When I moved from Missouri to Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 2005, seeing a single out person in public opened up my world in ways I hadn’t experienced in my conservative hometown. For the first time in my life, I had access to discernibly queer spaces—the coffee shop, nightclub, bookstore, and a LGBTQ center—and found models for negotiating society as a queer, gender-nonconforming person. I found belonging.
My partner had a completely different experience when she moved from Chicago to Chapel Hill to start graduate school. Though my partner grew up in suburban Ohio, moving from Illinois, a state that boasts anti-discrimination protection for LGBTQ identities and has multiple openly queer spaces, to North Carolina felt like leaving home. In 2016, the North Carolina legislature passed House Bill 2, a sweepingly anti-LGBTQ legislation that requires people to use the restroom or changing area that corresponds to the sex listed on their birth certificates.
Last fall, I moved to Oxford, Mississippi, to start a doctoral program. To someone from Chicago—or even Chapel Hill—a move to Oxford might feel like a return to the dark ages. Sure, the University of Mississippi offers LGBTQ groups and affirming spaces like the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies, but what about off-campus options? A local nonprofit hosts a monthly queer dance party and a handful of businesses sport rainbow stickers on their doors, but there wasn’t much more naked-eye visibility beyond that—until now.
Jaime Harker and customers at Violet Valley bookstore in Water Valley, Mississippi (Photo credit: Kevin Cozart)
Following in the legacy of queer folks fighting for self-made spaces in the South, literature professor Jaime Harker opened Violet Valley Bookstore in December. Oxford may have seemed like the obvious setting for a queer feminist bookstore due to its rich literary and academic history, but Harker chose Water Valley, a sleepy town about 20 minutes down the road from the University of Mississippi. Though Water Valley had its initial heyday in the 1920s as a railroad hub for the agricultural industry, various entrepreneurs—many of them women—have recently transformed Main Street into a hotspot for creators. In 2008, Annette Trefzer opened Bozarts Gallery, and in 2010, Alexe van Beuren opened the B.T.C. Old Fashioned Grocery, featuring a cafe headed by Harker’s wife, chef Dixie Grimes. After local artists Coulter Fussell and Megan Patton outgrew their gallery space next door to the B.T.C., Harker moved in.
While the cheap rent and proximity to her wife’s cafe certainly made the space an attractive option, Harker’s main goal is spreading queer and feminist visibility beyond the bubble of academia. “There’s so many kids in little towns who will never go to university, who don’t have access to it,” she says. “And the more that things like Mississippi House Bill 1523 are passed and the more people talk about it, the more they’re taught they’re worthless.” HB 1523, also known as the Religious Accommodations Act, protects the denial of services to people based on religious opposition to same-sex marriage, extramarital sex, or trans identities.
It’s only the most recent in a string of discriminatory legislation supported by Governor Phil Bryant. When Bryant spoke at the the university’s commencement in 2014, Harker helped students organize a protest and was startled by the reactions from some of her colleagues. “Even in the English department there was some dissension, and everybody acted like I was the one who was being outrageous, and I should just let it go. That was the moment I thought, you know, I just can’t sit in my office and write books. I need to do more.”
Harker describes the queer community in North Mississippi as a secret society. “If you don’t find the right entrance point, you’re going to think you’re all alone and there’s no one else around there.” While the typical queer coming-of-age story involves moving away from such closeted communities to find the gayborhood in a big progressive city, Harker’s vision creates spaces for rural queers who’ve forgone the metropolitan life. For Harker, Violet Valley’s story is one of do-it-yourself community building. She mentions her recent research on radical lesbian feminists from the ’70s and ’80s as inspiration—women like Carol Seajay, who noticed the lack of lesbian representation in bookstores and opened Old Wives Tales, although she had very little startup money or training. “I have so many more advantages than they have,” Harker says. “They couldn’t just go and crowdsource.” Violet Valley’s Kickstarter Campaign reached its goal of $5,000 within four days, with many of the donations coming from within the community. In total, Violet Valley crowdfunded $8,026.
A customer and Jaime Harker at Violet Valley bookstore in Water Valley, Mississippi (Photo credit: Kevin Cozart)
Harker recognizes that being a tenured faculty member helped her create a queer public space in Water Valley. And though she’s lived in the area for nearly a decade, she’s not bound by the same networks that make it difficult or even dangerous for many queer and trans people in Mississippi to out themselves. “If they say things, their family may not support them, or they may lose their job—there’s no protection against that.” Still, Harker hopes the Main Street visibility of Violet Valley inspires other rural community-builders to stand up against the policies and practices that foster secrecy and isolate LGBTQ people. “That’s not to say that there aren’t dangers, but when we take chances and encourage others to, we start to see that there are more people. That we aren’t the only ones in the world.”
As we chat from two chairs at the back of the bookstore, we hear chatter from outside the front door. I can’t see anything from where I’m sitting, but Harker squints at the the group and laughs. “They’re deciding if they want to come in or not.” She rises from her chair to make sure she’s flipped the sign to say “Open”—she’d popped in on a day off for our interview. Someone pounds loudly on the door, and then the group is gone. “They’re kids who are too scared to come in,” she says.
While news of the bookstore has garnered a great deal of support, including book donations from publishers and a monetary donation from a local church leader, some responses have been less positive. Harker lists off the slew of rumors she’s heard. “The lesbian gang from a neighboring town. That’s my favorite one,” she says drolly. “I’ve been here for nine years, but okay.” Still, she chooses to focus on the overwhelming support and love she’s received. Shortly before the encounter with the group of hecklers, a young girl had come in and asked Harker if she could help organize books.
“It’s almost like there’s this certain narrative around being queer in the South—that it has to be tragic.” She notes shows like The L Word Mississippi that use queer Southerness as tragic spectacle. “I appreciate that some people think I’m so brave,“ she says. “There’s always been gay people, and it’s more complicated than that. There are people who are really brave and doing amazing things all over the place.”