When is a poodle not a poodle? When that poodle is gay Uncle Poodle.
On the season finale of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, a reality television show about the life and times of a seven year-old beauty pageant contestant in Georgia, some portion of the civilized world was introduced to Lee Thompson, Honey Boo Boo’s “Uncle Poodle.” The rest of us learned about him in a New York Times op-ed piece by UNC – Charlotte cultural historian Karen Cox, most recently the author of Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture (University of North Carolina Press, 2011). Perhaps in anticipation of National Coming Out Day, Cox used Uncle Poodle’s entrance onto the national stage as an opportunity to suggest that there is more than one way to be out and proud in America.
In “We’re Here, We’re Queer, Y’all” (October 3 2012) Cox draws on her experience as an out Southern lesbian to explain the indirection and euphemism that seem to be the condition of Lee Thompson’s admission to family and community. Such strategies, Cox argues, are one way of being openly gay, and are understood in the South as signs of respect and love. ”In Alana [Thompson]’s world, a ‘poodle’ is a gay man,” Cox writes, “and his appearance on the show has opened people’s eyes to something many have never considered: that you can be openly gay and accepted in the rural South.”
Many people assume that because the South is the nation’s most evangelical and politically conservative region, it is probably also a hotbed for hate crimes against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. But while such crimes do occur, they are less common than in large urban centers, where the absence of a tight community and the abundance of strangers make it easier to target people for their differences.
Cox illustrates this position with stories about coupled queer friends who are treated with loving kindness by friends and neighbors, friends who neither demand or receive public acknowledgment that their relationship transgresses heterosocial norms and, in some places, the law.
This is not news to queer people my age. But it may be news to straight people, as well as to young queer folk from outside the South who have come of age during a period in which marriage equality (to which Southern political culture is uniformly hostile) has come to define access to citizenship. “Calling a family member ‘Uncle Poodle’ may be acceptable to Alana Thompson and her family,” one outraged letter writer responded on October 6; “but where I live I am defined first and foremost by my interests and personality rather than my sexuality. My community does not need to use euphemisms to categorize me and define whom I love, and I never have to refer to my partner as ‘my friend.’”
Need I point out that the letter writer lives in Manhattan, where the word “partner” is itself a euphemism for “the person with whom I live, pay bills and (maybe) have sex?” Or that the vast majority of queer Americans live in states where gay marriage is illegal, but refer to their intimate companions with words that have the status of euphemism: “spouse,” “husband” and “wife”? (Here’s a case in point: in interview excerpts published by Perez Hilton, Lee “Poodle” Thompson describes his own household in Milledgeville, GA as a “marriage.” He may be married somewhere, but not in Georgia, where same-sex marriages have been prohibited by constitutional amendment.)
I also have to ask: are people really so incurious as to why gay men are called poodles? Here’s my guess: all poodles are gendered female because of their legendarily foofy haircuts; gay men have historically worked as hair dressers and dog groomers, work spaces where effeminacy was not only tolerated but an asset; and groomed poodles are perceived as an accessory, much as gay men have historically served as social accessories to and paid companions for straight women. In the northern cities and suburbs where I have lived they call men like that “walkers” and no one bitches and moans about it.
In a previous op-ed for the Times (September 17 2011), Cox questioned whether audiences outside the region, or producers of mass media products, are particularly interested in understanding the changing cultural terrain of the American south. ”Reality TV might give those outside the region some insight into southern culture,” she writes, but this often occurs at the cost of marketing Southerners as the unsophisticated, violent, racist and comical American volk that have amused those outside the region for hundreds of years. “These stereotypical depictions are insulting to those who live in the region and know that a more diverse South exists,” she writes. “Even worse, they deny the existence of a progressive South, or even progressive Southerners.”
Echoing Mishka Shubaly’s account of being vetted for a reality dating show, Cox points out that producers of similar TV series about the South cast them to reflect a view of the region that is nationally marketable, but not necessarily representative or real. They choose
“guys and gals” who answer “yes” to the loaded question, “Do you drink sweet tea, talk endlessly about Nascar, sport a rebel flag (on your bikini or jacked-up pickup truck), listen to loud country and/or Southern rock, or enjoy walking around shirtless or in Daisy Dukes?”
There’s no doubt that more than a few people would answer yes, especially when money and potential fame are involved. But millions of Southerners would say no — including the Indian communities of Mississippi, the Latinos who are now the largest minority in towns across the region and the thousands of white suburbanites who feel more of a connection with exurban Chicago or Denver than Lizard Lick, N.C.
Gay Uncle Poodle has gone out of his way to articulate his “normalcy,” not only identifying with the marriage equality movement but by emphasizing his working-class Southern masculinity. In the interview with Topher Payne of the Georgia Voice excerpted by Hilton, he describes himself as “gay, but I’m as redneck as I can get, and [my friends and I] want to be somewhere we can fish and jump on a four-wheeler, go hog wallowing.”
The move to pathologize Cox — not as a lesbian, but as a bad, ignorant and self-hating lesbian — was instantaneous: the rush to normalcy was so fast and furious that everyone was throwing elbows to get there first. WaPo‘s Jonathan Capehart saw the queer south Cox described as “shameful” and “a rather dispiriting view of Southern gay life that isn’t much better than the closeted days Cox would have you think are largely gone.” Uncle Poodle and his kind require reform and rescue from those outside the South. Even though they may be “living [their] lives more openly” than in years past, Capehart writes, “the combination of self-policing and strict social custom can’t be healthy. Not for the gays and not for their communities.”
Karen Cox’s critics get caught, over and over, in the urban-rural dichotomy that she tried to explode in her op-ed. For example, one of Cox’s lesbian friends from Louisville, Georgia (a member of a couple who had been featured in the article) wrote to Capehart to protest his views about her life and her community. Bizarrely, the journalist used words written in disagreement to further press his point, pathologizing other queer southerners by characterizing the writer as urban and exceptionally sophisticated when compared to the rural and socially ignorant Thompson family.
I didn’t like Cox’s piece much when I first read it: I like it and understand it better now. Perhaps what Uncle Poodle’s new national audience overlooks is the extent to which family relations are always a negotiation, a social realm where much is hidden, euphemisms abound and select facts are often re-narrativized to hide one reality in favor of another.