Sessums’ memoir recalls effeminate childhood in turbulent Deep South
A lot of media attention has recently focused on the other “f word” courtesy of Isaiah Washington’s and Anne Coulter’s hateful comments. The dreaded other “s word” (i.e., “sissy”) has thankfully fallen into disuse.
Nevertheless, it survives as an historical artifact, an epithet flung in the faces of boys who didn’t conform to American society’s rigid gender norms.
Just as gay academics attempted to reclaim “queer” in the 1990s, Kevin Sessums proudly lays claim to “sissy.”
Born to a sports coach father and bundle-of-frustrated-ambitions mother, Sessums had the misfortune to be born in rural Mississippi in 1957. In addition to the prejudice he experienced firsthand because of his self-evident flamboyance, he also witnessed (and unwittingly participated in) the racism so then-ingrained into Southern life that it was practically second nature.
Indeed, while he befriended his grandparents’ African-American maid, Mattie May, his casual use of the “n” word cut her to the quick and ultimately poisoned their friendship.
Like many of the great literary works to emerge from the South, “Mississippi Sissy” contains a great deal of darkness in its core: racism, homophobia, general narrow-mindedness and other all-too-human failings parade across its pages. Initially bewildered by his son’s effeminacy, Sessums’ father becomes increasingly angry and violent. By age eight, Sessums would be an orphan, his father and mother dying within a year of each other. Their maternal grandparents would raise him and his two younger siblings.
When religious fervor caught him during adolescence, a traveling preacher took him under his wing and proceeded to sexually molest him, committing “spiritual murder,” preying as well as praying. And at age 19, he discovered the battered and bound corpse of his mentor, murdered by a stranger whose kindness he had unfortunately sought.
And yet, a fierce hope shines in defiant contrast to all the darkness.
Also, occasional moments of humor illuminate this memoir’s dark landscape with blinding intensity. Imagine giving Eudora Welty, the revered short story writer, a ride home after a party, and realizing to your horrified chagrin that your gym clothes are still in the passenger seat while the award-winning author holds your jock strap daintily between two fingers! Imagine persuading your grandmother to make you a Halloween costume of the Wicked Witch of the West, and the reactions to your wearing it to the local carnival! Imagine watching a movie in the theater as an adolescent and realizing that, gay or not, you’re getting turned on by the sight of Audrey Hepburn’s camel toe
Anyone who grew up feeling like an outsider will enjoy “Mississippi Sissy” immensely whether because of one’s sexual orientation or some other factor. It’s not always an easy read, and is bound to dredge up long-forgotten childhood memories (as it did for this reviewer). Its setting rural Mississippi during the turbulent 1960s and early 1970s makes a refreshing change to the sameness that seems to pervade gay memoirs as of late, and it’s oddly comforting to know that at least one other gay man out there can hold the works of both Jacqueline Susann and Eudora Welty in equal esteem!
Although “Mississippi Sissy” has a somewhat abrupt denouement Sessums moves to New York City after attending the trial of the man who murdered his mentor, Frank Hains it does have a happy ending. Sessums went on to become a highly regarded writer and editor for magazines like Vanity Fair and Allure. After reading this book, it’s easy to see why he did so many celebrity profiles and interviews, because he does a fantastic job of capturing the essences of people through their speech patterns.
“That’s what most sissies do when we are children,” he writes. “We sit apart and we listen.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, April 27, 2007.