Sound Bites of Rural Nova Scotia – M-C MacPhee & Mél Hogan

Miki James http://www.flickr.com/photos/mikijames

This paper was written for a conference presentation in 2007 in Vermillion, Alberta. It is republished in its original form below.

Rural life and sexuality are two areas of study that—on their own—give much fodder to the discussion of identity politics. Combined, they offer an exciting lens through which to explore the ways that location and identity are always already inextricably linked, as well as the ways in which sexuality both defines and is defined by its context, informed by communities which are neither strictly geographical nor imagined.

The purpose of this project is two-fold: to explore the choices of living location—urban, rural or transient—made by lesbian/bi/queer women in Nova Scotia, specifically in and around the Wolfville and Halifax areas. And to examine how, in turn, urban or rural locations impact how these women understand their sexual orientation and identity. This project functions as a means of recording and sharing oral histories, as well as offering a sample from which to critically engage with this generally overlooked subject.

Existing literature on GLBT and queer communities in rural Canada focuses primarily on the trajectory of individuals who move from rural areas to urban settings in order to ‘come out’ and immerse themselves in queer spaces and pre-existing, visible, communities. As a result, the diverse and distinct realities faced by lesbian and queer women (as distinct from gay men) are often ignored, which is the common occurrence of lesbians and queer women who choose to live in rural areas.

There are two ways in which this paper should be read: as the pilot or pre-cursor to a larger oral history project, or as the basis of a pre-production document for a sound-based narrative piece for radio play.

Methodology

In February 2007, we (m-c MacPhee and M. Hogan) conducted 11 individual and group interviews with 17 lesbian, bi or queer-identified women or in the Wolfville and Halifax regions of Nova Scotia[1]. Our sample population consisted primarily of women whom we contacted through our personal social networks, but who were not, for the most part, women we knew on a personal level. In might be worth noting, however, that the nature of this research i.e. within the lesbian/queer communities[2] does bring with it a certain amount of “connectivity”. Many of the women we interviewed referred to one another in interviews, despite our commitment to maintaining confidentiality throughout the project.

A quick overview of our participant demographics points to a diversity in age range, from 25 to 58 years old (with only one woman in the 40-49 bracket). All participants were Anglophone, white, and had some degree of university of college-level education, and all were living above the poverty line. The majority of participants were of Catholic upbringing, though most had long left the Church because of what they defined as the limitations of organized religion. However, in recent years, some of the participants have returned to the Church on a casual basis, drawn-in by the progressive politics, and acceptance of gays and lesbians, (by the United Church) while others have focused more on spirituality—a spirituality informed by politics (feminist and environmental in particular).

The sample that we built for this study reflected the more outgoing and outspoken segment of the overall lesbian/queer women’s population in and around Wolfville and Halifax. Some of the women we interviewed, for example, are current rural community organizers of social events, while others are well-known city activists. A larger study would necessarily look at various other levels of what it means to live “rurally”, which was not possible for the scope of this project. As such, our project begins a conversation about these issues. As a result, our project is very much about the discursive formations of the divide, an investigation into the ways the two terms—urban and rural—play off one another, and less about particular people who inhabit these locations.

The interviews were open-ended and in-depth, lasting on average between 1 and 2 hours. We conducted most of the interviews in the participants’ houses, usually greeted by a dog or cat, and the smell of fresh-baked muffins. Two interviews were conducted in public spaces (in a restaurant and in the cafeteria of a grocery-store) for reasons of convenience and happenstance. Half our interviews were conducted in the city; half rurally, including Wolfville: a “University town” with a population of approximately 8000 residents and students. It is a ‘hybrid’ town in that unlike other rural towns in Nova Scotia, it offers much in the way of access to art, culture, and media, yet it remains relatively small, especially in comparison to Halifax, which is commonly known as the city. It is worth noting, however, that even though Halifax is the largest and most accessible city in Nova Scotia and the Atlantic Provinces it is considered by many people from larger cities to be ‘rural’—even if half-jokingly. This fact points to the always-relative nature of these locations, and of this distinction in terms. Both Wolfville and Halifax are known to have significant lesbian/queer populations, and diversity of sexual orientation is perceived to be widely accepted in both locations by almost every participant we interviewed.

Oral History

As noted by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis in Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, oral histories offer a unique—if not subjective and idiosyncratic—medium for narrativization. The use of narratives as a research strategy is about process and product, simultaneously recording and producing stories. As researchers, we are very aware of our role in producing particular narratives. For example, it occurred to us only at the transcribing phase that we had not once addressed the issue of sex in our interviews, nor did participants ever mention it. Having avoided this topic, we created a disconnect between lesbian identity and sex. This is just one of the more obvious ways in which social etiquette (among other factors) comes into play in the collection of oral histories, namely by dictating the kinds of topics which are socially acceptable, and comfortable. On the other hand, the fact that we are, as researchers, also positioned within the lesbian community, we were privy to more personal information that is at times painful and emotional and it was rightfully assumed that we could relate on the basis of a shared sexual orientation. Needless to say that there are many and varied factors which come to form identity and community, but the willingness of these women to partake in our study suggests that there is something about being a lesbian/queer woman which makes the basis of this research possible, and meaningful.

Oral histories are important because of their complexities; as process and product, they tend to leave a unique kind of historical trace behind. In the groundbreaking work done by Kennedy and Davis, they show that documents created by lesbians/queer women are difficult to find and rarely enter the public realm: “to address this situation, we and other lesbian and gay history projects have turned to oral history, an invaluable method for documenting the experience of the invisible; it allows the narrators to speak in their own voices of their lives, loves and struggles.”[4]

Literature Review

There has been a recent and rapid growth in studies that examine how sexuality factors in to questions of space and place. However, it was not until the mid-1990s, that gays and lesbians, in the context of sexual geographies, entered the realm of rural studies. Despite this addition to the field, much of the current literature that deals with issues of rural and urban location and sexuality approach the subject matter unilaterally, juxtaposing the urban with the rural, wherein rural signifies an (idyllic or utopian) escape from the city – a place from which we eventually leave to become ourselves as “queer subjects”[5].

In their book Queer Country: Rural and Gay Lives, David Bell and Gill Valentine suggest that sexual identity is formed through the urban experience, namely within (the formation of) the gay and lesbian community, which offer at once opportunities for negotiating one’s sexual identity, as well as anonymity. In rural areas, isolation and invisibility, in addition to the lack of resources and structural services, are often deemed responsible for the need of gays and lesbians to move to the city. Larry Knopp, explains that many gays and lesbians consider their move to urban centers and discovery of such communities, to be a ‘homecoming’ of sorts[6].

Despite the range of articles exploring issues of sexuality and space in the last decade, very few authors have examined the lives of gays and lesbians that chose to move to, or remain in, rural locations. Again, Binnie and Valentine, explain that the process of lesbians living in (and moving to) the country is actually “a significant rural phenomenon”[8]; and one that has a long history and is still popular among a vast number of lesbians today. Despite this, it remains a subject that has not been critically examined or explored. In fact, apart from a few significant articles, the only text that gives credence to this pattern is the book Out Our Way by Canadian author Michael Riordon. While this book – based on oral histories – documents some of the lived experiences of lesbians and gay men in the country, the stories are brief and the book lacks any critical analysis as to why and how lesbians are drawn to rural living.

The significant lack of documentation and analysis about this on-going phenomenon is what drew us to this subject, and encouraged us conduct interviews and compile the case study that is documented below. What you’re about to listen to are snippets of interviews which, for the sake of this presentation, are limited in both the subject matter we are able to cover and the context from which the stories emanate. In other words, of the 25 hours of interviews we recorded, what we offer you today are mere fragments of the bigger conversation that we were privileged to be part of.

Case Study

Based on 17 interviews, we were looking at three themes in particular: the first was the rural/urban divide, or more specifically, the ways in which our interviewees conceived of each of these locations, and how they described their relationship to one and/or the other. The second part looked at the formation of community (how it is defined, constructed, and in what way people feel they belong – or not – to any particular community). Part three examines pride and homophobia, which we left open for interpretation by the interviewees.
Navigating through the rural or urban landscape is an experience that both shapes and is shaped by a number of factors (including gender, race, ethnicity, education, class, age, and more). Identity is necessarily more complex than one’s relationship to a particular location, though it is informed by it. The negotiation of rural and urban living means in large part a negotiation of one’s ability to make sense of themselves in a given context, through language, modes of representation, access to community and a reconnaissance of one’s ties (roots of origins) to a particular place, imagined or lived. ‘Home’ is a term that applied across the board to the decision of living rurally, while action, activism and media were central to city living.

Audio Clip 1.

[audio:http://nomorepotlucks.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/1.-S_clip3.mp3]

On my worst days I think I’ve sort of sold out and I’m not the person I used to be, I could probably be a more vibrant person if I lived in the city. And on my better days I think I’ve just found a way to make it work for myself. Who knows when I’ll feel 100% clear that I know that answer for sure. But the truth is probably some combination of both. We do give up parts of ourselves to live out here in the country; on the other hand, there are things that I yearn for in the city, because I left it up to keep coming back to the country. Who knows, maybe I’m a woman complex enough that city or country it could never be either or, it’s kind of a both. So living closer to the city, or to a small little progressive town, that gives me some of what I miss about the city.

For some participants the decision to live either rurally or in the city was an easy one to make. For others, either work, education and/or relationships demanded that the question of rural and urban location be negotiated, or they felt an affinity for both, though generally not satisfied by committing to one or the other in any permanent way. Choice of location allows for different modes of living; the city is often associated with a transient potential, anonymity activism and culture. Rural living, on the other hand, is often connected to a commitment to a certain understanding of the world, a slower, gentler and quieter pace, and a safety that only ‘home’ can offer. Because rural and urban landscapes offer drastically different opportunities, the transition from one to the other can often be difficult.

The differences that I’ve noticed and subtle ways in which I feel myself changing the ways in which I present myself. I’m used to a community of people that are like minded in several ways. […] Just recently I plucked my chin hair and cleaned up my eyebrows; I’m growing my hair. And stuff I haven’t done in 6 or 7 years so I’m thinking that maybe it will just be fun. But I just plucked a bunch of my facial hair the other day and the change, the 180-degree change in the way that people interacted with me that I didn’t even realize was going on. […] And realizing that there is a big difference in how people treat me since those changes. I’m just like, suddenly I’m like “am I doing these things because I feel uncomfortable?” Which came first. Normally, doing these like, typically unfeminine things, I get pleasure out of it, it’s fun, or a way of introducing myself, or it’s like a way of being visible, or things that are tied into identity on more than one level. And then, it feels like there is something about being here that makes it not fun anymore, and I think that maybe I’ll tone it down for the sake of easiness, and that makes me sad. And then I think it’s only fun to be confrontational in a situation where it’s inconsequential, and now in a context where it’s of more consequence, I don’t really want to do it anymore.

Questions of identity and gender display, conformity or subversion of feminine ideals, queer and/or feminist politics were all significant factors in the way our interviewees conceived of their identity in relation to their sexual orientation. Categories of ‘queer’, ‘lesbian’, ‘bi’, and ‘trans’, all figure very differently within rural and urban locations, though notably, also within specific communities within each of these locations. Identity politics and activism, which are often tied to struggles by the broader GLBT community, is something that many participants connected to location, and also to age and lifestyle choice, but more than anything else, a common language by which to understand themselves and communicate notions of identity. As these two examples that we’re about to listen to demonstrate, language is necessary not only for making sense of oneself, but also to define, redefine and enrich the ways in which we can, or want to, be understood.

Audio Clip 2.

[audio:http://nomorepotlucks.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/St_E_clip2.mp3]

I think it’s the language and I think I’ve never been in a position where I’ve had to explain it before, so I’ve never developed the language […] I had no way of explaining it. I’ve gotten more fluent, but I had never had to explain it before so, coming into a smaller place where it’s not as exposed to such a diverse group of people on such a large scale it just become a little more difficult to explain these things.

Audio Clip 3.

[audio:http://nomorepotlucks.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/JW_clip1.mp3]

It’s changing [the way I identify], so what I answer now might not have been what I would have answered a year ago. For the longest time, I just didn’t tell people, like who cares, it’s none of their business what I do with my sexuality, this is what they see and this is what they assume, well, I don’t really care. And then I kind of realized that I had this group of friends who was totally clueless about this pretty huge part of me, and I completely gracelessly came out to all of them, and they thought ‘really???’ Because they had just known me […] where for all intents and purposes I looked really straight.

The question of “coming out” is one that is often associated with the (privilege of the) city—the urban landscape allowing not only for anonymity, but for diversity (in language and representation) for people to make sense of themselves, in ways that rural living has not. But our findings suggest that rather than the utopian city and narrow- minded rural area, coming out is always both a blessing and a struggle. The differences were not so much a matter of location, but rather a matter of being understood or being visible. Because of the diversity of representation and sometimes fluid identity visibility always sort of implies making yourself visible or, in simpler terms, outing yourself.

Audio Clip 4.

[audio:http://nomorepotlucks.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/J_K_clip11.mp3]

I believe that you can never stop coming out. I assume that you guys are out out out? […] but no matter how outoutout you are, you can never stop coming out really, because you have the chance to come out all the time, which I think people should do. Because it reminds you, like, I’m very contemptuous of closet cases, it’s like, what are you afraid of any more? People died and worked their arses off so that you don’t have to live in the closet and here you are thinking your so darn special or whatever.

As the last clip suggests, there is a notion that queer history is shared, and that “the way” has been paved by the activism of the early GLBT community. However, one of the most contentious concepts that arose in our interviews was “community” and the role it plays in both the imagined and geographical realties of lesbian and queer women living rurally.

Audio Clip 5.

[audio:http://nomorepotlucks.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/CJEA_clip2.mp3]

It’s interesting. It comes and goes. Some of the closest people we hang out with are not lesbians. I’ve always wondered what it means to have a lesbian community. What I have in common with people doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not they’re lesbians. It’s who I connect with not because they’re lesbian. If they’re lesbian, it doesn’t mean I’m going to hang out with them. My workmates aren’t I feel close with them. It’s like you’re expected to connected to a lesbian community, but I’ve never really felt connected.

Others believe in the importance of a rural lesbian community, and playing an active role in creating it. In particular, the founders of the group Lavender Follies, functioning on the basis of email lists to connect women in rural Nova Scotia, deem lesbian community to be of utmost importance, especially in isolated rural setting:

Audio Clip 6.

[audio:http://nomorepotlucks.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/b_e_clip2-1.mp3]

Yes! It’s huge. It surprised us. […] I spent my whole live in the heterosexual community and I really needed to be connected to our family. So we inquired around and found out that there were monthly dances in Nicteaux! Which is a suburb of Middletown. And they were monthly, and they were combined men and women. Who would have imagined that we could go out once a month. […] And then we started to meet women. Because women are hard to find, women are tucked away more, they stay home more. But that’s the story about the lavender follies. […] We hand delivered 40 invitations to lesbians for a BBQ at our house and only 12 or even 5 or 6 came out. Everybody stays at home. They don’t come out. […] Initially, we just knew, and we took a risk and hand delivered invitations. They’re all out in the country. Some were very glad that we had, but some were…that’s nice, but. Some are closeted. […] Some lesbians prefer to blend in to their community more and not be singled out. But the ones that are on our list like to do both. […] So we let it drop for a year, and then we thought we really want to connect with all the lesbians around, we got to get together, we are a family. We can go to the dances, but it was men and women, so we were hanging out with the men. And we wanted to have our own dances once in a while and connect as women. […] started collecting emails. It just grew and grew and grew. I have 108 on my email list. Most of them are couples.

Conclusion

As explained in the introduction of this presentation, one of the main goals of this project was to examine how urban or rural locations impact how lesbians, bisexual and queer women come to understand themselves and each other both within and outside of geographic and imagined “community”.

Another goal was to record and share oral histories. We did not intend to use our research to discover any conclusive answers or results, and it is clear from our findings that such a goal would have been impossible. Not only did our interviewees have incredibly different responses to many of the same questions, but they also frequently came to their own paradoxical conclusions.

Upon following up with many of our participants, we have learned that already, so much has changed. B and E have recently resigned as organizers of the Lavender Follies – leaving 108 members from across rural Nova Scotia floundering without a lesbian social network. H contacted us to let us know that our project inspired her to finally use her music to take a step towards fighting for GLBT and queer rights. In a recent email conversation with C, we learned that she was incredibly grateful for being involved in our project, and that by talking with us, she was able to make sense of a lot of personal struggles and questions that have come to the surface since her move to Halifax, and she is now feeling more secure in all of the complex ways that her identity is changing in a new rural location.

References:

[1] In the context of these interviews, both gender and sexuality were equally important in shaping identity, but our participants resorted to “queer” rather than “trans” as categories of self-identification. This may be, in part, a result of presenting our research as being about “lesbians”, despite situating ourselves as researchers within a broader GLBT and queer communities, or may simply be the identity category that best fits. This is obviously part of a much bigger discussion around identity politics, but worth noting here, if only to highlight the fact that gender was equally important to sexuality in many of the participants’ stories about how they navigate their locations, and form community.

[2] Kennedy, Elizabeth L. and Madeline Davis. Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community”. USA: 1994.

[3] As explained in their article: Binnie, Jon and Gill Valentine. Geographies of Sexuality – A Review in Progress. Progress in Humam Geography. June 1999, vol. 23 no. 2, 175-187.

[4] Bell, David, and Gill Valentine. Queer Country: Rural and Gay Lives. Journal of Rural Studies, Volume 11, Issue 2, April 1995, Pages 113-122.

[5] Bell, David, and Gill Valentine. Queer Country: Rural and Gay Lives. Journal of Rural Studies, Volume 11, Issue 2, April 1995, Pages 113-122.

Comments from old site:

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 09/25/2010 – 00:25.

Great article! I was wondering if you thought about exploring how GLBT issues are approached in public schools differently in rural and urban settings. Thanks again for the narrative approach to this subject

Submitted by mel on Mon, 10/04/2010 – 21:00.

Hi. Thanks for commenting on our piece. When we were presenting this talk in Vermilion, Alberta, we really got an itch to expand on this project. And we did actually consider a possible extension to be about looking at GLBT issues in rural school settings. There is definitely a need for this kind of research. If anyone wanted to fund us, we’d do it!

Our research focused mainly on women (though not exclusively) and we continue to be weary of using GLBT as an assumed point of departure for all ‘queer’ research – and that would probably apply also if researching schools in rural settings (if we were to conduct the research). What we got from the interviews was that women have and continue to experience rural queerness differently from GBT communities but rarely have an opportunity or forum to voice their experiences. Thanks again for reading – Mél & m-c