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An Altered View: How A Sheltered Life Provides A Contrasting View of History

In the complex landscape of gay and lesbian history in the United States, contextualizing historical attitudes towards homosexuality and the LGBTQ community through personal narratives has provided a nuanced understanding of the acceptance, persecution, and forward fight for equality over time through first-hand accounts. However, distinct generational eras, regionality, societal upbringing, and religious and sexual preference each offer compelling, differing viewpoints that may provide a stark contrast to the significant themes highlighted throughout gay and lesbian history. Through candid conversations and engaging with two pivotal voices in my life - my mother, Melody, and my grandmother, Frances - we unravel their experiences, views, and attitudes toward the LGBTQ community. In contrast with the historical context, each provides a recollection of the formidable early years of their life that underlines how one's upbringing can forever alter attitudes and response towards homosexuals, the LGBTQ community, and their kin.

Like me, my mother and grandmother grew up in Texas, though each experienced vast differences in their childhoods, partly due to the generational, economic, and societal divide. Frances Larson, née Granado, was born in Brownsville, Texas, on October 10, 1935, and became a first-generation American. Frances, the middle child of thirteen, lived a humble life on her father's plantation, the Southmost Plantation. Located at the end of Southmost Road and spanning to the Rio Grande River, she spent her early years helping around the plantation, picking cotton and corn, raising livestock, and eventually running the family grocery store. Following her eighth-grade year, Frances dropped out of school to attend to her mother, who was ill, and matured overnight to attend to her six younger siblings, who needed a maternal figure. Living a life that centered around her family, she relied on her faith to get her through the difficult time; she was raised Catholic before converting to Protestant Christianity later in life. At eighteen, she married my grandfather, Roland, and uprooted their life in Brownsville to follow the dredging work across the South before settling in our hometown, Baytown, Texas. It was here that they would raise five kids: my father, Lee Roy, the middle child born in 1959.

My mother, Melody Iturralde, née Nixon, was born in Houston, Texas, on February 20, 1965, and adopted into a loving home shortly after. Growing up in the suburbs of Houston, in Pasadena, Texas, life was the idealistic, simple life of a single-child home. At the time, her neighbors looked out for one another; everyone was on a first-name basis and never feared leaving their front doors unlocked at any time of the day. Raised by parents who were part of a traveling Christian gospel band, The Singing Nixons, the church was at the core of their weekly schedule. When she was not in school, choir, or band, she was most likely found at the church with her father as he practiced the piano. Unlike Frances, Melody graduated high school and had great aspirations in life. Not long after, she would marry my father, Lee Roy, and settle down in Baytown before giving birth to my sister, Ashlee, in 1988 and myself in 1991.

As evangelical Christians who were members of Assemblies of God churches, a hybrid of Southern Pentecostal and Baptist, neither my mother nor grandmother recount ever feeling aligned with the sentiments of hate that the evangelical church was spewing. My grandmother, Frances, did not even know what gay was until she was introduced to her pastor's son, Rodney, in 1962 due to the removed life she lived on the plantation up until then. However, the introduction came out of heteronormative thinking when asking another church member how many children and grandchildren her new pastors had. She recalls, "Sister Bevins replied that Sister Woods had three boys, but one is gay. I said, 'What is that?' I thought it was a handicap problem" (Larson). She elaborated that she was expecting him to be missing an arm or leg or that maybe his mind was not all there.

Nevertheless, to her, he was just Rodney, the pastor's son, and did not see him as any different from the other members of the congregation at church. Unlike my grandmother, a part of a new generation, my mother knowingly crossed paths with several gay men in almost every part of her formidable years growing up. Layton, a member of her church who she recounts as a gifted musician, was the first gay man she can remember being around as a child. Our Nana's beautician, Lou, is the second gay man she remembers sharing space with from about the age of seven, and then her fellow middle school classmate, Eric, from about the age of twelve. Of the same sentiments expressed by my grandmother, these men were not an abomination, "God made us the way we are supposed to be," she said with a smile on her face (Iturralde).

Their compassion for the human soul and alignment with the Christian teachings of Jesus to love one another provide a stark juxtaposition to the national evangelical narrative of the 1960s and 1970s that outlined that "...the United States faced a moral crisis…" and that the gender binary should be the central organization of the Christian family (The Sexual Revolution & Rise of the Christian Right in the 1970s, 20 Nov. 2023). It provides an additional dimension to the conversation that we often do not hear due to the loudness coming from the evangelical right, that not all evangelical Christians align with the extreme moral majority of Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, or Anita Bryant, even though "…we are taught it is a sin through the church" (Iturralde). For God is love, God is patient, God is kind, and God is not hate.

While both my mother and grandmother shared the same faith, they also shared a sense of shelteredness that would perpetuate a world that left them aloof to the LGBTQ community and homosexuality for many years to come. However, each was influenced by separate but equal forces in their own right. As Grandma grew up with extremely humble beginnings, her family did not own a television, only a radio, nor was acquiring one a high priority after marriage due to the expense. "We did not own a television set, Grandpa and I, until 1962 when we officially moved to Baytown," she recalls with gusto (Larson). Without the connection to the outside world, living in small towns across the South, Frances could only draw upon her surroundings, including local papers, friends, and radio, to help further her understanding of the world beyond her county line. This removal from the real world due to a financial paywall would hinder her from a furthered understanding of the nationwide push by the FBI and local police forces to warn parents about homosexuals in the 40s and 50s or even the full extent of the Lavender Scare (Kinsey, Heteronormativity & Postwar Sexual Science, 11 Oct. 2023).

However, in my mother's case, being of a different generation, she either missed or has no recollection of the major issues plaguing the LGBTQ community that would have provided insight into homosexuals. Being born in 1965, Melody missed the Lavender Scare altogether and entered the world right into the era of the gay liberation movement, just a year after the Compton's Cafeteria Riots of 1964 (Stonewall (1969) and Gay Liberation, 1 Nov. 2023). Raised in such a prolific time for the LGBTQ community, my Nana, my mother's adopted mother, curtailed what she was exposed to help shield her from the "evil" of the world. Once her parents divorced at age ten, my Nana would be "…less controlling but still watched what I was exposed to, to an extent" (Iturralde). By playing a part in controlling the narrative as the adult in the room, Nana ultimately sheltered my mother from a completely different world than that of the religious, skewed reality she wanted to believe they lived inside.

Through the external factors that, in turn, provided a duality to the reality of homosexuals and their struggles, my mother and grandmother's experiences echo that of the double life that members of the LGBTQ community lived in order to survive in a heteronormative world (Gay Responses to Antigay Ideology, 23 Oct. 2023). While both experiences were not life-altering by any means in the same vein as it was for homosexuals, each was creating a safe space to flourish, either consciously by my Nana or subconsciously through financial prioritization. It was as if each were creating their own gay bar - a safe space where like individuals could gather to be their authentic selves while controlling the environment from the outside world (Gay Responses to Antigay Ideology, 23 Oct. 2023).

As the country entered the AIDS epidemic and fear-mongering became the norm in our society, in Texas, the fear did not change the perception of the LGBTQ community in my mother's and grandmother's eyes. Neither could not understand how people could not lead with compassion toward those who were infected or dying, as each knew of people who died of AIDS. As a woman of faith, my grandmother said she would just "...pray and pray and pray while watching the news… that the Lord keep an eye on all these people and to protect them from so many hateful people…" (Larson). However, once Rodney confirmed his diagnosis, people at the church grew hard hearts and questioned why Frances would hug him or even shake his hand. However, the answer was simple - she is a hugger! In contrast to the Falwell's or the Dobson's, my grandmother is the epitome of Christ-like. "You know God wants us to love each other and to be nice to each other, and that's definitely how I feel about it," she said (Larson).

My mother's connections to AIDS were not close, besides Rodney, as my parents attended the same church as my grandparents. It was not until she heard Layton had died that she even knew he was sick. Until this point, she thought he had realized his homosexuality was just a part of growing up and finding his way in life as he eventually married a woman to settle down. However, once it came out that he died of AIDS, the church he and my mother grew up in refused to hold his service. Mom understood as they were raised to "...believe homosexuality was a sin" but could not wrap her head around the idea that the church would shun their leading organ player after the many years of contributions to them.

Though the paranoia and fear rippled through the country year after year, the light inside of these beautiful women during such a dark time draws a parallel to the many women who stepped up to nurse for the sick within the LGBTQ community (AIDS, 27 Nov. 2023). Nevertheless, one wonders how their understanding of those infected that were not related could be so profound, but upon my diagnosis as HIV positive in 2012, it created a shockwave. Was it too close to home for them? Were they reliving the 80s and 90s all over again? Ultimately, one believes that it was easy for them to separate themselves from the epidemic as it was not at their doorfront until now, though in my case, HIV was not a death sentence anymore.

Contrary to the religious morals, teachings, and hate that have plagued LGBTQ history, conversations with my mother and grandmother prove it does not always breed hostility toward homosexuals. Similarly, while living a sheltered life due to external forces, the perception of the community was not warped upon the first introduction to the homosexual community, just an abundance of love and acceptance. By leading with compassion, love, and empathy, my mother and grandmother provide a contrasting view of contextual historical attitudes towards homosexuality and the LGBTQ community. Through analyzing the distinct generational eras, regionality, societal upbringing, and religious preference, my mother, Melody, and my grandmother, Frances, provide a nuanced, differing viewpoint. With candid conversations and engagement with these two prolific women, they each provide a recollection of their formidable early years that underlines how one's upbringing can forever alter attitudes and response towards homosexuals, the LGBTQ community, and their kin.




Works Cited

 

Chauncey, George. "AIDS." US Lesbian & Gay History, 27 Nov. 2023, Columbia University, New York, NY. Course Lecture.

Chauncey, George. "Gay Responses to Antigay Ideology." US Lesbian & Gay History, 23 Oct. 2023, Columbia University, New York, NY. Course Lecture.

Chauncey, George. "Kinsey, Heteronormativity & Postwar Sexual Science." US Lesbian & Gay History, 11 Oct. 2023, Columbia University, New York, NY. Course Lecture.

Chauncey, George. "Stonewall (1969) and Gay Liberation." US Lesbian & Gay History, 1 Nov. 2023, Columbia University, New York, NY. Course Lecture.

Chauncey, George. "The Sexual Revolution & Rise of the Christian Right in the 1970s." US Lesbian & Gay History, 20 Nov. 2023, Columbia University, New York, NY. Course Lecture.

Iturralde, Melody Nixon. Interview. Conducted by Lee Aaron Larson. 23 Nov. 2023.

Larson, Frances. Interview. Conducted by Lee Aaron Larson. 2 Dec. 2023.

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