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Dorothy Allison

Author Dorothy Allison Discusses Civil Rights in Lecture

By Alex Pure '12  |  Contact Holly Foster 315-859-4068
Posted January 28, 2010
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“I am not a social scientist,” explained author Dorothy Allison from behind the lectern in the Kennedy Auditorium. Her carefully chosen words and thoughtful enunciation cushioned in a soft Southern twang, she sounded like a narrator come-to-life from one of her novels. “I make a living as a storyteller,” she said. “And writing is about taking great emotional risk to put what you know is true on the page.” As she began to recount her difficult past, it became clear that Allison is long familiar with that feeling of emotional risk, of desperation – and it has been her life struggle to set forth her own personal truths.

“I grew up in a vastly different world than you did,” Allison remarked to the audience of mostly college students. Born in Greenvale, S.C., in 1949 – at the time of a burgeoning Civil Rights movement – Allison quickly recognized what she believed to be grave injustices in her society. As a young girl, she would sit in front of the television set (“an amazing thing back then”) and watch, “with absolute conviction that the most important news would be brought at six o’clock by David Brinkley and Walter Cronkite,” the struggles of African-Americans who were fighting for even their most basic rights. “I was watching glory,” she said. And though her stepfather, a bigoted and abusive man, tried to indoctrinate her with helplessness, Allison knew that “there was injustice that had to be corrected, and that change was possible.

“I thought that the Civil Rights movement also applied to my life,” Allison explained, “and that it was a model I could believe in.” As a child of a desperately poor family “who broke the law normally to survive,” Allison always felt like an outsider – especially since she had the additional struggle of coming to terms with her homosexuality in a hetero-normative society. “If you believe yourself an outlaw, then the whole concept of a social contract between you and the state is laughable,” Allison said, recalling her pervasive feelings of emotional isolation in the past. “You are both a citizen and a ghost, subject to society’s punishment, believing that you are intrinsically dishonorable and that you must rebel against the society you don’t fit into.”

Skipping forward many years to her adulthood, Allison spoke about her best friend, Jule Gomez, a fellow lesbian writer who, along with five other couples, sued California two years ago for the right to marry. They won the case (“it was ruled that to exempt one category of person from that right is uncivil,” Allison explained) in a victory for gay men and lesbians everywhere – except for perhaps Allison herself, who admitted that she has deep and abiding problems with the institution of marriage in general. “I’m a radical lesbian feminist, and I’m pretty much everything you think of when you think of radical lesbian feminists,” she commented.

And one day, while her 15-year-old son was watching “the most photogenic lesbians you’ve ever seen” get married on television, Allison began to vocalize her problems with marriage, ridiculing those women who donned the white satin gowns and walked down the aisles. It was when her son turned around with a shocked and bereaved look on his face did Allison realize that he – like Allison herself many years ago – was watching glory on the television set, gleefully observing the correction of something he believed to be an injustice.

A friend called Allison that September, asking her to get married – not as a romantic gesture but as a part of political organizing (“she told me I had a public presence,” Allison explained with a charismatic smile). And though she retained her qualms with marriage, Allison wedded her partner of 20 years, Alex, in a place called Chevy’s Restaurant after privately signing for the marriage certificate three days earlier. Allison's son was ecstatic.

Unfortunately, the day after Allison got the marriage certificate framed, Proposition 8 passed -- effectively banning gay marriage in the state of California. And though it was a large step backward in the struggle for gay rights, Allison explained that “even when this nation is at its worst, its most fearful, it is just a momentary glitch in the progress toward better civil rights.” There are responsibilities inherent to citizenship that you owe the state, she remarked, but what does the state owe you? “If you want unfettered civil rights, you’re going to have to fight for them,” Allison stated knowingly. “But it is a fight that is never accomplished. It is more like dancing, and you must keep on dancing.”

This story appeared in the February issue of eNews.

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