Queer life is often predictably, devastatingly lonely. And in response to the loneliness, we search and we reach — sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously — for some assurance that we’ll end up all right or, at the very least, alive. Before the rise of the internet and social media, the only way to get that assurance was to look around you and try to find people who might reflect the feelings you have inside. We construct our own visions of them, rewrite their life stories, and find ways to connect even when connection is hard. For some of us, these moments of identification can change the trajectory of our lives and help us survive. For me, those people and those moments were easier to find than most. Growing up where I did, there wasn’t a short supply of gay and lesbian people. They weren’t always open, but by the time I got to high school it wasn’t difficult to see that there were people like me around — even if I couldn’t verify that that was true.
For Casey Parks, though, that wasn’t exactly the case. In her hometown of West Monroe, Louisiana, Parks didn’t have many figures in her life to look up to for recognition and assurance, but she couldn’t deny to herself the fact of her queerness. Her new nonfiction book Diary of a Misfit starts in 2002 when Parks is just 18-years-old. After her first semesters in college, she decided to come out, and her mother shunned her for being gay while her church’s pastor prayed to God to kill her so she could be saved. In response to her mother’s reaction, Parks’s grandmother stepped in to say, “Life is a buffet. Some people eat hot dogs, and some people eat fish. She likes women, and you need to get the fuck over it.” Sometime after her mother’s breakdown, Parks’s grandmother reveals to her that when she was growing up in Delhi, Louisiana, she knew someone named Roy, “a woman who lived as a man.” Stunned, Parks pushes her grandmother for details about this mysterious person. From this short conversation over her grandmother’s wobbly table, Parks commits to learning everything she can about Roy.
By 2009, Parks had completed her undergraduate program and was living in Portland and working as a journalist when she decided to truly dedicate time to learning about Roy. The beginning of her journey takes her straight to Delhi, the small city her grandmother’s sharecropper family moved to after it was no longer viable to stay on the cotton plantations they worked for many years. It’s there where, when Parks’s grandmother was a child, Roy would play songs on his guitar and sing for the neighborhood children who would gather around to listen to him. The way Parks’s grandmother tells it, Roy was well-liked by everyone in the town who encountered him. For a living, he mowed lawns and picked cotton, and he mostly kept to himself except for the nightly concerts on his porch. She seems, in some ways, to insinuate to Parks that some people knew about Roy and some people didn’t, and the ones who did know never really discussed it. As Parks’s grandmother got older, she didn’t keep in touch with Roy, but she was always curious about what might have happened to him.
Over the course of 10 years, Parks — along with two filmmaker friends named Aaron and Aubree — travel back and forth from Portland to Delhi on their own dime to interview people and record their stories about Roy. As Parks talks to more and more members of the Delhi community who knew Roy, the picture of Roy’s life she begins to get is slightly different from the one her grandmother painted. Roy was well-liked, yes, but it turns out that no one knew what to make of him or how to talk about him. They misgender him and switch back and forth between pronouns as they talk about him, and when some of the townspeople talk about him, they make him seem more like an outcast, a “misfit” they tolerated rather than a beloved and respected member of the community. Of course, this is not true for every person Parks interviewed, but it does help Parks see that her grandmother’s compassion and understanding toward Roy wasn’t shared by everyone in Delhi.
Early in the process, Parks gets news that Roy left a set of journals titled “Life of a Misfit” with his neighbors, Mark and Cheryl. It takes years for them to finally acquiesce to Parks’s requests for them because they claim that Roy asked them not to share the journals with anyone. When Parks finally does get to read them, the confessions and thoughts scribbled in them open up a whole new chapter in Parks’s inquiry. Parks learns about how lonely and isolated Roy felt in Delhi and how much he longed for something better. He puts himself down, calls himself stupid. It’s obvious he believes he’s not worthy of much time or attention or love or respect. In the journals, Parks comes across a poem Roy wrote called “The Town Misfit” that said “When my life on earth is over, and it’s time for me to die / No one here will miss me. There will be no one to cry. / If I make it up to heaven, will I then find a friend? / Or will I be a misfit, with no place to fit in?” Even though she asserts that Roy was wrong for assuming no one missed him (since people clearly did), Parks learns that his journals confirm what she already suspected about Roy’s life.
As Parks attempts to figure out the mysteries of Roy’s life, her life keeps moving forward at full momentum. She continues working as a journalist, she gets married, and then leaves it all to move across the country to New York City for graduate school. The one constant in her life is the puzzle she was trying to piece together about Roy’s life. The more time Parks spent learning about Roy’s life, the clearer it became to her that she was doing this for reasons beyond Roy himself. She took on the investigation as a way to try to understand herself and connect more intimately with her family:
I did feel connected to Roy. It wasn’t just that he felt like some kind of queer ancestor. His life felt to me like a cautionary tale. […] I kept digging into Roy’s life hoping some stray fact might reveal something to me. I wasn’t sure what I hoped might be revealed, but I knew I didn’t want to die feeling as if I’d never fit anywhere.
That investigation is what launches Parks into not only contending with the facts of Roy’s life, but also her own family history, her relationship with her mother and grandmother, the history of where her family is from, the realities of small town life for queer and trans people, and her struggle to reconcile her feelings about all of it. She writes, “If I could solve his mysteries, I thought, I would decipher my own. I would know where I belonged. But I understand now, most of what haunted me before might haunt me forever.” At the end of her journey, Parks understood that even though this reconciliation and the search for the connection she felt she was missing couldn’t be solved by simply reconstructing the narrative of Roy’s life in Delhi, it gave her an opportunity to free herself of all that was holding her back from establishing those connections on her own.
Although Parks’s writing is elegant and descriptive, what is most compelling about Diary of a Misfit is how brilliantly organized it is. All at once, we get a biography, a memoir, a family history, and the active history of a place that most people are unfamiliar with. The book acts as a kind of living archive of the lives of people who history tends to forget. Not just Roy’s life as a gender nonconforming person, but also the lives of poor people in South and of the women who keep communities together, who remember, who try to make sure people don’t forget what went on and how it went on. Parks writes, “Neither Jewel [Roy’s adoptive mother] nor my mother had lived what historians would have called a remarkable life. Few people in Delhi had. But their lives were important, to me, if to no one else. […] I decided I owed it to all my people to write them back into existence.”
In the same vein as books like Sarah Broom’s The Yellow House, Diary of a Misfit acts as a testament to the lives of people who are often written out of history. And in 2022, when trans people have to wake up to the news of more horrifying anti-trans laws and mandates every day, I honestly could not think of a better time or moment for a book as extraordinary and powerful as this one to be out in the world. As these laws get proposed and passed and the war on trans people in the media continues, the agenda that transphobic politicians and talking heads are pushing is that being trans or gender nonconforming is some kind of new phenomenon when the truth is that trans and gender nonconforming people have been here all along, purposely left out of the record over and over again.
During an email exchange shared by Parks in the book, she hypothesizes to one of her graduate school professors that perhaps, in our own ways, we’re all considered “misfits” somewhere — whether we acknowledge that fact or not. Parks felt that way most of her life, so did her grandmother and her mother, many of the people she spoke with in Delhi, some of the people she encountered in Portland and New York and places in between, and, especially, Roy. But only because they’ve been left out, too. Parks proves this through her work in this book, and most importantly, she creates yet another record for us to visit and consult when we need to find that recognition and assurance we might be missing or might need to prove that we have always been here. And that’s literally just the half of it.