Queer in a Haystack: Queering Rural Space – Rosemary MacAdam

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A few years ago I became fascinated by the question of how, exactly, my lesbian aunts live where they do – on a farm in rural Nova Scotia. Growing up in downtown Toronto, I equated queer community with city streets and gay meccas like Church Street. In contrast, the country was a somewhat scary place where queer and trans people got killed. What queer hasn’t seen Boys Don’t Cry or The Laramie Project? Why would any queer person intentionally move to the country and how could they, well, love it? Queer theorists have begun to look at the metrocentric assumptions of the predominately urban queer culture. Not only is the country posited as ‘backward,’ it has been mapped onto the ‘coming-out’ narrative of many queer identified people – the country is the closet in which they escape upon relocating to the ‘liberated’ cityscape. While it is the experience of some, this dominant narrative erases the experience of queers who have chosen to live in the country. My aunts are very at home in the country – they have a strong network of rural lesbian friends and are accepted into their immediate rural community as well. For myself, in contrast to many coming out stories centered around the migration from rural-to-urban, I came out after I left my home in downtown Toronto and moved to the rural campus residence of Trent University in Peterborough Ontario. During my five years living in Peterborough, I became even more interested in the queer culture of small towns and the country. I wanted to move to the country but my urban upbringing left lingering questions like: Could I be accepted as a queer women in the country? What are the experiences of queer people who grew up in rural areas and those who have chosen to live in the country?

Since I was going to university at the time, I sought to answer these questions through the avenue I had at present, academia. I wrote my undergraduate thesis using qualitative interviews to highlight the experiences of gay and lesbian people living in rural areas, as well as queer youth who have grown up in rural areas. Their experiences challenge the dominant assumptions that rural areas are uniformly hostile to queer people. This research also emerges from my experiences as a white, middle-class, urban-raised, queer-identified woman. The following is an excerpt from my thesis, titled Queerly in Place: Rural Belonging and Queer Presence.

Choosing to Live in Rural Space

In “Queer Country: Rural Lesbian and Gay Lives,” Bell & Valentine (1995) point to two groups of gay rural dwellers: those born and raised in rural areas, and those who choose to move from an urban to a rural location (p.117). They determine that the first group often follows the stereotypical life-narrative, which includes a necessary relocation from the “oppression of country life” to a larger urban centre. The latter group is drawn to the rural as an idyllic space or “fantasy home” where alternative lifestyles can flourish (ibid, p.118-9; Baker, 2009).

However, as Wilson and other theorists have maintained, this simplistic division reinforces the urban/rural hierarchy and fails to interrogate the assumption that rural life is only either hostile or idyllic (Wilson, 1999). This dominant narrative of queer people ‘fleeing’ from small towns as the ‘stereotypical life narrative’ of rural born queers is acknowledged by one of my participants. Jessy Grass, a self-identified (gender) queer in their 20s, writes,

I think it is important to talk about queerness is terms of rural space because, more often than not, queer and gender-variant identities are theoretically situated in larger urban settings. I also think that, more often than not, it is assumed that everyone who grew up in “small towns” or rural areas hated it, and merely existed within these spaces until they were old enough to get away. I think that, in my case, this is partially true, but way too simplified.

For Jessy, though this assumption “that everybody who grew up in ‘small towns’ or rural areas hated it,” and were waiting “until they were old enough to get away” was “partially true,” it was also “way too simplified.” Jessy challenges the rural-to-urban migration narrative by stating that it is “way too simplified” and erases the complexity of LGBTQ lives. As well, Jessy notes how queer and gender-variant identities are “theoretically situated in large urban settings,” acknowledging how queer and gender-variant identities are often theorized as inherently urban. A few of the participants I interviewed had spent the majority of their lives in rural areas or small towns, and their lives did not conform to the dominant rural-to-urban narrative. Doug Andrews, a gay-identified farmer, artist and gardener in his 50s, spent only two years outside of the Kawartha Lakes region, going to school in Toronto. Otherwise, he says, “I’m about as rural as you get.” For Doug, his family’s settler history in the region made the farm he lives on ‘home,’

I grew up just four miles down the road between here and Norwood. It’s home. My great, great grandfather’s land grant is here, my dad owned a chunk of it until 7 years ago. Between here and Norwood. My family has been here since 1867.

Doug explains that his familiarity with the community may be an important factor in being accepted by the local community:

That may make it easier for us or may have made it easier in the beginning. Because people knew who I was, my connections and that sort of thing, it may have made it easier for us. There certainly has been no negativity.

Doug notes how growing up in the community and his family connections in the area “may have made it easier” for Doug and John to move to a farm and be immediately accepted into the community. Theorists have pointed out that familial rejection has prompted many rural-to-urban relocations, and has resulted in a trend of what Weston calls “chosen families” (Weston, 1998; Wilson, 2000). However, many gay and lesbian people, rural and urban alike, are embraced by their biological family and may choose to live close to where family resides, including rural areas. Baker’s research found that for the majority of participants, the most common reason for moving to, or staying in, rural Nova Scotia was family (Baker, 2009, p. 21). Doug and John noted that both of their parents live in the area.

Gray points out in her research in rural Kentucky that family is important currency for queer belonging in rural space. She maintains that, “family is the primary category through which rural community members assert their right to be respected…one’s credentials as “just another local” are pivotal to the broader politics of rural recognition and representation” (Gray, 2009, p.37). Being connected to place through family, as Gray puts it, “purchases something valued in rural communities; the sense of familiarity and belonging so central to structures of rural life” (ibid, p.38).

Who feels a sense of belonging and what kinds of familiarity are extended are also highly classed, raced and gendered. Both Doug and John sit on numerous municipal committees and Doug is a prominent artist and master landscape gardener. Their material and economic privilege garners them status in the community, as does their whiteness. For Doug, his family’s prominence and lineage as white settlers engenders a sense of belonging that may not be afforded to those without the privilege and ‘connections’ that made it easy for himself and his partner to be accepted by the community.

A sense of familiarity with rural life may also exist translocally, as another participant illustrates. Sherry Patterson, a dyke-identified farmer in her late 40s, discusses the feeling of belonging in the rural area where she farms:

The people here are very familiar to me because I grew up in the country, so there is a likeness. They’re like my family, the people of my extended family. I feel like I know them when I hear them speak, like, oh that’s just like my aunt, that’s like my uncle, that’s like my mom, so I kind of speak the same language. That’s useful. And they also respect my history. My family are farmers. It gives me a little head start, not too green.

Sherry notes how growing up in the country made returning to the country “very familiar” in that she “speaks the same language.” She connects the familiarity she feels with her rural neighbours directly to her own family, noting how “there is a likeness.” She also notes how her neighbours respect her because she comes from a rural farming family herself. Sherry illustrates that familiarity with rural culture and farming, not only a specific local family connection, is an important currency for a ‘sense of familiarity and belonging central to rural life.’

For rural-born queers moving back to the country, a significant factor in returning to rural space involved a sense of feeling ‘at home’ and ‘familiar,’ especially in relation in childhood. Jan Morrell, a lesbian farmer in her 60s, explains that her rural childhood influenced her decision to return to farming:

I had wonderful childhood memories of being on my grandparents’ farms in Ontario and New Brunswick – along with memories of fresh vegetables, fruit, dairy products and meat “to die for.”

For the three participants who grew up in cities, their childhood connection to rural areas and wilderness also shaped their decision to live in the country. Gisele Roy, a lesbian who recently moved from Toronto to Kawartha Lakes to farm, explains her attachment to non-urban areas of one of ‘belonging,’ which she has felt since childhood,

I belong in the country even though I was born in Ottawa, which is a small town, in a way. I always knew I belonged in the country, in some form or another, since being a child. It’s peaceful, there is no light pollution, there is no sound pollution, there’s no air pollution. I have choices; with urban centers I don’t have choices.

Gisele explains that she always knew she belonged in the country and touches on an interesting topic of ‘choices’ in regards to urban and rural space. Ching and Creed (1997) discuss how rural identified people resist the espoused socio-spatial superiority of the urban by asserting the value of rural place. They write, “When rustics [rural identified people] denounce city life they may be deploying an identity politics that challenges this urban hegemony and asserts their own value” (Ching & Creed, 1997, p.18). Though cities are regarded as spaces imbued with ‘choices’ and rural areas are seen as ‘limited,’ Gisele asserts the value of rural space. Rural-based identities resist the hegemonic ‘urban(e)’ by positing the rural as a legitimate space, containing ‘choices’ significant to rural identified people. For Gisele, the peaceful setting, lack of light, sound, and air pollution are not choices available in urban centers.

For five of my participants, wanting to farm was a direct reason for moving to a rural area. For Doug and John, Doug’s roots in the country, along with his passion for gardening and farming was a huge factor in moving to a farm. John explains that it became evident that they needed to move to the country,

Doug just really wasn’t meant to live in the city…we lived in Peterborough right after we met and were there a couple of years. We lived in the Avenues on Gilmour Street. Doug had completely landscaped the front yard and dug up the backyard and put in a goldfish pond…put in a vegetable garden behind the garage and there was virtually no grass left and he was eyeing up the garage, because he thought, he kept dairy goats for 15 years, and he wondered if he could put some goats in the garage…it was clear I had to get him back to the country.

This wonderful story illustrates how, contrary to dominant assumptions that gay people are ‘out of place’ in the country, Doug’s sense of place is deeply rooted in the country and he feels at home in the country. Doug’s passion for farming, including animal husbandry and vegetable crops, translated into his everyday life, even in the city, to the point where “he wondered if he could put some goats in the garage.” Wilson points out that for many queers, the benefits of small-town living may be as important as, and even override, the benefits of urban sexual collectivity (Wilson, 2000, p.214). This is equally true for rural living as the benefits of rural farm space overruled anything the city could offer and Doug feels decidedly in place in the county. The country is further accessible to Doug because of his family’s prominence and white settler status.

For participants who have chosen to live in small towns and rural areas, family and familiarity are central facets to ‘feeling at home’ in rural areas. Contrary to dominant constructions of queer people as inherently ‘out of place’ in rural space, these participants demonstrate that many queer people feel a deep sense of belonging and place in rural areas. When asked how being lesbian connects with her sense of place, Jan states, “Just in the sense that I feel that both are integral to who I am.”

Expressing one’s preference for rural life and choosing to live in rural areas are integral for rural identified people and do not necessarily override expressing one’s sexual identity. As Wilson states, “Some identities intertwine the ‘sexual’ and the ‘rural’” (Wilson, 2000, p. 205). This intertwining is manifested in how participants negotiate and incorporate their sexual orientation identity into their material space. This may include subversive acts and symbolism readable only by the individuals themselves. When Anne and Jan moved to their farm they purchased a truck that they have converted to run on vegetable oil, which resonated with their environmental politics. In terms of their new license plate they note,

There is a specific rural dyke identity, as a subset of lesbian rather than farmer identity. Women talk about “back to the land dykes” and “rural lesbians.” We always get a laugh when we say the DFW on our truck license plate stands for “dyke farm women.”

Anne and Jan highlight how there is a specific identity term, which does in fact intertwine the sexual and the rural, such as “rural dyke identity.” They playfully claim this identity through symbolic means by appropriating their truck license plate to signify their own sexual and place self-identity as “dyke farm women.” Anne and Jan also claim a visible queer rural identity through displaying the rainbow flag on their mailbox at the end of their lane. Jan describes, “During an Acadian celebration we decorated the mailbox with an Acadian flag, a Nova Scotia flag and a rainbow flag. A welcome for everyone down this laneway!” Through displaying symbols such as flags, Anne and Jan are able to intertwine their rural Nova Scotian and lesbian identity. As well, they displayed the Acadian flag to symbolize their ally status to Acadians who were attending a festival to mark the 250th anniversary of the Acadian expulsion.

Claiming a visible queer identity in rural space may also be strategic and consciously mediated. Gray highlights how queer youth use rainbow stickers in public places to assert their queer identity. However, these ‘politic of visibility,’ as Gray describes the contemporary expectation within the LGBTQ community that everyone must be ‘out and proud,’ are carefully negotiated in rural areas. Gray recounts how one of her main participants, Shaun, and his friends prominently display a static-cling rainbow sticker in the rear window of Shaun’s car, “generating gay visibility while riding around in the country” (Gray, 2009, p. 166). However, when driving through what they term “hostile territory” due to some past experience or rumour, they peel off the sticker and store it in the glove compartment until they feel it was safe enough to display again. When Gray asked Shaun how he feels about having to temporarily hide his gay identity, “he laughed and said, ‘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’.” (ibid). Rural queer youth strategically fly their rainbow flag sticker to enact social change for LGBTQ acceptance while valuing and recognizing “everyday struggles of resistance and the pragmatic need to blend in as familiar rather than stand out as queer” (ibid). In this case intertwining the rural and the sexual is negotiated through the politics of visibility and the specificities of rural local contexts.

Queering the Rural

Though rural areas may stress social conformity, queer youth may also see the potential space for subversion and gender play in small towns. Mary Gray illustrates how gay youth in rural Kentucky utilize the most accessible local venue available to do drag – the local Wal-Mart Superstore. When Gray connected to a local queer youth group in Berea, Kentucky (population 3000) she was surprised to hear that their favourite pastime was driving to the Springhaven (population 10 000) Wal-Mart Superstore to do drag in the aisles. Gray writes that within months of the Superstore’s grand opening, the Berea youth group had “re-appropriated Wal-Mart – turning it into a regular gathering spot for their post-meeting social activities” (Gray, 2009, p. 88). When Gray asked what local queer youth do for fun, one youth casually responded, “most people all haul up together in big carloads, put on some drag, runway walk the Super Wal-Mart in Springhaven and walk around for about five hours with people almost having heart attacks and conniption fits cause we’re running around” (ibid, p.97). Performing drag at Wal-Mart is also a rite of passage for those entering the local gay youth scene. When Gray expressed her surprise at a Wal-Mart store being used as a venue for drag, one youth responded, “Why wouldn’t we go there?! It’s the best place to find stuff to do drag. They’ve got all the wigs and makeup and tight clothes and stuff” (ibid, p.98). Because they were still ‘readable’ as consumer citizens and Wal-Mart has a policy which treats customers as ‘guests’, the “logic of capital cannot bar them from their queer twist on the public square” (ibid).

This use of Wal-Mart as an ideal drag venue illustrates the use of local space by rural queers to do identity work and have fun. As Crawford notes, rural space might be an ideal space for gender bending and where “redneck trannies might roam, work and play.” Gray quotes that “the image that rural space is inhospitable to public displays of queer difference is nearly monolithic” (ibid, p.89), yet participants in this study equally challenge this monolithic image. When I asked Erin Ladd, a genderqueer identified woman in her 20s, if being visible as queer and genderqueer in Chatham is important, she answered,

I like it, I like going there and gender fucking them. [Laughing] Yeah I feel like I got something to say, I feel strongly about coming out there, cause I feel like I could be a little voice there.

Though Erin described earlier that even if she does appear queer, “they’ll still ask heterosexual questions,” she notes that this does not negate the pleasure she derives from “going there and gender-fucking them.” She explains that her main form of subversion is through a non-normative gender appearance and performance. This display of non-normative gender is not without risk of being marked and ostracized. The last time Erin returned home, she was in town for no more than ten minutes when two adolescent boys on the street remarked, “oh he’s a fag.” After Erin replied that she is female, they insisted on repeatedly calling her “a fag.” This instance illustrates how the downtown space of Chatham is gender policed, however, Erin maintains that this bigotry is further reason to assert her identity as genderqueer by wearing androgynous clothing. This form of subversion is particularly important for this participant, and her hometown is a necessary and fertile space for such transgression.

Lucas Crawford, a trans-identified theorist, aims to ‘unsettle’ and “question how style of affect and movement may become ‘trans’ in ways that cast doubt upon our current valourization of cities in representations of queer space” (Crawford, 2008, p. 129). Crawford notes how orientation to place may be just as salient as orientation to gender or the body. Though Crawford notes that many transgender or transsexual people are undoubtedly attracted to urban places and crave the emotional and medical resources seemingly unavailable in rural places, “the current model of the trans subject demands medical, subcultural, and financial resources often unavailable to (or undesired by) some rural gender-fuckers” (ibid). Crawford argues that trans space “may not be the random gay bars and drag shows to which one roves in a strange city, but instead, quite literally ‘a field,’ the kind where rural queers might have their first kisses or redneck trannies might roam, work and play” (ibid, p.136).

Brett, a queer-identified man in his 20s, describes working through his resistance to effeminacy in his own identity by reclaiming his childhood gender expressions. Brett remembers, “[Laughing] When I was 10 years old I used to dress up as Mrs. Doubtfire and run around the neighbourhood.” Brett described his neighbourhood earlier in the interview,

Our house is ten miles north of town so it’s a rural area, it’s farming mixed with residential. It’s not subdivisions but farm fields that have been turned over to large lot homes so we live surrounded by farmers. Growing up it was much more a rural experience. I didn’t spend too much time in town except for going to school and spent most of the time hanging out with kids from the neighbours and playing in fields and riding bikes.

In his redefinition of gender-bending, Crawford highlights the significance of ‘a field’ as a space for rural queer expression. Brett’s gender transgression as a child dressing in drag and running around his neighbourhood, which are predominantly fields, destabilizes the concept of rural space as ‘straight.’ Brett’s gender expression in the rural space of ‘a field’ further subverts the metrocentric assumption that gender-variation is ‘out of place’ in rural space.

Visible expressions of queerness and subversive plays on queer identity are not solely reserved for queer youth. Adult participants described using symbols like the rainbow flag in public events to communicate self-identity. Jan describes how participating in their local parade in Windsor (population 3,700) is a chance to ‘have some fun with visibility’:

Visibility is important enough for us (and for others who may be out there) that we don’t hide our relationship and we have a bit of fun with it. For instance, when we took the horse and wagon in the local parade, usually held near the anniversary of Stonewall, we joked about how it was the Pride Parade for our community and braided rainbow ribbons in the horse’s mane and decorated his wagon with rainbow colours. It was colourful for everyone and particularly meaningful for a few.

Jan highlights how rural queer people may use rural events such as a parade to express their queer identity. Just as queer youth in Kentucky re-appropriate the local Wal-Mart as an ideal venue for drag shows and ‘catwalking down the aisles,’ Jan and Anne re-appropriate a local parade as their own ‘Pride Parade.’ They do this by braiding rainbow ribbons in their horse’s mane and decorating their wagon with rainbow colours. Though Barney, their one-tonne Belgian draft horse, unfortunately passed away last year, their presence in local parades was “always cheered by the crowd because they are usually the only horse and buggy in the line” (MacAdam, 2005). Barney was well known in the area because, on Christmas day, Anne saddled him up, attached red felt antlers to his head and rode around the local community handing out candy canes (ibid). Not only do Anne and Jan re-appropriate the local space of a parade and celebrate themselves as lesbians within it, they also fuse a well-loved presence, Barney, and well-respected ‘traditional’ local symbol, the horse and buggy, to queer the local. This may be the kind of ‘re-imagining’ of queer space that Marple insists is crucial to include rural queer experience – the temporary overlay of queerness onto rural topography. Hubbard emphasizes, “it has been recognized that the appropriation and transgression of heterosexual spaces may be a potent means for lesbians, gays and bisexuals to destabilize and undermine processes of homophobic oppression, adopting a variety of tactics in order to challenge the dominant production of space as ‘straight’” (Hubbard, 2000, p. 194). To build on this statement, not only do rural queers transgress heterosexual spaces as Hubbard describes, they also do so in resistance to the dominant metro-normative and urban queer production of rural space as ‘straight.’

As Wilson contends, “Rural queerness is as multiple and varied as there are rural queers, yet prevailing images of rural queer lives distort and discount lived experiences by focusing almost exclusively on oppressive, graphic violence perpetuated against rural queers” (ibid, p. 104). This research works to broaden these prevailing perceptions of queer sexuality and rural space, to explore the significance of rural culture and place for queer people living and growing up in the country. By bringing participants’ experiences of place and identity to the fore; we can in fact place queer people conceptually within the limits of rural space, queerly in place.

Image Credit: Remixed from: Flcikr’s Clearly Ambiguous.

References:

Baker, Kelly (2009). “Out Back Home: A Exploration of Queer Identity and Community is Rural Nova Scotia.” Thesis (M.A.) Dalhousie University.

Bell, David & Gill Valentine (1995). “Queer country: Rural Lesbian and Gay Lives.” Journal of Rural Studies 11(2), 113-122.

Crawford, Lucas Cassidy (2008). “Transgender with Organs? Mobilizing a Geo-Affective Theory of Gender Modification.” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly 36(3/4).

Creed, Gerald W. & Barbara Ching (1997). Knowing Your Place: Rural Identity and Cultural Identity. New York: Routledge.

Gray, Mary (2009). Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility. New York University Press.

Hubbard, P. (2000). “Desire/Disgust: Mapping the moral contours of heterosexuality.” Progress in Human Geography 24(2), 191-217.

MacAdam, Rosemary (2004). “Space for Difference: Queer Sexuality in a Rural Landscape.” CAST 200, Canada: The Land. Trent University, Peterborough, ON.

Weston, Kath (1998). “Get thee to a big city: sexual imaginary and the great gay migration.” Long, Slow Burn: Sexuality and Social Science (pp. 29-57). New York and London: Routledge.

Wilson, Angelica (2000). “Getting Your Kicks on Route 66! Stories of gay and lesbian life in rural America,” in R. Phillips (ed.), De-Centering Sexualities: Politics and Representations Beyond the Metropolis. New York: Routledge.

Rosemary MacAdam is a recent Women’s Studies graduate from Trent University. Having spent five years strapped to a chair she is now working on an organic farm in the Kawarthas and recovering from academia by making herbal tea. You can find Rosemary every Saturday at the Peterborough Farmer’s Market peddling veggies and tea. Her interest in queer issues arises out of her personal and political life, including a dedication to anti-oppression and social justice issues. She is especially interested in exploring queer sexuality, gender-bending and rural space.

Comments from old site:

Submitted by Stephanie (not verified) on Sun, 10/17/2010 – 05:34.

What a thoughtful and well-crafted article. Thank you for writing this!!
I wonder if bell hooks (who currently resides in Berea, KY) knows about those Wal-Mart cat walk shows?? Perhaps you and bell could join forces on a more robust text about rural queers… My dream come true…?

Submitted by Cindy Baker (not verified) on Fri, 09/03/2010 – 09:25.

What a great article!

It’s sad that because there are no rural queer histories; no written or oral stories well-known within or even outside of those communities, what must stand in for queer rural history are the stories of those who fled rural life for the city.

There are just as many stories of queer people who fled one city (because of negative experiences with family or unaccepting communities) for another, or one community within a city for another, one state or province for another, or one country for another. But these stories exist within urban queer histories, and because of that, they are part of queer urban history.

It’s so heartening to see that contemporary histories of the rural queer are indeed emerging and being collected!

Here’s a quick story of my own that’s not explicitly rural but the text above reminded me of it: When I moved to Saskatoon from Edmonton 10 years ago and participated in my first Saskatoon pride parade, I noticed that on the the closest things to high-rises downtown, all the balconies were lined with little old ladies cheering, waving and clapping. I was so giddy to see such overwhelmingly positive and loudly vocal support from so many ‘small-town’ elderly people, who I had been led my whole life to believe were generally hostile towards queer people.

It was only after the parade while talking to some older queer folks who had also participated in the parade that I discovered the truth: that the rainbow flag is also the traditional symbol of the co-operative. These elderly women, lining the balconies of their retirement complexes, had emerged to show their support for the co-operatives on whose pensions they had retired and were now living out the rest of their lives!

I still wonder what these women imagine all those amazingly bedazzled drag queens have to do with the co-op. Maybe they just think that all the ladies put on their Sunday best to support their local co-operatives!

(I’m not sure why they’re always women, though maybe it’s because if their husbands were around they’d still be living on the farm or in their old neighbourhoods. Or maybe I’ve got it all wrong, and Saskatoon is actually home to the biggest lesbian retirement community in the world!)