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

You pose some critiques of the way national gay rights organizations are structured based on an assumption of large urban bases of supporters. How has this limited their ability to serve the needs of the kind of communities you discuss in your book?

The limits of current national organizing models really hit home for me as I watched rural LGBT Kentuckians attempt to battle an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment campaign. It was 2004 and the elections were heating up. Like so many other states that year, Kentucky not only had the Presidential candidates on the ballot, it also had this amendment to contend with. Every effort spent on fighting this amendment looked like the best of legislative politics–voter drives, campaign fundraisers, door-to-door campaigns to not only get out the vote but also educate voters about the incendiary amendment likely to hurt unmarried opposite-sex couples as much as it would ban same-sex couples from marrying.

But these strategies so central to how most non-profit organizations “do” social justice organizing don’t have legs in rural communities. Voter drives in communities where the same wealthy, landowning families have controlled elected seats for generations; fundraisers in communities where unemployment rates hover around 40%; and door-to-door campaigns in communities where publicly debating or disagreeing with a neighbor threatens the “getting along” venire necessary to daily life are all strategies that work against queer organizing in rural communities.

What national gay rights organizations need to do is identify what needs and values they share with rural communities. And this cannot happen until national gay rights organizations identify the ways they have privileged building movements on not only an urban base of supporters but also an upper middle class to wealthy, overwhelmingly white base that prioritizes issues from that vantage point. Arguing for marriage equality because it will give partners equal access to their inheritance and healthcare benefits falls flat in communities where the median income is below the poverty line and communities do not have access to medical care let alone health insurance. Most urban-based gay rights organizations imagine that their key constituencies live in Chicago, Miami, or New York City. That limits how much they pay attention and therefore how much they can effectively address the needs of the youth living in the communities I discuss in the book.

You write, “Historically, an unspoken agreement operated in rural communities: queer difference was allowed to quietly exist, if not flourish, as long as it did not interfere with one’s commitments to family and community.” How has that “unspoken agreement” impacted the kinds of arguments which must be made as queers struggle to find acceptance and tolerance in small town communities?

I think this ethos of “live and let live, quietly” has, until now, defined what acceptance and tolerance look like for queers living in small towns because to do otherwise threatened the reliance on familiarity that I talk about in the book. But it might also define how any queer person, who lacks unconditional, uncompromised social privilege, has to live as well.

I would argue that we haven’t examined the utility of this ethos in rural communities or communities at the margins of social privilege. There are few people who can afford to live unconditionally, without compromise and have the social power to set the terms of how they are to be treated. The ethos of letting queerness exist quietly serves a critical role in maintaining community solidarity while still creating room to queerly roam in places that often cannot count on the nation-state for any kind of social safety net but demand everyone’s allegiance to each other, first and foremost.

To know someone, for decades, is to feel you can rely and call on them for help. But as our broader cultural expectations of what made for a “good gay life” began to incorporate the notion of being visibly out and acknowledged as a queer person–when we began to define queerness as an intrinsic part of our identities rather than something we can or should have the right to do–that created a fundamental tension between rural communities and queer communities and allies based in cities. Demanding respect for a queer-identifying person, noting, again, that this, in part, came out of academic trends in psychology and sociology, became fundamental to much of the social change and acceptance we see today.

I wouldn’t argue that we should return to requiring that queer difference remain unspoken. However, that means that queers struggling for acceptance in small towns or in any communities that demand allegiance to other social identities (being part of a community of color, for example) must fight to maintain their status as locals while also making a case that the kind of difference they bring to their communities is an asset rather than a harbinger of all the bad that “outsiders/citydwellers” have wrought on their communities.

As I note in the book, rural-based organizers have the best outcomes when they use the salient notion of “family” to remind local communities that these queer kids in their midst are still valued local sons and daughters. Organizing fails whenever it smacks of outsiders from cities providing education and outreach to rural folks assumed to be just plain ignorant and hateful. It’s much more complicated than blind hate. We’ve done very little, academically or politically, to see rural queerness in more complicated terms.

You argue that in small town America, the issue is rarely about visibility but often about familarity. Can you explain the difference? How does a small town politics based on familiarity allow us to form a critique of an urban politics based on visibility?

This is a tough one to answer. I think a small town politics based on familiarity allows us to critique single issue urban politics invested in solely queer visibility. If the only right I fight for is my right to be queerly me, I can’t work in solidarity with anyone beyond the class of individuals who also consider the right to queer identity their primary goal.

Small town politics require coalitions and translation. For example, a small town high school might have 2-3 students interested in environmental justice; 2-3 students interested in racism and social justice; another 2-3 students interested in LGBT rights. Together, these students can form a working coalition that has to constantly explain to each other and potential members what these different movements share in common and why they should help each other. There will never be enough “critical mass” for any of these single issues to gain the attention and sway the hearts and minds of the majority of students at any one school but as a bloc, students invested in these issues as a set of concerns that speak to something bigger can not only survive but thrive and maintain the presence.

Gay and lesbian organizers might look at the queer students in that social club and say “but where’s your gay-straight alliance?” Small town politics that use the familiar of longstanding friendships and relationships to build their strength have something to teach us about the place and value of visibility vs. the place and value of transforming what seems like someone else’s concern into something akin to my own issues.

I am fascinated by your concept of “boundary publics.” In what ways does this push us not only beyond Habermas but also beyond the critiques of Habermas posed by Frazier and Warner?

Thank you! The notion of “boundary publics” is meant to do two things: it forces us to consider how critiques of Habermas’ Public Sphere, Fraser and Warner’s notion of counterpublics in particular, implicitly reinforce a reliance on material wealth to imagine public dialogue. The other goal I had in mind was to draw on the analytic power of “boundary objects”–a concept developed by Susan Leigh Star, a sociologist and extraordinary thinker–to get at how enmeshed “online” and “offline” experiences are for the youth I worked with.

On the first point: if Habermas hoped to theorize the ideal possibilities of deliberative democracy and Fraser and Warner attempted to account for who was left out of those deliberations and how they responded to those exclusions, I wanted to offer a conceptual rubric for examining the metrocentric underpinnings of how we have imagined the Public Sphere and responses to it and consider what people with little access to public space and place do to stand their ground and eek out social recognition.

My hunch was that media, a range of media not just the emergent kind, are a part of the contemporary construction of our sense of social space. Rural areas and small towns have such limited access to capital–privately organized or publically mobilized–that they underscore the kinds of resources necessary to set public discourse in motion. In fact, rural areas and small towns are arguably left out of national debates (or spoken about rather than spoken with) because they have such a tentative hold on anything that resembles a robust Public Sphere or counterpublic as imagined by the theorists you note above.

The sociological tradition of symbolic interactionism has traditionally paid keen attention to how people navigate their social worlds. The late Susan Leigh Star was one of the first to consider how different groups might approach a specific set of tools and lay claim to them in ways that made those tools or objects brokers or translators among social worlds.

Media, for me, are the perfect example of this process. The youth I worked with used media to translate and therefore transform the different social worlds they inhabited. They did not have the option to create a stand-alone counterpublic of their own as they had neither the capital to start them nor, as minors, the social standing to legally maintain them. But youth could experience media as a space that stretched the boundaries of their local queer scene. As I discuss in the book, they could do drag in the aisles of Wal-Mart and post the photos of their experiences online to sew together their different social worlds. So, my hope is that the model of “boundary publics” helps media scholars attend to the ways individuals’ ideas about media, their everyday experiences of media, and the broader social structures and institutions that both extend and constrain media’s possibilities intersect.

You describe the ways that a group of queer high school students engaged with Wal-Mart to illustrate the fragility and instability of these boundary publics. Can you walk us through that case study and what you learned from it?

In the course of my research (2 years with 14-24-year olds in rural parts of Kentucky, TN, West Virginia, Indiana, and Illinois) I came across a group of young people who regularly went to a Super Wal-Mart in their region and catwalked up and down the aisles of the store either in drag or putting on clothes and make-up at the store to build a drag persona on the fly. I was utterly shocked that they did this yet they found it so mundane and were surprised that I was surprised. After all, where else could they go after 9pm to hang out together and have fun with friends from different counties?

They were also friends with young people who worked at the store so it increased their sense of belonging and safe access. And, as they told me, this was “their Wal-Mart” their backyard, really, so they felt it was a place they knew and were known locally.

At the same time, they did not and could not completely control this space. It was a “borderland,” as queer theorist Gloria Anzaldúa might say, in that the Wal-Mart was a place beyond binaries–most everyone in the area circulated through that store as it was one of the only resources for basic commodities in a 50-mile radius. Their access to the store and any tolerance of their queer presence was tentative at best, certainly impermanent.

But it was this fragility and instability–they could be asked to leave or chased out by antagonists any moment–that, paradoxically, set the terms for them to occupy the Wal-Mart in the first place. As long as they tacitly agreed to share the space rather than own it as queer-only turf and as long as they agreed to have their fun but, ultimately, leave the space when their antics pushed others to the limits of their patience, these rural queer youth could hold regularly court. If they had tried to make this space exclusively and permanently theirs, they would have certainly been barred from the store altogether.

These kinds of compromises and brokering of resources define their rural lives. Unlike their urban or suburban peers, they cannot muster the means to create a stand-alone space of their own but through their willingness to accept the delicate and ephemeral nature of their time in Wal-Mart they can be queens for a day and come back to do it again when the timing is right.

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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