In her new book, “Drastic Dykes and Accidental Activists: Queer Women in the Urban South,” LaShonda Mims explores the history of queer women in Atlanta and Charlotte following World War II. Uniting Southern women’s history with urban history, the book serves as an imaginatively constructed archive of feminist newsletters, queer bar guides, oral histories, and political rhetoric to explore the complex history of lesbian life in the South.
In an interview with Georgia Voice, Mims dived into the complexities of this history, from racial archival inequities to the controversial importance of corporate support, and what readers can expect when they pick up “Drastic Dykes and Accidental Activists.”
Quotes have been edited for clarity.
Tell me a little bit about your background.
There was a delay before I could get my doctorate due to being a lesbian and being in a lesbian relationship and fighting custody battles for my biological son. That shaped a lot about how my path went. During my doctorate, I won a [$20,000] grant. It was for nontraditional women in the academy and first [generation college students]. I didn’t know what either of those things meant, and I didn’t realize I was either of those things. That’s how completely naive I was about higher ed. Getting through the academy had a lot to do with my own sort of thinking about what it means to be in a place where you don’t belong or a place that wasn’t meant for you.
I took a class on Gender History, and we read a book called “Gay New York.” I went to the chair of my department and said, “I didn’t know this was a thing, can I do this kind of history?” And she said, “You can do whatever you want!”
Once I figured that out in my master’s degree, I went on to [UGA for my doctorate]. I had a pretty rough entry there in doing queer history, even though they knew that was what I came to do. I came up on a professor at UGA, and they were really dismissive. They even said queer history — well, they said gay history — didn’t have a place in the academy. I was gutted. I had just moved my whole family to Athens, and I’d fought really hard to be there in court. It was a pretty turbulent path.
The culmination of all of this is the book, but it really represents 20 years of my own personal journey to make a space for myself in higher ed, but also a space for lesbian history, queer Southern history, and urban Southern history … so much of that felt like it was missing.
What can people expect when reading Drastic Dykes and Accidental Activists?
The book is divided into five chapters. The first one looks at opportunities: how do women find each other or build queer lives when there aren’t the structures to meet queer people? The first chapter looks at pre-Stonewall, in and around World War II. The second one is connections, and that takes from the ’50s to the ’70s and looks at how women found each other in more public spaces. I call it the bar chapter … The third chapter is visibility, and that’s 1970s lesbian feminism. It looks at the political, visible activist efforts. These were the drastic dykes; literally, these women in Charlotte called themselves the drastic dykes, so I can’t take credit for that incredible name. They gave up male-identified jobs and they started a magazine for queer women writers called Sinister Wisdom — it’s still publishing today. Chapter four is Pride. That is the chapter inspired by my own travels to Pride in Atlanta and looking at the political struggles that both Charlotte and Atlanta had to maintain Pride. The fifth chapter is called institutions, and that looks at the power of corporations in each city to shape the [experience] for queer people. I don’t want to give away queer organizers’ power to white corporate male leadership. However, you cannot ignore the importance of Bank of America coming from California to merge with NationsBank in Charlotte. It changes the possibilities for queer people in Charlotte. And similarly, the power of Coca-Cola, Delta, and Home Depot really matters in Atlanta for what avenues are possible.
That brings a lot of questions to my mind, but I’ll start with asking about the necessity of establishing a lesbian history as its own separate entity from gay male history. Can you talk about the differences in these histories and the experiences of gay men and lesbian women during these times?
Queer history started mostly focused on men, mostly focused on white men. We did get one or two books on lesbian organizing, but a lot of books would be written as queer or gay history, but the women would just be a chapter. As George Chauncy noted in “Gay New York”, lesbians lived their lives in completely separate ways and women lived their lives in completely separate ways with completely separate hurdles in what they could accomplish.
Women’s ability to make and sustain space depended on economic viability … Supporting spaces like bars, being on the ball field, and being in activist positions comes with a very different risk for women. The earning potential of two men, especially two white men, is far and away going to [outweigh] the possibilities for earning in a two-woman household.
The networks women build — the conferences, bookstores, music festivals — are as much about being lesbians as they are about being women. That makes a very different history, and that means you take a very different path in how you research.
I did want to ask you about this corporate element you mentioned. I think that’s a really hot button topic right now with the corporate presence at Pride. Can you talk more about the role these corporations had in creating space for these lesbian women?
I don’t know that the corporations are doing anything for women in particular, but they are getting out in front of things like same-sex partner benefits, which will matter to some women who are in the corporate world, but if it matters to gay men, then they can build lives and open up spaces and places that will also hold space for lesbians to find each other. In Charlotte, Bank of America literally offered the space for Pride when the mayor and churches shut it down in the 1980s and 1990s.
Though it’s become a super big branding problem, they have a power that women don’t to open those spaces and places. What the queer activists do with it matters a lot.
It’s a complicated argument, and one I can expect to get some pushback on. It was just hard for me to ignore, especially in Charlotte, how much opportunity and possibility changed when Bank of America led the Southeast by offering partner benefits. Corporate support for Pride events and corporate benefits for lesbian and gay employees altered the climate for queer life in each city. That’s the point I’m making. I don’t want to give them any more credit than that.
We talked about the differences in gay men’s and lesbians’ experiences. I’d like to talk about the difference among the lesbians’ experiences along racial and class lines, especially in a city as Black as Atlanta.
What I found pretty quickly was that white women who are queer are also white women in the South, and they tend to build their lives quite separately from Black and brown women. There are definitely stratifications along class. There is some privilege in being able to quit your job and become a lesbian separatist.
I talk about Black women in the book, and one of the key points I make in this book is that Black women were bringing their energies and their visions for queer women’s lives to white women’s groups. It was much rarer to see white women going to Black women’s organizations and groups and building with them on their terms. What mattered to Black women was often quite different than what mattered to white women, because at the end of the day white women were still white, so they could still move through the world with the privilege of whiteness. Black women couldn’t just divorce themselves from their communities; they needed their churches, they needed that community.
The privileges of the archives mean that white women’s stories have been saved and historicized in a way that Black, Brown, and Asian women’s haven’t. What I learned talking to Black women who are archiving and working to tell their queer stories is that they want to tell their stories. They don’t want white women telling their stories. That doesn’t mean I want to ignore what Black women were saying, but much of the sources I had [were told] through white women’s eyes. Just like much of what I learned about women came through gay men’s publications for a long time. I had to go through layers of privilege and just do what historians do, which is tell the story based on the evidence we have and then hope someone later tells a more complete story based on better evidence.
You can purchase Drastic Dykes and Accidental Activists at Charis Books and More in person and online at charisbooksandmore.com.