Knoxville’s Gay History May Never be Obvious

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

History supplies a handy perspective to almost every current issue. Crazy, angry gunmen, for example. We’ve had them in Knoxville since the saloon era, they always made the papers, and they were often described in vivid detail. (They usually just had one to six bullets.)

Gay Pride is a rare exception. It may remain mysterious. It’s next to impossible to write with confidence about the hidden lives of people who dwelled in the shadows before living memory.

Sometimes allegations come out in public divorce documents. Sometimes we can read between the lines of a criminal charge. Sometimes you can connect some dots.

However, when one’s sexuality is hidden from family, neighbors, and coworkers in their own time, it’s even more obscure to historians.

Before 1950 or so, we know very little about gay culture in Knoxville with certainty. Knoxville gay history is still in the closet, and may remain there.

A few Knoxvillians left clues for biographers.

Among them was the best-known artist in Knoxville history, Beauford Delaney, who was gay, although I’m not sure that fact was the main source of his struggles or inspirations. Another was Tennessee Williams, who never lived in Knoxville but was nonetheless hailed locally as “Knoxville’s own” early in career, because his family was so well known here. (His Aunt Ella was one of downtown’s most beloved figures, 75 years ago.) In his autobiography, America’s best-known gay writer recalled that he became aware he was different from other boys on a trip to Elkmont around 1920.

There’s Jackie Walker, the Fulton High football star who became an All American on the Vols’ 1970 team, the first black to achieve that honor. He died of AIDS in 2002.

Less obvious are the dozens of prominent Knoxvillians who were eccentrics, who often remained single, and about whom an octogenarian lady might startle you with a whisper, “people say he was queer,” or “she wasn’t interested in men, you know.”

And that would be that. A good reporter pries. Often a friend doesn’t.

You hear things, observe things, so much that you become almost sure about your conclusions. It’s not necessarily the duty of the historian to out the dead. I’m pretty sure it’s not mine, anyway.

What remains, though, is the strong impression that gays have been prominent in Knoxville politics and culture for most of the city’s history.

Compounding the challenge is the fact that terminology is inconsistent over the years. Before the 1960s, words like “gay” and “queer” were words most often used for qualities other than sexuality. Even the word “homosexual” hardly existed until Knoxville was more than a century old.

Take whatever word you choose, comb through the records, and you may not find much.

I wish I had taken better notes, years ago, when, looking for something else, I was surprised to encounter a short reference in an antebellum newspaper, describing two men living together “exactly as if they were husband and wife.” They lived on the northwest side of downtown, along old Asylum Avenue I recall, and they were described in a two or three-paragraph story purely as a curiosity, a believe-it-or-not sort of thing, no cause for outrage. I think it was in the 1850s.

The library files on gay issues are scant for well over a century after that. The Knox County Public Library’s “From Paper to Pixels” archives, which start in 1922, aren’t complete yet, and the digital scanning process sometimes skips a relevant word here and there, so we can’t take absence of a reference as proof of absence in the original newspapers.

But what does it mean that there’s not a single mention of the word homosexual for 14 years after 1922? Maybe I’m using the wrong keyword, I thought, so I tried less sensitive terms.

The word pervert appears only in wire stories, and then mainly to refer to rapists and murderers of women and children. A 1929 story describes Boston’s moral crusades against literature that includes “portrayal of a moral pervert or sex degenerate.” Knoxville had no obvious policing of that sort.

There are a few references to sodomy indictments, but only a couple that aren’t associated with a more serious charge, like rape.

The first time the word homosexual appears in the News-Sentinel, it’s in a short book review in 1936, about a novel called Sojourn Among Shadows by Murrell Edmonds, a Virginia author who explored the complexities of Southern culture. The young writer’s obvious talent, the reviewer clucked, was “worthy of a better subject.”

Just after that, we start seeing a great many references to gays, almost always in a regretful tone. It wasn’t Southern Baptist preachers who were criticizing homosexuality in the Knoxville News-Sentinel. It wasn’t Republican county commissioners, either.

It was a Freudian psychologist from Chicago named Dr. George W. Crane, who wrote a syndicated advice column. Homosexuality, he explained, was something for parents to worry about and prevent. “So it is with homosexuals,” went a Crane column in 1938. “They are in love with each other and don’t want to change. But they are indulging in juvenile behavior and would be far happier if they would grow up, emotionally.”

For a quarter-century, Dr. Crane explained homosexuality to Knoxvillians. It was a “stage” that everybody went through around age 9 to 12, and from which everyone should emerge.

Over and over, Dr. Crane told Knoxvillians that we were all homosexuals when we were young. Knoxville seems to have received that news quietly.

In the late 1940s came the Kinsey Report, with its estimates that homosexuality might be much more common than previously assumed. And, almost simultaneously, revelations that the U.S. State Department was full of homosexuals, and that fact made them vulnerable to Soviet blackmail.

In a column opposing eugenics, Dr. Crane once cited Jesus’s defense of a “female sex pervert” from stoning. But religion hardly comes up in connection with homosexuality at all until 1957, in the foreign-news column, when the wire services reported that the Archbishop of Canterbury, in London, protested the proposed easing of old English anti-gay legislation.

As all this information and misinformation came across in the daily newspaper, Knoxville is never more than an observer, quiet, inscrutable.

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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