by Elize Villalobos
Every so often, sociopolitical situations come along that remind us that we must never take our civil rights for granted. For many people in the U.S., particularly people of color, religious minorities, LGBTQ+ folk, and anyone who falls within an intersection of those three umbrella groups, the months between the presidential election and today have served as a sobering reminder of the societal prejudices and institutional discrimination that still deny them the benefits of full equality in American society. Indeed, trans people, specifically, have continued to face setbacks this year. The news that Trump’s administration rolled back the Obama administration’s transgender bathroom policies, which allowed trans students to use whichever restroom matched their gender identity, was undoubtedly a blow to LGBT rights. However, even more sickening than this particular revival of institutionalized transphobia is the violence that the trans community continues to face: so far, ten transgender people have been murdered in 2017, most of whom were targeted simply because they were transgender. In light of these recent issues, as well as the other ongoing struggles of the transgender community, it is perhaps a natural reflex to want to take a moment to recognize a past leader of the trans rights movement so that we may be heartened and regain some hope and energy for the future.
Therefore, on that topic, it is a great pleasure to highlight Phyllis Frye, a transgender woman who has been one of the most instrumental figures in fighting for and furthering trans rights during the last several decades. I admit that I had not heard of Frye until she was recommended as a subject for this profile. However, upon researching her, I was completely awed by her story and courageous advocacy. A fitting dénouement to her storied career as an activist, in 2010, the mayor of Houston, Texas, Annise Parker, appointed Frye as a municipal court judge with unanimous consent from the city council. Although Frye is one of the first openly transgender judges to serve in the States, she says that she is aware of at least two other trans judges in other parts of the country, such as Vicki Kolakowski, who became a judge in California 15 days before Frye became one in Texas. Regardless, Frye’s accomplishment, as well as Kolakowski’s, is a milestone for the transgender community. As has been intimated in media coverage of Frye’s appointment, there is something approaching poetic justice in the fact that a woman who was once explicitly targeted by Houston law for simply existing as herself is now an authority thereof. Along with her judgeship, Frye manages the law firm Frye and Associates, which “provide[s] a variety of legal services for the LGBT and Straight-Allies community;” Frye herself now solely represents transgender people to help them navigate the unique legal difficulties that come with being trans.
by Emily Garmon
I first met Catherine Thomas when I was interning for Resurgens Theatre Company during my senior year of college. Catherine had been the skilled costumer for Resurgens for the last few years. When I first asked her to be profiled on Beyond the Magnolias, Catherine told me she was incredibly flattered. On the day of our interview, she shared with me again her excitement to be considered a remarkable southern woman. Catherine viewed past profiles on Beyond the Magnolias, and she felt she was certainly “not in this class of people.” From the little I did know about Catherine, I already knew this was not true. By the end of our interview, I learned Catherine is a wife, mother, cancer survivor, costumer, actress, singer, fencer, baker, avid reader, and so much more. After getting to know more about Catherine’s diversified talents and interests, it became clear she is quite the Renaissance woman.
After seeing Catherine’s artistry at work first hand in Resurgens’ productions of The Alchemist, Volpone, and Sejanus, I was convinced she had been formally trained. When I asked her how long she had been costuming, Catherine responded she has been sewing since she was 10 years old, and the first to model her original costuming were her Barbie dolls. Catherine described the costumes and dresses of her early years as “pretty hideous.” When I asked her what attracted her to sewing and costuming, she simply said, “I have always been fascinated with what people wear and why.” Astonishingly, Catherine is completely self-taught through trial-and-error, as well as reading numerous books on the subject. Despite her authenticity and sumptuous abilities, Catherine feels her lack of formal training creates “gaps in what she can do.” Her supposed limitations are nonexistent to any onlookers of her work. However, Catherine does give herself some credit – when describing her thorough research process while she is costuming, she proudly proclaimed, “I know what I am doing historically.” It must be said that academia, language, history, and other cultures are no stranger to Catherine. She attended the University of South Carolina, where she studied Foreign Language and minored in Comparative Literature. Her talents, as well as her educational background, have served her well while working with Resurgens Theatre Company.
by Victoria S. Jacquet
Melissa Greeson was just nineteen years old when she discovered she was pregnant with her first child, Kailey Lynn. She was nervous at the thought of what others would think about the pregnancy, and also not knowing what to expect out of the experience. However, her excitement to meet Kailey quashed any last bit of that anxiety. “I actually called my mom to my house, and I gave her a present [because] we were really excited. I was her baby who was about to have a baby,” Greeson says. Never would she have imagined the traumatic events that unfolded on the day of her beautiful Kailey’s birth.
Greeson was in labor for nearly nineteen hours with Kailey Lynn: “I was exhausted, obviously, and towards the end of her labor [there were] signs that something was wrong. [Kailey] was in distress—I was in distress, but again I was only nineteen so I really didn’t know what was going on. I just knew that it wasn’t the fairytale that everybody talked about and not what I envisioned as becoming a mom for the first time.” By the time Kailey Lynn entered the world, she was not breathing. Whatever joy Greeson experienced immediately turned into a terror when Kailey was placed on oxygen to assist her respirations: “In time she started breathing on her own, which I didn’t expect because she was purple. She didn’t cry for a while, and she was really lifeless, so I was extremely scared. [Kailey] spent fifteen days in the NICU with ups and downs. They told me that I should basically pull the plug and take her off of life support—that she would be a vegetable, and I would never forgive myself for allowing her to live, which was hard to hear. I chose not to go down that route. In time they took her off of life support and she lived. I don’t know how, but it’s definitely a blessing.”
by Cameron Williams Crawford
I should probably begin by stating that this post is basically my love letter to Jesmyn Ward, who, since I discovered Salvage the Bones a couple of years ago, has quickly become one of my favorite and most-admired writers. Ward’s writing is exquisite; it’s graceful and lush with metaphor. She is the kind of rare storyteller able to find splendor in savagery, who can make you smile at the same time that she breaks your heart. In her relatively short career as a writer, she has produced a number of important pieces of work for feminism, African American literature, and for Southern literature (which, let’s be honest, largely continues to be the domain of white men). As both a scholar and enthusiastic bookworm, that is incredibly exciting for me. So, imagine my delight (read: fangirl freakout) when I learned that Ward would be reading from her new collection of essays and poems about race, The Fire This Time, at the Carter Center here in Atlanta this past August. Joined by other great writers and contributors to the collection—including Carol Anderson, Jericho Brown, and Kevin Young—the event was, to say the least, an edifying experience. In the wake of the recent shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, it was especially poignant. The Fire This Time, which takes its title from James Baldwin’s 1963 book of essays on race in America, The Fire Next Time, “channel[s] Baldwin’s urgency toward reflecting on black life in America” and carries on a discussion that remains very necessary. In an interview with Audie Cornish on NPR’s All Things Considered, Ward addressed the need for continuing to talk about race: “If we don’t, [and] if it’s a conversation that we walk away from because we’re too tired of having it, then nothing really changes.” Such is the nature of all Ward’s writing, really; though here she may be specifically referring to race, a similar sentiment persists throughout her work. Her two novels and her memoir each carry on essential conversations about the cruel realities of race, poverty, and gender in ways that are sometimes gut wrenching, yet honest and, importantly, not without a sense of hope.
by Amber Richards
Reese Witherspoon is not only an absolutely stunning and talented actress, she is a role model for many teenage girls and women across the world, including myself. From her home-grown roots, she is as down-to-earth and Southern as she comes across in movies like Walk The Line or Sweet Home Alabama.
Laura Jeanna Reese Witherspoon (which is her real name) was born on March 22, 1976 in “New Orleans, Louisiana but raised in Nashville, Tennessee. She is the second child Dr. John Draper Witherspoon, “a military surgeon specializing in ear, nose and throat,” and Mary Elizabeth “Betty” Witherspoon, “a registered nurse who later became a pediatric nurse.”  Living in Nashville, Reese was surrounded by famous country musicians, inspiring artists trying to make their way, and actors and actresses that had made it successfully, which somewhat helped her choose acting as a career.
Reese’s story is not close to any “rags to riches” tale; she was an upper-class young lady who “attended an all-girls private school and was later a debutante,”  but she had the ambition and motivation to earn fifty-one awards (including an Academy Award for Best Actress in 2005) and be nominated for eighty-seven awards. Although acting was not her first choice for a career—“Reese went to Stanford University for her freshman year in college (which she did not complete)”—she took a leap of faith and put her whole education on hold for to pursue acting, which would soon impact her life in the most positive and rewarding ways. As an actress, she chooses roles that empower women; through her roles, such as those in Legally Blonde, Walk the Line, Sweet Home Alabama and Cruel Intentions, she shows that any woman can accomplish any dream that comes to mind. “I choose the roles I do because I want my daughter to see what strong, accomplished women are like,” Reese stated in an interview. With three children now, one girl and two boys, she says that they “get the point” on how important it is to follow their dreams and not let anyone or anything stop them, and this is a message she strives to share with the whole world as well. In another interview, she said that if she had one quote she would like the share with other women, it would be, “The thing about ascending is that you have to keep going. The thing about going beyond, is that you have to go. You have to keep rising.” This is truly inspiring, helping and motivating women all across the world with progressing toward any goal, and Reese Witherspoon herself lives by the same quote daily and shows how true it really is.
by Alexis Sharbel
When I think of Carson McCullers, two words come to mind: beautiful and chaotic. McCullers was so fluent in her writing and descriptions; one feels connected not only to her characters, but also to McCullers herself. Part of that feeling is because McCullers often included personal elements—including the frustrations and confusion she often experienced—in her writing. To help understand this, particularly McCullers’s use of queer identities in her fiction, one must first look at her life as well as her writing.
Carson McCullers was born as Lula Carson Smith in 1917 in Columbus, Georgia. She changed her name to simply Carson Smith when she moved to New York. Carson originally moved to New York to attend Julliard to pursue a career in music, mostly the piano. She then became Reeves McCullers in 1937. McCullers was known for her struggles with rheumatic fever, which caused her to experience multiple strokes and physical issues. This is part of the reason as to why McCullers strayed from music and pursued her passion for writing. Most of her best novels and stories were written while she was in the throes of sickness and sometimes bedridden.
Carson McCullers was married for only four years before the two separated. The main issue that occurred while they were together: they both were alcoholics and suffered reoccurring depression. They also both identified themselves as bisexual. This part of McCullers life was “destructive,” as she and her husband were both very sexually active with men and women alike. They also were somewhat in competition with their writing, and often Carson was in the lead. They divorced in 1941, largely due to jealousy and competition. Both Carson and Reeves fell in love with the same man, David Diamond, which caused Carson and Reeves to tear apart while competing for Diamond’s love.
by Sarah Morris
From a young age, I have always had a passion for writing and how beautiful it can be. One thing I realized as I was growing up is that writing can be more than just writing a story or completing an essay assignment. Pen on paper, words typed on a screen, can be used to accomplish something, persuade someone to change their opinions, or in Ida B. Wells’ case, fight for racial equality and justice. Because I have a love for writing, I was truly inspired by Wells’ use of literature to work towards earning the American people’s care towards a cause she believed in. She was brutally honest about the terrible abuse African Americans suffered through and discrimination they faced even after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Ida B. Wells was an African American journalist who fought for equal treatment of races and sexes. This activist may best be known for her anti-lynching crusade. Born into slavery in Mississippi in 1862, Wells saw racial injustice throughout her entire life, particularly when living in the South. Though “declared free by the Emancipation Proclamation shortly after her birth … racial prejudices were still very prevalent in the time that she grew up in Mississippi.” She witnessed the mistreatment of her friends because of their race, as well as being ill-treated herself.
Ida Wells had to grow up quickly, cutting her childhood short at only 16. Her parents, “as well as one of her siblings, fell ill and died of yellow fever, leaving Wells on her own to provide for her younger sisters and brothers.” To provide for them, she convinced a local school that she was 18 years of age and landed a job as a teacher. She cared for her siblings this way until 1882, when she moved the family to Memphis, Tennessee, to live with her aunt.
I grew up in a household that was, and still is, passionate about food. For us, food meant the unity of family. It was there through times of laughter, heartache, and of course those creative moments when we craved something that was amazing. However, food wasn’t just about sustenance—it was something much deeper than that. It became spiritual.
“Growing up as a child, food was very rewarding for us,” my mother, Jean Jacquet, stated as she stared off into her childhood memory as if it were physically in the room with her.
Jean was a private chef and caterer prior to being diagnosed with stage III breast cancer. From a very young age she knew that cooking was her passion, as she saw the joy it could bring to the people she served. From as early as four years old, Jean always found herself gravitating towards the kitchen. “One day I was hungry as a child—and I’ll always remember this,” she recalls. “I was four years old and my mom left some pork chops on the stove to go gossip with the neighbor. I went to the stove, and the pork chops were cooking, so I was flipping them over and stuff. I didn’t have a clue as to what I was doing as far as flipping the pork chops over. When [my mother] came in her eyes got all big and she hurried up and grabbed me away from the stove. By that time the pork chops were already done.”
Jean had begun to learn the basics of cooking by watching her mother and grandmother cook. It wasn’t until she was about nine years old that she created her first successful dish. “My mom had to get a job and go to work, and so she didn’t make anything and we didn’t have any leftovers. So I went and got some rice because I remember I used to watch her cook it. I washed it, put it on the stove, and then turned the stove off to let it steam. I went to go watch TV. By that time, my mind had gotten off of how hungry I was, and I totally forgot about the pot of rice. When [my mother] came home she looked on the stove and saw the pot of rice and she said, ‘Who been in the kitchen cooking?’ I got scared because I thought she was going to whoop me because I used to always get in trouble for going to the stove and trying to cook,” Jean laughed. “She looked at the rice and tasted it and asked again who made it. I couldn’t lie because I knew I would get a whooping for lying, so I told her I made it since I was hungry. I started crying so she knew I was hungry and wouldn’t whoop me and she said ‘Baby, this is the best pot of rice I ever tasted!’”
When I read Dorothy Allison’s fiction for the first time, I felt enraged. Not for Allison depicting the truth, wherein another rapist gets away with his crime, but the fact that I was used to this narrative. I thought, “I shouldn’t feel used to such disgraces.” Nevertheless, every year, countless men get away with rape, and Allison does not sugarcoat this fact. She shares the truths that we would rather ignore, like every other noteworthy Southern writer. Consider, for instance, Eudora Welty’s and Flannery O’Connor’s popular works. In “Why I Live at the P.O.” (1983), Welty presents familial discord at its ugliest. When Welty’s protagonist, Sister, is outcast by her family, she “marche[s] in where they were all playing Old Maid and pull[s] the electric oscillating fan out by the plug . . . [and] snatche[s] the pillow [she’d] done the needlepoint on right off the davenport from behind Papa-Daddy.” Then, in O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (1953), when the Misfit, a heinous serial killer, kills his latest victim, he shares nefarious thoughts that other people would leave unsaid: “‘She would of been a good woman,’ The Misfit said, ‘if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.’” Accordingly, Welty and O’Connor make us uncomfortable, force us to confront our inner demons, and haunt our imaginations long after we read their final words. Unlike Welty and O’Connor before her, however, Allison gives us a glimpse at other atrocities. With brutal realism, Allison’s writing portrays domestic abuse, sexual violence, and incest. In her seminal work Bastard Out of Carolina, a finalist for the 1992 National Book Award, she debunks rape myths, which originate from rape culture. Allison writes from personal experience. Like her heroine, Bone, she lived with her rapist—a man who should have protected and loved her—her stepfather. Allison never allowed this injustice to stop her from pursuing her career or helping others. Whether Allison is working at a Women’s Center or writing, she fights for women’s justice.
On April 11, 1949, Allison was born in Greenville, South Carolina, where she spent her childhood and young adulthood. Allison describes South Carolina as “a hardscrabble state. I still have family, although for the most part they have scattered and decimated. It’s a rough place. But pretty. Very pretty.” Allison’s statement speaks to the paradox of the South. Although the South’s sprawling terrain is beautiful, it is the home of the Civil War, the Jim Crow laws, and other political debacles. This past casts an ever-present shadow over life in the South. This public confrontation often reflects the discord happening inside of private homes. Similar to her heroine in Bastard, Allison was born out of wedlock. Her mother worked as a waitress to make ends meet and eventually married a truck driver. When she was five years old, Allison’s stepfather began to rape her and this sexual violence continued into her young adulthood. Despite the sexual violations and the physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her stepfather, Allison never lost sight of the life she wanted—a life that excluded her rapist. Although no one in her family had ever graduated high school or attended college, she went to Florida Presbyterian College and received her Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology. Shortly after receiving her degree, she attended a meeting at Florida State University’s Women’s Center, and she found her true passion: listening to other women’s stories and sharing her own. Allison remarks upon the impact the Women’s Center has had on her life: “I would not have become a writer if I hadn’t stumbled into that Women’s Center. I don’t know that I would have managed to survive.” Since she walked into the Women’s Center, she has established herself as a central Southern writer.
Growing up in an Italian-American family, I’ve always had a sense of pride in my heritage and admiration for the risk that my grandparents took in chasing the American Dream. My grandparents migrated from Sicily in the 1960s to escape economic and social oppression. Prior to meeting their husbands, my grandmothers, Nonna Sofia and Nonna Rosetta, journeyed to America independently in search of a better life. Their independence, courage, and perseverance allowed them to break free from the gender restrictions of Sicily while finding their own way in the Land of Opportunity. My grandmothers’ strength and drive are a source of inspiration as they have overcome barriers that were placed before women. My grandmothers are living proof of how successful feminists, like Minnie Fisher Cunningham, have been in paving the way for women to gain equality. Born on Fisher Farms, Texas in 1882, Cunningham worked tirelessly to fight for women’s rights. Born to a prominent planter who had a brief sitting in the Texas House of Representatives, Minnie Fisher Cunningham was introduced to the political stage at a young age. She received a solid education while being homeschooled by her mother and later graduated from the University of Texas at Galveston as “one of the first women to receive a degree in pharmacy in Texas. During her short bout as a pharmacist, Cunningham experienced an injustice that would turn her determination away from practicing medicine and towards fighting for social justice. Cunningham found out that although she received a prestigious medical degree from UT, “her untrained male colleagues made twice her salary” which pushed Cunningham into becoming a “‘suffragette,’” as she called herself. Minnie Fisher Cunningham’s upbringing and events in her early life led her to become a promoter of women’s rights who focused on ways to improve society in general even in the face of opposition.