The literary world is not the only one mourning the passing of the reclusive author Nelle Harper Lee February 19 at the age of 89. So, too, are many gender-nonconforming Americans.
Lee leaves us with two novels: Go Set a Watchman, published last July, 55 years after the 1960 publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, which catapulted her onto a world stage.
Several good biographies have been written about Lee — Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields, The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee by Marja Mills, and Up Close: Harper Lee by Kerry Madden, to name a few. One of the most frequently asked questions about Harper Lee was about her sexual orientation. Lee obviously wanted this answer hidden from the public, but her reclusiveness and annoyance with the question only contributed to the curiosity.
In Mills’s biography, she avoided the topic. "In Nelle’s annoyance at speculation about whether she is gay, Mills screws up her nerve to ask each sister, neither of whom married or had children, whether the other ever dated," according to a Washington Post review. "'A little,' they said. Mills concludes, 'And that was that.'"
But as doggedly silent as Lee was on this question, the American public has not been.
The question “Is Harper Lee gay or straight?’ still appears on the website VIPFAQ, stating, “Many people enjoy sharing rumors about the sexuality and sexual orientation of celebrities. We don't know for a fact whether Harper Lee is gay, bisexual or straight. However, feel free to tell us what you think.”
And the public did: Eighty-eight percent of the respondents thought Harper Lee was a lesbian, while the remainder thought she was bisexual, and zero percent believed her heterosexual.
Among the reasons many people speculate about Lee’s sexual orientation are her adoringly beloved gender-nonconforming fictional characters — Scout and Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Scout’s tomboyishness and Dill quasi-effeminate mannerisms inextricably connected LGBTQ readers to the novel, themselves, and Harper Lee.
"No lesbian or gay reader of To Kill a Mockingbird came away from the book without feeling that there was someone else like him or her, be it Scout or her friend Dill," Victoria Brownworth wrote in the July issue of Lambda Literary. "These were not the stereotypical characters that we knew: the fey timid girly boy and the courageous rugged tomboy. Unless, of course, we looked in the mirror."
And so beloved and lauded are the fictional characters of Scout and Dill in the American LGBTQ literary canon that To Kill a Mockingbird ranked 67th on the Publishing Triangle’s list of The 100 Best Lesbian and Gay novels.
However, Lee’s gender-nonconforming ways, obvious rebuke of the cult of domesticity and marriage, and her eschewing the trappings of 1950s femininity raised never-ending queries about her sexual orientation, especially for a woman who grew up before the second wave of the feminist movement.
Lee’s close friend Tom Butts, a Methodist minister, shared his thoughts on the topic in Mills’s biography: "Scout was a tomboy, and so was she, and she kind of kept that almost masculine way about her as an adult. … I don't think I've seen her wear a piece of jewelry as long as I've known her except something simple for an appearance. She doesn't wear makeup, hardly. You know how she dresses. Always pants and kind of baggy clothes sometimes.”
And if Lee is to be judged by the company she kept, her childhood friend Truman Capote, author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, was famously gay, and he was the basis for the fictional character Dill.
Lee was socially awkward and cripplingly shy. With no diaries or love letters revealing her romantic interests, we have no record. However, the story of Lee’s unrequited crush on married literary agent Maurice Crain, who encouraged her to try writing a novel after reading several of her short stories, is all we have.
Like some many Harper Lee fans, I too have wondered if she was a lesbian, and only because of how difficult it must have been for her and other LGBTQ Americans in the 1950s, when McCarthyism was a tool for policing not only “communists” but also gender and sexual relations — through constant police harassment and countless gay bar raids.
Lee came to New York City in 1949 to be a writer, and perhaps like so many, she also came to the Big Apple to be herself openly. Suffering a stoke in 2007 is what sent Lee home to Monroeville, Ala.
In his Huffington Post article “Growing Up Gay in Harper Lee’s Maycomb,” Michael Lambert shares his thoughts on how LGBTQ people in small Southern towns were identified.
"A decade later, my mother has begun to tell me of other men and women from Monroe County who 'never married' — the polite reference to gays and lesbians among the small-town South. Musicians and artists, teachers and judges, uncles and cousins — mentors all who had guided me my whole life and to whom I had felt such a mysterious connection. Only after I left for good did I see the shadows hanging over their lives."
The public will never know the answer of whether Lee was gay or straight. She has taken the answer about her sexual orientation to her grave, and may we all rest in peace with it.
REV. IRENE MONROE is a writer, speaker, and theologian living in Cambridge, Mass.