Pride Author Spotlight: Harry Thomas Jr., the Writer Behind “Sissy!”

Harry Thomas’s study of effeminate men and boys in U.S. culture—Sissy!—began, as many books do, with the failure of another book project. Nearing the end of his Ph.D. program in American Literature at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Thomas thought he was going to write his dissertation about the ways in which U.S. culture hates and fears effeminacy.

“As a gay man who was raised in the U.S. South, I grew up soaking in a sea of that boys-don’t-cry stuff, the man-up stuff, the don’t-be-a-sissy stuff. And it’s reflected in a lot of our literature too. The narrator of James Dickey’s Deliverance literally says that working a white-collar job in an office building where you have to work alongside women is worse than being raped and hunted by psychopaths in the wilderness.” Thomas even had what he thought was a great title for an America-hates-sissies book. “Having lunch with a grad school friend one day, I was talking about my ideas and the phrase ‘the specter of the sissy’ came out of my mouth. My friend said, ‘That’s your book title!,’ and I was so excited about it . . . until I realized that Michael Kimmel’s Manhood in America: A Cultural History had already told the story of America’s phobic reaction to men who move and dress and act ‘like women.’ He’d even used the phrase ‘the specter of the sissy’!”

Feeling defeated, Thomas self-medicated his frustration by binge-watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. “And as I watched, I thought, ‘Wait a minute, America hates effeminate men. But it’s also true that RuPaul has this huge career. And that Liberace was wildly popular. And that George Chauncey shows us that America had a ‘pansy craze’ in the 1930s.” Re-motivated, Thomas set out to write a book that answered the paradox he suddenly could not stop seeing: on the one hand, America—and American literature—routinely shames gender-nonconforming men and boys, depicting them as threats who deserve harassment, violence, and even death. But on the other hand, America also has a long and rich tradition of loving effeminate men, of seeing them as special, gifted, beautiful, and even magical.

While never denying that first, effeminacy-hating American tradition, Sissy! names and illuminates the other half of America’s paradoxical relationship to gender-nonconforming men and boys. In doing so, Thomas’s book examines a wide range of post-WWII U.S. literary and cultural production, including the southern gothic sissies of Carson McCullers and Truman Capote, the way James Baldwin refutes Gore Vidal’s femme-phobia, the sparkling (and heterosexual!) effeminacy of the Twilight novels, the mid-century mega-stardom of Liberace, and the way that the HIV/AIDS crisis morphs the meaning of effeminacy in works by Randy Shilts, Tony Kushner, and Sarah Schulman. What emerges across Thomas’s readings of these texts and performances is an alternative American history, one in which effeminate men and boys are framed as enlivening forces, alluring and fascinating figures who model kinder, gentler, and sometimes sexier modes of masculinity.

“Jack Halberstam’s Female Masculinity is a really formative, mind-blowing book for me,” Thomas says, “and Sissy! grew out of my intellectual debt to that book, my desire to do for feminine men what Halberstam’s book does for masculine women.” Thomas says his work is also indebted to the feminism-informed masculinity studies of scholars like Kimmel, David Savran, and Rachel Adams. “Personally, I think U.S. masculinity can still be really stifling for men and boys of all orientations,” Thomas says. “The quote-unquote ‘rules’ of American masculinity still wedge men and boys into this tiny space where they’re told that they have to master and control everything all the time, where they cannot be tender or loving or vulnerable in any way, and where they have to dominate their sexual partners. That’s a lonely, unhealthy place, one that’s bad for men and terrible for people in relationships with men. And so in Sissy!, I was interested in authors and performers—like the New Orleans bounce rapper Big Freedia—who imagine the world differently, who imagine masculinity differently, who open up these spaces where the ‘rules’ of masculinity can be different. And honestly, there’s such a huge need for that! I think that’s why these writers and performers have so much traction, why their work means so much to so many.”

And while it was published before the current tsunami of anti-trans and anti-gay legislation began flooding American statehouses, Thomas is believes that Sissy! can be of use to queer scholars and activists looking to find strategies of resistance. “The book never denies the ways in which femme-phobia constrains and limits and sometimes even kills. But the book is also about tracing this other tradition, illuminating these moments in the past where writers and performers have said, ‘Hey, American masculinity doesn’t have to be this narrow, harmful thing that’s just about being a stoic he-man. Masculinity might also mean cultivating beauty and joy and being vulnerable and being in community with people. And I hope there’s a lot of hope in that as queer folks weather this very scary present moment of organized resistance to us.”

Harry Thomas is an independent scholar. He lives in Durham, North Carolina, with his husband of twenty-one years. His latest project is The Violet Cemetery, a memoir where each chapter explores the life of a gay (or maybe, possibly gay) man who shaped Thomas’s coming out. Excerpts from that forthcoming book have been published in the literary journals Under the Gum Tree and Waxing and Waning.

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