Mississippi is a strange place. Travel guides from the 1970s would’ve called it “a study in contrasts”.
On the one hand, it’s conservative to the point of being regressive, even to this day. If you’re not white, male, and heterosexual — in public, anyway — don’t expect to have it easy.
On the other hand, like most Southern states, Mississippi creates space for “others” — especially gays, blacks, and women. And while these others can’t deviate very far from the boxes that straight white men have built for them, they’ve got some wiggle room within the boxes themselves. (Florence King talks about this in Southern Ladies and Gentlemen.)
So despite the fact that gay Southern men have historically been limited in their career choices — florists, college professors, church organists, etc. — as long as they’ve operated within those confines, they’ve been revered and even protected. Goddess forbid that any husband should make disparaging remarks about his wife’s hairdresser in her presence. He’ll get a tongue-lashing at best, or possibly an extended time-out in the bedroom.
This may explain why, when I was younger, Mississippi’s own PBS network chose to air Sew What’s New, hosted by the smart, sassy, flamboyant, hilarious George Trippon. Trippon was a demon with a sewing machine and clearly, unapologetically gay, but like Paul Lynde in the center square, he was gay within his own little box.
As I grew up, I occasionally asked people if they’d ever watched Trippon’s show. None had. I’d begun to think I might’ve imagined it all until my friend, Flynn, confirmed that he’d been fascinated by Trippon, too. We’d each scoured the internet looking for clips but come up mostly empty handed, until this week, Flynn stumbled across a motherlode — and a new mini-documentary by Shawn Quinlan.
Watch it below, and you’ll see that Trippon is gay enough to make Quentin Crisp seem positively butch by comparison. He was out, loud, and proud long before gay pride parades, long before Stonewall. Was he a minstrel? Maybe. But he was nobody’s fool.