Moonshine and Rainbows: Queer, Young, and Rural…An Interview with Mary L. Gray – Mandy Van Deven

Mary Gray

Living in cities like New York and San Francisco has become a modern day marker of queer authenticity, and media representations do little to disabuse us of the notion that small town America is inherently hostile to people whose intimate desires fail to conform to the heterosexual standard. But those of us who have lived queerly in both rural and urban places know this ubiquitous portrayal only shows part of the picture.

A queer-identified woman from a small town in California, Mary Gray’s experience as a LGBTQ activist prompted her groundbreaking research on what life is like for the young and queer in rural America. The resulting book, Out in the Country: Youth, Media and Queer Visibility in Rural America, discusses the myriad ways in which the national gay rights movement fails to be fully inclusive of its bucolic brethren and instead provides strategies for including the complex needs of rural LGBTQ youth in the national queer agenda.

Mandy Van Deven: The advice given to queer and questioning youth by gay rights icon Harvey Milk was simple: move to the nearest city. Why is this statement a disservice to queer rural youth?

Mary L. Gray: This sentiment effectively tells rural LGBTQ-identifying youth they can’t be happily queer right where they are and should expect—perhaps deserve—hostility if they do stay in their communities. Many of the youth I met struggled with reconciling the deep connection or pride they feel for their hometowns with the popular representation of their communities as backward, ignorant, and unlivable—not just for queer folks, but for anyone with taste or class. They feel they’re not supposed to see their communities as viable options, and are being told they need to choose between being queerly out of place in the country and moving to a big city to find legitimate visibility.

If we think of Brokeback Mountain, even though Jack can imagine a ranch and cattle operation to share with his lover Ennis, Ennis can only see tragedy—and it is Ennis’ horrific vision the audience is asked to assume is more realistic. But it’s Jack’s vision that made more sense to rural LGBTQ youth because many knew people who did just that. Most of the stories we hear about rural LGBTQ life come from those who had the means or desire to leave it behind.

There are far more queer folks, particularly those under 18, who don’t have the ability or desire to leave their small towns. The majority of folks I met hadn’t actively chosen to stay in the country; they didn’t have the economic or social means to leave and take root in an urban area. But all queer youth can’t all move to the nearest city—and they shouldn’t have to.

MVD: Decreased economic opportunity increases in rural spaces, how does class affect the lives of LGBTQ folks in these areas?

MLG: Working class and poor rural communities require citizen solidarity to weather the neglect and marginalization from the nation-state. In this environment, LGBTQ people must be seen primarily as “locals” and risk too much advocating for their concerns as queer folks because familiarity, not difference, ensures one’s access to basic necessities. Beyond churches, there are few resources available in rural communities to cover these basics should one’s family be unable or unwilling to provide them. The fact that rural queer youth feel they have to choose speaks to the assumption that queerness not only resides in urban settings, but also only comes with social and economic mobility.

MVD: According to the 2000 Census, rural America is 82 percent white. How do queer people of color navigate their personal and political alliances in a space of overlapping marginalization?

MLG: Queer youth of color are doubly estranged and, if they openly identify as queer, have more to risk. While parallels drawn by white peers or allies between the civil rights and LGBTQ rights movements might help young people of color feel more connected to LGBTQ activism, this uncritical argument also creates dissonance. As one young African American man named Brandon noted, he could see the connections between the two movements, but ultimately felt a greater responsibility to be a leader among students of color because that’s where his community was.

For Brandon, the Internet introduced another layer to racial divisions. He went online to find other bi- or gay-identifying men in his region and found almost exclusively white men, some of which spoke about their desire in ways that struck Brandon as incredibly racist. While Brandon still felt the Internet was an important part of allowing him to feel that his desire for other men was normal, it also demonstrated how hard it would be for him to synthesize his racial and sexual identities.

MVD: You write about Kentucky state representative Lonnie Napier telling two gay young men that “there aren’t any gays living in Berea,” which brings to mind Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s similar statement about there being no gays in Iran. What comparisons can be made of queer youth in the rural US and queer youth abroad?

MLG: The globalization of LGBTQ activism has had a profound impact on how we talk about, and recognize, what it means to be a queerly gendered or desiring person in and beyond the U.S. Rural American youth, like queer youth abroad (particularly outside the industrialized West), are seen as victims of intolerant surroundings trapped in cultural closets. This does two things: it ignores the complicated ways in which people experience gender and sexuality beyond a visible identity, and ignores how queerness symbolically operates as a mark of modernity. What struck me when I began this research was how often I heard people patronizingly say that rural youth need “outreach,” the same term used in development literature about the Global South’s relationship to the West. I bet queer youth abroad find that as frustrating as rural youth in the U.S. because it’s insulting to assume someone is “less than” because of where they live.

MVD: How is the Internet used by rural queer youth to shape or reinforce theirown queer identification?

MLG: The assumption that rural queer and questioning youth use new media to escape the country is common. We should not assume that the Internet on its own effectively addresses any rural queer young person’s need for recognition and community belonging. Internet access isn’t even readily available to most of these kids. Far from using the internet to get away from their surroundings, all the youth I worked with did the same thing the first time they had an opportunity to use the internet: they looked for someone who identified as queer in their area.

The value of the Internet to rural queer youth identification can’t be understated, but its impact cuts both ways. The Internet offers an opportunity to explore queer identifications and search for other youth in the area, but it also make things more difficult by homogenizing what LGBTQ life and people are like, and by erasing the rural from the picture of queer life. The Internet also gives ideas for organizing politically that have no viability in rural communities. A door-to-door voter registration drive for LGBTQ issues won’t work in a place where people don’t see LGBTQ issues as a local concern.

MVD: What should national organizations do to re-center rural queer youth needs in larger gay rights movement?

MLG: We need to re-examine our assumption that rural places are endemically hostile to queer folks. The frequency of hate crimes in cities should signal to us that rural and urban spaces are differently—not more or less—violent to queer people. Without rural communities and their LGBTQ constituents, national and statewide advocacy groups will be unable to advance basic civil rights issues on a national scale. Assuming LGBTQ life necessarily improves through securing the right to marry without equally valuing—and in rural communities I would argue prioritizing—accessible LGBTQ-specific healthcare and job protections, will do very little to change the lives of working class and poor rural LGBTQ youth. Anyone who thinks rural queer kids are just a wedding ring away from full citizenship and equality hasn’t spent time looking for healthcare or a living wage in rural Appalachia. Until LGBTQ people and our advocates understand working class needs and find points of solidarity, it is unlikely rural communities will ever see LGBTQ rights relevant.

MVD: Your research was rooted in uncovering best practices for rural queer youth organizing. What strategies did you find?

MLG: The importance of coalitional politics in rural communities and the need to prioritize the “localness” of an issue is crucial. In some cases Gay-Straight Alliances will work, but Human Dignity student clubs that address homophobia alongside other discrimination may work better to build community support. The argument that non-LGBTQ folks should care about LGBTQ issues like marriage equality because it’s “the right thing to do” misses the complicated meaning of marriage and families to people who depend on those institutions for material—not just symbolic—support.

The most obvious common ground is the campaign for universal healthcare. Healthcare facilities, not to mention insurance coverage, are very hard to come by in rural communities, and fighting for universal healthcare in the United States materially addresses the needs of rural LGBTQ youth while also meeting the needs of their rural communities. Rural queers will never have the numbers or capital (social and economic) to fight separately from their non-LGBTQ neighbors, so our strategies must work with the logic of familiarity rather than anonymity and building critical mass.

An edited version of this interview was originally published by WireTap Magazine, September 2, 2009

Mandy Van Deven is a progressive activist, social worker, and independent writer. She is the Deputy Director of RightRides, the founding editor of Elevate Difference, and the Associate Editor of GirlFuture. Mandy co-authored the forthcoming Hey, Shorty!: A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools and on the Streets. Her writing has been published in various online and print media—including AlterNet, Bitch,, ColorLines, Curve, Herizons, Marie Claire, RH Reality Check, and The Women’s International Perspective. Mandy has a Master’s in Social Work from Hunter College with a concentration in Nonprofit Administration and Community Organizing. She has worked for over a decade with grassroots nonprofits in Brooklyn, Atlanta, and Kolkata, including Girls for Gender Equity, Red Hook Initiative, YouthPride, and Blank Noise.

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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Queer Americana – August 8 – 12, 2011

CALL: Inspired by Planet Green’s “The Fabulous Beekman Boys,” this week’s theme focuses on avenues and artifacts of Queer Americana. In Media Res specifically seeks pieces analyzing the intersection of Queer culture and American nostalgia. How does one queer traditionally conservative pastimes? What are the contributions/ramifications of Queer Americana? Have we reached a phase beyond Queer(ing)? And would we want to? Proposed topics may include, but are not limited to: farming, baseball, quilting, parades, and fairs.

Proposals need not be any longer than a sentence or two, and should be submitted by JUNE 27, 2011. If interested, please contact In Media Res ( with topic proposals or for more information about the theme. Be sure to include the name of the theme week you would like to be involved with in the subject line of the email.

Academics, journalists, critics, media professionals and fans are all welcome to submit proposals.

The actual piece will include either a 30-second to 3-minute clip, an image, or a slideshow that will be accompanied by a 300 to 350 word response to/contextualization of your clip, image, or slideshow. In addition to the your piece, you will be expected to engage the other pieces presented that week to encourage discussion and further flesh out the individual topic in relation to the week’s theme.