Big Sissy and Little Sissy

Collector Trent Kelley has gathered photos of black male couples dating back to the 19th century. Experts say some of the couples could have been gay although many were likely relatives and friends.

My maternal grandfather “Hezekiah” was a big landowner in South Carolina back in the 1940s and 50s.

He had more than 200 acres of land planted in cotton, tobacco, rice and corn — a big deal for a colored man then.

He was one of the few black men who would look at white man in the eye and tell him to kiss his ass if he felt like it. Believe me he paid the price — he was almost lynched once and had to run to Washington, D.C. to live with his brother until things cooled off.

I am out to my mother and she tells me stories about how nothing is new under the sun. There were gay men down South, living out in the country when she was a little girl, too.

Two of them were field hands who worked for my grandfather.

The masculine one was nicknamed “Big Sissy” and the more effeminate one “Little Sissy.” I guess they were top and bottom although hey, you really could never tell. Maybe Big Sissy was giving up that ass, too.

They lived in a little cabin together off in the piney woods, real private like. People tended to leave them alone. Their story fascinates me. How did they meet? How did the community treat them? What became of them?

My grandfather hired them every year to bring in the harvest but my mother said sometimes her father was mean, especially to Little Sissy.

Little Sissy switched out in the field one day and my grandfather walked up behind him and kicked him in the ass. “Stop switching like a woman and walk like a man, muthafucka,” Hezekiah growled.

Little Sissy just rubbed his behind where the boot hit, gave Granddaddy a mean look and kept right on switching that ass.

My mother was working in the fields that day. Granddaddy had her driving a plow by the time she was nine years old. She said she giggled but hushed up fast. Young folks were not allowed to disrespect elders then, whether they were a sissy or not.

Granddaddy was a tall, light-skinned man with gray “cat” eyes and women fell all over him.

He had 13 children with my grandmother and at least three others with various women around town. To this day folks still talk about what a womanizer and drinker he was.

But they also said he was a straight talker and helped out folks in need, even cutting and hauling free firewood for poor families to keep warm in the winter. He always had packages of cookies and crackers in his pockets for his many grandchildren, who he loved dearly.

But my mother wonders whether he had bisexual leanings. Maybe he gay-bashed Little Sissy because that open and proud gay man made him feel uncomfortable about something he was hiding. Or maybe the sissy couple had the 4-11 on Granddaddy.

“Immanuel, you know there was a young preacher who used to live in town who never got married,” my mother told me one day when I visited her. “He was very handsome, almost pretty.”

“And you know, my father and his best friend Robert McElvain and a lot of other men used to go hang out at that preacher’s house all times of night. There were never any women there — always just men.”

“Now that I look back on it that preacher acted in a way we would describe as gay now. But back then we didn’t have a word for it. But it was whispered he liked men.”

“Sweet Tea” cover

“I bet Daddy and a lot of other men were going over there to do you-know-what.”

“Ma, you have got to be kidding,” I said, surprised she would be so honest with me about what some would consider an embarrassing family secret.

But I had to laugh. Granddaddy did sex parties? The more things change the more things stay the same. Maybe I am a chip off the block.

There is a book out about gay black men in the South called “Sweet Tea” by E. Patrick Johnson. I’ve only read excerpts of it but I heard it’s a good book.