I met Coleman at a dinner at his parents’ home, on my first “exploratory visit” to Newnan. Though we’d had many conversations by phone and email, it was the first time I’d met the people who had invited me there.
My husband had been making jokes about why a town in the South would want a Northern “carpetbagger” like me to do this work. I was curious, too: Why me? “Because you won’t bring to it the same preconceptions that we do,” said one person at the dinner. “Will you make us all look racist?” asked another. “It’s very similar to what we do in AA,” said Coleman.
“You have a group inventory – inventory is a big thing in AA,” he continued. “You have someone from outside the group come in, they listen to the meeting, what’s being shared, and they talk about what’s working and what’s not working. . . . Then that person says I think you need to focus more on this within your group, or this is working or this is not working.”
When dinner was finished, Coleman stood up and sang an a cappella version of the Lord’s Prayer. A seventh- or eighth-generation Newnanite (his ancestors were among the town’s founders) he has studied voice, painting, psychology. He has learned Italian, traveled through Europe, gotten a master’s degree in architecture.
Over the next two years Coleman and I spent many hours together – having lunch, dinner, talking about identity politics, history, the South. As we sat one afternoon in a barbecue restaurant called the Oink Joint, I asked him to tell me something, formally, about himself.
“One of the most interesting things about me,” he said, “is that I have all these qualifiers. Like, I’m gay, I’m white, I’m Southern, I’m male. You know, just any sort of qualifier you can name. But even within these different identity groups, I’m sort of very strange for that group.
“I’m alcoholic and bipolar – I’m not really typical alcoholic, I’m not really typical bipolar. Ten years ago I was considered socially progressive, now I’m considered socially conservative,” he said. “I’ve voted a straight Republican ticket since I started voting. But I don’t consider myself a Republican.
“I minored in piano performance in college. That’s another one of my identities: musician, alcoholic, bipolar, gay, male, white, conservative Southerner.”
When I last spoke with Coleman he’d come back to Georgia from a year-long exchange program in Shanghai, where he met the man he would soon marry. “We met on a gay social-networking app,” he said. His fiancé’s mother, a traditional Chinese woman, was not accepting of her son’s homosexuality, so the two men plotted how they would spend the rest of their lives together.
Coleman says he knows that plenty of people in Georgia’s Bible Belt will think that he’s “going to hell” for his lifestyle, but his family and friends have always been supportive. After a tiresome year of visas and red tape, Coleman’s fiancé will finally arrive in Georgia at the end of next week.
The day after his fiancé’s arrival, the couple will be married by Coleman’s uncle – one of Newnan’s most prominent judges – in the courtroom where Coleman’s grandfather once practiced law. Then, since all the waiting has drained the romance from the last year and a half, Coleman has planned for his partner a romantic surprise.