Doing Drag in Wal-Mart and Other Stories of Rural Queer Youth: An Interview with Mary L. Gray (Part One)

Mary L. Gray’s Out in The Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America is an extraordinary book — accessible, engaging and engaged, combining vivid storytelling and sophisticated theory-building. Gray captures the powerful stories of young people of varied sexuality as they construct and defend their identities in parts of the country which have been overlooked by most previous scholars focusing on queer culture and politics. They took Gray into their lives and she in turn shares with us what their world looks and feels like in ways which will challenge many of our preconceptions about what it means to be gay-les-bi-trans in America. You will learn here about the fragile publics that get constructed by these youth when they gather in Christian bookstores, church basements, even the aisles of Wal-Mart and seek to find common cause with each other. As she does so, she avoids the temptation which ensnares so many academics to score cheap yucks at the expense of the Red States and “flyover country.” Instead, Gray tries to help us to understand what is happening in rural America, why this region has become culturally enbattled as it becomes economically and demographically at risk, and why some of these queer youth will continue to live there even given the contradictions shaping their own experiences. This is what good cultural analysis should look like.

This book should be read by anyone who is shaping the lives of American young people because it tells the stories we don’t hear about the people we often don’t see or think about. Gray makes the case that many of our current theories about sexual politics have a deep urban bias, which in turn impacts the policies and tactics we use to address these concerns. What does it mean to push for visibility in a world where, as one young man explains, everyone in his community already knew he was gay well before he had a language to describe what that meant to him?

Gray has much to say in the book about media — about the ways these young people form their sense of what it means to be queer through media constructions, about how they struggle to find narratives which they can use to reconcile their loyalties to and their differences from their local communities. She pushes us beyond the cliche of rural queer youth seeking escape or refuge on line to examine what they are doing with digital media that allows them to survive where they are.

What follows is a three part interview with Gray which will challenge many of your preconceptions. As they say in The Matrix, what happens next is up to you.

Your opening chapter can be seen as a critique of what you call “metronormativity” within queer studies discourse. Why do you think queer scholars and activists have been so preoccupied with the urban experience? What do you help to learn by digging deeper into the experience of queers living in small towns and rural areas?

I would argue that queer scholars’ and activists’ preoccupation with urban scenes is two parts serendipity and one part willful ignorance.

First the serendipity: Around the late 1980s, queer scholarship gained traction and visibility in universities through its historical and literary studies of urban-based gay and lesbian networks. This scholarship, inspired by feminist scholars seeking a similar recognition for the depth and richness of women’s lives, highlighted the lives of queerly-identifying people in cities. In part the focus on urban lives was because the scholars doing this work were queer-identifying people living in cities! Describing the historical urban migrations of gay and lesbian-identifying people post World War II or discovering/recovering the queer subtext that shaped the Harlem Renaissance put queer studies on the map as a viable body of knowledge contributing to broader disciplinary conversations worth attention. No one really noticed that history, literary studies, and other humanities-based scholarship seemed fixated on urban subjects. Queer scholars probably didn’t notice that they were following suit.

At the same time, disciplines like Anthropology and Sociology, and particularly Psychology, played key roles in recognizing and validating the social justice and civil rights efforts of gays and lesbians fighting for the decriminalization of homosexuality and, later, protections for gay and lesbian-identifying people. When the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the 1973 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) list of mental disorders, it literally redefined homosexuality. Emboldened by politically progressive civil rights movements of that era and the previous decade, psychology and psychiatry no longer sought cures for homosexuality. Instead, those disciplines looked for fundamental differences that could explain the origins of homosexuality. That led to a spate (what social psychologist Ritch Savin-Williams has called a “cottage industry”) of stage theories to map the coming out process.

Here’s where the willful ignorance comes in. Most of the studies we have of queer life reinforce the belief that individuals start out different and find others who share their sense of difference and move on to create a queer life together out of the “family we choose.” To be sure, pioneering scholarship in queer studies had good reason to examine urban centers, particularly as gay and lesbian liberation movements gathered momentum and political clout as early as the mid 60s to form vibrant communities and chosen families to replace the biological families they left behind to come out as queer.

These movements gained steam by drawing on the resources and alliances available to them in cities. For example, Harvey Milk, a San Francisco City Supervisor and one of the first widely known, gay-identifying men to enter politics, relied on his connections to local unions, businesses, and other burgeoning civil rights campaigns, to win his seat on the Board of Supervisors and take a leading role in coordinating a countermovement to the now infamous Proposition 6 (or Briggs Initiative), a measure that proposed banning gay and lesbian people and their advocates from working in California’s public schools. Local and statewide legislative action on behalf of gay and lesbian-identifying people has, historically, come out of the confluence of the material, political, and physical presence of gay and lesbian people that can only amass in a city.

What queer scholars and activists did not do and are only now beginning to do is reexamined what life might have been like or could be like for someone who doesn’t live in a place that fosters or values standing out as queerly different. We have never considered how our origin stories about queer life implicitly privilege the visibility of cities and the visibility of queer individuals in those landscapes. Until now. I think the main reason we now ask the question “What is life like for those living beyond the city limits?” is because it is now imaginable that someone can (and many do) live a queer life in non-metro areas.

By digging more substantively into the lives of queers living in small towns and rural areas, I hope to accomplish two things: 1) I hope that my work allows us to examine how lives without the material and cultural benefits that many city dwellers and upwardly mobile folks take for granted can still be rewarding, beautiful, and models of a “good queer life” and 2) I hope that my work helps queer activists in particular see the limits of assuming we need (only) the specific resources of cities to expand queer rights. Until we understand why our political strategies work well in NYC but not in rural Maine, for example, we will be unable to advance the causes or needs of anyone living outside a metropole.

What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions we have about the experience of growing up queer in Rural America?

Our biggest misconception is that growing up queer in Rural America is, by definition, awful. Our second biggest misconception is that it must be uniformly better for queer youth living in cities. And the third misconception: that the Internet must make it better for all these kids.

I would argue that growing up queer anywhere in the United States presents challenges. Nothing is more punishing and potentially soul crushing to queer youth than the experience of navigating the institutionalized heteronormativity that defines the primary and secondary education experience. Simply put, our nation’s schools are in the business of producing young men and young women. We are still (and likely will be for some time) brought up to believe that what defines men and women are 1) the differences that distinguish them and 2) the sexual attractions that bring them magnetically together. Any young person that troubles the clarity of these core beliefs–suggests that masculinity and femininity aren’t so easily or naturally separated or that sexual attractions might not be so clear cut–threatens an entire social system built around these 2 suppositions.

Now, the assumption is that Rural America is more invested in these gender and sexual norms than its city cousins and that is what makes them more hostile to queer difference. While I think there are different investments in these norms in rural communities, I wouldn’t argue that their investments in norms are more heartfelt. The issue for rural areas and small towns is that they have been ravished over the past century as sources of raw materials and expendable extraction. They rely on each other and their deep familiarity with locals to keep their communities alive and afloat.

When rural young people identify themselves as queer, they not only mark themselves as different, they link themselves with identities that are unequivocally associated with city life. They also upend and potentially undo the most important identity they have in their communities: a familiar son or daughter, a local from that town. When Rural America seems to reject queer folks, whether with its voting record or in sound bites from its townspeople, we are witnessing a much deeper tussle over who rural community members feel they can trust and who they feel they can turn to in times of trouble (which, in this economic crisis, they feel everyday).

And this is why the Internet, and emerging media more broadly, can make a difference to rural queer young folks but it cannot change their overall experience of oppression. For the youth I worked with, the Internet did 3 things: 1) it helped rural queer young people tell their own stories so that there was something other than bleakness to be said about rural queer life; 2) it allowed young people to feel connected to broader communities of LGBT-identifying people that could not physically, demographically be present in these young people’s daily lives; and 3) it allowed young people to plant a queer flag locally that said “I’m here” and strengthen existing networks of queer-identifying youth in the region. What the Internet could not do is address the underlying poverty that made even Internet access hard to come by and it could not make advocacy around difference more palatable to communities defined by and organized around (and deeply invested in) sameness and familiarity.

Mary L. Gray is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her research looks at how everyday uses of media shape people’s understandings and expressions of their social identities. She is the author of In Your Face: Stories from the Lives of Queer Youth (1999). Her most recent book, Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America (NYU Press) examines how young people in rural parts of the United States fashion queer senses of gender and sexual identity and the role that media–particularly the internet–play in their lives and political work.

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