This was for myself. This was who I was. If my mother’s impending death was making me, back in that mean-spirited Mississippi year of 1964, a pity-worthy spectacle for fellow Mississippians to focus on and feel less bad about the belligerence they were displaying in all its ugly glory for the rest of the country to behold, then I would take up its mantle and make a spectacle of my own. No longer would I be a vessel for sympathy so that the sympathizers, through a sadness that was not even theirs, could cleanse themselves of their sinister culture and the sinister politics it bred. With a pride that confounded all who were in my path that night I decided I’d go ahead and be the sissy everyone said I was. I shuddered at my power.”
The sissy really is the hero for all of us. Kevin Sessums’ manifesto should be required reading to anyone seriously thinking about taking on the stereotype roll of a man. It might just give them pause and save of us all a few more black eyes.
JOHN SCAGLIOTTI, the Emmy Awardwinning documentary filmmaker of Before Stonewall, is director of the Gay Filmmakers’ Consortium at www.gogaydvd.com. He is also the Administrator of the Kopkind Colony. This piece first appeared in the Fairfield County Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org