Mississippii Sissy Review
Forthcoming in The Gay & Lesbian Review
'Some Queers in Mississippi Survive'
William A. Percy, III
Mississippi Sissy by Kevin Sessums. St. Martin’s Press. 305 pages, $24.95
There is a growing literature attesting to the terrors and gothic comedies of growing up gay in the American South. With his memoir Kevin Sessums has produced a masterpiece that outshines all other examples of the genre since Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms. It surely will endure as one of the preeminent accounts.
Sessums was born in Forest, a small town in Mississippi, during the height of paranoia about commies and queers inspired by Joe McCarthy, twelve years before Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. It was a dangerous time anywhere in the country for a sissy to transit from childhood to puberty. In deepest Mississippi it easily could have been fatal. But Sessums upped the ante, in terms of risk. He was not merely a sissy: he was a demanding sissy. At age four he was sexually abused by a six year old tomboy neighbor – his first experience – and at the same age he also wanted to wear dresses. His mother, a sensitive and humorous and spirited woman, indulged him, much to the outrage of his father, a stymied professional sports star who became a high school coach.
Later, young Kevin had fits of temper that relatives could quell only by addressing him as "Arlene," knowing that the invocation of his heroine Arlene Francis would calm him. This was a boy ramped-up at a tender age to defend his sexual nonconformity. His main pal was a tough but entirely lovely black maid, Matty May, who eventually became senile. His father, promoted to coach at a junior college, died in an auto accident. Not long thereafter his mother contracted terminal cancer. As she lay on her deathbed encouraging him to stand up to the hostile world, the supervising grandparents allowed Kevin to go to his school's Halloween party dressed as a witch. All hell broke loose. The shocked adults on hand correctly perceived the costume as drag. Not that they remotely knew the meaning of the term "drag," but they did know a girlie-boy when they saw one.
When Kevin escaped to Millsaps college in Jackson, Mississippi – the most elite private school in the state – he was befriended by an outstanding literary critic, Frank Hains, who even wrote for the New York Times. From that contact gained by acting in the Little Theatre there, he was accepted into Eudora Welty’s circle, which he describes with deep insight and wit. As in so many small southern cities, the elite – especially the artistic gay elite – flock together to gossip about movies, plays, books, etc. Although Sessums doesn’t say so in so many words, his narrative makes it unmistakably clear that Eudora Welty and her long-time inseparable companion were gay – something I’ve long wanted to bring out into the open. Sessums outs Eudora so gently and subtly, that even she wouldn’t have objected, and I suppose none of her circle’s survivors will either!
Sessums’ discovery of the bound and mutilated body of his older patron, with whom he never had sex but with whom he was staying before his long planned escape to New York City – brings this story to a horrific climax. The fact that the his friend the critic was what was then dubbed a “dinge-queen”, showed how brutal Jackson still was even after integration. The perpetrator, whether white or black, was not apprehended, probably because the homophobic police didn’t ever bother with the fatal gay bashings, especially if they involved an interracial pairing – look at the Texas arrest and prosecution that got the supreme court to overturn the sodomy laws.
The murder frames the narrative from start to end. There has been commentary about its resemblance to the skullduggery in John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The comparison is in some ways inapt, but Sessums, like Berendt, does have a dead-on ear for magnolia perversity. He has written a landmark memoir that should be made into a hilarious movie – from the precious, swishy picture of him on the dust jacket at age four – shirtless and shoeless with a baseball cap and oversized glove, a perfect sissy – to the gruesome murder at the end.