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Rebels, Rubyfruit, and Rhinestones. Queering Space in the Stonewall South
James T. Sears
New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 2001
$28.00, 420 pages, ISBN : 0-8135-2964-6.

Guillaume Marche
Université de Paris 12

Rebels, Rubyfruit, and Rhinestones documents the diverse experiences of a generation of gays, lesbians and bisexuals in the South through the 1970s. Its author, James T. Sears, is an unaffiliated academic specializing in education and social science, who has taught at a variety of institutions, including Trinity University (Texas), the University of South Carolina and Harvard University. Despite its author’s credentials and its being published by Rutgers University Press, Rebels, Rubyfruit, and Rhinestones is not an academic essay: the subtitle (Queering Space in the Stonewall South) is thus misleading as it seems to foreshadow an analysis of the symbolic transformation of homosexual experience in the South following Stonewall—the June 1969 uprising in New York which launched the gay liberation movement.

Instead James Sears chronicles the individual stories of a dozen people whose paths intersect in the book as they did in life. The book unfolds along twenty-six roughly chronological chapters, spanning the decade from Stonewall to the tenth-anniversary commemorative March on Washington in 1979. Each chapter at the same time focuses more specifically on a given set of locales, issues or people; but there are no strict space, time or theme boundaries between chapters—on the contrary they tend to overlap, as characters, events and places keep recurring throughout the book.

Indeed the people on whose lives Rebels, Rubyfruit, and Rhinestones is based come across as characters, rather than as historical figures, due to the book’s narrative style. Sears tells their stories in a wealth of detail, which is rather confusing at times, but does convey a sense of intimacy with these prime witnesses of a period of dramatic change in queer experience in the United States. Rebels, Rubyfruit, and Rhinestones thus throws light upon the actual ways in which gay and lesbian identity and mobilization evolved in the wake of Stonewall by telling a story at a micro-social level, through the examples of specific individuals and local organizations: the author for instance informs the readers about the deep effects on many a lesbian’s conscience of such groundbreaking statements as “The Woman-Identified Woman” in quite as enlightening a way as any theoretical analysis might.

The readers can but be struck by the sense of continuity before and after the 1969 events, which historical and sociological accounts of the gay and lesbian movement usually treat as a dramatic watershed in mobilization. Sears draws his readers’ attention to pre-Stonewall homosexual mobilization (be it homophile, feminist, anti-War or pro-Civil Rights) and to the fact that its structures and agents were instrumental in spreading the liberationist spirit Stonewall inspired. This is made all the more effective by the book’s focus on the South, where the shock-wave of the events in remote New York was likely to have lost strength.

The book likewise documents a striking degree of continuity between a wide range of counter-cultural practices and the emergence of social movement. Chapter after chapter exposes how a drag pageant for instance turned out to be a major mobilizing turf for the struggle against a local anti-cross-dressing ordinance, or how a lesbian prom organized for the sake of socializing and having fun evolved into a lesbian-feminist consciousness-raising group.

Rebels, Rubyfruit, and Rhinestones
also points out to the wide variety of reactions to the gay liberationist spirit of the 1970s: the spectrum of attitudes comes across as a rather continuous one. For instance one character is at once a closeted soldier and a radical activist; chapter twelve similarly illustrates how gay and lesbian mobilization in Miami grew more radical as it was achieving more and more victories, which goes against the grain of a received idea that social movements tend to mellow down as their agenda is gradually being fulfilled.

These interpretations however remain totally implicit in Rebels, Rubyfruit, and Rhinestones, which consistently abstains from anything save narrative. The author never articulates an explicit argument about the events and situations he refers to, so that the book has a raw-material feel to it and the readers are left to draw their own conclusions. As a consequence Rebels, Rubyfruit, and Rhinestones is of little academic use without a solid preliminary familiarity with gay and lesbian or feminist mobilization and culture. The author however does occasionally offer useful explanations about the origins of the term “drag” for cross-dressing or the use of the Greek letter lambda to symbolize anything not heterosexual, for instance.

But the narration itself can also prove quite confusing as characters constantly seem to move in and out of focus, while many stories are left without a resolution for pages on end. As a result the book does not quite come off as a handy documentary source either, since relevant information about a given issue, event, or organization may easily be scattered throughout the volume. Due to its lavish style of story-telling, Rebels, Rubyfruit, and Rhinestones thus fails to convey a clear comprehensive view of the “queering of space in the Stonewall South”; but it does offer most convincing accounts of specific atmospheres, places or incidents, which may provide scholars with colorful and detailed illustrations of such crucial sociological issues as the ins and outs of the birth of an organization or of an individual’s graduation to social movement activism.

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