Minnie Bruce Pratt on being targeted by anti-LGBTQ laws in North Carolina

We’re seeing a new wave of legislation targeting the LGBTQ community in America, particularly trans people.

There are more than 100 anti-trans bills across 33 states this year, according to CNN and advocacy groups like the ACLU and Human Rights Campaign that track such things.

The HRC counts 117 such bills in 2021. The previous high was 66 in 2020.

Many of these bills are so-called bathroom bills, like the notorious one from North Carolina in 2016. Others intend to limit or deny trans people participation in sports aligned with their gender identities, or even limit access to affirming healthcare to trans youth.

These bills target and hurt real people. People like Minnie Bruce Pratt, an icon in queer and feminist activism and a celebrated poet and writer.

This week on the Reckon Interview, Pratt describes what it’s like to be targeted by these laws. When she came out in the 1970s, the state of North Carolina took custody of her children away from her. And when her spouse, Leslie Feinberg grew ill, Pratt learned directly how our healthcare system treats trans Americans.

We chat about her history of turning personal pain into art and activism. The way growing up in the crucible of the South shaped her career of activism, and the importance of sharing stories of queer Southerners.

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Below is a full transcript of the episode. 

Minnie Bruce Pratt: I’m excited to be talking with you, john.

John Hammontree: You know, I texted with a friend yesterday and I said, I’m interviewing Minnie Bruce Pratt tomorrow, and she said, “Oh my god, she’s a queer icon. I had no idea she was from Alabama.” And so I thought maybe we should start out talking about that. You know, these two parts of your identity. Maybe the Alabama story doesn’t necessarily get told quite as much. So let’s start out by talking about your life in Alabama. And the time that you spent at the University of Alabama, you know, kind of at the peak of the civil rights movement there on campus just after the stand in the schoolhouse door. You grew up not far from where I live now in Tuscaloosa. You grew up in Centreville. Tell me about your life in Alabama.

Pratt: Yes, well, I was actually born in Selma, because that was the nearest hospital. And I grew up in Centreville, like you say. I lived there my whole life til I went off to college at Tuscaloosa and I grew up under segregation. Absolutely. The last year of my high school yearbook, I think it was the last year or it was my junior year I can’t remember, had a confederate flag on the cover of the yearbook. It’s a small town, Centreville. I still have the house there that I grew up in. I come home three-four times a year before the pandemic.

I still consider Alabama my home. I’m really unhappy that people don’t know I’m from Alabama. I want them to know I’m from Alabama. I’m proud of it. I’m proud of the resistant traditions of Alabama, resistance to oppression that are embedded in the soil there. And I was in the band. I was a drummer, played the kettle drums. I was the bookworm. I read a lot. I grew up in Centreville and have many stories I can tell you there.

But then in ’64, I went off to the university and that was the fall after Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door, the famous stand, “segregation now, segregation forever.” And then, of course, he was immediately proved wrong by the Attorney General having you know, the Alabama National Guard federalized and then saying, okay, we’re going in and you know, you’re going to register the Black students who are applying to the university.

I was oblivious at a certain level to the great social change movements that were happening in my birthplace, in Selma and, you know, everywhere in the state. On one level, I was oblivious, but that’s not the right word. I had been whitewashed into oblivion. And I was noticing on some level, like for instance, when the Freedom Riders were beaten, and the bus was burned in Anniston. I saw that on television, I saw it. I knew what was happening.

My cousin, the cousin I was the closest to, lived in Anniston and I would spend parts of the holidays with her. So I knew Anniston. I knew what was happening on one level. And I didn’t know on another level. And of course, I was a white child in segregation, which meant every voice of authority that I ever heard was a segregationist voice. My parents, my Sunday school teachers, my schoolteachers, my minister, the mayor of the town, the publisher of the town newspaper, everybody.

So when I was at the university, I just only barely began to think. My teachers at the university, this was like, post the McCarthy era, and nobody at the university was saying anything to us about what was going on. My teachers, even though segregation had been broken, nobody was verbalizing anything. The only thing that happened was that my philosophy teacher in the honors course I was in, took us out of class one day, because there was a demonstration on the quad. A little tiny, tiny demonstration on the quad because Lurlene Wallace was reviewing the troops. The Vietnam War was going on. She was reviewing the troops, the ROTC troops, on the quad. And there was a demonstration on the quad against the war.

I don’t even know. I was so out of it. You know, I didn’t even quite know what was happening. It was the first demonstration I ever saw though, in person. That was sort of the beginning.

Hammontree: Well, you know, we’re both English majors who graduated from the University of Alabama. So I have that kinship with you. But you went on to study at UNC to pursue a graduate degree in English. If that movement in Tuscaloosa planted a seed, and certainly growing up in Alabama, you know, in the crucible of civil rights that the state is, is something you carried with you. But North Carolina is when you really started to get involved with activism. Tell us what North Carolina was like compared to your life in Alabama, as you were leaving and going out there. And then also about getting involved with the women’s liberation movement.

Pratt: Quite different in North Carolina. I agree the seed was planted. I do say the great social change movements saved my life because I think I would have been a bitterly unhappy and damaged person if the movements hadn’t been there. They came to me. I didn’t go to them. Right?

And in North Carolina, what was different was, of course, in Alabama, it was the Black civil rights movement and the seeds of the Black nationalist movement in Lowndes County. But in North Carolina, it was more the anti-war movement. And so there were big demonstrations on campus. The person who later became Senator Jesse Helms, who was a radio announcer at the time in North Carolina, he had fomented a movement to ban anti-war speakers from the campus. So anybody who came to rally against the war had to…they stood on a wall that was between the public street and the campus. And then there was everybody like out on the campus.

But I wasn’t involved in that either. I knew it was happening. And my professors were as backward and reactionary, maybe more so, than the professors in Alabama. I remember when Kent State happened. I was a doctoral student in Renaissance literature, and I had a Shakespeare seminar that afternoon. And my professor mentioned the massacre in Kent State. And then he said, Well, they just should have shot them all. This is a professor in graduate studies at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. We were so deeply into the struggle at that point.

And out of that, as Sarah Evans, who was also at UNC at that time, Sarah Evans later wrote about this convergence of women’s liberation, the anti-war movement, the Black civil rights movement. The university also wouldn’t allow, she tried to teach a class in women’s liberation history on campus. She just wanted a classroom. The university wouldn’t let her have a classroom. She was going to teach it for free. She had to go across the street into you know, the little shops and rent a room to teach it. I was still very much on the periphery.

I was married. I had two children. I had one child and then I had another one while I was in grad school. But the movements got through to me. I remember the first time I picked up a piece of literature, they had a lit table in front of the undergraduate library. And I used to walk on the other side of the quad to avoid the lit table. I knew, you know, if I picked up the writing and I read it, then it would be a confrontation with myself. So I just didn’t want to touch the literature. It’s so ironic considering what I have become.

But eventually, in the English department program that I was in, because it was the war, we had a preponderance of female grad students, because the men were at war. And we weren’t paid as much. And we weren’t given as many classes as the men who remained. And we began to organize around the work issue, and I got drawn into that. I got drawn into it as a worker, essentially, even though I didn’t think of myself as a worker. I got drawn into the organizing, because it affected me directly. Not as much money. Not the advanced classes that you needed to go on and get an academic job. Teaching the advanced classes, you know, they were giving it to the guys. So I began to be involved with the women’s liberation movement in that way. And in a lot of different ways, you know, consciousness raising, working on a newsletter, the things that you did.

Eventually organizing around the Equal Rights Amendment in North Carolina, which kept going down to defeat at the hands of by then Senator Jesse Helms. I feel like me and Jesse Helms, we were like toe-to-toe for a heck of a lot of years, John.

Hammontree: It’s interesting to hear you talk about your entry point into a long career of activism being, effectively, a labor movement. Labor organization, by the time this airs, we may know the results of the Amazon vote here in Alabama. But it’s certainly something that’s been on top of mind here in the state for several weeks now. And just kind of the long history of labor organizing as a part of civil rights organizing, and even gay rights organizing, a lot of that comes down to labor discrimination and issues like that. We’re going to come back to your history but looking back on your career with all of the types of organizing and consciousness-raising that you’ve done. Do you see levels of intersection that maybe most of us are missing. Ways that the trans fight in North Carolina right now might be tied into some of the fights that you were having 40-50 years ago.

Pratt: I think that my journey is similar to that of many people within the U.S. right now who are workers but who haven’t had what I might call “working class consciousness.” In other words, you’re doing the work but the vision that the U.S. offers us is, “well just work hard and you can move up, move up, move up, move up. You can be, you know, management. You can own a business,” right? All of that. When in fact, most of us are just going to be working our whole lives. And what does it mean to know that? To not shy away from that? To understand that is what we share collectively with people and how to come together and do something out of that collectivity?

And I certainly didn’t have that consciousness growing up, even though my parents were both workers. And I earned the money for my college tuition, at least the first year, by working at the garment plant in my hometown for all summer. You know, I earned $1.50 an hour. I still remember how much I earned.

I think that the action by the majority Black workers at the Bessemer Amazon warehouse marks, I hope, and I believe it may, a turning point in that understanding of collectivity. Because they are saying workers’ rights are civil rights, civil rights are workers’ rights.

In other words, we’re not talking about two separate spheres that people live in somehow. You know, like trans people live in one little bubble and workers live over here. No, in fact, most of the trans people that I know, they’re working minimum wage jobs. It’s very hard for them to get work because people look at their gender and then they disqualify them because of their gender non-conforming.

And this was true of my spouse and partner, Leslie Feinberg, who had a very, very precarious work life, her entire life. So, I feel very emphatically that these anti-trans bills that are going through that are being put forward as “protecting women” from trans people, young girls from trans youth, or they’re attacking trans youth by denying certain kinds of medical care, it’s just another ploy in the old, old game that we know in the South so well, of dividing us from each other. Of somehow saying, ‘oh, they’re in that group over there and they’re not part of your group.’ You know, the trans people are over there somewhere.

When I was growing up, we certainly had gender non-conforming people in Centreville. And everybody knew who they were. And they did make fun of them sometimes, but they also were in church with them as well. They didn’t ostracize them, you know, at least this was within the white community. And I’m sure that was true in the Black community, there were plenty of trans people.

So this this punitive, punishing bullying of trans people is just another iteration of the racism, another iteration of the anti-woman stuff. I mean, we know it. We know it maybe better than any other region, and we know how to resist it maybe better than any other region too. You know, we really know how to go up against it.

Hammontree: I think one of the most abhorrent parts of the anti-trans legislation we’re seeing in states like Arkansas that have already passed and signed it into law, and some of the bills that we’re starting to see in North Carolina and elsewhere in the South — and elsewhere in the country to be clear — one of the most abhorrent parts is the lack of health care access for trans people. Your new collection of poetry was written, while your spouse Leslie was struggling with illness and dying and has since died. What does health care access look like for trans people right now? And what was that process like for y’all having to navigate that? I believe that for at least the first part of her illness, you weren’t able to legally be married? I’m not sure about New York, but certainly in most of the country.

Pratt: That’s right. We weren’t. We were together 22 years and the sodomy statutes that were the basis, the legal constitutional basis for all this, you know, the sodomy statutes were reaffirmed in ’87 in Bowers v. Hardwick, and they only were overturned in 2004 by the Supreme Court. And it was after the sodomy statutes were overturned, I don’t even know that your listeners understand. They were called the “crime against nature” statutes and, basically, if you had sexual relations that were hetero normative in any way, then you were subject to felony penalties. Felony. So when I came out as a lesbian in North Carolina in ’75, the reason I lost custody of my children was because I could be charged with a felony and therefore that was it. I was an unfit mother. Boom. My children were taken away.

Hammontree: Taken away and your ex-husband moved them to Kentucky.

Pratt: And then to Michigan. And that was it. I lost custody.

And that was going on until — I mean, it’s still going on. Not all that long ago, I got an email from a woman in Alabama who was losing custody of her two girls for being a lesbian. So to let people understand, there was a long, long movement struggle against the sodomy statutes. They were the basis. And once they were overturned, then the movement toward marriage was undertaken. And that came unevenly across the country and first there were domestic partnerships. Then there were civil unions. And then there was marriage.

And at each step of the way, Leslie, and I took advantage of all of that. But you may be domestic partnered and you may be civil unioned and you may be legally married, but if you’re in the emergency room with a trans person, almost none of that matters. I mean, maybe you can pull out your marriage certificate or your domestic partnership and maybe you can make some headway with that. But it’s a hard road.

And, in our life, before any of those were available to us, Leslie got very sick. And I remember one snowy night in Jersey City, she had a temperature of 105. And I took her to the emergency room in Hoboken, actually, because it was closer. And the emergency room doctor there started to examine her. And I wasn’t allowed to be in with her, but he she told me later. He started to examine her and when he discovered that she was a trans person, through the physical examination, he told her to get up and put her clothes back on and leave. Leave the emergency room and leave the hospital. And she said, “Well, I’ve got a fever.” He said, “you’re a very sick person.” She says, “Yeah, I have a fever of 105. Tell me why I have a fever of 105 or run some blood tests or something.” And he said, “Just get out of here.” That has been the state of medicine for trans people if they even go to a hospital or make it to a hospital. But there are many stories of the trans person hit in an accident on the street, the EMTs come, they won’t touch her. You know, it goes on and on and on.

Now, what is happening is that, depending on what part of the country you live in, there may be places that you can go like the Lorde-Callen Clinic in New York City, where you can get trans positive care. And different communities have led on this. The Philadelphia community every year hosts a trans health conference. And Leslie actually organized one with a nurse friend of ours in Buffalo when she was alive. But until this is really addressed systematically in the medical schools, it’s not going to change at a treatment level. I could tell you many stories about the kind of treatment or non-treatment or abuse that Leslie got.

We eventually found one or two doctors for whom her trans self wasn’t problematic, although they didn’t necessarily know a lot about what it meant to be trans healthy. I’m sure that she died before her time. Because over the years, she didn’t get adequate treatment or any treatment sometimes, you know. So it’s another reason to be outraged at the bills that are on the deck right now, like you say, all across the country. There are twenty something of them. It’s not just the South.

It’s another reason to fight them.

And again, it’s just another part of that pattern where a group of people are othered. They’re made to be different from us. What I have learned more than anything about being part of a trans community, and of being a trans ally, myself, is that the gender spectrum is infinite with human beings. And once you understand that, you understand people who are trans are on this infinity of this spectrum. And you’re on it too. You know, I’m a southern femme I always talk too loud. Too loud for a woman.

Hammontree: First of all, I just want to say I’m so sorry that you and Leslie had to go through that and that, like you said, she was robbed of time that she should have had because of the laws of this country and the the numerous ways that this has happened to you in your life. But this North Carolina law, similar to the sodomy law, if it passes, people who act outside of heteronormative behavior as teenagers, their parents will be informed.

Pratt: A country that was founded on colonization and needed to reproduce the colonizers, then held up a certain kind of enforced masculinity and femininity, maleness and femaleness, to literally reproduce and occupy. Right, and it is a forced model. It is not a human model, or a human norm, and in fact when my ancestors and other people’s ancestors who were colonizers showed up, the native nations had all kinds of genders.

There’s been lots of studies on all the different genderednesses of all the different native nations, that were hundreds and hundreds of different nations in this continent. And they had social functions within their own communities that were positive and part of the fabric of daily life and care and production and reproduction. And fully functional and beautiful. And then this invasion of people came, not very many of them relative to the peoples who were here. And then this other model of male and female was carried here with them and imposed and we’re still struggling against it. Exactly.

In North Carolina and other places, I think it isn’t an accident that this is hanging on more in the rural areas that are still lands being lived on by the peoples who came down from those original colonizers. I’m not speaking just to the South, here in Syracuse, where I’m living now, people are living on family farms that they took, still, that they took from the Haudenosaunee, the Onondaga, or the Oneida. It was imposed for conquest, this notion of what it means to be male and female. It’s still being used post-colonially by the power interests that want to keep us divided.

Hammontree Coming up after the break, Minnie Bruce Pratt shares more stories and advice from her life, plus a little poetry.  

I can imagine that for a lot of queer Southerners, it matters that you’re from Alabama. It matters that you started your fight in North Carolina. You said to start this conversation that you want everybody to know that you are from Alabama, and that you’re mad that they don’t. So what would it have meant to you growing up in Alabama or in North Carolina, maybe before you were even realizing that side of yourself, what would it have meant to you to hear those stories younger?

Pratt: Just watching young people now, especially my own grandchildren, I see that the visibility of LGBTQ life means that people grapple with the possibilities around their sexuality years before I was able to do that. If I had had some stories, or some explicit understanding, then, my life trajectory, I think, would have been quite different. And you know, it’s not like there weren’t, for instance, gender non-conforming people and probably lesbians in my community. There was somebody who later when I asked my mother about her, when I was grown up, because I was wondering, you know, it’s an older woman who was in my church congregation, actually. When I asked my mother about her, she said, “Oh, well, she just liked women too much.” And that was when I was grown. I didn’t get this when I was younger.

So I think that, in fact, what the right wing fears about LGBTQ visibility is correct. That if we are out there and we are visible, then young people and all people will know there’s a different set of possibilities for them. And the right wing defines those possibilities as evil, satanic, damned, sinful. And I define those possibilities as part of the human spectrum and good and positive, as long as arrived at fully and consciously, as part of a process. Not enforced by anyone in any way.

I’ll tell you and our listeners one story that I learned later that I wish I had known earlier. And this was from my Aunt Gilder. This was my mother’s youngest sister. And once I was out to her, which I did come out to her. She at a certain point told me this story. So she was born in 1919. And she would have gone to the first grade then in about 1925. So the summer before the first grade, she decided she wanted to get her hair cut like a boy’s. And she walked from the family farmhouse, which was about a mile and a half, maybe, into downtown Centreville, to the barber shop where I think Mr. Hicks was the barber at the time. It’s still in the same place in town. I don’t know if it’s still a barber shop, but it’s still in the same place, the stripey little pole is still there, everything. She walked in, she said to, I think, Mr. Hicks, she said, “I want you to cut my hair like a boy’s.” And Mr. Hicks starts laughing. And then he says, “well do your parents know that you’re doing this?” And she lies and says yes. And then he laughs some more. And then he cuts her hair like a boy’s. And she walks home. She’s six, right? And I saw a picture of her in the first grade with her hair cut like that. She looks like a little boy. Beautiful. She never married. She never used the word lesbian or trans or anything like that to me. She was in the Navy during World War Two. When she died, her hair was just that short.

When I brought Leslie home to see her, she took one look at Leslie and opened her arms out, “Leslie, Leslie,” gave her a big hug. She loved me. I loved her. I wish I had known her better, I wish I’d known myself. See? I wish I had known myself better earlier and then I would have known her better. But she gave me so much. We knew what we were to each other. None of the language was the language that I used in my generation, but the love from one queer, strange, Southern, lesbian, defiant person to another was so great.

Hammontree: That’s beautiful. That process of self-discovery for you in North Carolina, that leads to the government taking your children away from you. I know that, that in particular had to be so painful and so scary and hard for you at the time. And this isn’t a uniquely Southern thing, but it’s certainly part of the Southern tradition, of taking horrible pain and injustice and then turning it into either art or activism, or in your case, both. How conscious was that decision for you, in turning that experience into your collection of poetry and then also into a lifelong career of activism? Because it seems like some people could have just kind of given up in that moment.

Pratt: Well, the pressures that came to bear on me were not unique. And, it’s true, they’re leveled at groups of people. And for some people, it’s too much. And that’s one of the reasons I do the work I do. Because it’s not like I haven’t seen that damage to people very close to me. But what saved me was I was part of the movement. I mean, I was just beginning to be part of it when I fell in love with another woman. And then I decided I needed to live separately. And then that was the beginning of the process when my husband got the children.

But I was in the movement. I was connected to people who I did work with. I read. I organized in little ways, but then bigger ways. And so I was very conscious. I actually wrote I wrote a book about losing the children and staying connected to the children. It’s called “Crime Against Nature.” The only crime against nature is doing things like this to people. And there was a poem in there where I actually said that I decided I wouldn’t be a tragedy. I would not be a tragedy. But I was only able to live that life because there was a movement.

I don’t know what I would have done otherwise, I really don’t know what I would have done. You know, I would have become an alcoholic. I would have killed myself. I would have sunk into a lifelong depression. I really don’t know what I would have done. But I had the movement. And so it wasn’t just that I was doing these little small things. I saw people doing big things, bigger than me, or doing things collectively, not just individually. That was the thing.

There was all this collectivity going on that most people don’t even know about now. The whole women in print movement. When the printers wouldn’t print our material because it was explicitly lesbian and, in North Carolina, that is what happened to the magazine I was working on. We took the proofs to them to print they said, “Oh, lesbian uh, nope, we’re not going to print it.” So what happened?

Women learned how to print. They went, they apprenticed themselves. They learned how to be printers. They bought equipment. I knew how to burn the plates for my first book. It was part of the equipment that Lollipop Power owned. Who was Lollipop Power? They were the first publisher of non-sexist children’s literature in the country. In North Carolina. They had the equipment, they had the press, they had the stapler, they had the thing you did your electronic plates on so they could use the press, they had the giant trimmer that was like a guillotine, wham, you trimmed your pages after you stapled your book together. We learned how to do all this stuff. It was an entire, enormous movement. There were presses. There were distribution companies. There were bookstores. By presses, I mean literal printing presses, and then there were actual business presses. My first book was printed by one of them, Firebrand Books. Nobody knows about that.

I wasn’t alone. That was how it happened. I didn’t do it by myself. I remember when Dorothy Allison, who people may be familiar with her name because she had a New York Times bestseller. When that book came out, the New York Times reviewed and it was like, “oh, suddenly, out of nowhere, a new vibrant Southern voice appears.” I thought I’ve known Dorothy for 20 years. She’s doing all the things she, you know, she’s been part of the collective. She’s been part of the magazine collectives, part of the political collectives, writing by herself at night, difficult times with her family, ostracized by other feminists because of her sexuality. 20 years of that. Or more. Her whole life. Right? She didn’t come out of nowhere. I mean, of course, South Carolina is also considered nowhere by the rest of the country, like Alabama is, by the New York Times anyway.

So if there is any young, queer person listening, who feels isolated and alone and is very discouraged, there are collectivities to go to now. And Googling them, locally, will bring you to them. And you don’t have to be by yourself. Even when those big voices are saying they’re going to punish you. We have shown we’re strong enough. We pushed them back over the years. We’ve done it step by step. We’ve done it. We’ve done it.

Hammontree: And won many of the fights that you’ve fought. You’ve help build one of those communities in Syracuse, the LGBTQ studies program there. I’m curious about the parallels between that community of acceptance you were building in New York, versus the community that saved you in North Carolina. And, if you have seen or have been able to have that type of community in Alabama, when you have returned home over the course of your years.

Pratt: I think that the work in Syracuse to go back to the point that you raised originally around worker organizing. I think the work that I did with the LGBTQ program in Syracuse was mostly at the university and it was about my workplace, literally. I mean, there was the academic program. Of course, that was important. And that was also about making a place for the young people coming along to be part of a collectivity as they were doing their university training toward their own work life. But, also, I was a worker at the university. And so there was a lot of struggle around domestic partner benefits, appropriate treatment of us who had domestic partners, wages and so forth. So that was later in time than some, I came to the university in 2005. So some of the other battles had been waged and won. And we were moving into this other sort of moment of application and struggle. I mean, it’s just this year, that the Supreme Court ruled that the clause of protections surrounding sex in workplaces extends to gender nonconforming and trans identity. That happened this year. Well, wait, I guess it was last year. 2020.

Hammontree: Yeah, Summer of 2020.

Pratt: Yeah. Summer of 2020. So you know, between 2005 and 2020, there’s been this continued struggle around workplace issues and gender and sex and sexuality. And I’m happy that I’ve been able to over the years to reconnect with the Women’s Studies program and LGBTQ initiatives at the University of Alabama, both in Birmingham and in Tuscaloosa. Because the struggles there have been similar. They’ve been about making sure there’s safe space for the young folks. And also making sure there’s workplace fairness around sexuality and gender issues, including trans issues. And the session I’m going to do, probably right around when this podcast airs, I’m doing something with the LGBTQ alums for Alabama. And that’s to fund scholarships for young students, some of whom have been thrown out of their family homes still, and don’t have resources to fall back on. So I’m really happy to be part of that continuity.

In terms of my community in Alabama, it’s mostly political. The people I connect to when I go home. And, also, my very oldest friend who I knew when I was in pajamas, in footy footies. And I was like a toddler. We were neighbors then and she came out later on also. We didn’t know it, then. But we were very close. We’re still the best of friends now. Sometimes, though, my neighbors at home aren’t kind to me. One who I was very fond of, you know, I went home with very short hair. And I don’t know what happened. I think his religious views got to him and he decided I was going to hell and disavowed me. So we still have a ways to go.

Hammontree: I would imagine that that is certainly more prevalent in the South is the effect of evangelical Christian beliefs on people’s beliefs about sexuality?

Pratt: Well, you know, I know there are people listening for whom their religion is very dear. And I understand that because I take my own spirituality quite seriously. But I just want to remind listeners that some, not all, but much of the Christianity in the South as practiced by white people, is in direct lineage from the Christianity that I was taught during segregation and the Christianity that was taught during enslavement period. And it was a Christianity that was used to reinforce and assert the heavenly blessing of dominance and enslavement and hatred, racism, woman hating, queer hating, and it’s been very tangled up with that over time. The church I was raised in was one of the Presbyterian churches that split over segregation.

I encourage your listeners to really think about the principles that their church is teaching and if it really is about “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and if it really is about, and “the first of these things is charity and love.” Love. Because I know that underneath those messages are often the human hearts of people who just do want to love. They’re hearing something different from their preacher.

Hammontree: Thinking about the story you were telling about the community there in North Carolina and the Lollipop press and all of these stories that aren’t necessarily known nationally as part of queer history, who are five southerners that you wish we all knew the names of?

Pratt: Lillian Smith, who wrote… well, who wrote a lot of things, I won’t even give names. Just google Lillian Smith. A white, Georgia-born, Southern woman who organized in the 30s and 40s and 50s and 60s, against segregation. Her home was burned twice, burned to the ground. She was a beacon of light to young white Southerners during that time, and almost no one knows her name now. But her work has meant tremendously to me. She was also… her primary adult relationship was with another woman. So this was one of those relationships that wasn’t called or named for what it was at the time, and I don’t even know how she would name it. But it was her significant relationship. But her I would say her identity above all was an anti-racist.

And then Pauli Murray, who was African American. North Carolina, maybe not born, but raised in North Carolina by I think her aunt or her grandmother. She was a lawyer at first and then, in the end, an Episcopal priest. As a law student at Howard, she developed the argument in one of her senior projects that was later picked up and used by Thurgood Marshall as the basis for Brown v. Board of Education. And she was a gender nonconforming person. Pauli was part of her name [Pauline], but then she chose Pauli. Her childhood home is, I think, now going to be a historical site in North Carolina. In Durham. People can visit it. Her work was later cited by Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a groundbreaking case around voting rights for women. And it was based on a case brought by Lowndes County African American women who were part of the Lowndes County organizing for the vote, Lowndes County Freedom Democratic Party. They brought a case against Alabama for denying their voting rights as women and as Black people. And that went to the Supreme Court and Pauli Murray’s groundwork in that case was then part of the victory. So not only was she part of Brown v. Board of Education, unacknowledged in certain ways, but also part of voting rights for women. So she’s a great, great intellectual, forerunner.

Um, those two women spring immediately to mind, I’d have to think longer about the other three.

Hammontree: We can come back around on those three. But those those are two great ones that we should certainly know. Let’s talk a little bit about your new book, “Magnified,” which we talked a little bit about at the beginning of the show. You had written it as, as Leslie was sick and was passing and I think it’s serendipity for the rest of us that it is being published during such a season of grief where we’ve all been affected by this pandemic. And I know you wrote this poem at a different time and for a different reason. But maybe it was the pollen imagery, but “The Great Swamp,” really kind of reached out and grabbed me, so I wondered if you might read that for us.

Minnie Bruce Pratt 

I can read that for you. And I would also like to read “Hargrove Shoals.” This poem was a swamp in New Jersey that Leslie and I used to go to during the day sometimes.

The Great Swamp

That spring you and I leaned over the edge,

staring into the swamp. What was in there?

Amphibian eyes glinting like treasure in the water,

gold dots of pollen flecking a sodden carpet.

That spring we saw you were beginning to die.

The arrowhead leaves flew slowly up green

out of the murky water. You got sick and sicker.

We leaned. Our shadows reached into the water.

We looked down into the mud, past where we’d seen,

to where what-could-be lived, waiting to come.

Pratt: That was at the beginning. You know the book is about learning to live with grief and also live at the same time. This I wrote when I was home once. Leslie was still alive, I had come home. And I go down to the Cahaba. I always go to the Cahaba. There’s a beautiful stretch near West Blocton, not that far from Bessemer.

Hargrove Shoals

The habit of living taken away. The green chalked

with white dust, like grief, like death on the way
to the river. To lose a person like you who can say,

The eternal nature of changing matter, who longs
to go ahead to see who will be on earth in a year,
in a million years. The sun overthrows the cool,

the river struggles with the shoals and breathes out

the rapids. Breathes out, out, the river breathes in
so quietly I can’t hear. To lose a person like you
who can say, The terrible beauty. If you were here

you’d see how the coal dust rimes the river edge
in black sand, you’d see the lump-lunged miners

drinking beer in the shade, panting for their breath.

The people who just drove up, their child runs down

to the worn shoals broad as a spillway, and says,

We can wade in the shallows. Or maybe, shadows.

Everything is in motion, the leaf shadows hurry.

Everything is in motion, here at Hargrove Shoals.

The wind begins to make its afternoon way down the river.

The child counts to see how many times.

Fifty-three times! There is no before, and no after.

Eternal nature of changing matter. The terrible beauty.

Hammontree: To close, there are still so many battles left to be fought in the South and in the country. What advice do you have to young activists or to young people who are maybe just kind of thinking about dipping their toe into organizing who maybe attended a women’s march in 2017, or Black Lives Matter rally last summer or who are starting to organize in their workplace or seeking their queer community.

Pratt: I would say be brave. There’s a place for you. And if you can search until you find the right place for you to make change, then you will have the life that you want for yourself and that you imagined. And you won’t lead the life that someone else is trying to imagine for you. Be brave. It’s wonderful to be able to look back and say you have led the life that you wanted to lead.

Learn more about Minnie Bruce Pratt and purchase her books here. 

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