Mab Segrest on building a Southern freedom movement for all

Mab Segrest, in the center of the photo on the left, is a longtime Southern anti-racist and LGBTQ rights activist, writer, and co-founder of Southerners on New Ground. (Photo at left by Nancy Webster; photo at right by Laura Flanders.)

In 1988, Southern Exposure, the print forerunner to Facing South, published an issue titled "Mint Juleps, Wisteria, and Queers" that focused on lesbian and gay experiences in the South. It featured stories on the budding gay press, lesbian love in the face of military suppression, rural Radical Faerie communities, queer bar culture, and the emerging popularity of drag.

The issue came out in the midst of a burgeoning lesbian and gay rights movement and increasingly militant activism around the AIDS crisis, which the Reagan administration had refused to acknowledge. The previous year, an estimated three-quarters of a million people took part in the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, which featured the first public display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Two days after that historic march, 600 people were arrested for engaging in mass civil disobedience at the U.S. Supreme Court in protest of its recent 5-4 Bowers v. Hardwick decision that upheld the constitutionality of Georgia's sodomy law criminalizing oral and anal sex in private between consenting adults.

Among those who took part in that historic March on Washington was Mab Segrest. Born in Alabama in 1949, Segrest was raised in what she describes as a "conservative to reactionary" white family in the city of Tuskegee, in the crucible of the civil rights movement. After earning an undergraduate degree from Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Segrest left Alabama for graduate school in English at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. It was in Durham that this granddaughter of a Klansman came out as a lesbian — a shift that she says allowed her to re-examine her childhood and make different choices — and began what would be lifelong work as an anti-racist and LGBTQ organizer.

In Durham, Segrest joined the lesbian feminist writing collective Feminary, which published a literary journal by the same name from 1978 to 1982. From 1983 to 1990, she worked for North Carolinians Against Racist and Religious Violence, monitoring the Klan and other hate groups, and she then went on to work for the World Council of Churches as the coordinator of U.S. Urban-Rural Mission. In 1993, Segrest was one of six co-founders of Southerners on New Ground, a regional LGBTQ advocacy group that remains active today.

Segrest has written three books of essays about her social and political activism and her childhood in the Deep South: "My Mama's Dead Squirrel: Lesbian Essays on Southern Culture" (Firebrand Books, 1985), "Memoir of a Race Traitor" (South End Press, 1995), and "Born to Belonging: Writings on Spirit and Justice" (Rutgers, 2002). From 2002 to 2014 she served as a Fuller-Maathai Professor of Gender and Women's Studies at Connecticut College. She has since returned to Durham and has continued her writing and activism, with her most recent book, "Administrations of Lunacy: Racism and the Haunting of American Psychiatry at the Milledgeville Asylum," released in April of this year.

Segrest frequently wrote for Southern Exposure, and the "Mint Juleps" issue features an excerpt of a speech she delivered at a lesbian and gay conference held in Atlanta in the spring of 1988. In it, she calls for building a new Southern Queer Freedom Movement that's about freedom for all. "The thing about freedom, though, is that you can't just want it for yourself only, or your own kind," Segrest wrote. "Freedom means everybody: not just the men, not just the people with money, not just the white people, not just the Christians, not just the people with AIDS, not just the queers, not just any part of us that might be better than the rest. Freedom means justice."

Against the backdrop of another deadly pandemic exposing racial and economic disparities and another surge in activism thanks to the Movement for Black Lives, Facing South recently caught up with Segrest to talk about what's next for freedom movements in the South. The interview was conducted in writing and has been minimally edited for clarity.

* * *

Though the term "intersectionality" wasn't coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw until 1989, it was essentially the theme of your 1988 speech. Can you reflect on the gains you've seen in making a Southern freedom movement that's about everyone's freedom?

I began my work as a lesbian and a radical in the South working on the collective of Feminary, a Durham-Chapel Hill feminist magazine founded in 1969 out of local feminist consciousness raising and organizing. In the late 1970s a group of us turned Feminary into A Lesbian Feminist Journal for the South (its new subtitle). The core of the Feminary collective was Cris South, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Eleanor Holland, Helen Langa, and me.

We were all lesbians who had chosen to stay in the South or move here, and the magazine was our platform to examine how contemporary feminist and queer movements should be understood within the regional history of genocide of native peoples, slavery, and Jim Crow. Our approach was to examine the material conditions of our lives from an anti-racist lesbian and feminist perspective and to map the terrain in which we lived, both literally and figuratively. Although we never printed more than 400 copies per issue, we published writers from across the South and the U.S. Feminary was groundbreaking in terms of its combination of feminist, leftist, queer, and anti-racist analysis and organizing in the region.

Our core collective was all white women, with other members — some of whom were women of color — coming in and out over the years. We took our marching orders from the 1977 "Combahee River Collective Statement," the manifesto of a powerful new wave of Black Feminism "actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, … [with] a particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking." Combahee's emphasis on "interlocking" and "simultaneous" oppressions that women of color face, its insistence on "praxis" or organizing, and its explicit acknowledgment of both race-class and sex-gender oppressions laid the groundwork for the kind of work that Kimberlé Crenshaw would term "intersectional" in 1989 as an acute way to locate the complex systems of power that shaped Black and other women of color's lives.

In your speech excerpted in Southern Exposure in 1988, you called for a gay and lesbian "freedom movement" in the South. To what extent do you think we have and have not realized that vision?

In its special issue in 1988, Southern Exposure excerpted parts from a keynote speech I made at the 13th Annual Southeastern Conference of Lesbians and Gay men, hosted that year in Atlanta. That was 10 years after Feminary's Southern work began and after I had been organizing as an open lesbian against Klan and neo-Nazi movements with North Carolinians Against Racist and Religious Violence for three years. As I remember, the theme of the Atlanta conference was "Nothing Can Stop Us Now!" and my speech was titled "But from What?" At the conference, as in the "lesbian and gay" movement, there was a mainstream sector located organizationally in the Human Rights Fund and working on policy reform, and a multiracial and feminist queer left working on political transformation. This sector related more through the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF—the L was added in 1986). At the Atlanta conference, I was speaking from left to center, arguing for a Southern queer freedom movement:

I'm talking about civil rights, but not just civil rights; about elimination of anti-gay violence and sodomy law repeal, but more than that." This "more" was sexual and imaginative liberation: "I'm talking about Freedom – freedom in our hearts and intellects and imaginations; and in our beds and bushes and kitchen and all the other places we choose to make love; freedom on the streets and in the courts and legislative buildings; freedom with our families and our neighbors; freedom to be who we are and love each other.

Then I expanded the lens:

The thing about freedom, though, is that you can't just want it for yourself only, or your own kind. … Freedom means justice. Justice in this country takes work.

The work in 1988 was to create a space that overlapped the Southern freedom movement growing so powerfully out of Black and labor struggles of the 1960s, with the progressive wing of lesbian-feminist and queer organizing. We knew other queer configurations with Combahee-inspired politics working in other regions.

One of our mechanisms to achieve this Southern overlap came in 1993 at the NGLTF conference held in Durham, where a set of us (Suzanne Pharr, Joan Garner, Pat Hussain, Pam McMichael, Mandy Carter, and me) conceived of Southerners on New Ground. SONG's early mission was to work on both fronts: to be a progressive force within LGBT movements  and a queer force within progressive movements. We would also prioritize the well being of the most marginalized Southern queer folks. We worked openly within the organizations that grew out of the Civil Rights Movement in order to include openly queer people and an understanding of how gender and sexuality worked with race and class in structures of power. Progressive queer organizations across the country came together in the early 1990s in two "Queer Left" gatherings, meetings that helped consolidate progressive LGBTQ relationships and strategy.

By the 2010s these various efforts had created a synthesis of freedom movements, and increasingly Black and brown queer and trans folks had held leadership roles in the major Southern progressive organizations. By 2015, the extent to which the Black Lives Matter organizers were Black, feminist, and queer indicated the revolutionary shift within Southern and national freedom movements that occurred almost 40 years after the Combahee River Statement had laid out the path.

In your 1988 piece, you talked about the Supreme Court's then-recent Bowers v. Hardwick decision that upheld the constitutionality of a Georgia law criminalizing oral and anal sex in private between consenting adults. Fast forward to this month, when the Supreme Court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 barring employment discrimination applies to gay and transgender workers. On the one hand, that seems like impressive progress over 32 years. But on the other hand, it also means that oppressed groups are still relying on the courts to secure basic rights. Your thoughts?

Well yes, it was a surprisingly good outcome given this administration and this court, and it was an advance for LGBTQ organizations that transgender workers were finally and explicitly protected. But it should not be read as "impressive progress" over 32 years since Hardwick. Today, whatever victories we have made over the 20th century are on the chopping block of the Trump administration, many of whose Republican supporters would happily reverse our gains — and the gains of freedom movements since Emancipation. And they are shamelessly willing to employ any and all brutally regressive frameworks of white supremacy, misogyny, homo-transphobia, and anti-Black racism to serve their ends and their power, bringing many poor and working white people along with them because these regressive frameworks can override even survival instincts and reason.

To step back a bit to 1985, the SCOTUS decision in Bowers v. Hardwick (a case from Georgia) upheld sodomy laws across the United States that targeted "same-sex" or "homosexual" sexual acts. In North Carolina, the crime against nature law read, "He who commits the crime against nature with man or beast is guilty of a class H felony" — and that felony could bring up to 10 years! "Solicitation for CAN" charges resulted from police officers entrapping many married men whose discovery ruined their lives. The CAN law also could be the basis of denial of child custody rights in a divorce, which fell particularly hard on lesbians. Nationally, at the local and state level, many city councils and legislators were passing resolutions and laws that protected gay men and lesbians from discrimination. But these were being reversed by homophobic ballot initiatives. In 1996, Romer v. Evans struck down a homophobic Colorado law that prohibited these pro-gay laws and ordinances, declaring that they go "well beyond merely depriving [gay and lesbian people] of special rights …  [but] impos[ing] a broad disability upon those persons alone, forbidding them, but no others, to seek specific legal protection." Thus lesbian and gay people were provided the "equal protection" and "due process" rights of the 14th Amendment, which was passed along with the 13th and 15th Amendments as a result of Emancipation. Our getting access to 14th Amendment protections was a huge victory. In the 1990s, there were still sodomy laws in half the U.S. states and in all of the Southern states. In 2003, Lawrence v. Texas struck down sodomy laws based on the Fourth Amendment "right to privacy" in Roe v. Wade.

One of the results of these early efforts at reform for gay and lesbian people was that transgender people were often peeled away and left behind, even as the awareness of the wide range of genders beyond the male-female/ straight-gay binaries created a revolution in sex-gender expressions and identities.

In addition to the lack of constitutional rights and our status as felons in many states, homo-to-trans people and queers were also perverts in the eyes of the medical profession and sinners in the eyes of the church. In 1972, a change in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual removed homosexuality from its list of psychiatric illnesses but maintained gender dysphoria as a diagnostic category. Slowly over the last quarter of the 20th century, more progressive Protestant denominations admitted openly gay, lesbian and bi members, ordained women and gay and lesbian ministers, and allowed marriage of same-sex couples. On the other hand, fundamentalist Christian churches consolidated into a Religious Right that continues to advocate against abortion and homosexuality, uphold a rigid gender binary, and to support the rest of the radical right agenda, including the shameless current U.S. president who is arguably criminal, perverse, and sinner several times a week.

All this is to say that the recent 5-4 victory for gay and trans employment rights is part of this ongoing struggle to work our ways into the U.S. Constitution. But as Justice Roberts' deciding vote shows, these court-granted rights are vulnerable to the many reactionary appointments by Trump and previous Republican presidents and the senators who appoint them — who are dismantling the Constitution even as we speak.

Given the backlash and backsliding by the Trump administration, none of these legislative or court-decided rights are guaranteed. We have to fight like hell to keep them, and it should be All Hands on Deck.

What do you think the long and rich history of progressive organizing in the South has to teach the LGBTQ movement at large?

There is no partial freedom or separate peace for a more affluent or entitled portion of us. We should never settle for a more mainstream "victory" at the expense of any segment of our movements or selves – because these are the most vulnerable parts of us who need the most protection. "All of us, or none."

In reading through the 1988 issue it is clear, as with all social movements, that there has been a positive evolution. Trans lives are now more visible, gay rights have moved beyond the cultural and into the political, and we have expanded the conversation about sexual orientation, gender identity and the broad spectrum on which they lie. As you reflect on the changes within the movement, what do you see as the next step?

The next step is keeping what we have with all our courage and wits and solidarity, and working with all decent people in the United States to change the structure of our government. Freedom does require justice.