Patricia Nell Warren

Coming Out in East Tennessee

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | October 15, 2008 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Fundie Watch, Politics
Tags: Bible Belt, coming out of the closet, gay authors, homophobic behavior, KKK, Lee Lawrence, living with HIV

Some years ago, gay writer Lee Lawrence contacted me about speaking to a writers' group at his retreat spa. As he told me that his Lee Valley Farm was located in east Tennessee, a chill ran down my spine and I wondered how he got along with the local KKK. When I flew to Knoxville, Lee met me at the airport. He was a lean little guy with salt and pepper hair and a peppery irascible wit. His high energy belied the fact that his health was frail -- he was living with HIV. As we drove out through countryside alive with autumn color, I learned that Lee was a former New Yorker who got fed up with city life. His exodus had led him to rural Tennessee 16 years ago...where he fell in love with the land and proceeded to become a tobacco farmer.

"Hmm..a gay tobacco farmer," I said. "You're a first for me."

"Yeah...well, I don't grow tobacco any more," he growled. "It's too much work. I even let my tobacco allotment go. Then I got into breeding American Pintos. But that's hard work too...and nobody makes a cent in the horse business. Not that what I'm doing right now isn't hard work..."

Lee's farm was the real thing. It was not a city gentleman's weekend property, all prettied and updated for a real-estate ad. It sat in a fertile valley framed by the steep wooded ridges that are typical of that part of Tennessee. The weathered 19th-century frame house had the creaky pillared porch and creaky chairs for "settin'," plus dogs and chickens and a potbellied pig named Katie Scarlett roaming around. The ancient barn, outbuildings, vegetable garden and chicken house sat amid 150 acres of rolling uncultivated fields where his Pinto horses grazed. In the distance to the east, you could see the haze over the Great Smokies.

Lee's dream was to write his first book and create an LGBTQH writer's conference that would bring a lot of people together in that down-to-earth unpretentious atmosphere. Between chores, he managed to maintain a website with one of the first blogs in history, where he posted his wry commentaries. While I unpacked, Lee finished a task of planting daffodils around the place.

"Here," he growled, handing me half a bag of bulbs. "I'm tired and had a few left. Take them back to California and plant them."

To educate me about tobacco growing, Lee took me on a drive through that rugged ridge-and-valley region. I had always thought of tobacco as industrialized agribusiness, but here it was cottage industry -- an endless patchwork of small farms where whole families toiled on their allotments, which could be as small as 25 or 30 acres. From the highway we could see leaves being hand-picked in the old-time way, or curing on poles in a drying barn.

"Now that the tobacco business is going away," Lee said, "a lot of these families have to find another way to scratch out a growing organic vegetables or herbs."

Lee's own toil had customized his farm for guests. The chicken house and a couple of other outbuildings were now the most creative, cozy kind of guest cottages you could imagine. With next to no money, Lee had done the carpentry himself, and decorated with the best in "queer shabby chic" from local antique barns and thrift shops. Inside the house, the cluttered homey kitchen with its collection of iron skillets and huge stove opened into a old-fashioned dining room with a long boarding-house table. The current guests were a group of gay deer hunters from Indiana, who were tenting out in a field and assembled at the long table for noisy meals. Some of them, like Lee, were HIV+.

I spent a delightful week of beer drinking with the hunters, and wine drinking with the writers around a campfire.

Further drives to meet neighbors and shop in Rogersville began to answer my question about the KKK. A couple of miles down the road, a Wiccan woman often had gatherings of the local coven at her home. The KKK had burned a cross in her yard. But they'd never burned a cross in Lee's yard. Yet every soul in that part of the state knew he was gay and out. How did he manage?

Maybe it was because the city guy from New York was a real farmer...with the real farmer's heart. He was the kind of neighbor who could be counted on if your tractor turned over, or your horse was stuck in a mudhole. This impressed the hell out of his Bible Belt neighbors, who were always complaining that country people weren't what they used to be. Lee's coming out in east Tennessee wasn't going to make headlines, or cause any pro-gay legislation to be passed, but it sank in where it counted -- in the local consciousness, as everybody watched the Yankee struggle for survival on the same hard land where descendants of Rebels were struggling as well. If he made it, Lee would add his bit to the local GNP, and that was a good thing.

In the end, it was hard work, not homophobia, that did Lee in. Over the next couple of years, I followed his struggles from afar, as he tried to find assistants who were reliable help with the writers' conference. But the gay men he hired were hothouse flowers who couldn't stand life on a real farm. His immune system was flagging, and the moment came when he couldn't face another damp cold Tennessee winter.

So he gave up his dream -- sold the horses, put the farm into a gay & lesbian home exchange, and went off to his exchange residence on a Caribbean beach to get warm and work on his book. Inevitably he wound up back in the U.S., in a hospital, under a family member's care.

Every spring, Lee's daffodils bloom in my front yard in Los Angeles. His blogs have vanished off the Web, and Google dredges up his name in only a few places. But I'll bet his memory still blossoms in the farm country near Rogersville -- the Yankee gay guy that the KKK left in peace.

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Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | October 15, 2008 11:08 AM

Well done. In any positive way we can effect the lives of our neighbors we set an example that builds bridges. This gives meaning and texture to each of our lives and greater understanding of us in others.

Thank you Patricia

What a beautiful and inspiring account of one man's life.
I've had gay "youth" argue with me when I tell them that visibility among the gay community can be the most effective tool we have to show people that we're no different than anyone else and deserve the same rights. "We are visible" they argue with me, "Look at all the gay pride parades everywhere." It was always difficult to persuade these young people that parades in cities are a different thing from living out and proud among people in smaller, tight knit communities where the nearest gay bar is often a hundred or more miles away.
Excellent post Patricia. You've managed to warm the cockles of my tastful little heart on a grey and rainy Michigan afternoon.

The recent shooting at the Knoxville Unitarian Universalist Church tells about the evangelical religious climate today. Sorry to say, the GOP politicians have created a homophobic frensy regarding same sex marriage and LGBT's are once again being persecuted.
Sorry to hear about Lee. I lived 100 miles away on a farm near Asheville for 24 years and was happy, but then the anti-gay resolutions came along in 1998 and negative dialogue was created against us LGBT'S. Gay pride parades were cancelled and our spirit was broken.

The pendulum swings; What was once, will be again. No matter how depressing, don't let them break your spirit.

"Tomorrow is another day."

What a simply lovely piece, Patricia.

I grew up up the road from Rogerville about forty miles, even further into those hollows than the ones Lee farmed in.

Your piece brought back good memories of East Tennessee and its land and people. Thank you.

It's a beautiful post. If you happen to know the old URLs for his blog(s), I can find copies of it for you.

Unfortunately I don't have any old URLs. Lee dates back to a couple of computer crashes ago, for me, so I don't have any old stuff. An old post of his about gay & lesbian home exchanges comes up. But it's not his wittier, more colorful style of writing.

Lee's daily blog was about life at Lee Valley Farm, peppered with comments and insights on U.S. and gay politics. He did a major thread with Katie Scarlett, the potbellied pig, who was his special pet. In her voice, the thread held forth on the aims of the writers' retreat and writing in general.

Needless to say, Katie Scarlett was a very liberal pig. I can only imagine what she would be saying about McCain and Palin if she was around today.

J. Steve Bush | January 5, 2009 3:01 AM

Patricia, I really enjoyed reading your article about Lee and his farm/retreat. Back in the 90's, I had the opportunity to visit there a few times. It was just as you described it, gay rustic and somewhat shabby chic, but a welcoming place to get away from the mundane rat race. One of my last visit there was after my own HIV diagnosis back in 1993. Lee was very supportive of me, and revealed to me his own HIV status. That support and visit meant a lot to me, and I still have fond memories of that visit.

I spent the summer of 1992 with Lee, ostensibly organizing his many writings into a book. I was at an "all but dissertation" stage for my English doctorate. I brought along one of my male students who denied gayness, but?? Had a great time for the 3 months I was there. I ended up doing a lot of cooking, phone answering, booking, painting, and putting in the above ground pool in the middle of a field. Clothes were optional. My young student worked with Lee on various projects, but keep to himself in his own little trailer we had cleaned up. After 3 months Lee "suggested" I should move on, even though I had moved there to stay. He had trouble with other strong-willed people. I hope he's still surviving, but if not, then I hope he's found the Big Gay Dude Range in Heaven.

Thanks for posting this. Sorry I am a day late and a dollar short. Lee Valley Farm was a respite to me after my partner died. We visited there at least 3 times before she died. It was there that I rode my first horse and sat in a hot tub in the middle of winter in a house. It was always a joy to go out in town with him since we were black lesbians in a small country town. Of course he made it quite fun!! I have often thought of him over the years and I missed him after he left the farm. I only wish that he could have met my current partner. I know he would have loved her as much as I loved him.