Suzanne Pharr was born in 1939, the youngest of eight kids, and raised on a farm near Lawrenceville, Georgia. From day one, she was in her own words a “rebellious kid” – not just because she didn’t fit gender norms and expectations, but because she was endlessly curious about injustice and determined to address it and change it.

Suzanne went to college in Georgia and eventually earned an MA in English at SUNY/Buffalo. At one point, she and a girlfriend headed off to New Zealand to be free-spirited ex-pats. But the social turmoil and violence of late-1960s America drew Suzanne back. She became a permanent warrior for the rights of women, queers, people of color, and anyone getting a raw deal in a privilege-driven society.

Moving back to the South, Suzanne helped found or founded a rich variety of women’s projects and initiatives including the first domestic violence shelter in Arkansas and the Arkansas Women’s Project. Of critical importance was her leadership with the Women’s Watchcare Network, which Suzanne helped found in the late 1980s to monitor and document religious, racist, sexist, and anti-gay and lesbian violence. 

In 1993, Suzanne helped found Southerners on New Ground (SONG), which works to overcome racial and economic divisions within the queer community. From 1999 to2004, Suzanne was the first woman executive director of the Highlander Center, a historic Tennessee social justice leadership training school and cultural center. Suzanne’s books include Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism and In the Time of the Right: Reflections on Liberation.

It was an extraordinary pleasure to interview Suzanne at the modest Little Rock home that she shares with her partner Renee, and their sweet pup Ted. Afterwards, our OUTWORDS team took a short drive to Central High School, where in 1957 the Little Rock Nine endured vicious racial hatred in a quest for an educational equality. It was a quiet Saturday afternoon, getting towards sundown. The stately brick building was suffused in shadows. We were buoyed by the spirit of Suzanne Pharr, a small, slender woman with an unbending will to cultivate justice, both within and beyond the LGBTQ community.
Natalie Tsui: We're all set and we're rolling.
Mason Funk: Okay. Sure no worries. Okay I don't want to lose thread either. I might circle back to that but, let's start by having you state and spell your first and last names please.
Suzanne Pharr: Suzanne, S-U-Z-A-N-N-E, Pharr, P-H-A-R-R
Mason Funk: [00:00:30] Okay and please tell us your birthdate and your place of birth.
Suzanne Pharr: Birthdate is 5/11/39 and my birth place is Hog Mountain, Georgia in my mother's bed.
Mason Funk: [inaudible]
Suzanne Pharr: Not in a hospital.
Mason Funk: [00:01:00] So, we won't spend too much time on your childhood but, I did think that the story on your mother's family and culture and your father's family and culture coming together seem to have a shaping form of affect on you. I'm wondering if you could talk about that.
Suzanne Pharr: [00:01:30] Well, both of my parents came out of Scotch-Irish and more Irish than anything else in the British Isles and there's more than one kind of Irish person. There's the one that dances and often has love of drinking and fun, and then there's the one that's a little more serious and tends more toward being very thoughty and reads a lot and pretty reserved, that was my father's family. My mother's family, not the drinking but, the loving to have fun. Having lots of humor and good food and laughing and talking and that sort of thing where the other's more reserved. Those kind of came together in the cycle. A share of both of those. My good luck.
Mason Funk: How do you feel like those shared qualities have served you on your path in your work?
Suzanne Pharr: [00:02:30] I think one is I love fun and it's kept me sane because my work has been often with things that are very hard. For an extended period of time in domestic violence. In the 70's we created the first battered women's shelter in Arkansas up in Fayetteville and I became the chair of the board there as an out lesbian which, then brought us conflict as you can imagine. And so, we had the opportunity in the late 70's to work with that conflict openly rather than having people who were closeted, having open lesbians there so that when we would go to the county or the city and say we want money for the shelter, we would actually talk about this as opposed to having this undercurrent and yes we had attack because of that but, we also gained support because of it. There's nothing like authenticity I think to draw in support over the long-term. Maybe not in the short-term but, over the long-term.
Mason Funk: Interesting. Okay, we're going to get back to that as well. Oh, among the many childhood stories I've read, maybe you could tell us the story of being in the elevator with your mother and wondering about who was going to feed the mules.
Suzanne Pharr: [00:04:00] I don't know how old I was. I wasn't in school yet so, I'm guessing I was three or four. We lived 35 miles outside of Atlanta and six miles outside of a little town, the little town was Lawrenceville, little at that time, but bedroom community now and it was a very big deal to go to Atlanta. In the county we lived on dirt roads, you know, I was born in '39 so, in the 40's people might have a car but, probably wouldn't be a new car, especially on a farm. We had always been poor farmers but, we were coming out of the depression at that time as well. Things were beginning to pick up after the war. I was on a trip to Atlanta with my mother and one of my sisters and we were on an elevator in the store called Riches, which was quite well known department store there and you dressed up when you went.
Here was my mother in a dress that she had made and her gloves and she was very class conscious as you might be when you went to Atlanta and you came off a farm and there was this very well to do woman there wrapped in her fur and her gloves and I look at my mother and I say, "But mother, who's going to feed the mules tonight?", and that was because, I don't know if I would say I was a queer kid, I was certainly a kid that wasn't living solidly within her gender. I did feed the mules every night. I guess I must have been more than three, I must have been more like four or five. We didn't start school until six. Here comes my brother who was just older than I, was scared to go out into the barn loft and I tormented him by saying, "Well, I'm not scared".
Of course, I got the job and I was very, very proud of that job because I had proven myself, you know, tough. I was the youngest of eight children. I am the youngest of eight children and the birth line goes three daughters, four sons and people used to ask my mother, "Well, how many children do you have?", she would say, "Three girls, four boys and Suzanne", and it took me until probably my 50's to understand that was about gender. Never occurred to me that there was anything weird to say, "Three girls, four boys and Suzanne". That's a little bit of a gender story, “Who's going to feed the mules tonight.”
Mason Funk: [00:07:00] Do you think it occurred... Did it ever occur to her that she was breaking the binary or that she was...
Suzanne Pharr: [00:07:30] I don't think so. Everybody in my family said it. I did know they thought I was different. But, I also had the good luck to be born last and pretty loved by everyone. But, my mother and I struggled around gender, I didn't know it was gender then. I just knew that we struggled with what I was going to wear. Still I think about back then I didn't thing about myself as trans. I think I was a kid that was very fluid in my gender and what I loved and I think fluidity is a great place to be. A very liberated place. Fluidity is what really knocks the bottom out of gender stereotypes. It really does. It's just like, "Well, what are we do going to do with this?". You're neither here nor there, oh my goodness. Everything is possible.
Mason Funk: [00:08:00] Yeah.
Suzanne Pharr: [00:08:30] So, I feel lucky in that. So, she wasn't happy when I came home from the fourth grade and took her sewing scissors, which I was never to touch, and cut my long hair off, went outside, sneaky, took the scissors as I supposed to do, went outside in the yard and cut my hair off because I had had it. She took me to a barber shop to have it cut, so was that punishment? I don't know. I think I loved it to cut it just square around my head ugly as can be but, I was like, "Phew, I got to go to a barber shop".
Mason Funk: Was she mad? Your mom, when you cut your hair?
Suzanne Pharr: [00:09:00] Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Right up there next to, when I was in the third grade and in our school they showed a... It was a rural school so, to see a film was a rare thing. The film we got to see was on the Crucifixion and it's one of those films where you have Christ on the cross and clouds and thunder and lightning coming down and blood and I watched that as a school child and we were very much church people. I was a very, very questioning, rebellious child and I came home and I said, "Mother, we saw this film in school", should we call it a film? Should we call it a movie? Saw this movie about Jesus and God did this and God did that and I said, "I just don't believe that. I don't believe that. It had this thunder and all this crazy stuff and I don't believe it", and she looked me in the eye and said, "Don't you ever, ever say that again", which for a personality like mine, was all I needed. Sent me on another track.
Natalie Tsui: Okay. So, earlier there were dogs barking in the background.
Mason Funk: Okay.
Natalie Tsui: I don't know if you're sure about that.
Suzanne Pharr: My dog's not here. My dog's over at the children's hospital.
Natalie Tsui: Okay. So, it's just neighborhood dogs. It wasn't super present. It was kind of in the background. [crosstalk 00:10:13]
Mason Funk: That's fine. Yeah.
Suzanne Pharr: I think you'll be hearing a number of things. It'll give ambiance to the interview.
Suzanne Pharr: People'll hear that and they'll say, "Oh my, she must be on literal hike".
Mason Funk: You got barking dogs.
Suzanne Pharr: [00:10:30] Right.
Mason Funk: These stories are funny. They're interesting but, I wonder if there were ever times when this evident, not fitting in-ness, not being a traditional boy or girl and so on, were there times when it felt like it cost you internally? Did you feel a sense of isolation or the cost of not fitting in?
Suzanne Pharr: As a child?
Mason Funk: Or as a kid, kind of growing up into adolescence, maybe?
Suzanne Pharr: [00:11:00] Not so much. Not till I got into college.
Mason Funk: Try to fit my question into your answer if you don't mind. Like when you say, 'Not so much', [crosstalk 00:11:03].
Suzanne Pharr: [00:11:30] Oh okay. I don't know that I ever felt really strongly as a child that I didn't fit in because of what gender fluidity I had. I think part of that was coming up in the country. We were in farm country where it was what people had dirt farms and everybody worked and worked hard. We would come home from school and go to the fields and then we would come in and do work around chickens and pigs and all that thing at night. My mother worked extraordinarily hard in the fields as well as did the garden, as well as did all that cooking for ten people, you know, all of that. So, I think that gender roles were strong but, at the same time, there was some space in it for... You know it's also the south so there's great space for eccentricity and a lot of gay men, in particular, would move along the line of eccentricity and I think I moved, in part, along the line of, not then of eccentricity that came later but, more of difference and I think people were used to tomboys. So, as I grew into an avid sports person playing basketball starting at sixth grade, running through high school and college, that opens space for that... I think I was just fortunate, I was born into a stable family. Mother and father who didn't have enormous fights, who didn't have trouble with addiction.
It's not like they were perfect, but it’s that it was stable. You could count on every day, you saw your mother and father working and going to the fields, you saw their friends, everything was focused around church and school, community relations were family, church and school, and that was basic in the south that I occupied at that time. Where the most struggle was, was my mother made all of my clothes, made all of our clothes and was around what I was going to wear. She was actually, I think, kind of extraordinary in that she tried to adjust my clothes, like when I went to college, she would make skirts for me with pockets that I could put my hands in, patch pockets on the outside so that I could accommodate that thing that I have till this moment of always carrying stuff in my pockets. I'm known with all of my closest friends as the person who always has two knives in her pocket. I could show them to you right now.
Mason Funk: Really?
Suzanne Pharr: [00:14:30] Yep. Just to show that, I take that back, it's not just two knives, this is my standard fair for my pockets.
Mason Funk: What is the third item?
Suzanne Pharr: [00:15:00] Chapstick. Such classic butch fair. But, also living in the country and living in the country at the time I did, in the 40's and 50's, I didn't know anyone who was a lesbian or a gay man or queer. I didn't have any of that language. I didn't have... So, when I went to school, I couldn't wait to go to school, went at six and having four brothers at home and it's not like we all played together, you know, if we struggled... I mean, we played but, it was very tomboyish kind of play or no play at all from them. I built my life around animals and the love of animals and the love of work, which was another gift from my Irish parents which was, even though I was a wild child, was always that gift of wanting to be of use. There's a great poem by Marge Piercy called "To be of Use" which, is kind of the way I view my life. Anyway, when I went to school, I played with the boys in my class. We didn't have a playground. It was all red clay hills and we had little bitty cars and I played cars with them. I was the only girl that played with them.
Then, I'd play with the girls where we built things in the woods, nests, places to hide and that kind of thing and I lived both of those happily. But, I had never heard the word "homosexual" or any negative content about people and the way in which they lived in terms of gender in that way until I went to college, until I was called homosexual. I was like, "Whoa. I'll have to read the one book available".
Mason Funk: What is this thing they say I am?
Suzanne Pharr: [00:17:00] Yeah, right. I think that's a little bit unusual too and I think you would find a lot of people giving a similar experience in the rural south and with the time as a combination of those two things. Then it got rough, it got rough after that. I had my first girlfriend when I was Freshman in high school.
Mason Funk: Just one sec.
Natalie Tsui: Plane.
Mason Funk: Oh, just waiting for a plane to clear.
Suzanne Pharr: [00:17:30] Oh, okay. Have a drink of water then. Are you getting more than you're asking? If you want me to slow down a bit.
Mason Funk: No, I'm aware we're spending time on this but, I find it fascinating, yet at a certain point, I'll cut myself and you off and we'll jump ahead. I think, probably this story of your first girlfriend in high school and the repercussions of that will be a good capper for the transition or a good transitional story.
Natalie Tsui: It's still there but, it's pretty much clear. I think we can...
Suzanne Pharr: You never want to do one of these interviews in Atlanta.
Mason Funk: [00:18:00] Is that so? Really?
Suzanne Pharr: Where some of my best friends live, it's the largest airport in the world.
Suzanne Pharr: It's like thunder.
Mason Funk: Is it really?
Suzanne Pharr: All the time.
Mason Funk: Oh, my gosh.
Suzanne Pharr: I mean, there's parts of town that you can go to but, if you're anyway on that side of town, you know how a thunderstorm rolls? It sounds like that.
Suzanne Pharr: Yeah. Shot is like whoa.
Mason Funk: Okay, I think we're good, right?
Natalie Tsui: Yeah, yeah.
Mason Funk: [00:18:30] So, tell me about having your first girlfriend.
Suzanne Pharr: Well, I was a basketball player and she was a cheerleader.
Mason Funk: Do me a favor. Say your first girlfriend.
Suzanne Pharr: [00:19:00] Oh. My first girlfriend, I played basketball in sixth grade on clay courts out in the country and so, several hours were pretty good at that. We went into town to high school which was town, six miles away. It was a big deal, and we became a big deal because we were these tough country girls and I was able to play varsity ball in my freshman year which was pretty lucky. Here was this cheerleader and how stereotypical is this? It's kind of embarrassing to be so classically stereotypical. We didn't know that language. Didn't know the language of homosexual but, we knew that we weren't doing what people do. We were just basically 100% secretive and because in that time it was understood that girls had spend the nights, you went to their houses, you also had girls parties you spend the night kind of thing but, she and I both dated boys the whole time, we dated football stars. We were also constantly double dating but, you know, when you're a teenager it's just rampant sexuality. You're not so concerned about how to contain it, you just know you're in this kind of...
In the rural south, white rural south in particular, you're in this kind of tight Christian culture around sexuality and so, things are pretty tamped down and here you have this … Your hormones are just dancing all over the place and you live that sexuality. We were never found out. The only struggle in that was when she and I would have struggle because it's hard to play under radar. But, being in sports makes it all a lot easier. I'm sure people may have told you that before, in that you get a little bit more space to be ... a little bit easier for women. You're given a little bit of space to be strong and to do things that fall a little bit out of classical feminine lines. So, all of those things.
Mason Funk: What ever happened to that girlfriend? Do you know where she is today?
Suzanne Pharr: No. I don't know where she is today. That’s so wrong with me I'm sure but...
Mason Funk: Pardon me?
Suzanne Pharr: I said, that's wrong of me I'm sure that I don't know where she is today.
Mason Funk: [00:21:30] Oh I don't know. You say that about your first girlfriend, no one really knows but, I just wondered [crosstalk 00:21:28] you like, "oh yeah, today she's blank", you know?
Suzanne Pharr: I remember her name.
Mason Funk: I wonder if she looks back and remembers that relationship as well. It's such a naïve question in some ways but, well I have two questions, oopsy. Oh, whatever that was. What is the...
Suzanne Pharr: I think that's my phone but it should be turned off.
Natalie Tsui: I'll get it.
Suzanne Pharr: Would you mind...
Natalie Tsui: You're kind of plugged in there. Where is it?
Suzanne Pharr: Maybe lying right there on that table?
Natalie Tsui: Oh yeah. I'll just turn it on silent.
Suzanne Pharr: Oh, is it not on silent?
Natalie Tsui: [00:22:00] It is not.
Suzanne Pharr: Okay, great. Do it. Thought I'd conscientiously done that.
Natalie Tsui: Do you have it on vibrate by chance?
Suzanne Pharr: I don't think so. Why don't we just cut it totally off. That would probably be our best bet.
Natalie Tsui: [00:22:30] Let's just make sure that it's off. Yeah. Oh, great. That's perfect.
Suzanne Pharr: I'm not getting over there next to that plant.
Mason Funk: Don't touch that. God forbid.
Suzanne Pharr: I want the ambiance to be just right.
Mason Funk: Just in but, not too flamboyant.
Suzanne Pharr: Right. If it had flowers you would probably get worried.
Mason Funk: [00:23:00] Yeah. I could stack [inaudible] on there. It might seem like it's a naïve question but, I wonder since you mentioned that you and your first girlfriend definitely never heard the term homosexual but, you knew you were doing something "wrong".
Mason Funk: That's what I was wondering. How do we know? Is it just that we don't see it anywhere else or what that makes us know, that's not good?
I think it has to have something to do with... Well one, everything you see is different from that, so if you vary from that, that's got to be different. Got to be in your mind like, "Am I right? Something wrong with me?", so there's that but, I think you put religious culture, whatever society it is that has these binding and often stern laws about behavior and so you're getting that even though people aren't using that language or whatever. Part of it is that, we look at, at that time, we look at heterosexuality, it has so many rules and regulations, not so much now. Maybe we helped mess that up, I don't know. I think very possibly we have been totally libratory forces.
Mason Funk: I certainly hope so.
Suzanne Pharr: [00:24:30] Though many people say we have, that liberalization causes chaos and breakdown of family, that kind of thing. We didn't have that power but, we did have the power to get people to see and think on a much larger kind of way and to free up some of their spirit behavior and their sexuality.
Mason Funk: [00:25:00] Right. Which obviously has been in such conflict with organized religion. The other question I have about that period in your life is what were you aware of in terms of racial politics, racial structure, codes, what's right, what's wrong and when did you know that you were going to be at odds with the prevailing structures around race in the south?
Suzanne Pharr: I would say...
Mason Funk: [00:25:30] Kind of form my question into your answer, if you could. Let us know what you're talking about.
Suzanne Pharr: Yeah. My awareness of racial politics or racial divide, I don't even know if I knew the word politics at this time of my life, was early in the 50's and my family was part of a small Methodist church, very, very community related, out in the country and I didn't know one person of color.
Natalie Tsui: [00:26:00] [inaudible]. Looks like a plane.
Mason Funk: That was just a car.
Natalie Tsui: Oh, okay.
Mason Funk: I think it's gone now.
Natalie Tsui: There's also someone yelling, but I think....
Suzanne Pharr: You're hearing my neighbors. Down here's a large house with two or three families in it and the kids will probably go out and play in the swimming pool.
Natalie Tsui: Oh.
Mason Funk: I mean, yeah.
Natalie Tsui: We'll just have to live with that.
Mason Funk: We have to live with that.
Suzanne Pharr: In fact, it might get worse.
Suzanne Pharr: [00:26:30] It's when they put on that booming bass but, it's a little early in the day. That's why I was hoping that if you went to seven tonight you would be into the...
Mason Funk: Yeah. We would start getting that especially that it's not a weekend day.
Suzanne Pharr: [00:27:00] So, I didn't know one person of color. The little town that I lived six miles outside of had a small black community, more towards northern Georgia, when Georgia splits into flat, rich country, rich land where the plantations and all that were. I lived more up towards where the hills start going up to the mountains of north Georgia. I lived in a small white community and I heard family talk about black people. They had two black families that lived on my grandfather's farm who were, I guess, children of freed slaves but, my dad and his brothers were sharecropping with my grandfather, but I was never around them. This was before I was born. But, when the conflict happened was when that little Methodist church began preaching against the segregation and there was this huge fight. The church pretty much broke apart at that time and I was able to hear all that. One of the things that I think formed my political life was that I was so rebellious and there's nothing like, you know, rebelliousness can take you down a really bad road or it can take you down a road of trying to make social change and you know how that works.
Often people don't urge you towards any that's close to social change. They actually do many things that lead you down into something else and you can't get someone to move towards social changes just out of rebellion, by asking them to just be do-gooders, we don't want to do that. I was incited by that because it was kind of like my mother saying to me, "Don't ever say that to me again", so with this at our dining table there were horrific conversations about that and horrific conversations in the church. I must have been 13 or so at that time, 12 or 13, you know, very formative time for me. That began to raise my consciousness but, mostly I was a kid that was just pathetic in the sense of my awareness of the world. I was a basketball player, I wasn't a great student. I was saved in my intellectual life in the fact that my family read. That was in there somewhere in my father's tradition and the book mobile came by the dirt road by my house, you could go down and get books because I had a terrible education in terms of the public school at that time taught by, many teachers were housewives that didn't have degrees. Just a very sad educational system.
So, I was...
Mason Funk: [00:30:00] Sorry.
Natalie Tsui: There's two. There's the one that was kind of soft and another join it. Actually, would you mind handing me that cushion?
Mason Funk: This one?
Natalie Tsui: Yeah. I'm sitting on this wicker type chair and it's...
Mason Funk: Oh. There you go.
Suzanne Pharr: I should have gotten you... Those are horrible chairs. Would you like one of the dining room chairs?
Natalie Tsui: This will be okay.
Suzanne Pharr: It's okay?
Natalie Tsui: Yeah, it's fine. It's still there.
Mason Funk: [00:30:30] Yeah, what is that? A plane?
Natalie Tsui: Yeah, I think it's a plane but, it's like two of them.
Suzanne Pharr: You know what it is? It's a small plane where it's a beautiful day and people are out flying for recreation.
Natalie Tsui: Oh yeah, because it sounds like it kind of circling around
Suzanne Pharr: The airport is way over that way. You almost never hear a plane here.
Mason Funk: Yeah, okay.
Natalie Tsui: It's still there but, it sounds like it might be there so...
Mason Funk: [00:31:00] Let's keep going. It's really, really faint. So, you were saying the educational system per se [crosstalk 00:30:59]
Suzanne Pharr: [00:31:30] I was saying I was so unaware of public issues. I did hear that conversation, I did hear the news but, having a keen understanding of Little Rock where desegregation happened the year I graduated from high school, that was my graduation year that Central High with the Little Rock nine desegregated, I had very little awareness. Where I got politicize was in college. There was a woman there who was sent there by the United Methodist church, not the United Methodist, the Presbyterian Church, to do the YWCA and she took... The students that were drawn to the YWCA at that point were all, looking back now, I know they were almost all lesbians. They were the rebels, they were the people that didn't quite fit the whole mainstream of the little college. It was the women's college of Georgia, had only 600 students and she let us in on conversations, let us know what was happening. It was 1957, '58 and got us geared up to go to the hearings that Lester Mattocks in Georgia was holding to determine that we should close down the schools in Georgia to keep black people from coming in. As he would have called them, Negroes. He threatened, at one point, "I'll beat people off with an ax handle", and he gave away little silver ax handles for people to wear on their lapel to oppose desegregation.
In that town, there was no, as you know, capital for the Confederacy and this is where I saw the clan ride for the first time. This was before they could wear sheets over their faces. That was the beginning of my being politicized, that and the combination of figuring out that I was a lesbian. All of that kind of convening at once. That was the gradual lead into my becoming political and then I went to graduate school at the University of Buffalo and heard Malcolm X speak there and was part of the faculty and I was teaching a fellow and we were fighting over whether we should sign the loyalty oath or not, which was being asked for at that time through the MacArthyism stuff. It moved gradually along and then my interest was very taken in fighting against the Vietnam war and an ex-patriot, who I thought was an ex-patriot, went to New Zealand for two years with my partner that we were in a closeted relationship. Her father was threatening to put her into some sort of institution, forced her to join a sorority, all those kinds of things and so we picked up and moved.
We were planning on spending our lives in New Zealand and then Martin Luther King was killed and Bobby Kennedy was killed and we said, "We can't be here. We have to go back. Back to the US." I stepped off that plane, coming back from New Zealand in 1969 right into the heart of the Women's movement developing in New Orleans. I spent the next four years there. That's when I became...
Mason Funk: [00:35:00] Okay. That's a good chunk of history. I want to go back over that just a little more detail. Tell us the story … Because it's such a rich story and I wasn't aware of the effect of these two assassinations in bringing you back.
Suzanne Pharr: Huge.
Mason Funk: [00:35:30] I would like to have that as a stand alone story. If you could just basically begin with, 'in whatever year, my girlfriend and I moved to New Zealand thinking that was it. We were gone' but then, basically bridging up to these two assassinations happen and you said, "We have to come back." Just tell me that as a stand alone chapter.
Suzanne Pharr: [00:36:00] In the mid sixties I was teaching at Mary Washington College in Fredricksburg, Virginia, teaching English and I was teaching 19th century literature and in teaching that I became much more aware in a deeper sense than I had before of the first wave of feminism and much more aware in that study of slavery. The abolitionist movement and the whole drive of feminist and where race played in that some, not in the way that we understand it now but, at that point, scholarship was getting better and better in writing about those strains of history and the literature I was teaching was revealing a lot of that and then there was the Vietnam war happening. I was very taken with the horror of that and the justice of that and was not really involved in the Civil Rights movement strongly, only in the, what I would call, peripheral ways, which means that I wasn't risking very much of my life or not very much of my privilege. Sometimes we really think we're working on this when we're actually doing kind of safe things to protest.
I had a girlfriend at that time that I was very involved with and her father who was a lawyer had found out that we were in a relationship and decided that he would not allow that to happen. So, he did things like jerked her out of school, put her into university, put her under psychiatric care, forced her to join a sorority and threatening worse and worse things. We just looked at the whole scene, looked at that, looked at the Vietnam war going on, the political situation but, mainly it was about our relationship. I was never, all through the years, not very politically savvy. I always say that through my teenage years and well up into my 20's I was, as we say in the south, ignorant as sin. So, I was. So, we went to New Zealand thinking that we were going to be ex-Patriots then and we knew nothing about it, just totally ignorant. But, we were there and taught. At that time, they were happy to get US teachers and so she taught at the high school level and I taught at the university level. Then, there was the murders. That was the decade of murder that we grew up in. Watching JFK be assassinated and watching King, watching Bobby Kennedy just this feeling of who are we as a people and who are we in this war at the same time against Vietnam.
But, we couldn't bear being there. Couldn't bear being in New Zealand with this happening so, we decided to come back to the States. That coincided with... I decided to go to New Orleans to school and she was going to do something else for awhile and I just stepped right off that plane into New Orleans in a women's movement which was just rising there in 1969. My politics that I live from now didn't start with Stonewall. They're deeply, deeply rooted in feminism and it was a vibrant feminist community in New Orleans, very, very vibrant. We had a women's newspaper, we had opened up a women's center that soon became a place where we were doing hotlines receiving calls over and over and over about women who were raped, from women who were beaten and we were developing programs out of that. We were doing enormous amount of street theater, high activity all the time. We had a wonderful women's feminist bar there, that might be somebody that I can talk to you about later that you might want to interview. So, I basically wore myself out there being so engaged in political work and hugely engaged in the protest against the war. That’s the time when we were doing such massive protests, we closed down buildings and occupied on the two lane and that kind of thing.
Basically I got worn out and decided I would go for summer with a couple of lesbians I had met in New Orleans to, they had a home, it was a home but a farmhouse in northwest Arkansas and so i came up...
Mason Funk: I'm going to interrupt you here for a second. I want to talk a little bit more about New Orleans. Yeah.
Natalie Tsui: At this moment there's music next door. That's why I tapped you.
Mason Funk: Yeah, I know.
Natalie Tsui: [00:41:30] So we'll just have to live with it.
Mason Funk: We’re gonna just live with it. Let me just lower this mic a little bit because I don't think this is as low as it can go and that will probably help a little bit.
Mason Funk: Because this is... We never did the drill of buffering this down.
Natalie Tsui: Oh, it's in. It's in.
Natalie Tsui: It's out.
Mason Funk: Okay. That's going to be a lot more present there.
Natalie Tsui: Yeah, that's true. Okay.
Mason Funk: What I want to ask is... That's good. When we were talking to Turelle yesterday she talked about one woman in particular, I think her name was Linda Evans.
Suzanne Pharr: [00:42:00] Yes.
Mason Funk: So, I wondered if you...
Suzanne Pharr: I knew her in Arkansas.
Suzanne Pharr: I knew her in Arkansas, not New Orleans.
Mason Funk: [00:42:30] Correct. Exactly. But, I wonder if during these years, how close you came to considering direct action of type that could've landed you in jail like Linda Evans or if you knew people, in other words, I'm very interested in the margin that people, the line they tread or trod between direct action/potential illegal actions versus keeping it legal and the choices you made around that.
Suzanne Pharr: I don't know what to say to put your question in it.
Mason Funk: I guess the question... Yeah maybe, well...
Suzanne Pharr: [00:43:00] I would say that in New Orleans that we felt that we were radicals. We thought we were radical because we wanted to close that war down by any means necessary. Did everyone take the risk of being harmed and being jailed? Not all of us. Some of us were much more to the edges of that than some of us were more to the middle. We also felt we were radical because we thought we were fundamentally changing institutions in this society, that we were creating our own women's center, we were creating things that went against the most common acceptance like that it's okay to rape a woman and it's okay for her to be silent about it, in fact it's necessary for her, that it's okay to beat a woman, it's okay for her to be silent about it. In northwest Arkansas, I can't remember how many co-ops we had that time. The kind of thing that people are talking about now, so much of that history has now moved into this moment of people needing to understand that they have to be self-reliant and we may move to the point we really have to be self-reliant.
It wasn't just a food co-op. There was a padre co-op, there was a women's health co-op, there was a women's truckers co-op which was one of my favorites but, the co-ops are collective like, the health thing was a collective. That we felt was radical and still do. Particularly at the time, I think it now, and there was that whole back to the land movement that was happening and that was white people. I think that you're seeing the Panthers getting killed but, that wasn't what freaked white people out. What freaked white people out was Kent State. The real recognition that our own government will kill us whereas we were watching our own government killing the 'us' of the white Panthers. That separate white 'us' and those who were black, who were living under the gun in so many ways. That understanding had not grown in the way it should have coming out of the Civil Rights movement. So, in the 70's all of those collectives and co-ops were kind of, and the women's land group, were kind of a reaction to, 1969, to those murders to the Democratic Convention to all of those things that had happened.
Then, feeling like we got to take care of ourselves but, that was pretty, totally segregated. Not segregated, white, I should say. That's different from segregation. It wasn't like you had all of the people of color over here doing this in terms of, back to the land, you had white people here. No, it was a white movement. So, I was a part of that and yet, all of those people engaged in all of that were what we would call progressive and talked about racism and had meetings about racism but, we're living in a mostly, almost all white, section of the state talking about this without practice. I lived on that farm for four years and I decided, I was in my mid 30's, maybe I would get a job. I got a job as Director of Head Start at Fayetteville, and that was the place where I was able to, more directly, put in practice what I knew and wanted to do in relation to racial justice.
There have been plenty more along the way, but not the environment of that. The thinking and the talking and the whatever about it but, the actual doing. It was out of that moment, I lost that job because of being a lesbian and they actually held community meetings with Head Start parents and people in town about me, wouldn't let me go to the meetings and it was a weird kind of thing. It was very public and all based on, 'I should not be on the contact with children' even though I was at the Director level that was based on that. Out of that, I began to think about what kind of political work to do and looked at the state and I had been in Arkansas at that time, let me think, about ten years and realized that there was no infrastructure here to support women and their organizing. Out of that created the Women's Project. The Women's Project then carried this idea that we would never talk about sexism without talking about racism. We'd never let those be anything but linked together and that we would put that into practice.
Everybody now talks about structural racism. The way we wanted to deal with structural racism would be to make many changes. One was to be a majority women of color organization, be an organization that were both heterosexual women and lesbians, and it turned out to also be trans in the 80's. That we would pay people the same amount because we realized in this economic system with capitalism, that's the way worth is considered. So that we would pay people the same, but we felt like that wasn't enough that what we also had to do was to give people equal power in decision making. If you weren't able to make decisions about how money was going to be spent, which was program, then you still didn't have power. You would likely fall into white women making that decision. We felt like we needed to take the historical tilt of racism and instead of saying, "Equality is 50% white people and 50% people of color", instead to look at, majority of people of color and look at issues of equity. So, how do you bring equity about?
That meant, in some cases, that we would need to provide possible education opportunities for people, they would need to hire people that maybe not had the opportunity to be in a movement space but, make that space available and that's the culture that I've moved back into is people who hold those positions, we felt that how are you going to deal with racism and sexism among women? What are the issues you're going to take? We decided we'd take two that really ran across the board with women. One was violence, that it's everywhere and the second was economics. So, we would focus on those and then under racism and sexism, we would always deal within a sectionality. So, we'd always be dealing with queer issues, we'd always be dealing with disability, we'd always... And where we got that was, and this was the strongest voice for what I would call the 'lift' in the gay or queer movement which is, and that's among women, is from the Combahee River Collective which that group of black lesbians created in 1976, I believe it was, that first introduced this idea of intersectionality.
After you had that, you had kitchen table press and this whole kind of blossoming of people having conversation about women of color and feminism from within, women of color and feminism being produced in a way that people could read it, see it, being that you had roots like sweet honey in a rock where you can experience it culturally. Here in Little Rock we followed in that tradition and we said, "What we're going to do", and half our group was heterosexual, half was lesbian, we said, "We think our job is not to create services and that kind of thing. Our job is to take on issues that other people are afraid to take on that desperately need to be done in order to make change". We were the first group to take on sexual assault of children and that was a very big thing to do at that time. No one here was really talking about it in a political way and this is going to sound so back in the day but, we would get films from cities where people were dealing with this and we would send them by Greyhound bus out into rural counties where people could show those and have conversations about them.
I can tell you many of the things we did that other people weren't doing if... We were the people who said, "Nobody's monitoring the far right here, the Clan, the Posse Comotatis, the Skinheads", so we took that on, a little group of five women, at a board.
Mason Funk: Why don't you just tell us a little bit more about that specific example. That specific challenge you mounted against those particular groups.
Suzanne Pharr: Well, one we went to where they were.
Mason Funk: So, sorry. Start off fresh.
Mason Funk: Who were they?
Mason Funk: So you had this idea.
Suzanne Pharr: [00:54:00] So, we realized that no one in the state was officially monitoring the Right Wing, the Far Right. We were under attack by a group called Good News Methodists because for the first five years we were under the umbrella of the Methodist church and this is the right within the Methodist church and they were attacking us because we had lesbians on staff. So, we began to get the conscious of the Right and as we got conscious of the Right, we were realizing, nobody's monitoring the Far Right, nobody's monitoring the Clan, the Posse Comitatus, the Skinheads, you know, the whole group so, we said we'll do that. We would go to a Clan rally. We'd monitor to see, watch the newspapers, where are they appearing, what are they saying, who's making this up.
At some point, as we did that, people began to say to us, "You know the Clan and the Far Right, they're the least of our worries. It's the everyday acts of racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism", we decided to create this thing called the Women's Watch Care Network. We went around the state and gathered together groups of people and every group we said you have to have at least a woman, you have to have a person who's queer, you have to have someone who's either Catholic or Jewish because both Catholicism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, both here and someone who's gay and we're going to put those people in the same room together and talk about this. Out of the talking about this we're going to ask you to monitor these in your town. We said we don't want any information that's not in print. So, no hearsay, like if you get flyers on all the cars at Walmart for the Clan rally, give us a flyer. If you have a newspaper article, give us a flyer, I mean, give us a copy of it. People would send stuff in and we would document it and write it up at the end of the year.
What turned out after the first year we realize, people in the Jewish community were not reporting very much and we thought possibly out of fear of retribution even though we had incidences of people destroying cemeteries and painting signs and that kind of thing. People in the black community weren't doing, like big acts of violence, of reporting those. They were reporting things that were violent but, not to the degree of what we thought was going on. The gay community only this much and we knew that was out of fear. Not wanting to be exposed but, we were getting all these reports of violence against women. So, we shifted. We did it for another year and then we shifted our focus and what we reported was only the murders of women.We had a huge number every year. We had more women being murdered than we had been losing in the war in Vietnam.
We would document the name of the person who was murdered, how she was murdered, did she have her clothes ripped off or harmed in some way, had she been sexually abused, was it her partner or stranger, where was she found, did her children witness it, all of those details and then how did it go through the courts? What we did was put all of that together in documentation. We said, "Even if we don't make any change, we're going to stand in history as having witnessed this and not have been silent". What we tried to do with it, all of our work it's been nationally so, we might have an opportunity to just write things or make speeches or that kind of thing. That was a time when they were trying to get LGBT people into the hate crimes act, they'd get coverage for that in the 80's so, we tried to get people to join women in that and got the most remarkable answers back like, you can't include women because there's too many to count. That can't be considered a hate crime. You can't include women because they always know the person who did it, which is profoundly untrue, that kind of thing. For a number of years, it was a remarkable project. It was pretty devastating. We had to rotate the people who did it because it would eat your soul out to watch it. Do you think we should turn the air back on?
Mason Funk: Yeah. [crosstalk 00:58:50]
Suzanne Pharr: I can tell that you're ... We can take a break and... Oh.
Mason Funk: Yeah, we'll take a break.
Suzanne Pharr: interview on thing just about the formation of those groups?
Mason Funk: And especially obviously the point being that you made a determination that you had to have a person from each of those different communities [crosstalk 00:59:08]
Suzanne Pharr: Right. But, I did name people of color.
Mason Funk: [00:59:30] Right. Yeah I heard you say queer and then you said gay. I guess I got stuck on that thinking, "Well maybe she's differencing between queer people and gay people" and I completely missed the forest for the trees was that you forgot to mention people of color.
Mason Funk: Okay. What was the determination you all made when you were forming these groups to be sure you had equal representation...
Natalie Tsui: Oh, wait a second. The things on. All of our AC stuff's still on.
Mason Funk: No, the AC's off.
Natalie Tsui: Just this one.
Mason Funk: You know, I feel like that fan is not making a noise, a sound.
Natalie Tsui: [01:00:00] It does have a little, ch-ch-ch. I mean it's really, really faint but, we didn't have it before so...
Mason Funk: Alright. She's tougher than I am.
Suzanne Pharr: She's got good ears.
Natalie Tsui: I have the volume turned all the way up.
Natalie Tsui: It's like a rock concert here.
Mason Funk: Like my [inaudible] would say, "Ahhh".
Suzanne Pharr: [01:00:30] When we formed the women's watch care network, we wanted to represent four groups that experience violence and discrimination and that was people of color, that was the LGBT community, that was women and that was religious, but in the state of Arkansas that's Jews and Catholics. One of the reasons this worked so well for people to come together in those four groups and to talk about that violence was that people came to understand what you're experiencing sounds so much like what I've experienced. So that, you would have someone talking about what it meant to be attacked as a female who might be woman of color or it might be a white woman, hearing what it felt like to be attacked as a gay person. That was also at the same time that we had learned from Cameron Burrell at the task force who was doing all the work against, not against, but trying to get lesbians and gay men included in the Hate Crimes Act, that what he had observed and at one point in studying the killings of gay men, I think it was in Chicago, it's been a long time now since I've quoted this but, what was astounding about it was that detectives could go into the murder scene and determine whether the man was gay or not and it wasn't because he had books or paraphernalia around, it was because of the way in which he was killed.
Almost always there was some sort of physical violence that was sexual and disfiguring, you know, like cutting. There was almost always something that was close to rape and there was always something about the way the clothes were. What the point was, the killing of a gay man looked like the killing of a woman. That same level of hatred and violence brought to bear. As people sat in those groups and could hear something like that, could hear about what it feels like... It's not like it's the same experience between people of color, between women, between LGBT people, between Catholics and Jews but, that sense of discrimination and violation and trying to make people into no one's different, everyone has to be the same is what we've seen forever in terms of power and control. We've seen it in every nation that has created horrors. That was the reason people were willing then, after that conversation to go out, and send us a clippings out of the newspaper, send us the flyers that had been put on the cars outside of the church or outside of the Walmart and we were able to make that kind of record.
During this time where we were working against the Right, we were also being attacked by people within the church that we had been affiliated with and we beginning to understand more and more about how this is working together and we had already been working with, I was the chair of the lesbian task force for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, so we had a lot of contact with national groups and hearing about what was going on in terms of violence against women and also how the Right was attacking people because of abortion, attacking people because of any kind of feminism, all of that. So, I began focusing in my own work within the women's project on looking at the Right Wing but, still in large part, against the Far Right. But, here was, what was not the Far Right, was these good news Methodists, for example and so in 1990 I went to, I'm trying to think if my years are right, I think it was 1990 but, I went to Oregon because, to make a speech
Mason Funk: You just start cleaning in 1990.
Suzanne Pharr: What?
Mason Funk: [01:05:00] Let's just say in 1990 so that we don't have the confusion of the year. Just start in 1990 I went to Oregon to make a speech.
Suzanne Pharr: Okay. After experiencing the Right in Arkansas, related to me directly and related to my co-workers and in general to the black community to Jews and Catholics to women, I went to Oregon to make a speech for International Women's Day and I talked about all of that. People there recognized that this was something I was thinking about and working on and I was trying to make this argument that women should be part of the Hate Crimes Act because look at the violence against our lives. Shortly after that I went to a Creating Change conference for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and someone who I had met through doing this work from Oregon, Scot Nakagawa came up to me and said, "Would you mind taking a look at this video that we have?", and I said, "Sure". It was called, "Gay Rights, Special Rights" and it was put out by the Oregon Citizens' Alliance attacking the LGBT community and we found a place to go look at it.
We went down the basement somewhere of whatever hotel we were in, got ourselves something to watch the video on and when I looked at it I said, "You know Scot, this is not just an attack against the LGBT community, these people are trying to dismantle the Civil Rights, the whole idea of Civil Rights and it's an attack against Democracy. This is bigger than what we're looking at on this, that it's not just about how foul and awful and irreligious and whatever the LGBT people are, this is going for our fundamental values in this country". He said, "Would you like to come out? They're doing a campaign because they're putting it on the ballot to go legislatively with it for constitutional amendment in the state. Would you like to come out here and help us think through this and the framing and whatnot?", so I went back home to the Women's Project and they said, "Sure, why don't you go out for a few months".
I go out and we then became the framing of this as an attack against Democracy, as attack against... You could see from the wording of it there was an effort to dismantle the Civil Rights movement. Simultaneously they were beginning to work in churches, not only white everywhere but, in black churches as opposed to getting any evidence that they were dismantling Civil Rights stood giving evidence that these are corrupt and evil people and you need to join us in this.
Mason Funk: What do the actual measures say?
Suzanne Pharr: I would have to...
Mason Funk: In general terms? In terms of like what was ballot measure nine? What was it intended? How were they going to try to amend the constitution? Start with saying Ballot number nine.
Suzanne Pharr: [01:08:30] Ballot measure nine was to prohibit LGBT people from getting equal rights and for being able to exploit the system basically, to prohibit us from being able to teach, to declare us not fully a citizen. So, it was basically making the point that we were going to try to snatch a piece of Civil Rights. That was the primary thing. Here they are trying to get in, get those gay rights or special rights, try to get those special rights and so it was a lethal measure. We framed in terms of Democracy. We framed it in terms of the Right and people began to learn about that and think about it and talk about. It held strong as a broad thing to talk about. We also said this is something that's really kind of paving the way to start attacking immigrants. This is bigger than it is. If you look at this and you look at it carefully, you'll see this all about race. But, they're traveling the line of homophobia as the road to get to that. So, I came out of Oregon, I spent a few months there on the framing, I went back and worked on the campaign and we won.
But, we did the campaign in such a way, I think we spent $2 million on it which was a lot of money at that time to raise and we spun it from local to state to national to international and we got all kinds of press on it and it opened up this whole issue of the Right in the way that I don't know if we as LGBT community would have known how to, it kind of fell on us, you know, we didn't create it, it fell on us. It was a victory but, it was an electoral victory that had not, and we've just seen this again with Trump, that instead of going to all the counties and working hard in all the counties, it took the most populated areas. That whole electoral thing, you got to go where the biggest boats are and you don't spend your money at here on these people who don't count. It went the I5 corridor going down through Oregon. The OCA, the Oregon Citizens Alliance came back the next year and started passing it in county by county by county. It was a hard lesson but, out of that came some really skilled folks. A lot of us learned about the Right, how to talk about the Right, how to analyze the Right.
I’d written a book in the 80's called, "Homophobia Weapon of Sexism" and it became a textbook for looking at things in a sectional kind of way and seeing that without sexism there probably wouldn't be homophobia, linking those two together. That was in '86 and then in '96, I wrote one called, "In the Time of the Right", laying out how the Right was not just this group out here, the Right was way closer to us and working. I began then, writing about the Right, talking about the Right and the LGBT folks, we were always right up in it because we remain to this day still vehicle for moving Right Wing ideas, like with the bathroom issue. There was a way of collecting enormous number of people for the vote. That was an issue that they counted on to put Trump into office, moving that level of scarcity and there's just not enough to go around, if they get this everything's going to crash, everything is going to fall. It was '92 that we had the campaign. In '93 we had a Creating Change conference in Durham, North Carolina. It was the first time the Creating Change comes south.
There were a bunch of us who were lefty lesbians had a little bit power to get some workshops in it and I don't know if you know the very fine writer and thinker Mab Segrets, but she gave the keynote for it and in it we talked about NAFTA and we talked about race. She did that in that keynote but, also we had workshops that talked about economics and people were all aflutter, "Why are they talking about economics? This is all gay stuff", particularly, not all, but particularly the white men were very, very disturbed by that, all of this stuff is irrelevant, what matters is our own liberation. It was at that conference that we decided to create Southerners on New Ground, which is the very, very large Southern LGBT organization. So, six of us founded that and stayed with it for all these years. We're up to our 25th year. So, that...
Mason Funk: [01:14:00] Let me repeat the question. You mentioned the tensions at that conference between the lefty lesbians as you call themselves and the mostly white gay men who had different visions of what this conference was about and what the goals were. I think that's a thread that's plagued us to this day. I feel like we're trying to integrate into something different than that traditional tension. What's my question in there? I'm jumping forward a little bit. What do you think the LGBTQ community, the queer community as a whole, how are we doing in terms of moving towards a more intersectional place and moving away from a narrowly focused, if I get my rights I'm good to go, traditionally white male perspective?
Suzanne Pharr: [01:15:00] I think we may change as... I don't think we a movement, not just a LGBT movement, I think we have movements, for example, there was a terrific lesbian feminist movement in the 70's, the cultural stuff that came out of that was amazing and that tended to be more lefty, more intersectional, dealing with issues that were broader than one’s sexual identity which is what we called it then, your sexual preference. Then you move to identity and then language changed along the way but, there's always been a mainstream movement that is about us and what's happened to us and our needs. Unfortunately that has been, which is the case so much in the women's movement, they followed the same kind of path and it was more the lesbians in that movement that took the radical position. There were also many women who weren't but, there was a strong, strong lesbian feminist segment of that. In both those movements, the mainstream of that, did not take in race and economics. We're seeing that as a problem nationally now. People have always known that we have these terrible inequities and injustices in terms of race and economics and the big parts of movements fights for the mainstream.
The mainstream is identified, you know, the we is identified as white, tends to be more male that has gone similar lines and caused, I think, a tremendous amount of pain, difficulty and lack of success. If we haven't recognized that this last year I don't know when we're going to recognize it. We're not recognizing it this very weekend with our leaderships is in Germany. Not to date this interview but... The big one was jumping off into the marriage movement. I and a number of others opposed that for a number of reasons and created a document that we publicized pretty widely called 'Beyond Marriage'. For my own reasons for opposing it, one is being a lifetime marriage resistor, never having any interest in it as a child when everything in my culture was pushing me and every other female toward marriage, I think that was probably just my innate queerness or whatever at that time but, also because marriage so consistently sustains the status quo that leaves us for the most part mired in gender roles depute how much we fight it, have that whole feminist perspective about ownership and all the laws which support that, then balance and power that occurs within it. The way in which the rights that you get by marriage are the rights you should have anyway.
The very nerve of elevating one kind of relationship over another that we all should have access to what I would think of as equality whether we're absolutely individual or whether we're linked with another person should stand on your individual self. The other thing was that it... One of the things I fought for, I think most of my thinking life, sometimes I think I spent a lot of years where I wasn't thinking very much, is that we have to radically change our notion of gender roles. One of the things that saddens me right now is how many areas they're more committed to gender roles than we have to be.
Mason Funk: What are examples of that?
Suzanne Pharr: [01:19:30] I think we have a lot of investment of identity as male and female and with that we have behavior and action that carries out, what we used to think out was stereotypical gender roles that carry within them and balance of power, that carry within them misalignment of relationships. I don't find myself drawn to that. I found myself drawn to fluidity and absolute choice and self-determination in terms of gender but, not the roles, if that makes any sense. I love the liberation and the change that has come about and where I find hope is, you're asking sort of what's happened to the lefty side and the reshaping of things, I find that very much in all the organizing goes around in people of color communities now, particularly among younger people in those of really questioning it, hitting it hard, thinking about how can we envision something that's very different, how can we fight for a more open way of being and more self-determination? I like that a lot.
Mason Funk: Do you see... We're sort of jumping around a little bit. I'm going to hold that question actually because I want to talk about the organization that you led in Tennessee, that you mentioned that you were...
Suzanne Pharr: The Highlander Center.
Mason Funk: Tell us about that. What is the Highlander Center and what was your role there and what did you learn there?
Suzanne Pharr: It is a historic ...
Mason Funk: [01:21:00] Start of by saying, "The Highlander".
Suzanne Pharr: [01:21:30] The Highlander Center is a historic Civil Rights Center that works ... It's main history is on civil rights but it's intent is an educational center that is focused on popular education. This belief that we all carry within ourselves the knowledge of ourselves, and our society, who we are, that the voice that's most important is the individual voice coming into the collective voice. And so it's a belief in that if I ask you what is your reality, you'd tell me your reality and that's the voice that we bring into the room. That's the power that we bring in the room. This is how you see your community, this is how you see your situation, this is how you're connected to community. So it's based very strongly in both individual, and the collective, and in the power of self. So that's an important thing.
It was formed in 1932. It's always had a ... Leans left in its politics. It always puts at the center of it low income people and people who experience discrimination. So when it first began it was working in particular with coal miners and with labor unions. And by about 1939 began to realize that there weren't black people involved and started bringing in African Americans into that mix. And so by the late 40s there was beginning to be movement around moving towards a civil rights movement, you know how that works out over years. Highlander already had the experience of beginning, of having people meet there who were both black and white, which was, of course, against the law. We were in the segregated south.
And so there were meetings there where Dr. King came. There were meetings there where Rosa Parks was there prior to the bus boycott. Where groups came together and talked to each other about what was going on, what was their reality. If you assume the only reality is that of people who are of a certain race, and a certain educational status, and of a certain geographical status, you're in deep trouble. And we have found ourselves in that way and then you're also in a place of extraordinary discrimination and injustice. And so those conversations happened and Highlander had a great role in terms of helping to bring those conversations together.
We also had experience down in the Sea Islands right off the coast of South Carolina of helping to create citizenship schools and those citizenship schools came out of a community where people couldn't work there but had to go over into Charleston to do their jobs as maids, or whatever. The jobs that were available, hard labor jobs, whatever. And those people couldn't read or write because of the, also, the lack of schools. And what they found out is that, one man in particular, tried to teach them as he drove them across to get to Charleston. And they began to set up what they called citizenship schools, which was so that people ...
At that time you couldn't vote unless you could read from the constitution and so they were teaching people ... This was just by community people who could read and write, teaching people how to read and write, how to be able to ... They didn't have stores so you could order from Sears row book so how you could fill out that form, which is one of the great motivations for people to come because you had a material thing that they needed. But also, in learning about the constitution they learned, “ I am a person too. I am a citizen of the United States. I have these rights.” And they had about 800 of those around the country. And that became much of the grass roots effort for being able to raise that up.
I had the very good fortune to be on the board of Highlander for four or five years and then accepted a position of director and did that for five years. And at the point we were kind of consistently working to make sure it was an organization that welcomed LGBT people and that path was opened for us by a woman who was the cook there for years, and years, and years, and she had a gay son. These were people who grew up in those mountains and part of that community where Highlander sits out east of Knoxville. And she fought for him there. So I didn't walk in and take the place by storm, I mean I was an out lesbian going on the board, and I was an out lesbian when I took the job, but Nina Rining and her son Rob opened that space for that to happen through that kind of determination and authenticity that brought people into realization. This is not some weird person from outside, this is a child growing up in your midst of a woman who is beloved by everybody who comes here. And that was a really important thing.
Also it was also part of a plan for song, when we created song we wanted to do two things; we wanted to bring LGBT people to understand race and class because most people ... We wanted race, class, and gender to be strong and not just sexual identity. And so we thought that was a thing that we could bring to the south that would bring it to a progressive point of view at the very least. And the second thing was that we wanted to move civil rights organizations to be more inclusive of LGBT people. And so Highlander was one of the places that we focused on. And that turned out to be a very successful strategy in that they ... Institutions have changed. We've had a major impact on the south through those two strategies, both in having increased numbers of LGBT people who understand race, class, and gender and how they're connected as well those organizations being inclusive.
Mason Funk: [01:28:30] I asked you earlier if you thought the south, in some ways, was a propitious place for building community. You know how people have their stereotypes, and there's the realities of the south, but I wonder if there's also strengths that are kind of imbued in you and the southern spirit, or the southern approach to life, that make fertile ground for progressive action and community?
Suzanne Pharr: [01:29:00] Well I think the south is steeped in community, I mean that is an odd way to express it but partly because we have historically been so rural, and if you survive in rural areas you basically have to have community. So there's that. We also have fewer services in many places so you have to have that. And then you have people that where different cultures have mixed that develop community in different kinds of ways and I think one of the most powerful things that happened to the south, in the most negative way and then in the most positive way, was the introduction into the south, even though it came through chattel slavery, but of the culture that was brought through slaves into the south. Which is, I think, historically so based around community building. Deeply, deeply, deeply based and carries with it ... I mean I was laughing when you all got here about the culture of iced tea but one of the deep cultures of the south is feeding people and having the kind of caring that goes out in order to help people in their daily needs and survival. And I feel like that's been written about some but maybe not ever ... Not always appreciated as much as it has because it goes right along with the tremendous influence on food in the south. Much of the cultural life in the south is grounded, I think, in that African American experience.
And it comes not just from there, I mean you also have people who came from villages out of Ireland, and from other places, you can't just say that it's one thing, but it is a profound thing. And continues, continues strongly to this day in the south despite the constant attack that can rip community apart.
Mason Funk: [01:31:30] Do you see this, the political events in the last 9 months, you know, the nomination and then election of Trump. I mean I know this is a complicated question and there's probably no single answer but some people, like Diane Rivers for example, even during our interview she was wavering between a kind of a sense like this is a blip, and progress is cyclical, and really feeling like really, truly, honestly our very fundamental values are completely at risk here and we may slide off into Fascism. Do you see ... Are those things both true? Or how do you frame this moment?
Suzanne Pharr: [01:32:30] I don't think it's a blip. I think this moment is ... It's been building for a long time. You could say since the beginning of the history of the country, you could say it’s been building since then. I won't say that, but I do think has truth in it. But I think that what has been building since 1964 with the development of the right wing in this country and then the development of what some people call neoliberalism, but the way in which capitalism has worked, particularly since the 70's, with cutting away services.
The way in which the money is spent privatization, the way in which globalization works, the way in which we have been led to think that taxation is a terrible thing, and moved us more and more to a sense of scarcity and then combine that with white nationalism and the sense that we, the white we, is no longer strong enough to hold. That everything's being taken from us and we're going to have to fight to hold that. So I think all of that has been so long time coming and it's so entrenched through the media, and I'm not talking about the way in which Trump talks about the media but when you have in the 80's the change in the FCC with the sort of equal balance of who is interviewed and who is on, and the rapid buying up of all those little radio stations across the country has had an enormous, enormous effect. The creation of those huge think tanks, and the money that has poured in them, to create these strategies and to move these ideas is enormous.
I think it all ... Trump didn't cause it. It was all working and waiting for a vehicle and here he comes riding along. And he's an imperfect vehicle in some ways because he can't be controlled, but he's a more dangerous vehicle because he can't be controlled. So I think it's a very, very dangerous time. I do think history changes but we have aspects now that have moved way beyond the possibility of just that things are just going to rotate back.
Take the climate. At some point you're at a place where you can no longer save what has to be saved in order to survive, you know? It's just something like that. I think yes we've had terrible times with other groups that have nuclear weapons and North Korea. But North Korea is an extraordinary danger right now where you have a leader there and a leader here who have the same temperament, they have the same irrationality, have the same impetuous don't think first, and do this, same strong man kind of thing. I'm sure there's maybe been that in history before, but what they had at their hands, at their fingertips, was not the same. I mean I'm sure if you looked at war, after war, after war you'd find those personalities. Conflict after conflict. But to have those tools available.
What's shocking to me at this moment is I thought that our democratic institutions were more stable. Didn't occur in a strong way that they could be shredded so rapidly, even though I've been writing about that for 20 years. Like the work that I'm involved in here is the state has taken over our local school board and we're trying to get that back. I've been writing, since the mid 90's, about schools being the centerpiece of our democracy and here we have privatization, privatization, privatization. So we're fighting like cats and dogs here to try to get local control back and it's like an army we're fighting against. It's the governor, it's the legislature, it's the city council, it's the chamber of commerce, and we're having some small victories but it's a massive thing and so schools are closing down ... Our school board is one man. There's a state school board and then one man who's the commissioner and he's basically the school board of this and can choose which schools to close. The schools that are being closed are in this quadrant, which is where black and brown people live, and so when you close those schools you're breaking up community in a terrible way.
And so there's this constant effort to bring in more money through taxation, or whatever, to put out into the mainly white districts. So we have a crisis for democracy right here in this town and it's been going on since 1957 with the desegregation of schools. In September, we'll be having a celebration of the desegregation and their talking about, from the city's point of view, 60 years of progress. We're saying progress for whom? So in terms of being somebody who identifies as queer, old school lesbian, all those names, where's my queer issue? It's in those schools that ... Have a town that has increasing, increasing violence ... It's like Chicago. I read somewhere that it's like 300 schools in Chicago that are closed, or are taken over by the school board, not closed. Or closed, I can't remember right now which it is, but anyways their schools under extraordinary attack. Of course, you have an increase in violence. If you take away community, you take away the level of education and level of job opportunity, what are you going to have? This constant blame of those who are involved in the violence rather than constant blame of us who create community and either support it to thrive or systematically destroy it. We're seeing that systematic destruction of it.
So, how do we rebuild that? When you say, is this a blip or is this a long-term thing? How do we get back to a public school that actually has equity in it? They're equally funded, equally offering great after school programs, where are those job opportunities that are equalized? Without equity, I think we can't have rest.
Mason Funk: Well, in some ways when you say, "How do you get back to those schools?", but if you mark back to 1957 when the first attempt to integrate the schools, but even that was done in a way that wasn't really going to lead to the types of schools you're describing, then it's not really a question of getting back, it's a question of getting to.
Suzanne Pharr: [01:40:00] That's right. That's right. It's not a matter of getting back to the schools, it's a matter of having a vision what would be a Democratic process for education that's based in community accountability. That's what the question would be. Can we do that? I have to think so. I do think we can do it. I do think that we envision something and that we're an innovative country. That's the one thing we get the most praise for, is our innovation, worldwide, not so much other things. We never get praised for being tops in education. We don't get praised for being tops in a lot of things anymore, but we do get the tops in innovation. Why can't we then create a truly functional, democratic, publicly, accountable educational system? It's not beyond our dreams, our capability.
Mason Funk: Let me interrupt. Natalie, she always gets a turn.
Suzanne Pharr: [01:41:00] Oh, is that right?
Natalie Tsui: Yeah. Although, I'm not sure what makes the most sense.
Mason Funk: Do you not think about...
Natalie Tsui: [01:41:30] There's a lot that's been covered. I guess the question is, I mean there's a lot of shit happening right now and of course there are goals for things to happen, but there's so much complacency that I find it difficult to imagine the public mobilizing, so I just wanted to know what your thoughts on that are about... With the illiberalism and this kind of, it just feels really hopeless, so how do you change the tide? And when you're answering, you can't look at me at all, you have to look at him, so pretend like he answered it and don't glance over at the camera. A lot of people glance at the camera every so often to check in with me, but you can't look at it.
Suzanne Pharr: Okay. Okay.
Mason Funk: [01:42:00] We [crosstalk 01:41:58] visible believe it or not.
Suzanne Pharr: [01:42:30] So, in the question how can we have any hope at all in the face of all those things, I'll just give you an example of one piece of work that I'm involved in, which is something called the "Southern Movement Assembly", and it's a group of organizations in the south where we have a phone call every Monday morning except for maybe two during the year in which we discuss what's happening in our organizations and we are building a system of governments that brings in more and more people to be engaged in making decisions about how to govern ourselves and how to create social change in the south. We have a core group of about 15 people who are government, 15 organizations with a person on the government council and we hold a movement assembly every year, which draws 300, 500 people, that we bring together to talk about what their issues are, what their problems are in their towns and how they're doing social change, how they're bringing about action. Then, we keep... We've been going for five years now, we keep raising the level of political education and raising the level of action and raising the capacity to do the change, to build the skills to get the kind of information you need to do it and more and more to be linked together.
What that's doing, we probably have, I don't know, maybe 100, 150 groups that are connected in some way and show up for the movement assembly is that it's beginning to build an infrastructure. When we started it, it was after Katrina, because one of the things in the south that we learned from Katrina was, we learned many things from Katrina, as you know, it was not just devastating for New Orleans and the Gulf coast, it was devastating for us. One, we didn't have enough people and trained organizers to send them into New Orleans right away, into the Gulf coast to help to rebuild, help to deal with the massive problems right away and help to rebuild. And that was our region. We also learned in that time that this country basically felt about African Americans in a larger and more collective way, "let them die". The message was there as you saw people struggling to survive. With that, we saw that the government is not going to help us. They're the government, you can't turn to it and say, "What are we going to do?". We also, out of that, realized that we needed a whole generation of younger leaders to be trained up. People in their late 20's and 30's.
A lot of this organizing came out of that to see, "Can we create an infrastructure of groups connected to one another with shared values, shared skills, shared political analysis and these are almost every group is people of color lead, majority African American, all deal with economic issues and with issues of discrimination and race. So, some are queer, some are folks who deal with environmental issues, more specifically, some deal with reproductive issues, but all are intersectional. Even though the issue might be more focus on this are all intersectional. So, you're building relationships all the time. Building knowledge of what's going on and building to a way that we can move as a region. That gives me some hope and it's one of the places I know where there's not this thing that disheartens me the tax within the movement on each other. I feel like if we can't figure out how we can live with generosity toward one another, how are we going to build a world? Some of the things we're doing now, we've created a blueprint for the south and in that is ways how you gather your people together, how do you work on building a new economy, how do you work on protecting and defending ourselves and how do you work on a people’s democracy as opposed to economic democracy.
For example, in the protection of Finn, a lot of our communities are looking at building mutual aid groups and that comes out of the old mutual aid societies that came after slavery where people were certainly back into the society, but didn't have access to the benefits of society and had to figure out ways to help one another. A lot of people were looking at these developing centers where you can go for non-analytical education and that kind of thing where you would go in crisis, where you would go for sanctuary around deportation, where you would go when there's no healthcare for you, where you can begin to, as a community, meet some of those needs. A little bit of that is semi apoptilitic in the sense that it's living both on the level of we're going to continue to have services and that kind of thing and other at any moment the grid might go down. The major crisis might come in terms of climate and how we're going to live then. It's a number of things and of course, your economy there's so much to look at, you know, the whole messaging to the people who are so upset and voted in ways that they wish had not in this election and the messaging is we'll bring back your jobs. Well, those jobs can't be brought back. We're in a technological revolution and the jobs that are going to be here have to be created.
Many of us are going to have to figure out how do you live without jobs, how do live with work, how does compensation come, how do we create this whole different world for living in. It's not going to be trying to figure out how to have more coal mining jobs. Though I hate dreadfully that those jobs have disappeared for people and I recognize all the implications of even the coal industry in the first place. But still, we've got to figure that out, but then the society that we live in now. I hold some hope for that. The Southern Movement Assembly I've been working with and working in it all of this time, very, very, committed to it, but I think it's got to be things like that which say, "Let's take a whole bunch of people and see if we can move to common values. Let's see if we can be different from one another and share those values, and politics have changed.” They're fundamental things. Do you believe that every person counts? Do you feel that everyone should have self-determination? Some basic, basic, kinds of values like that.
Mason Funk: Any other questions?
Natalie Tsui: That's it for me.
Suzanne Pharr: Did it answer it?
Mason Funk: Yeah, that was actually a good answer. So I think we should wrap up. It's 5:17.
Suzanne Pharr: Oh, great.
Mason Funk: When I say wrap up I always finish with four very short questions.
Mason Funk: And the answers are intended to be short as well.
Mason Funk: First of all, on a basic level, of course coming out can mean a million different things. But, if somebody comes to you and says, "I'm thinking about coming out" as whatever, what's the little pearl of guidance or wisdom from your experience you give that person?
Suzanne Pharr: [01:51:00] I say, "Do it." If you're thinking about coming out, protect yourself if you're in a situation that's dangerous to you, but find some place where you can be your total self and sometimes I tell them a story that I didn't really come out openly until I was 30 years old. In 1969 when I came into New Orleans and I helped create the first cautiousness raising group there and the basis of consciousness raising groups for women was that you had to tell the truth about your life. You had to be authentic and everybody was telling their stories and here I was one of the organizers of it and I realized, "Wow, I'm going to have to tell my story", and it was the most liberating moment of my life at that time to be able to say, "I'm a lesbian". First time I’d ever said that openly in a group in public. It liberated me and some of the women in the room.
Mason Funk: Right. My normal next question is what's your hope for the future, but I think you've already answered that. So, we'll move on. Why at this stage is it important to you to tell your story? What's the value of that to you?
Suzanne Pharr: [01:52:30] I think it's our stories that sustain us. That my story and there's a big mix of stories that as a southern woman I've lived with stories and stories and stories from back and back and back in my family. Family reunions are a matter of sitting around and telling our favorite stories. "You remember that time when Dad did whatever? Do you remember...", that kind of thing. I think that when we tell our stories, we're telling a collective narrative. Each time we do that adds to that piece of that collective narrative. So, it's not just about a narrative of LGBT, it's a narrative of one’s humanity, that collective sense of how we are so many and how we are at the same time connected.
Mason Funk: [01:53:30] And the last question is a little bit of a re-do of the previous one is, so this project is called OUTWORDS and it's attempt to collect stories from all around the different strata of our community, what do you see is the value of doing that? Of a project called OUTWORDS or like OUTWORDS?
Suzanne Pharr: [01:54:00] Let me just think about that a minute. I think there are many values of it. I can remember some of the first stories I ever heard. The 70's were full of people telling a story, writing their stories, all the little magazines and newspapers and what not, it was just like revelation in an extraordinary kind of way. So, I see this as a continuation of that in a really good way. I think that the fact is you're focusing on people that are over 70, so you got someone like me who's 78 and somebody like Diana Rivers who's 86 that we now count the years in front of us that most people don't think they can, but once you hit around 70 you begin to realize, "oh,". I've known a lot of people who were 90 and this is between 70 and 90, so you got a whole different vision, you got history, you realize how multi-faceted the view of history is that we could have three people experience the same thing, you get three different things and three similarities and we live off that. I mean, how do you sort through what life...
I read novels all the time. This is basically reading stories and I feel like there was, majoring in English and reading novels and poetry that led me to being able to do political organizing because it's always trying to hear stories and dissect them, see what the meaning is, see what they're leading to. I don't think they tell us the only truth, but through them comes this line of truth that you begin to going to be able to detect and in the best of worlds, help it build you and build those around you.
Mason Funk: Terrific.
Mason Funk: We're going to record 30 seconds of this room with nobody talking. Sadly we'll call it out.
Natalie Tsui: [01:56:00] So, I'd like to change and I'm sure you can see...
Mason Funk: Yeah, I know. Yeah.
Suzanne Pharr: That what?
Mason Funk: The light. We're starting getting some slats of sunlight coming in, but interestingly they surround you, but they don't fall on your face.
Suzanne Pharr: I was going to say people'll like that. They'll think I'm religious.
Natalie Tsui: It's a very heavenly glow. [inaudible] one. Ringtone. Okay that's good.

Interviewed by: Mason Funk
Camera: Natalie Tsui
Date: July 08, 2017
Location: Home Of Suzanne Pharr, Little Rock, AR