A Different Kind of “Coming Out” Story

LGBTQ people’s continued struggle to tell the true history of our sexuality will always be entangled in America’s lies about sexuality. And it’s America’s persistent lie about sexuality that not only entraps LGBTQ people in its prison of heterosexism, but also entraps people of color in its prison of racism.

Essie Mae Washington-Williams, a 78-year-old retired school teacher from Los Angeles, is a classic example of one of the many secrets, lies and contradictions in the history of sexuality in this country. At a news conference held at a hotel in Columbia, S.C., Washington-Williams began her opening remarks with these words:

“My father’s name was James Strom Thurmond.”

While clearly Thurmond espoused white supremacy in the public sphere, he either consensually slept with black women or forcefully raped them in the private sphere. And his infamous words, “all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes,” have come back to haunt him in his death.

Known in the U.S. Senate simply as Strom Thurmond or “Ol’ Strom,” Thurmond throughout his career was a rabid racist whose staunch segregationist platform flung him onto a national stage during the Democratic National Convention in 1948. At the Convention, Thurmond and other Southern segregationist Democrats formed the Dixiecrat Party where Thurmond became their candidate for presidency. In endorsing a segregationist system, The Dixiecrat Party’s platform boastfully stated: “We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race,” a platform in opposition to President Harry Truman’s civil rights agenda.

While clearly Thurmond espoused white supremacy in the public sphere, he either consensually slept with black women or forcefully raped them in the private sphere. And his infamous words, “all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes,” have come back to haunt him in his death.

It had been rumored throughout Thurmond’s life that he had fathered a biracial — then called a “mulatto” child — a story all too familiar in the American South. Washington-Williams’ announcement, however, not only ceased this long-running rumor, but it exposes America’s ugly and sordid history of sexuality and race, and the exploitative power and privilege white men have had over the bodies of black women.

Just 16 years of age, Washington-Williams’ mother, Carrie Butler, a maid, was sent to work in the Thurmond household, one of the wealthiest families in South Carolina. Thurmond, just 22, fresh out of college and a schoolteacher, was depicted as having had “an affair” with his housemaid. But this “affair” raises many queries for me: Could a black girl-maid in a white Southern household during America’s Jim Crow era not give her consent to the advances made by her employers libidinous son without reprisal to her as well as to her family? Can a relationship of mutuality ever exist in a milieu of glaring race, age, class, and gender inequalities that clearly confronted both Thurmond and Essie Mae Washington-Williams’ mother, Carrie Butler? Was the interaction between Thurmond and Carrie Butler being called “an affair” to ignore not only the Jim Crow codes at that time in South Carolina in 1925, but to also ignore the sexual domination young white Southern men summarily exercised over black women then as in slavery?

[T]he issue of statutory rape is ever present in the “affair” between Thurmond and Butler. However, as a coming-of-age ritual white young men often had their first sexual experience with black women and would continue to sow their wild oats with them during and after marriage.

Mississippian novelist William Faulkner wrote about the South, and he knew its heart, soul and character when depicting its troubling history of race and sexual relations. Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family, told The New York Times, “The typical case is that the son of the master’s family tested out his sexuality on a vulnerable young woman in the master’s house. This is exactly what Strom did.”

And any court of law that would uphold justice could clearly see that the issue of statutory rape is ever present in the “affair” between Thurmond and Butler. However, as a coming-of-age ritual white young men often had their first sexual experience with black women and would continue to sow their wild oats with them during and after marriage.

In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Linda Brent submitted to being raped by a white man named Mr. Sands to avoid further sexual abuse by her master Dr. Flint. And like Strom Thurmond, Sand supported his biracial children, lead a “respectable” public life with his white wife, and Brent, like Washington-Williamsâ mother, did not publicly disclose her relationship — a form of a “gentlemen’s agreement” and an old Southern practice.

Thurmond, however, does not stand alone as a segregationist who espoused white supremacy in the public sphere and bedded down at night with at least one black woman in the private sphere. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), our third U.S. president and author of the Declaration of Independence, was a big opponent of miscegenation, especially in terms of black white relations. In opposition to miscegenation, Jefferson stated, “Their [African Americans] amalgamation with the other color produces a degradation to which no lover of his country, no lover of excellence in human character can innocently consent.”

As this country has recently come to know through genetic testing, Thomas Jefferson had a 38-year relationship with his slave-mistress Sally Hemings (1773-1836), who was thirty years his junior, where he at least fathered one of her children, the youngest named Eston. With genetic testing proving that Eston was Thomas Jefferson’s son, historians have been led to conclude that Jefferson fathered all of Hemings’ seven children: Thomas Jefferson Hemings born 1790, Harriet Hemings I born 1796, Beverley Hemings born 1798, Thenia Hemings born 1799, Harriet Hemings II born 1801, Madison Hemings 1805, and Eston Hemings born 1808.

There are two salient features common in the sexualities of African Americans, both male or female: sexual exploitation and sexual violence. However, it must be noted that both sexual exploitation and sexual violence contribute not only to the construction of black sexualities, but also to the construction, control and policing of the sexualities of white women, other people of color, and LGBTQ people.

A factor addressed in this “affair” between Thurmond and Butler that is mentioned in hushed tones but never fully explored is white men’s fear, fascination and attraction to black sexuality. In commenting about white men’s sexual appetite, Ball points out, “There was this uncontrollable, unconscious attraction to the other of black people. I believe there was a little Strom Thurmond lurking in many white men’s hearts.”

There are two salient features common in the sexualities of African Americans, both male or female: sexual exploitation and sexual violence.

This is similar to the same way many heterosexuals have fear, fascination and attraction to LGBTQ people. And the way members of the dominant group over us hides their sexual impulses and violence toward us is through their lies, secrets and contradictions in their lives, public and private.

Coming out is a courageous act. Those of us who have done it know what it is like — fear, but also a taste of freedom. To a packed room of reporters, Washington-Williams said, “At last, I feel completely free.”

It took Essie Mae Washington-Williams 78 years to come out of the lies, secret, and contradiction that shrouded her life as the illegitimate child of Strom Thurmond. But her story tells us that all of us who are sexual outlaws because of our sexual orientation or because of the sexual history we inherit must come out from the lies, secret and contradictions that bind our lives.

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