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

You argue that queer identities are "achieved, not discovered." What do you see as the process by which youth outside the metropolitan areas "achieve" a sexual orientation?

I think that what makes queer youth identities organized outside metropolitan areas so different is that they must be negotiated in communities where everyone assumes a deep familiarity with each other. If anonymity, access to critical masses of queer folks, and unfettered exploration of queer-controlled counterpublics define urban queer identity formation (and I think they do for white, middle class queers in major cities), familiarity, an absence of visible queer presence, and circumscribed sharing of boundary publics shape the achievement of rural sexual orientations and gender identities. So, crafting and articulating a sense of queer self where one has, as a talk about in the book, never met a stranger is a vastly different project than what young people able to access a city's LGBT Center or youth program can do.

Rural youth and young adults definitely travel beyond their small towns to larger cities to recreate the sense of being in the majority (and just to find dates!) but their day-to-day lives gives them fewer tools on hand to build an identity that approximates what they see in popular media. And, at the end of the day, many of the youth I met were trying to achieve queer identities that looked like what they saw on television or in film.

The hard part was that rural places, if depicted at all, are not part of that queer achievement. Small towns and rural communities play out like evil characters (think Deliverance or Boys Don't Cry or Brokeback Mountain). So young people in Rural America have to enact their identities in ways that don't disparage their small towns so much so that they become inhospitable. In that regard, popular media has left them little they can use.

You challenge many preconceptions about how small town gay youth use the web to find a world beyond the paroachialism of their own communities in favor of a much more complex picture. What roles does digital media play in the kinds of struggles you account in your book?

I did start out my research assuming that youth simply used digital media to escape their dreariness of their lives. Isn't that what most of us assume?

What I found was that rural youth used digital media to interject their own voices and experiences into the mix. So I follow the case of one young trans-identifying person who used a website to chronicle his gender work. He shared this website with family and friends--both local and living elsewhere. Digital media were at once his tools for articulating his experience and for finding resources and support that weren't available to him locally. In short, they use digital media not to find a queer world elsewhere but to augment the world they queer through their presence and actions.

How does rural youth's "complicated, and often, compromised, access to computers and internet connections...hamper" their capacities to engage with online spaces that are meaningful to them?

I think what worried me most is that queer organizers will believe that the internet is the window through which we will see the lives of rural queer youth. In fact, the majority of youth I worked with did not have access to a personal computer in their home. Several communities still did not have household broadband service available in their area. Schools were the only institutions that had reliable net access but all them, without exception, had both monitoring software and filtering software installed so that students could not search for information with the word "gay" in it without receiving some sort of sanction. Most of the public libraries in these communities have recently started blocking the most common social networking sites.

All of these social barriers to access deepen what DiMaggio and Hargattai describe as digital inequality. It's no longer about whether the hardware is present or not (even though, in several cases, that digital divide still persists); if our social understandings of youth culture increasing involve young people's capacity to build out social spaces for themselves through networked connections, these rural young people will be left even further marginalized by the mainstream. To make my point concrete: the more queer-specific content, whether commercial or non-profit, tracks to an imagined consumer who's cruising with the speed of broadband and looking for hook ups through geo location applications that only exist for the city connoisseur, the further distanced rural queer youth will be from taking part in creating what "queer culture" means.

As you worked on the book, you were often pulled into these local controversies as an outside resource or consultant for local queer activists. How did this dual role complicate and/or enrich your research process? Has the book's publication changed your status as a public intellectual working on these issues?

This book came out of my desire to see what the internet did and could mean to rural queer youth. It's a very personal project in that I was an aged-out former queer youth activist from the sticks of the Central Valley and I wanted to know what would make life better for someone like me if I hadn't left my hometown.

Carrying my commitments to queer organizing into my fieldwork meant that there were some people who would not want to talk with me and would not let me in. So, for example, I did not spend anytime in schools or with many teachers uninvolved in LGBT organizing so I lost a sense of how they fully fit into the lives of the youth I did work with. But I know I gained quick access and found the number of teens I did because I had a backstory that looked something like their lives.

My commitment to seeing what my work could bring to their lives also gave me a focus beyond an academic conversation. It's allowed me to feel like this work can and will have a life of its own as it makes its way to queer rural organizing projects and media activists trying to think through how to reach those with socially compromised access to information. It has been so surreal to see other scholars pick up what I've learned from these rural queer youth and their communities. It's really a dream come true for me to be able to make a living bringing legitimacy to these questions and model the kind of scholarship that inspired me to go into this wacky line of work we call "the academy."

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.