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"Dill's Been Funny All Her Life": Race, Place, and the Coming-Out Narrative in Getting Mother's Body

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“Funny All Her Life”:

Race, Place, and the Coming-Out Narrative in Getting Mother’s Body

* Note: I use “he/him/his” pronouns to refer to Dill, as prompted by his interest in being referred to as “Mr. Dill Smiles.”

Dill Smiles is one of many in the town of Lincoln, Texas to have a complicated relationship with the late Willa Mae Beede. Her lover when she was alive, Dill takes on responsibility for Willa Mae’s body after her death, burying her and “protecting” her gravesite until her family steps in. Though all of Parks’ characters are coping with the implications of their multiple identities throughout the novel, Dill’s multiple marginalized—though not explicitly named or defined—identities lead to confusion and discrimination on the part of the other characters. Described as a “bulldagger” and a “lezzy,” but ultimately reveling in the joy of “Mr. Smiles,” Dill’s experience of identity blurs the line between sexual orientation and gender identity. Never naming an identity or identifying into a group, Dill does not have a conventional “coming out” moment, instead opting to be himself in the midst of questioning (but ultimately, acceptance) among his community members. Though many queer characters in literature struggle with a moment of “confession,” in which they make real their personhood and identities by admitting to them verbally, numerous queer and trans theorists—and particularly trans theorists of color—query this normalized coming out narrative, suggesting not only its inaccessibility and inherent privilege, but its inapplicability to many who are not Western, white transgender people. Though a piece of Dill’s truth is revealed after being “outed” by Willa Mae, his experience outside of the coming out narrative makes visible its limitations--instead demonstrating the far more holistic authenticity of Dill’s truth enacted silently in his daily life. Dill’s decision to live openly, but free of labels, allows him to remain a part of his home community, offering him some

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Dill’s experience publicly navigating complex gender and sexual identities begins when is outed by Willa Mae. Insisting that everyone in Lincoln “knows,” he explains: “They all remember or remember being told how Willa Mae went and bellowed through the streets that I weren’t no man” (Parks 89). Here, we learn that Dill has been living in the community and going “stealth”--presenting as a cisgender male and hiding any transgender identity. In fact, despite this unsolicited “outing” by Willa Mae, Dill does not speak of a moment of any overt “coming out,” and does not put language to his identity through the course of the novel. Dill is repeatedly referred to using “she/her” pronouns, indicating that, to a certain extent, the people of Lincoln take Dill’s anatomy to represent the “truth.” However, they silently acknowledge Dill’s atypical relationship with Willa Mae and his other, masculine attributes. Hearing from Dill’s mother, Candy, it becomes clear that Dill’s identity has been relatively apparent, though unspoken, from his youth. As she explains, upon seeing Dill arrive with Laz: “The way [Laz] says Dill’s name makes it sound like they got a bond of some kind but I know enough about Dill to know Laz ain’t her sweetheart” (Parks 210). Despite this silent understanding, Willa Mae’s posthumous concerns imply that to name any “deviant” identities overtly would be deemed unacceptable--and that the risk associated with letting the words “free” would be too great. As she expresses:

I found out but I didn’t tell nobody for a long time and when I did I felt bad but once words leave your mouth you can’t get them back in. I know cause I tried. I went around trying to take back what I’d said about Dill Smiles but the words had already run down the road. It weren’t no use” (Parks 225).

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The coming out narrative has been normalized in the United States among white trans and queer people (and consequently, the “LGBT community”) over many years. Trans and queer individuals are expected to liberate themselves through a singular act of agency--a confessional moment, in which they name (using labels, typically) who they “truly are.” Implicit in this popular and damaging narrative is that one is not authentic until they have had such a moment. As Marni A. Brown acknowledges in “Coming Out Narratives: Realities of Intersectionality,” “Post-gay activists and writers such as James Collard contend that being and doing gay ‘authentically’ involves moving past oppression and despair and living an openly gay life” (Brown i). Though this may be a freeing piece of the narrative, offering transgender individuals the expectation of liberation after naming themselves, it leaves those who remain “closeted,” out of choice or necessity, in a supposedly inferior position. As Suzanna Walters writes in her piece “The Problem with ‘Coming Out’: The Flawed Cultural Expectations of Gay Life in America,” those who are closeted are “stigmatized as living false, unhappy lives and are pressured to be public” (Seidman qtd. in Walters 2014).

Also implicit in the coming out narrative is the assumption that one is able--and chooses to--access stable identity categories. As Walters writes:

Coming out as a singular process--and the closet as the paradigmatic metaphor for [queer] life itself--depended on the establishment of a [queer] identity and a [queer] movement to make it happen. In simple terms, one needed the very category of ‘the homosexual’ to produce the story of coming out” (Walters 2014).

But what does one do if one does not seem to fit into this category, or finds the category inaccessible? To benefit from claiming a label, it is expected that one should have access to a community of similarly identifying people as a result--what does this mean for those who do not have this community within reach? Ultimately, some queer theorists argue, the purpose of coming out is to be able to live openly, reducing personal stigma as well as stigma against an entire community. As Walters writes, “The larger social message now [. . .] is that coming out will promote tolerance [. . .] So one must be ‘known’ to be tolerated” (Walters 2014). However, an intersectional analysis of transgender lives reveals that, at times, it is precisely through not being known in this way that individuals find tolerance.

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Several queer theorists and activists name the exclusivity of existing norms and expectations around transgender experience, including the very gender norms off of which transition is frequently imagined and based. As de Vries writes, “Trans people in the USA change genders in relation to androcentric, middle-class, white-normative, and heterocentric cultural narratives” (de Vries 4). Constricted by these narratives, many people navigating intersecting marginalized identities face difficulty fitting smoothly into either--thus revealing the privilege inherent in such norms as the coming out narrative.

The conventional coming out narrative depends on established and rigid identity categories; however, these categories do not necessarily hold across cultures. In her piece entitled “Transgender Theory and Embodiment: The Risk of Racial Marginalisation,” Katrina Roen speaks to the experiences of fa’afafine people, an identity group in Samoa. Roen names the inadequacy of standard Western categories dividing facets of identity. Referencing one interview subject, Don, Roen writes: “For Don, being fa’afafine does not imply dissatisfaction with sexed embodiment nor does it make specifications about partner-gender: fa’afafine is constructed across sexuality and gender” (Roen 257). To draw a simple connection between fa’afafine identity and transgender identities in the United States would be to erase the lived experiences of fa’afafine peoples. Similarly, to use modern categorizations of identity to read the experiences of Dill, in the context of 1960s Texas, would be anachronistic and thus insufficient.

The same language that is liberating for some, is in fact quite dangerous and stigmatizing for others. Though Dill is largely accepted in Lincoln, he is referred to using derogatory language throughout the novel. Thus, identity-based language holds a negative connotation, while Dill’s propensity toward silence around his own identity offers him an opportunity for a comfortable and normalized lifestyle. Similarly, Roen quotes Don speaking about the limitations of identity-based language: “All the Palagi [English] terms: gay, faggot, queer [. . .] [they’re] awful [. . .] [Those terms] actually tell you how that society views that person. My culture just views it ‘like a woman.’ And it’s like a special woman” (Don qtd. In Roen 257). Rather than proudly identifying outside of existing categories, Don names the acceptance and value made possible by identifying in proximity to an already established identity. While white readers may impose the “Transgender” label onto Dill, this is not necessarily supported by his lived experience--which implies his comfort with manhood and masculinity before gender nonconformity.

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However, the concerns that Dill might face around identifying himself extend beyond those in his community; living in Texas in the Jim Crow Era, Dill’s acceptance into his own community is truly crucial. While the conventional coming out narrative assumes that transgender individuals can move beyond pain by vocally asserting themselves and migrating toward community, Dill faces multiple, extreme oppressions outside of Lincoln. Brown names the reality of these intersecting oppressions to conclude that the goal behind coming out discourse is inaccessible to many:

When one is ostracized for a social marker, particularly a visible dimension of identity, the concept of a being in or out of the closet shifts, access to or from marginalization is transformed, and the standardized meaning of the closet is rattled. Normalizing gay and lesbian experiences, according to the post-gay discourse, involves moving beyond oppression and discrimination, pushing despair to the side and removing it from gay and lesbian narratives. Yet, most individuals not privileged by race, class, gender, or gender presentation, move through society with marginalization, discrimination, or prejudice in some type or form as a component of daily interactions” (Brown 23).

If remaining in the closet is intended to save a queer or trans subject from discrimination, this model is essentially useless for Dill, who is both a dark-skinned black person facing extreme racism, and a visibly gender non-conforming person. As a matter of survival, Dill may find it necessary to live discreetly, displaying a masculine gender presentation, but avoiding any public claiming of “deviant” identity. Kylan Mattias de Vries names these compounded oppressions in his piece “Transgender People of Color at the Center: Conceptualizing a New Intersectional Model.” De Vries recounts a story shared with him by one of his interviewees, a Black transgender man, who had a dangerous encounter with a police officer. As de Vries points out, “the stigmatization of men of color as criminals by officers did not decrease even when trans men’s status as transgender was disclosed [. . .] The officer’s response, after reading the feminine name and gender marker on his driver’s license, was to ‘further harass him” (de Vries 16). Deemed a threat due both to racism and to what is considered by many to be a “deceiving” gender presentation, trans people of color are murdered today in numbers far greater than white transgender people. These compounded oppressions are evident in Dill’s life as well, and after losing track of his track, he imagines a likely conversation between two white boys who may have stolen it. Acknowledging that he can expect little support from the police, Dill asserts: “The white police ain’t gonna do nothing about no n*****-lezzy’s truck stolen by some white boys” (Parks 139). For Dill, there is little to be gained from publicly claiming a label that would only situate him further from the population these authorities seek to protect. He is labeled an enemy by his race alone--to assert that personal and community liberation is a direct product of a coming out moment seems here a blatantly privileged oversight.

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Dill is evidently deeply respected by those in his community--having proved himself to be trustworthy, strong, and responsible, Dill is able to present a masculine gender. Rather than following a single “coming out” moment, Dill’s identity is deemed legitimate because he successfully meets standards of masculinity within his community. This reasoning is described by Laz, who marvels at Dill’s masculine achievements. As Parks writes,

Something else comes into my head. I wait for a lot of miles before I say it, then I figure what the hell. ‘What’s it like, being a man?’ I ask Dill. She looks at me, her eyes like two slow snakes. Dill is more of a man than I am. She’s had Willa Mae and she’s had herself. That’s two more women than I’ve had” (Parks 155).

Here, Laz names a concrete criterion for achieving manhood--having accomplished this step, Dill is accepted and treated with respect and even awe, though he is still referred to using “she/her/hers” pronouns. Because Dill has earned this position, he is free to behave in a manner that would otherwise be deemed inappropriate for women. As Roosevelt Beede recounts:

Dill puts her hand in her pocket, fiddling with something. She’s been fiddling in her pocket like that for years. Like a fella would touch hisself from time to time. Dill sees me watching her fiddle and stops, taking out her hand. I want to tell her that she can go head and fiddle all she wants to, it’s her pocket and her privates” (Parks 46).

Roosevelt may not be able to put a name to Dill’s identity, and may still use feminine pronouns to refer to him--but it is through an understanding of Dill’s proximity to manhood, deserved through reputation and respect, that he can accept and even encourage Dill to be himself.

Just as masculinity and manhood are qualities earned, rather than implicit, these too can be revoked. While Dill’s gender variance is acceptable, locating him closer to manhood, Willa’s cisgender male lover, Son, is shamed for his distance from conventional heterosexual masculinity. Dill recounts the fragility of Son’s masculinity in the eyes of the community:

Someone heard about Son and Dill Smiles in bed with Willa Mae and called Son sissified and cut him in the street. He couldn’t hold his head up. Wanted to leave town. That’s how come Willa started talking. Cause if Son was in bed with Willa, and Dill weren’t no man, then Son weren’t no sissy. Shit. He left her anyway” (Parks 191).

Significantly, though any gender nonconformity in Son is met with physical violence, Dill’s identity is, to an extent, affirmed by this danger--he is not only a man, but “man enough” to threaten Son’s own manhood through the possibility of a homoerotic encounter. For Willa Mae, this is seen as a trade-off of masculinity. To preserve this for her cisgender lover, she must “out” Dill, violating his trust and risking his safety.

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Though Dill is arguably unable to “come out” in his community, he decision to express his identity wordlessly but shamelessly makes visible the complexities of home and family. Rural communities are often stereotyped as homophobic and hateful; however, transgender and disabled activist and author Eli Clare speaks to the complex reality of claiming home in a place that is not outwardly LGBT-friendly. He writes:

In this extended working-class family, unspoken lesbianism balanced against tacit acceptance means that Barb is family, [and] that Aunt Margaret and she are treated as a couple [. . .] Not ideal, but better than frigid denial, better than polite manners and backhanded snubs, better than middle-class ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ which would carefully place Barb into the category marked ‘friend’ and have her sit pews away from immediate family at her lover’s father’s funeral” (Clare 34).

When identities are unspoken and the language associated with “deviance” (and thus, stigma) is not employed, a more intersectional and holistic sense of an individual emergences--one which may often be met with warmth and acceptance, as long as these boundaries are not pushed. Thus, arguably, though the “coming out” moment is defined as a moment of claiming agency and an attempt at self-liberation, the decision to live as one is without a need for such a confession may similarly be an expression of agency. As Walters acknowledges, “Someone’s ‘life in the closet’ may be another person’s refusal to be pinned down” (Walters 2014). Brown argues that this may be an act of ongoing negotiation, writing: “Entering and exiting the closet is a process of managing one’s identity based on time, place, and location. Thus the individual uses the closet” (Brown 21-22). This alternative “closet” model--one which sees the closet not as a concealing of the truth, but as a means of managing multiple, seemingly conflicting identities and values, lends itself to Dill’s narrative. Though ashamed of his “out”ing by Willa Mae, Dill establishes his masculinity and earns the respect of his community members--a recognition far less fragile than any response to a confessional coming out. He reflects:

“Over the years they all put two and two together. But it remains unspoken. North and me hunt together. I am the better shot. When two of Little’s heifers got the hoof root, it was me who cured them from it. For most of the people in Lincoln, the way I carry myself and the work I do and the clothes I got and the money I earn keeps their respect. I don’t ask more from them than that” (Parks 89).

While the modern, Western, white narrative around coming out centers the confessional moment as an authentication of identity and a verbal joining of a group, Dill’s narrative reveals not only the privilege inherent in this discourse, but the uselessness of the narrative in the context of intersectional identities. For those negotiating race and place, home may be a space of far more holistic support than exile. And though language is not central to Dill’s expression of his identity, he is ultimately affirmed through a simple two words:

“She called me Mr. Smiles. I’ll drink to that. Just one or two. I deserve that much” (Parks 241). 


Works Cited

Brown, Marni A., “Coming Out Narratives: Realities of Intersectionality.” Dissertation, Georgia State University, 2011.

Clare, Eli. Exile & Pride: Disability, Queerness and Liberation. Cambridge: South End, 2009. Print.

de Vries, Kylan Mattias. “Transgender People of Color at the Center: Conceptualizing a New Intersectional Model.” Ethnicities 0.0 (2014): 1-25. Print.

Parks, Suzan-Lori. Getting Mother’s Body. New York: Random House, 2003. Print. 

Roen, Katrina. “Transgender Theory and Embodiment: The Risk of Racial Marginalisation.” Journal of Gender Studies 10.3 (2001): 253-63. Print.

Walters, Suzanna Danuta. “The Problem with ‘Coming Out’: The Flawed Cultural Expectations of Gay Life in America.” Salon. Salon Media Group, Inc., 13 July 2014. Web. 10 Dec. 2016.