It was just a few weeks ago that, while rummaging through the piles of past issues as part of my ongoing project of organizing my life, I came across a 1998 Metro Weekly issue with Dixie Carter on the cover. Flipping through to scan the interview — reliving the past as I sift through it is why reorganization is a never-ending project — I was a bit taken aback by her comments on gay marriage.
Carter, who died this past weekend at the age of 70, occupied a large niche in my cultural upbringing. In the television world of those days, where actual gay characters were few and far between (don’t even ask where the lesbians were), the sharp-tongued Southern ladies of Designing Women filled the void.
They were, in so many ways, a different version of the South I grew up in — one that was more liberal and promising for me as a young gay man.
Naturally, the show was a fiction and the people who personalized it were actors playing roles. Carter, who as Julia Sugarbaker blazed with fiery righteousness in her on-air tirades, was not quite the doppelganger of her liberal character. As she told Metro Weekly in 1998, ”The role of Julia was pretty far away from who I am — I’m pretty conservative and traditional.”
Asked about the possibility of gay marriage — a goal that seemed so distant in 1998 — Carter revealed an attitude that seemed instantly familiar to me through my own dealings with family and friends from earlier generations.
”That’s hard for me, because I’m very old fashioned, very old-timey,” said Carter. ”On the other hand, maybe the most loving marriage that I’ve ever seen is a gay marriage. It has not been codified as such by the church, but it is a marriage. And has been for years and years and years. But to answer your question, I have to work through what marriage means — and the first thing in my mind goes to is that marriage is for the procreation of the race. It’s a sacrament to unite people so that they can begin a family and have children. But Hal Holbrook and I got married at an age past when we can expect to have children. So here I am in a very happy marriage that I think is fine. So if I feel that way about my marriage to Hal, why would I have a problem with a gay marriage? Still, it’s hard for me. I’m very traditional.”
It’s not the answer you’d expect from a putative gay icon being interviewed in a gay magazine, but it’s the answer you should hope for from someone who recognizes the clash between one’s preconceptions and the larger world one lives in.
Most of us have seen this in our own lives: a beloved family member who takes pride in being accepting of us in our difference, right up to the point where that acceptance clashes with their beliefs. So often that flashpoint comes over the idea of marriage, when the implications of acceptance rather than tolerance become clear.
I have no idea where Carter eventually ended up in her thinking — one hopes her growth and understanding continued. It’s nice to think that just as she influenced a generation of gays and lesbians, those same people influenced her.
Read the entire 1998 interview with Dixie Carter at metroweekly.com/feature/?ak=5076. E-mail Sean Bugg at .