The Backroad Librarian: Out in the Country

Is there a way to be "out" without pursuing public "visibility"? A new study of gays and lesbians in the rural U.S. finds activism, pride and, in some cases, satisfaction.

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Book review

Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America
By Mary L. Gray
279 pp. New York University Press, 2009. $22.00.

A few months before I moved from Boston to a small town in southeast Kansas, my roommate and I invited one of our favorite professors over for dinner. As we sipped on the gazpacho I had made for our first course, the professor asked us about our plans for the coming year. My roommate described the Master’s program that he would be pursuing at a prestigious European university, and the professor nodded approvingly; he knew the city well. Then I explained that I was in the process of applying for library jobs in rural communities out on the Great Plains. The professor’s eyes squinted in a mixture of incomprehension and disdain, and the dishes we had set out clattered as he pounded his fist on the table and demanded: “Why the hell would you want to do that?”

There are layers of meaning to this story, shot through as it is with dynamics of class, status, and the cultural geography of prestige in America today. But there is another, less apparent layer of meaning that reveals itself if you know that this professor, my roommate and I are all gay. Rural America is widely understood to be an inhospitable place for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (or “queer”) people, a morass of intolerance and small-mindedness best avoided by outsiders and best left behind by those unfortunate enough to grow up there. Move to the nearest city, Harvey Milk counseled, and the legacy of that advice is with us still.

Out in the Country, by Indiana University communications professor Mary Gray, poses a deliberate challenge to that well-worn gay coming-of-age narrative that revolves around a one-way bus ticket to San Francisco. Based on nineteen months of fieldwork in and around rural Kentucky, Out in the Country sets out to understand the processes by which queer rural youth negotiate their identities, lay claim to public space, and organize for social change. Gray acknowledges the very real challenges that queer young people face in culturally conservative rural communities. But she refuses to portray these young people as victims or martyrs, focusing instead on the strategies that they use to create a sense of belonging and visibility in the rural places they call home.

Take Shaun, who was 19 when Gray began her research. Shaun grew up in an eastern Kentucky town of 2,100 people, serving at one point as the youth minister for the Baptist church that his family attended. When Shaun started having feelings for other young men, his pastor told him to pray that God would cure him. “But it was clear to me and everyone else,” Shaun told Gray, “that this was who I was, there wasn’t anything to change it.” So, at 17, Shaun joined the Highland Pride Alliance, a support group for queer people and their allies in eastern Kentucky. Within two years, he had become the group’s co-chair. Shaun pressed the group to start meeting in public places like the county library, rather than behind closed doors in members’ homes. He also challenged the group to get involved in regional activism, by lending their support to a rural high school trying to form a Gay-Straight Alliance and by working to bring Meals on Wheels service to area residents who were living with AIDS.

Still from Brokeback Mountain, via Blackmaps
“Jack and Ennis could have lived together quietly,” 17-year-old Shaun told Gray. “Anyone who lives in a small town knows about couples or relatives like that. You know how to avoid trouble if you’ve lived in a place long enough.”

Shaun was certainly no stranger to homophobia. In Chapter Four of Out in the Country, he describes being chased out of a local Wal-Mart by a high school acquaintance who accosted him as he walked out of the men’s fitting room: “What are you doing in the wrong dressing room, faggot?” Yet Gray also makes it clear that encounters like this one aren’t pushing Shaun and his friends back into the closet, or preventing them from living their lives. By letting us see these young people in more mundane, light-hearted moments, camping it up at a gas station donut shop, Gray shows that the experiences of rural queer youth are richer and more complex than a dreary string of suicide statistics. As Benoit Denizet-Lewis wrote in a recent article for the New York Times Magazine, “A new kind of gay adolescent was appearing on the page—proud, resilient, sometimes even happy.”

Beginning in the 1980s, placing a rainbow sticker on a car’s bumper or rear window became a well-known symbol of queer visibility. Wherever one drove, the sticker would serve as a small, cheery reminder to others on the road that queer people are everywhere. In the concluding chapter of Out in the Country, though, Gray’s informants put a fascinating, rural twist on this practice. Shaun and his friends describe affixing a special static-cling rainbow sticker to the window of Shaun’s car while driving around eastern Kentucky. When traveling through certain counties that they described as “hostile territory,” the friends would peel the sticker off the window and stow it in the glove compartment until they felt that it was safe to put back up. When Gray asked Shaun how he felt about having to hide his identity in this way, Shaun responded: “Well, it’s not like I stop liking guys when I take the sticker off! And I sure don’t need to prove I’m gay by getting beat up driving through a town I know don’t like gay people. You got to pick your battles.”

Handmade signs supporting equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians were posted in Harlan County, Kentucky. According to United We Stand, many of the placards were torn down.

The static-cling rainbow sticker is, for me, the defining image of Out in the Country. Throughout the book, Gray argues that the politics of visibility that has come to drive gay and lesbian social movements in the United States may be organized around a class-bound set of urban values that simply don’t have much traction in rural communities. This politics of visibility depends on consistently making the private public and the unspoken audible, on keeping the rainbow sticker in the window for good. It depends on shifting the conversation from each individual’s experience of oppression (linked, potentially, to his or her moral failure) to the structural causes of bigotry and the community’s responsibility to protect the vulnerable. Yet Kathryn Dudley’s ethnography of the farm crisis in western Minnesota reminds us that, in rural communities, bringing private experiences of injustice into the public sphere is sometimes just seen as stirring up trouble. Recalling the rallies and tractorcades staged in the mid-1980s to draw attention to farm foreclosures, one banker told Dudley: “It wasn’t an appropriate way of addressing the problem.”

Although Gray deserves credit for suggesting that the politics of visibility might be ill-suited to the realities of rural life, Out in the Country never really manages to articulate an alternative vision for a politics that does not see visibility as its primary goal. Nor does the book always ground its sweeping theoretical claims in hard ethnographic evidence. Still, despite its failings, Out in the Country succeeds insofar as it turns our attention toward the unique set of challenges faced by queer rural youth as they try to reconcile where they live with who they love. Colin Johnson, one of Gray’s colleagues at Indiana University, wrote in 2006 (subscription required) that “we have only begun to see the shadow of what will ultimately be a voluminous and innovative scholarly literature on the subject of gender and sexuality in nonmetropolitan settings.” As one of the early, necessarily flawed texts in this emerging field of study, Out in the Country is well worth a read.

 

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