Monday, Apr. 12 the College of William and Mary’s Lambda Alliance and Rainbow Coalition hosted Dr. Jerry Watkins III as the opening keynote speaker to begin the College’s week-long 2021 Pride Celebration. Dr. Watkins is a professor in the history department at the College with a special interest in the modern-day queer South. He is the author of “Queering the Redneck Riviera: Sexuality and the Rise of Florida Tourism,” co-director of the College’s LGBTIQ Research Project and a mentor to members of the College’s LGBTQ+ community.
In his keynote speech, Watkins primarily focused on the lasting legacy of one queer alumnus of the College, David “Dave” Mark Gilbert ’83, and challenged the widely-held belief that the American South was a monolith of homophobia that wholly suppressed queer culture.
After a brief historical overview of queerness at the College and the greater Williamsburg area throughout the late 20th century, Watkins delved into the life of Gilbert. He detailed the vicious homophobia Gilbert experienced throughout his formative years, from being called the f-slur from as early as fifth grade to having his mailbox vandalized and his family harassed when he was in high school.
Unfortunately, this brutalization continued well after the end of his primary schooling. After graduating from the College in 1983, Gilbert and his lover were gay-bashed and subsequently arrested for sodomy. These horrific events, along with his childhood trauma and desire to help other queer individuals, ultimately motivated Gilbert to found “Southerners,” a group for Southern lesbians and gay men exiled by their communites in New York, following his move there in October 1983.
“Through political action, socials and restaurant visits, this small group enacted a pastiche of deracinated southernness that collapsed regional differences and created a diasporic community home space for southern queers of all stripes to ‘remember home and work for change,’” Watkins said.
In further discussing the Southerners’ efforts to carry out their mission of creating a better place for gay people to live, Watkins underscored the key role the Southerners played in fostering a sense of family among queer communities to combat the painful isolation faced by many queer individuals like Gilbert himself during their respective upbringings.
“The Southerners set about creating a family in exile. The words ‘surrogate family’ appear frequently in their correspondence and interviews, and many came to the meetings and social events with positive memories and stories from the time in the South,” Watkins said. “Dave recalled later that it was through these meetings and through these conversations — through these consciousness-raising sessions, really — that he realized that his memories of the South had been distorted by bad experience and he was able then to process some of the ways that he still felt about the South and some of the trauma that he had experienced in the South by meeting lots of other people in this home space.”
For Watkins, Gilbert’s pivotal realization was reflective of a much larger debate in academia over the South’s treatment of queer communities.
“These early meetings taught Gilbert what many of us Southern queer scholars have tried to teach, but yet the scholarship is still largely resistant to — the South is not a monolithically bad place to be queer,” Watkins said. “You can actually have a valid queer existence in the South.”
He additionally touched on the intersections between queer identity and race, adding further nuance to the Southerners’ and other queer organizations’ approaches to inclusivity and justice. While a lack of sources makes it difficult to determine the Southerners’ exact racial politics, Watkins indicated that what sources he did have, including Gilbert’s personal papers, pointed towards Gilbert opposing racial and gender segregation in queer spaces.
“Racism in gay spaces is well-documented and continues,” Watkins said. “Southerners would have had to work doubly hard to overcome the linkage with southernness and racism.”
Gilbert eventually passed away from AIDS-related causes in 1992. The disbandment of the Southerners followed soon after in 1993. However, Gilbert’s death was but a short mention as Watkins made sure to center the speech around Gilbert’s adult life and the powerful queer activism that consumed it.
“Now, to me, David Mark Gilbert embodies part of the spirit of pride,” he said. “You know, on the surface, the social club may seem like a trivial contribution, but he helped create a home away from home for southern queer folk who rocked up in New York for a variety of reasons. Dave and the other Southerners were there for a brief moment to ease their transition, and sometimes help them heal. Their group was for refugees who fled, and those that left willingly, this extended network of queer kin that welcomed people home. This is part of what pride should be: they were political, and they were home.”
Watkins further spoke about the best way to go forward honoring the legacy and embodying the spirit of David “Dave” Mark Gilbert, detailing Gilbert’s impact in his everyday life.
“For me, his spirit informs the way I teach and the way I show up for my students,” Watkins said. “I’ve had countless conversations with students who knock on my door with a variety of questions. Some start with, ‘I’ve never really said this out loud,’ or ‘You’re the only adult I feel like I can talk to,’ or ‘I don’t know how to say this, but can you explain that?’ My office is a safe space, it’s a home away from home. To me, that is taking the spirit of pride into our daily lives — making the world better, sometimes one person at a time.”
Watkins concluded his speech with a poignant reminder.
“There’s a lot of work to be done, keep showing up,” Watkins said.“Keep welcoming people home.”
This call to action hit home for some students like Miranda Huffer ’22.
“Dr. Watkins’ talk reminded me that Pride is something that has to be actively made rather than passively witnessed,” Huffer said. “More than just a parade or a one-time event, we have to incorporate it into our everyday lives and strive for it.”
Aubrey Lay ’23, who attended the event to learn more about LGBTQ+ history at the College, echoed this sentiment.
“I definitely walk away from the talk with a greater appreciation for both the growth our queer community has seen, and for the need to think critically about who and what is left out of the conversation,” Lay said. “We cannot create truly queer spaces if those spaces are not for everyone who needs them.”
Following Watkins’ speech, audience members were encouraged to ask questions to facilitate deeper discussion. In answering questions asked verbally or submitted through the Zoom chat feature, Watkins spoke on a variety of topics such as the commercialization of Pride, f-slur politics, ableism in the queer community, trans visibility at the College and more.
For Lay, the question and answer panel helped transform the formal talk into a comfortable yet productive conversation about a range of important LGBTQ+ issues, acknowledging the role Zoom played in allowing the conversation to flow smoothly.
“The fact that the speech was virtual actually had some benefits,” Lay said. “Similarly to what I have seen in many classes, the chat became a secondary conversation where people could voice their thoughts, hype up each other’s opinions and questions, and privately message the moderators to ask questions anonymously. The event became more accessible because of that, I think.”
Especially after the cancellation of the College’s 2020 Pride Celebration due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s Pride Celebration was even more eagerly anticipated among students. Watkins’ keynote speech created the perfect entry into such a long-awaited week.
“Dr. Watkins is an excellent lecturer and facilitated a lovely discussion that made me feel welcome, comfortable, and engaged,” Huffer said. “I think he was the perfect person to start the week off with.”