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Oral History and Chapel Hill’s Gay Community in the 1980s

Written by: Turner Henderson

As you would probably expect, gay history in the US has followed a sporadic and turbulent course. In fact, to approach gay history in a traditional way by studying its documents, events, figures, and contexts pre-mid twentieth century, you would feel severely bereft of much that is substantial. In the words of one gay studies scholar who began his work in the 1970s, gay history is “an area of research for which there was no context, no literature, no definition of issues, and no sources that had ever been tapped.”[1] That description succinctly communicates why gay history is such a difficult field to get a grasp on. Even so, it’s not alone in this regard: as long as there has been history, there have been histories that have been subjugated, smothered, hidden, and hated. So, how do we as students of the past mitigate this problem?

To answer that question, I’d like to take a step back. If there is one thing that I have learned this semester as an intern at the SOHP, it is that oral history is especially valuable in certain situations where traditional historical sources are inadequate. There are countless examples of oral history documenting narratives that remain elusive in mainstream history textbooks. For evidence, just click here and browse through the SOHP’s projects. All people have historical perspectives to share, and collecting the stories from those who have never had the opportunity for their voices to be heard is an unbelievably valuable exercise, and one that seems tailor-made to address issues such as constructing gay histories.

With this in mind, I want to talk about my very first oral history interview. Last month, I sat down with Professor Randall Kenan, a local author and English professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. Professor Kenan, an openly gay African American, attended UNC from 1981 to 1985. Before meeting with him, I had a very loose timeline of gay history in my mind: the sodomy statutes of the 1940s and 1950s, Stonewall in 1969, the Sexual Revolution of the 1970s, the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Like I said, it was a pretty loose timeline; there were obvious holes in my understanding, not to mention the fact that I knew little about individual experiences during any of these periods.

Right off the bat, Professor Kenan began to fill in my ignorance with ground-level information about pre-AIDS gay life at UNC. During his time as a student, gay activism was, as he noted pensively, “nascent.” It seems that the Carolina Gay Association was at a low point, with Kenan describing it as having a small membership and an even smaller political influence. In fact, helping me to bridge the period between Stonewall and the outbreak of AIDS, he painted a picture of an era of conservatism, when the Religious Right ran rampant and speaking out about being gay was unquestionably taboo. From listening to Kenan, it seemed clear that the heyday of free love and the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s had ground to a halt, with students such as himself knowing little about the activists and achievements that had come before them.

This idea manifested itself in the gay social scene that Kenan illustrated. In contrast to other interviewee’s description of a somewhat vibrant gay community in Chapel Hill in the 1970s, with gay bars and tea rooms occupying a place in town and on campus, Kenan depicted the lack of a formal social scene, with the bars having migrated to Durham. Striving to fill this void, the gay community met at bookstores and other places scattered around Chapel Hill and Carrboro, including the “Castle” on Friendly Lane, an all-gay male residence that threw parties once or twice a semester. Beyond this, however, Kenan portrayed a rather disjointed gay community, segregated by race and gender.

While living with his white group of gay friends on North Campus, he had to make a concerted effort to head to South Campus to socialize with his black friends. He doesn’t even remember knowing any lesbians. In fact, his characterization of the partitions in his social life led to his espousal of a stark reflection on the nature of being both black and gay in the early 1980s: he, and every other gay black man he knew at the time, had to choose one of their identities over the other. He couldn’t be both black and gay; he had to be either black or gay. This moment struck me as the most powerful of the interview.

For me as a student of history, this predicament faced by gay black men communicated a great deal about the state of gay rights and racial stigma in Chapel Hill: by the 1980s, neither community had been able to advance far enough for someone to be accepted within both simultaneously. There was a clear layering of marginalization. For me as a fellow human being, the fact that this was how things were spoke volumes about what Professor Kenan had gone through on a personal and emotional level. He kept repeating in a disillusioned murmur, “I just thought that was unfair…”

After I had digested the rich complexities that made up the interview, and listened to the whole thing a few times, I was left feeling somewhat frustrated. While I had naively set out to neatly compartmentalize history and bring, as best I could, the story of Randall Kenan and gay black life in the 1980s at UNC to some kind of order, I felt dissatisfaction with my ability to organize a coherent and comprehensive narrative. There wasn’t much gay political activism; gay social life was segregated; and the identities of gay and black could not coexist, at least in the eyes of society. Reality had poked holes in many of the things I thought I knew. I felt like I was lost in what all of this meant, and I was disturbed by a lot of what I had heard.

It took me a while, but eventually I thought to myself, isn’t that the point? After hearing the story of a man who has been doubly marginalized his entire life, whose identities have been repeatedly shoved to the fringes of society and history, shouldn’t I be unsettled? Shouldn’t I be asking questions and criticizing and reflecting? Sure, I knew some things about oral history prior to this interview, but the actual experience of sitting down and documenting someone’s life through their narratives and anecdotes does not allow itself to be composed into a clean and tidy product; how could it? Memory and life and stories get in the way of such a pipedream. But again, that’s the point: Professor Kenan’s memory and his storytelling had done a lot of the historical work for me, stressing what was important to him. And what was important to him is important to history. Listening to him narrate his own life illuminated aspects of gay history that textbooks would have been hard-pressed to reveal.

[1] D’Emilio, John. “Not a Simple Matter: Gay History and Gay Historians.” The Journal of American History 76.2 (1989): 435-442. Print.

Thoughts on “Sweet Tea”

I am not a tea person. I’ve tried it, loved it, stocked my pantry with delicate varieties of it, and then (it usually happens like this) exams come along, life gets busy, and coffee enters stage left, bitter and powerful, calling me with the exact same force with which I rejected it as a child.

I’m sipping from the coffee tumbler that follows me around everywhere, indestructible and even tip-proof. The coffee tastes good, strong, a perfect complement to writing.


For the past three weeks I’ve been working with E. Patrick Johnson’s oral history interviews that he used in the writing of Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South. That category, “black gay men of the South,” is a label that will produce a reaction. In fact, UNC’s Library Catalog (which follows the national model), lists Sweet Tea like this:


African American gay men – Southern States – Social conditions.

African American gay men – North Carolina.

African American gay men – Southern States – Identity.

Southern States – Social conditions.

It does not seem to be a topic that fits in neatly into our established categories (which are often the subject of debate) in the library community. But more on the category of black gay men of the South later.

As I transfer the old audio from minidiscs (remember these?) to digital mp3 files, I tune in and out as I work on other projects for the Southern Oral History Program, but lately I’ve been tuning in more and more. Maybe it just feels that way because, not having read Sweet Tea, these experiences and memories of these men interviewed by Johnson are starting to collect in my mind.

The way I see it, there are two routes to take with these interviews: either focus on the similar events, coming-out experiences, struggles with being accepted for oneself in the community one grew up in, the respect or lack thereof with which these men are treated, and the common bumps they experienced along the course of their lives that shaped their experiences as black gay men of the South.

The second option is to take the sum of these lush oral histories and use them to show just the opposite—the ways in which we differ, the ways in which black gay men of the South differ—not only from people who do not fall into the same category as they do (more on that later), but rather the many ways in which their experiences as individuals are unique to the point that somehow creating a conglomerate out of their experiences would be a sort of reductio ad absurdum (read: useless).

Now the thought just struck me—What if Johnson took either of these two routes? Is the point I’m about to make completely off the mark?

(But it’s not.)

Here goes: if my history major (and cherry-picked humanities courses across many departments at UNC during undergrad) gave me any one understanding of scholarship, it is what follows:

Progress comes from learning to reconcile two opposing viewpoints.

The history major lobe in my brain immediately blurts out—“HEY! It’s like Hegel’s notion of thesis–>antithesis–>synthesis!”—The more relatable (that is, normal) part of my brain reminds me that this is a fancier definition of compromise.

And who doesn’t want compromise?

Think Congress, think state politics, think of marriage, or think of trying to get your child to put up their laundry. (Woe to me if my mother sees this.)

If it seems as though I have a personal take on these interviews, you’re not incorrect—and here’s why. I started out working on this project from the perspective of an information technologist (I am in library science school, after all, so learning to work with new file formats is kind of my soup du jour, today at least.) It started out as impersonal, but something changed. Because the process of transferring the audio often results in a heavy reverberation in the headphones, I still do not listen to the entire interview. Even so, the moments I’ve heard have accumulated, and now they bounce off of each other in my mind. Something I had not anticipated.

I relate most to the recognizable descriptions of life in the South, but that is not wholly accurate, because being black in the South is often such a different experience than being white, no matter what people who think we live in a post-racial society say. (I could say the same about life north of the Mason-Dixon Line.) There are some figurative rugs that I do not want to look under in my own family’s past that I know are not going away–though that is its own blog post, if not something much more substantial—and it’s knowledge of these unspoken sub-narratives hidden away in my ancestors’ pasts that make me say, “How could I relate to these black gay men from the South? That is beyond presumptuous.”

There is something so strong in me that identifies with these men and the stories they tell. They seem familiar. They seem like me. But they’re not.

And they totally are.

If I’m right about Johnson’s book—and let’s hope I am—then when I pick up that copy of Sweet Tea that they’re getting in soon at the Bulls Head Bookshop, I’ll see a narrative that strikes a balance. I do not know what conclusions Johnson will make from all the oral histories, but I have to think that he’s placed emphasis not just on the commonalities black gay Southern men experience, but that he’s also given voice to the rich differences. These differences do just as much to illustrate what it means to be a human as our similarities. If I could only learn from my own experience and not anyone else’s, I’d be lost.

When I laid it out like fact that the category of black gay men of the South is one that is bound to produce a reaction, the reaction as I imagine it is usually unsatisfactory. I imagined talking to a friend about this book, and them saying, “Whoa. That’s heady stuff,” or, “I bet that’s fascinating.” Among my acquaintances (a group with its own biases, to be sure), most everyone would find the topic exciting, but few would know much beyond that. Maybe my acquaintances and I know what the “DL” is, or that “sissy” does not always have the connotations we may know it for.

Ultimately, it comes down to the question, “What do I know about black gay men of the South?” The answer is unsatisfying, and I think it’s not just that I don’t know much, I think society does not know that much. Certainly not enough.

I’m still trying to understand why these interviews speak to me so strongly. As I continue with this project (I need to pop in a new minidisc in about 10 minutes), the answer I get is probably what you would expect. And that’s okay.

The interviews are so powerful because they not only teach me about people I do not know enough about, but because they teach me how easy it can be (and should be) to relate to each other, regardless of the category we fall into.


At the end of each interview, Johnson asks each interviewee, “Do you like sweet tea?” There are laughs and a telling variety and overlap in responses—some reply, “Do I ever!” Some say, “I guess, but my version is more of a punch,” “I steep it in the sun,” or “Not so much.” Or the response nearest and dearest to my heart, “But not TOO sweet.” It brings things to such a nice close after these intensely personal interviews, which ask so much bravery on the part of the interviewee.

It may not be tomorrow, or the next day, but when that book arrives at the Bulls Head and there’s enough sun outside for me to sit on the porch, I’m going to be out there reading. And I won’t be drinking coffee.

“My Talent in Life is Being a Friend”

Written by: Katie Crook

I was a little apprehensive, to say the least. On a Friday afternoon at rush hour, I found myself driving away from the happy little bubble of Blue Heaven to a city with which I had absolutely no familiarity. I was nervous about finding parking, arriving on time, finding the right building. Mostly, I was nervous about my first interview for the Southern Oral History Program. I had no idea what to expect, hoping fervently that my recorder—and backup iPhone—would capture the interview I had anticipated for weeks. I was nervous about how the interview would proceed, what I would say, what he would say. In short, as I waited for Dr. Jim Carmichael to return to his fourth floor office at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, I wished I were back home in the familiar folds of Chapel Hill, with friends on this wintry Friday evening.

What happened next caught me completely off-guard. As I anxiously walked to my interviewee’s office, I caught my first glimpse of him. A small man, he was dressed in a fashionable leather jacket reminiscent of a cowboy, a resemblance echoed by his handlebar moustache. Dr. James Carmichael, an esteemed professor of library history, literally welcomed me into his cozy office with open arms, opting not for a handshake but a full hug. He graciously thanked me for coming to interview him and invited me to take a seat. Instantly, I felt my nerves disappear as we began discussing familiar topics, like the notoriously hellish parking in Chapel Hill. I found myself easing up, even smiling, as I plugged in my recorder and began asking my questions.

As it were, my nerves for this interview proved to be completely unfounded. Dr. Carmichael had me laughing and reminiscing right along with him as he detailed his life’s story, full of colorful characters like himself. Again and again, I was struck by the sincerity of his words and his complete vulnerability. We talked about his substance abuse, his “bizarre” wedding to ex-wife Bunny, the antebellum house he called home, and his road to sobriety. We talked about his lovers, his emotional turmoil, and his subsequent recovery and victory over alcoholism and mental illness. Clearly, my apprehension about interviewing a stranger was not shared by my interviewee, as he seemed to relish this opportunity to express himself.

Dr. Carmichael refused to shy away from sensitive topics, willing to discuss anything from his original rejection from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to the sexual favors he granted to a guard so he could place a phone call from jail. He talked about his lowest point, in the throes of mental illness and at odds with himself and his own sexuality. He discussed his recovery, his discovery of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and the many eccentric friends who helped him along his path to sobriety. In the end, this unassuming professor gave a profoundly honest and touching account of the incredible life he had led.

Dr. Carmichael’s life—as far as I could tell from the two hours I spent interviewing him that February Friday night—is not defined by failures or defeat. His story is one of marked triumph, over illness, abuse, and insecurity. Though he described himself as a “troubled” person as a young man, any trace of that trouble seems to have been replaced by his exuberance and love of life. His love of his family, friends, and cats (yes, his cats) was absolutely infectious, and I left his office wanting only to someday be able to spend more time talking to him about his life. During his interview, Dr. Carmichael said to me, “I think my talent in life is being a friend,” and after listening to two hours of his life story, I can certainly agree. Dr. Carmichael is one of those rare people that we only meet occasionally in our lives—full of life, humility, and a contagious love of all people. I felt truly honored to have met him.

As I was leaving his Greensboro office, I felt honestly disappointed that our interview was complete. As anxious as I had been just hours earlier, my interview with Dr. Carmichael was not only fascinating, but helped put my own life in perspective. I suggested that we should share coffee and more stories the next time Dr. Carmichael finds himself in Chapel Hill, as he often does for research. I sincerely hope he takes me up on my offer.