Remembering Minnie Bruce Pratt’s Legacy as a Radical Southern Femme

feature image photo by Rachel Fus @ 2008

If there’s one thing about Minnie Bruce Pratt that everyone should know, it’s that she never stopped working for us. For all of us. Pratt, who passed away on July 2, spent her life on the frontlines of the fight to dismantle white supremacy and this racist, cis heteropatriarchy society born in its destructive construction. She fought for queer and trans rights, for women’s rights, and for the end of systemic racism, racial capitalism, and U.S. imperialism. A self-described “Southern femme” who “always talk[ed] ‘too loud’,” she believed in the possibility of “the sweetness that can come when all is made right,” and she never stopped trying to turn that possibility into a reality. Trying to capture in words this life she lived in all its brilliance and difficulty and beauty seems daunting and impossible, but her work, her contributions, her writing, and her legacy deserve our struggle and our attempt to.

Pratt was born on September 12, 1946 in segregated Selma, Alabama, not too far away from Centreville, the town where her family lived and where she would spend the rest of her youth. After graduating from Bibb County High School, Pratt made her way to the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa just a year after Alabama Governor George Wallace “stood in the schoolhouse door” to try to prevent Black students from registering for classes at the college. She would later write about how her experiences growing up in the segregated and explicitly racist South made her feel scared about the world around her and feel unable to fully connect with other people. She did so most famously in the essay “Identity: Skin, Blood, Heart” from her collection of essays and political writings, Rebellion: Essays 1980 – 1991, which was a Finalist in Non-Fiction for the Lambda Literary Awards.

She received her Bachelors at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, then began the Ph.D. in English program at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in the mid-1970s. Shortly after moving to Fayetteville, NC with her then-husband and their two sons, Pratt came out as a lesbian and divorced her husband despite the significant risks involved with doing so. Because of North Carolina’s anti-queer sodomy laws, Pratt was forced to give up custody of her children, an experience she would later chronicle in her American Library Association Gay and Lesbian Book Award-winning poetry collection Crimes Against Nature (1989), and was only able to see sons when and in conditions the courts and her ex-husband dictated. Crimes Against Nature addresses her personal struggle to maintain her parental connection with her sons, the struggle to be recognized as both a mother and a lesbian, and connects these struggles to the violence and oppression experienced by other marginalized people. The gravity of the grief and loss of this experience is something she has credited many times as having contributed to her motivation to organize against systemic oppression.

Coming out and enduring the persecution of the North Carolina state court drove Pratt to get more involved with community organizing in Fayetteville and Durham, NC. First through grassroots organizing with Black women in Fayetteville where she taught at historically Black colleges, Fayetteville State University and Shaw University, then by joining a feminist collective in Durham and working to publish the well-known lesbian feminist journal Feminary: A Feminist Journal for the South Emphasizing the Lesbian Vision. For five years, she contributed to and helped oversee the publication of the journal, which was revolutionary for the time  — and for right now, too, as it was a magazine written by lesbians in the South for lesbians in the South and focused its attention on issues of race, class, and identity in the region.

In 1982, Pratt moved from North Carolina to Washington, DC and helped found the direct action lesbian feminist group LIPS: “[O]ur idea was to have a lesbian group that dealt with these issues of imperialism and racism and the U.S. aggression, and that’s what we did. So, we didn’t do just lesbian actions.” As she helped do with the members of Feminary, Pratt and the other members of LIPS organized themselves around anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and anti-imperialist goals with queerness at the center of it all. Pratt and the other members of LIPS organized actions against the Department of Justice’s acquittal of the orchestrators of the Greensboro Massacre and against the apartheid in South Africa. Later, and for their final action against the State, LIPS organized with other groups to protest the 1987 Bowers vs. Hardwick Supreme Court decision where the court ruled that the Constitution “does not protect the rights of gay adults to engage in private, consensual sodomy.” After the dissolution of LIPS, Pratt went on to organize with International Action Center, its Women’s Fightback Network, and eventually, most prominently with the Workers World Party as the managing editor of their newspaper.

Her long-term relationship with the late Leslie Feinberg, legendary Marxist trans activist and author of Stone Butch Blues, led her to Jersey City, NJ where Feinberg was living at the time. There together, they both became leaders in their organizing communities and continued to organize against racism, economic inequity, and anti-queer and anti-trans persecution. Through her relationship with Feinberg, Pratt was able to gain a deeper understanding of communist and socialist principles and how they intersect with anti-racist and queer and trans organizing, which shifted her perspective for the better:

“[T]he ending of the ‘Identity’ essay is this kind of, oh, well, if we can just adjust our attitudes towards each other and learn a different way of relating to each other, then things will be OK. And of course, that’s not a materialist explanation of how things happen. […] You can say you want to change your attitudes all you want to, but when there’s money involved, and power involved, are you really going to implement that? How far does this attitude go, how far can this attitudinal change survive the material conditions? So I really got pushed, both by my own organizing experiences and by being closer to real Marxist thinking and analysis, I mean, real thinking, real analysis. […] Both of those things together made me understand the limitations of where I had been…”

Throughout all her time as an organizer, Pratt never stopped teaching — mostly as an adjunct, then eventually as an on-contract Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies and Writing & Rhetoric at Syracuse University, where she helped develop their LGBT Studies program — or publishing. After the publication of Crimes Against Nature and Rebellion, she went on to publish S/He, a book of vignettes about “gender-boundary-crossing,” in 1995; Walking Back Up Depot Street, a collection of poems that form “a dramatically multi-vocal story of the segregated rural South and a white woman named Beatrice who is leaving that home for the postindustrial North,” in 1999; The Dirt She Ate, a collection of selected poems, in 2003; Inside the Money Machine, a collection of poems “about the people who survive and resist inside “the money machine” of 21st-century capitalism,” in 2011; and most recently, Magnified, a collection of poems described as ““a profoundly intimate record of personal sorrow as well as ‘poetry to action’ — in its resistance against empire’s economic and military destruction,” in 2021. In addition to her individual publications, Pratt also co-authored Yours In Struggle: Three Feminist Perspectives On Anti-Semitism and Racism with Barbara Smith and Elly Bulkin, a book that in 2004 was named one of the 100 Best Lesbian and Gay Nonfiction Books of all time by the Publishing Triangle. She also co-edited an anthology called Feminism and War: Confronting U.S. Imperialism with Chandra Talpade Mohanty and Robin Riley in 2008, and she participated in the Smith College Voices of Feminism Oral History Project in 2005 (a lot of her interview with the project has helped inform this reflection).

While I believe her contributions to the movement are enough to warrant nothing but reverence and our closest attention as learners in the struggle, what has always drawn me to her work is her deep dedication and appreciation for the place where she was born. Not simply because I share the same affinity for my own home here in the South, but because we see over and over again how the region is disregarded in conversations about progress and leftist organizing around the country. After moving to Jersey City in the early 1990s and then eventually to Syracuse to teach, Pratt split her time between her homes in those places and her childhood home in Centreville, Alabama. She was determined to never lose those connections, because those connections are part of what made her the radical she eventually became: “I still consider Alabama my home. I’m really unhappy that people don’t know I’m from Alabama. I want them to know I’m from Alabama. I’m proud of it. I’m proud of the resistant traditions of Alabama, resistance to oppression that are embedded in the soil there.”

Pratt’s understanding of the South as a place with a long history of radical resistance and a breeding ground for radical possibility is in direct opposition to a lot of the messages we consume about the region. To me, this is essential to understanding the impact that Pratt’s work made and the impact her work will continue to make. Even if she wasn’t in the South doing organizing work later in her life, it still took center stage in her analysis. She understood, intimately, that the South has both revolutionary precedent and further revolutionary potential and, as organizers, we should be doing what we can to support the work being done by marginalized organizers in the region.

In this moment where we see certain Southern states leading the way in eroding civil rights for queer and trans people, Black people, and people of color, Pratt’s insistence of the importance of and her faith in the organizing work that is constantly being done in the South is more imperative than ever. She might have left the South, but she never forgot it, scorned it, or neglected it. In a 2021 piece in Scalawag Magazine, she reminds us:

“To strengthen our ties of solidarity for resistance in the Queer South has meant engaging in action, digging into the lessons of the past and the present, and deciding to be brave to create the future. […] We have a vision of a world of justice, where racism is vanquished, where woman-hating is ended, where gender-phobia and queer oppression is eradicated, where prejudice against people with disabilities is over forever. We are clinging to a vision of a world where capitalism crumbles forever—where the workers create a just and fruitful socialist world from the ground up. In the Queer South, we are still fighting and we are still singing.”

Her passing comes at a time when we need to be looking to our elders in the struggle more than ever — to learn from them, to replicate their tactics, to listen to their visions of the future, to build with them. Pratt is leaving behind a radical legacy and incredible works that we should continue to study as we work to break down the walls and construct a society that’s better for all of us. After all, there’s still so much work to be done and all we have to do is stick to the “plan”:

I hold to the plan we thought of: small: full of
possibilities against despair:
us handing out
sheets of paper, thousands, the list of crimes:
sharp thin papers delving up something in people
in parking lots, shopping malls.
What will come of this?
Perhaps people to stand with us outside the buildings,
to say again: Not in my name.

Pratt is survived by her two sons and their partners, five grandchildren, and a chosen family of friends and loved ones. Her sons have suggested that anyone wanting to make a donation in Minnie Bruce Pratt’s memory should do so to the Friends of Dorothy House in Syracuse, NY.

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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 89 articles for us.

9 Comments

  1. Thank you for this insightful tribute. I met Pratt once when I was an impressionable 19 year old. Somehow she appeared at my small Kentucky college to do a poetry reading—possibly part of the once great Women’s Writers Conference hosted by the University of Kentucky. I clutched my copy of Catalpa and waited to speak to her. She signed my books and complimented my butchy little outfit.

    Her warmth, her sense of place, her clear-eyed trust in the process of her own self-examination will stay with me forever, along with the hug she gave me that day, now decades gone.

  2. I can only hope to leave behind even a fraction of Minnie’s legacy. My affinity with her as a butch-loving radical femme organizer (albeit a Northerner) runs deep. She will be greatly missed.

  3. This resonates deeply for me, so thank you for writing about her in this way. It is a beautiful tribute! Even though we are from different eras and regions, I’ve always seen so much of myself in her talks and her writing that I’ve been aware of over time…(p.s. there is clearly so much more to read too, thanks for all the references made throughout!)

    As a proud Femme and a proud Kansan – who did realize there really is no place quite like home – it felt so validating to read a piece like this and have it articulated why that was such a loving thing for Minnie Bruce Pratt to be explicit about over the years. And why it is so timely to reflect on her praxis.

    Thanks a bunch for writing this welcome reminder of Minnie’s spirit that I aspire to embody.

    • This resonates deeply for me, so thank you for writing about her in this way. It is a beautiful tribute! Even though we are from different eras and regions, I’ve always seen so much of myself in her talks and her writing that I’ve been aware of over time…(p.s. there is clearly so much more to read too, thanks for all the references made throughout!)

      As a proud Femme and a proud Kansan – who did realize there really is no place quite like home – it felt so validating to read a piece like this and have it articulated why that was such a loving thing for Minnie Bruce Pratt to be explicit about over the years. And why it is so timely to reflect on her praxis.

      Thanks a bunch for writing this welcome reminder of Minnie’s spirit that I aspire to embody.

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