Karis Wilde at Radical Faerie gathering in Tennessee, 2010 / Photograph by Gui Mohallem
Queering the Countryside: New Frontiers in Rural Queer Studies
Edited by Mary L. Gray, Colin R. Johnson, and Brian J. Gilley
New York University Press, $30 (paper)
The queer rights movement has created a plethora of memorable slogans: Silence = Death, Gay Is Good, Out of the Closets and into the Streets. But my favorite is the deceptively mild We Are Everywhere. To homophobes, it evokes horror-movie tropes, half Invasion of the Body Snatchers, half “the call is coming from inside the house.” To queer people, however, it whispers of a community hidden in plain sight, of queerness bursting forth unexpectedly like water from the rock at Rephidim. The political plasticity of “we” makes it the perfect basis for queer organizing, as it evokes a sexuality that is expressed not via particular actions or identities, but solely through solidarity with other queers—yet therein also lies a problem. If the foundation of our organizing requires placing a premium on our sexuality or gender identity as it has been defined by a largely white, urban, bourgeois queer movement, what happens to same-sex loving, gender non-conforming individuals who can’t, don’t, or won’t fit the mold? Are they less queer, or simply less considered? As neighborhoods, nonprofits, and social-justice movements get built by and for those whose primary identification is around a particular vision of queerness, it becomes harder and harder to see the needs, ideas, or very existence of other queers. And because this kind of organization requires aggregation, it tends to happen in cities and lionize urban life, whose sexual skyscrapers cast long, obscuring shadows over the towns and fields of rural queerness.Indeed many see queer sexuality as inseparable from famous gayborhoods such as New York City’s Greenwich Village, San Francisco’s Castro, and Chicago’s Boystown. In the biomythography of many American queers, the countryside is the place we escape from, the grim before to our urban happily-ever-after. However, this stereotype obscures the fact that many queer Americans, either by chance or by choice, dwell in small towns and rural places. Overlooked by the national gay rights movement and underrepresented in the media, they have rarely been seen as important subjects for scholarship and political representation. And when they are, it is often after some tragedy, such as the murders of Brandon Teena and Matthew Shepard.For many gay Americans, the countryside is a place we escaped. But what would it mean to consider rural queerness in a positive light?A new anthology, Queering the Countryside, joins a growing body of literature that seeks to offer a corrective to this metro-chauvinism, turning attention to the daily lives of queer rural Americans. In their introduction, the editors emphasize that “‘rural America’ in neither a monolith nor an apparition.” In particular, they seek to pivot away from the popular sentiments that “rural” always connotes whiteness, conservatism, or cisgender identity; that rural spaces in America are only important in the past, not the present; and that the only healthy, happy way to be gay today is as an out urbanite.