Chapel Hill, Gay Rights, and the Spring Interns’ Oral History Performance
At three in the afternoon on Wednesday, April 30th, our undergraduate interns from this past semester performed the oral histories of their interviewees. Aaron Hayworth, Katie Crook, Coco Wilder, and Turner Henderson had each conducted two interviews with people who had been a part of Chapel Hill’s gay community during the seventies, eighties, and nineties.
I explore some key excerpts from the script below. The excerpts are indented and italicized, and my thoughts will stay in the regular format. You can find short bios for each interviewee at the end of this post.
Beginning of Excerpts
Dawkins: I knew that I was attracted to men sexually, but I didn’t know exactly what it was.
Carden: Well we weren’t into ‘out, o-u-t’ at that time….you’d get the hell beat out of you.
There’s nothing more refreshing sometimes than to hear something like the above statements to bring us to attention.
Carden: Chapel Hill was pretty liberal.
Kenan: But it was still kind of hush-hush.
E. Patrick Johnson: When I was here at UNC, there was no “coming-out process”.
Nakell: I think people were a little cautious in those days about being identified as members of the CGA [Carolina Gay Association].
What would it have been like to be gay at UNC during this time? What would it have been like to be straight?
Nakell: I remember when I first became a faculty advisor to the Carolina Gay Association. I asked somebody…if he thought I’d lose any friends as a result of it. He said, “oh, you’ll probably get new ones!” Which turned out to be true!
Carmichael: I just didn’t feel at home [at the CGA].
Kenan: Most of the gay black men I knew, I knew through the Black Student Movement choir.
Phoenix: I didn’t feel like I fit in that crowd in the same way. So that’s what led me to create a network of gay people [at ECU].
Kenan: The CGA was more of a social function than a political one.
The mood shifted.
Dawkins: Then people started getting sick….It was terrifying.
Carmichael: Nobody knew what it was. Finally they came out and said the word “AIDS” out loud but AIDS wasn’t in the news yet. Of course President Reagan didn’t say anything for six years.
Phoenix: I went to a lot of funerals.
Kenan: Everything changed with AIDS and ACT UP and Queer Nation and all those people…There was a lag between Stonewall and that period…..Reagan was president, conservatism was on the rise. So, just speaking out…was a pretty radical thing.
Phoenix: Buncomb had found the AZT medication which was the first medication that gave you a shot at not having a death sentence from AIDS, but it was priced so high…trying to make a profit rather than addressing the epidemic.
Carden: You want something done you do it yourself.
Phoenix: [we laid] down across the road where the service delivery trucks [for the pharmaceutical company] came in…like you’re going to have to run over us if you want to go in and out.
But ultimately, these interviewees were not defined first by their sexuality, like many outsiders view them. People are people are people.
Dawkins: In a lot of ways, I don’t think of myself as being a gay man anymore. I mean, I definitely am, but it’s not a major part of my life at this point…
Gates: It’s just one aspect of my personality…
And where are we today?
Nakell: The law generally moves slowly and incrementally. And generally you want to take it step by step to establish…gay rights….I’m really astonished…with the speed at which it’s happened. It’s happening at lightning speed.
Kenan: For gay people, I think we are in for a much longer slog than we realize, because, as Lyndon Johnson said about the Vietnam War, it has to also be about winning hearts and minds. And I think that the window dressing is cool, but a lot of hearts and minds are far from being changed. And a lot of political correctness is masking that. I worry. As fast as things are happening, I don’t know how real that is.
Phoenix: We still have a tremendous amount of unemployment in the community, we still have…employment discrimination, we still have…discrimination in banking…and healthcare.
John Dawkins sums it up best.
Dawkins: The biggest problem that gay people have is just being able to live their lives without harassment and without being judged for being gay. That’s getting better and better, but it’s still got a long way to go.
Applause broke out. Aaron, Katie, Turner, and Coco had done an excellent job of unifying the interviews while paying attention to their differences and they did it with empathy. For me, it clicked.
For any marginalized group, visibility is power. There’s a movement currently going on in the South for gays and lesbians to talk with families and neighbors about their experiences because, as Randall Kenan quoted from Lyndon Johnson, it really is about “hearts and minds.”
Iris Murdoch wrote, “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” It is important to connect the dots between the national (or state, or local) discourse on gay rights and the individuals themselves. When it’s someone you care for, the struggles of these people become more real.
So it’s onward for the undergraduate interns, but speaking for the SOHP and the audience, we’re all grateful for the performance.
E. Patrick Johnson attended UNC in the 1980s. Now a professor at Northwestern University, his most recent project is Gathering Honey, a performance based on oral histories with African American lesbians in the South. He is also the author of Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men in the South.
Gary Carden has been a hair stylist in Chapel Hill since moving here in 1970. Carden was a pioneer in opening unisex salons and the gay bar, the Electric Company.
Dr. Phelps Gates was a classics professor at UNC in the 1970s. His recollections of gay “hotspots” on campus are of particular import.
Dr. Randall Kenan attended UNC as a student in the 1980s and is now a well-respected author and professor of English at UNC.
Dr. James Carmichael attended UNC in the 1980s for his doctorate in library sciences.
John Dawkins attended UNC in the 1970s and is now retired and living in Chapel Hill.
Dr. Terri Phoenix is now the director of the UNC-LGBTQ Center. Dr. Phoenix holds degrees from three universities and has worked and lived all over the South. The LGBTQ Center recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. Phoenix was recently interviewed by Frank Stasio of WUNC.
Barry Nakell is currently a layer in Chapel Hill. He was formerly a professor at the UNC School of Law and long-term advisor to the Carolina Gay Association.
Attached are some pictures from the performance, the interior of the program, a snapshot of a page from the script, and a really neat visual that reflects the contents of the script (courtesy of wordle.com).