DONALD TRUMP WAS ELECTED PRESIDENT in the early hours of November 9, 2016. I was shuffling and reshuffling a pack of cards, endlessly, because I needed something to do with my hands. Political commentators on the news were talking about the revolt of the white working class, the unexpected and frightening outcry of rural America. In the days afterward, every article I read seemed to present a theory about why what happened had happened. The underlying claim to many of these theories had to do with a deep undercurrent of resentment against the bloom of modern urban life––its excess of money, its liberal education, its identity politics. Outside of America’s urban centers, it was suggested, people had a different idea of what constituted the “real world”––”real” men and women accomplished “real” work with “real” hands. We saw that the divide between rural and urban was about social politics more than geography, and we saw that it was becoming stunningly bitter. And I felt bitter too. Running through the Alabama hills, the trees changing color above me and the breeze whistling through the stillness, I knew was also running through a red state where each Trump/Pence sign that I passed reminded me of the rural myth in which so many Trump voters believed.
People toss around the phrase “small town values” so frequently that we begin to attach it to images in our minds. We see Mayberry or a sunlit diner. My senior year of high school, I heard the phrase so much that it began to give me a headache. The McCain/Obama campaign of 2008 was coming to a head while I stumbled through college applications and tried to imagine myself in places I had never been before. McCain’s rhetoric of “small town values”––embodied so vividly by Sarah Palin––became a myth in vivid colors, and I was engulfed. The strategy succeeded because of its ambiguity. Small town values had something to do with God. They had something to do with protecting your own kind, possibly by force. They disdained the educated “elite,” and they despised any sort of “identity politics” that didn’t look like a clean Christian family. Picking up bread and milk in Star Market, I felt a flare of irritation as I saw my neighbors wandering with their own red baskets out of the corner of my eye. I felt suspicious of small town values at the Waffle House, where we met my Nanna for breakfast on Saturday morning and maneuvered past old white men in American flag jackets at the bar. I felt suspicious at school, where in English class we struggled through The Stranger pronouncing “Arab” as “A-rab” like in “Arab, Alabama.” We had rarely seen “Arab” in any other context. I looked around at my classmates and realized that I would be doomed to a life of relative rurality if I stayed, which at the time felt disastrous and possibly deadly. Just as I couldn’t define the “small town values” I wanted to escape, I couldn’t define the kind of life I actually wanted. But in Big City America, I thought I might find some sort of hazy dream better than Real America.
The “small town values” dream is impossible, much like the dream of “big city” freedoms. The dream only exists in the imagination. Towns and cities alone cannot lead to unified and uncontested value systems. But the town’s imagined reality doesn’t require clear definitions. It doesn’t want us to gaze at it too closely. Although we equate small town values with rurality, I did not grow up in a rural area by any traditional demographics––one wouldn’t consider my hometown sparsely populated, nor is farming its main industry. But the town lies in the deep South, which people often conflate with rurality because of the conceptual affinity between the two. Theorists in a new collection of essays called Queering the Countryside write that, “...the idea of rurality continues to figure prominently in the collective ethos of American society.” Moreover, rurality “is simultaneously everywhere in general and nowhere in particular. It is ever-present and yet a thing of the past. It is at once archetypically American and atypical of America… [representing] many qualities that a lot of people who live there (wherever ‘there’ is) simply do not possess, including whiteness, deeply rooted American nativity, and, most importantly for our purposes here, heterosexuality.” So far as “queerness” denotes a nonconformity of gender and sexuality and the general fluidity of identity, it has traditionally seemed incompatible with the popular idea of “small town values.”
When I was eight years old, I had a crush on a girl at my camp: a week-long religious education in the Alabama woods. I realized the crush in chapel where we were all supposed to wash each other’s feet to understand what Jesus had done. Kneeling on the floor with the sunlight coming in colorful from the stained glass windows, I realized that it meant something to be uncomfortable touching her and only her.
When I was twelve years old, I told my mom that I was afraid I might be gay because my cousin was. My mom told me that I didn’t have to worry because my cousin was adopted. When I was seventeen years old, I kissed my new best friend in her living room while her dad mowed the lawn outside in the hot July sun––her boyfriend had dared us and we were curious. Afterward, she said she didn’t feel curious anymore. But I still did, although I didn’t say it. It is hard to create a world for yourself that you can’t see around you, hard to live in a world that you can’t speak.
In high school, late at night with the lights out and my headphones plugged into my computer, I pored over a world that was just beginning to exist for me––a world that I didn’t see in my neighborhood, my high school, or my mother’s Country Living magazine. I watched The L Word, which I mostly hated, and the British TV show Skins, which I mostly loved. Before going to sleep, I could close out the screen, delete my Internet history, and pretend that this action deleted the images from my own mind, too. Skinsfocuses on a group of disenchanted British teenagers in Bristol, falling in love and doing drugs and driving cars into lakes. Kids––gay and straight or something in between––feeling impossibly tied to identities that for one reason or another they couldn’t express. Skins was wildly dramatic, but with a certain lightness, as though identities and fears and loves were all somehow subject to an effervescent, shifting joy. That’s how I felt, anyway, watching it alone and late at night. The L Wordoffered a very different kind of experience. Fractured viewing through clips and episode fragments I discovered online helped me learn what life might look like for a group of high-powered thirty-something lesbians in L.A. This life looked frenetic, cliquish, and somewhat frightening. It involved intricate maps of sexual partners, deadly serious art shows, and emotional haircuts. But I watched both shows because both involved queer sex as well as cities where people openly scorned the limitations of “small town values.” These two aspects seemed to go inevitably together. They were my only options.
I moved to the city––Chicago––for typical reasons: because I was lonely, and I felt out of place, and I wanted to fall in love. “Metronormativity” conveys the idea that queer identity is inseparable from an urban life. First coined by the theorist Jack Halberstam, this theory offers an academic term for an idea that I’ve always, on some level, been aware of and believed: I know I am not alone in this. I was lucky enough to leave my small town for college in the big city. During my first year in Chicago, my first really-from-New-York friend, Polly, introduced me to Dan Savage’s sex advice podcast Savage Love. I loved it, but it also made me blush and obsessively monitor the volume on my earbuds. I couldn’t believe that someone could talk about non-monogamy and coming out in a voice above an embarrassed whisper, on a widely disseminated radio program. I used to listen to him on the bus and the train, where the people surrounding me would become jarringly mysterious. Who were they, where had they come from, what did they believe, how did they love? I realized, for the first time, that I could look at a stranger and have no understanding of their home life, their loves, or their desires––no matter what assumptions I might feel tempted to make. Dan got a lot of calls from gay kids in small towns––kids whose Southern accents felt intimately familiar to me.
Go to the city, Dan told them.
The idea was that if you could get out of your shitty small town with its shitty close-mindedness, you could finally be yourself. When I heard this theory, I would nod in self-satisfied agreement. I had gotten out and gone to the city––no matter that my self-presentation in the city did not noticeably differ from what it had been in Alabama. But it seemed natural that faggots and dykes––bold people like Dan had reappropriated those words, used them as a challenge and a celebration––found their natural habitat in the city.
I learned later that “Get Thee to a Big City” also serves as the title of a 1995 essay by Kath Weston. “The gay imaginary,” she writes, “is not just a dream of a freedom to ‘be gay’ that requires an urban location, but a symbolic space that configures gayness itself by elaborating an opposition between urban and rural life.” I don’t think queerness is the only identity configured, in part, by a symbolic opposition between urban and rural life. But it’s been the most relevant one to my own life, and the one by which I’ve felt most in danger of falling into such a symbolic opposition. To be a good queer, I had to be a good city-dweller. When Dan Savage tells us to “get thee to the city,” I think of the queer performances I found in Chicago––gay bars, neighborhoods flooded with tattooed youths sharing spoken-word poetry, and high-end sex shops. Huntsville, Alabama may be a city in terms of population, but it has none of these performances (don’t let the sign for “Dyke’s Restaurant Supply Co.” fool you). I grew into my queer identity with the idea that I represented some sort of “we” destined to inherit the city. And then I didn’t.
Living an “urban life” in college, I didn’t realize that I was at first recreating a fantasy of something more rural. I lived in the city, but I really just lived on campus. The glow of the library on a quiet night, just a ten minute walk from my dorm, brought a lump to my throat. The voices on the stairs outside my dorm room felt intimately familiar, and every morning in the dining hall I could count on finding the same friends and dormmates rehashing the latest gossip. I lived by a comfortable routine in about a five block radius. Some weekends, we ventured to restaurants downtown or thrift shops on the northside, navigating the buses and trains in large noisy groups. But by nightfall, I always felt ready to get on the bus back––to see Washington Park’s trees come back into view, to see the strange architecture of the gym, and to finally see our bus stop, from which we could already see the yellow lights of home. It was a small community, one I never felt particularly ambitious to leave.
During my third winter in Chicago, I took an introductory gender studies class: my first encounter with the ideas about which I’m thinking now. I would reflect during class, looking out the window at the snow lit by street lamps and shadowed by bare trees. The professor, meanwhile, introduced as an academic discipline what I had only known as a private source of shame and confusion. It was an incredibly happy winter for me. “Queer” no longer represented something you dreaded hearing whispered about you, but rather a broad theoretical concept––it could apply to sexuality or gender, a fluidity in the way you thought about your own identity, a radical way of practicing love and social activism, or even a different way of organizing your time and space. We read Judith Butler and Eve Sedgwick, and their ideas became more than abstractions for me. They became bold invitations to construct an ethical life that did not focus on the dominant politics of traditional family structures. I assumed that this kind of education would prepare me for a more urban life, but it really only prepared me to think. And when I lost my small campus community at graduation, I lost more than I thought I would.
The city never sleeps. The city is for artists and thinkers. The city is ambitious. The city is weird. The city is for dreamers. The city is for everyone lucky enough to make it there. This is the urban imaginary, and like all imaginaries, it is porous, and it sends your stomach jolting upward toward your throat when it falls through. I remember, the night I tried ecstasy, sitting on my girlfriend’s bed and watching her pull on her combat boots. Our lives were in flux. She had just moved into a new apartment and her bed was a mattress on the floor. I had been piecing together enough part time jobs and freelance work to pay my rent and bus fare. We had built our relationship on a tenuous, desperate kind of love. I missed my family. I would look out my window every morning and just want to go back to sleep. I felt anxious on crowded buses. I felt as though it would be easy to disappear, and so I thought I might as well feel “ecstatic.”
We had been dating for three months and had dressed to go out. Tight black jeans, t-shirts, Converse sneakers. The laptop on her bed played “Gettin Wavy” by Mykki Blanco––the gay rapper in drag, the North Carolina-to-Brooklyn transplant, the fierce poet and genderqueer activist. In the music video, he runs from men who want to hurt him, hops onto a bus, gets progressively higher. Gettin’ wavy. Gettin’ wavy in ways you only can in the city. “Notoriety is power, and through that power you can influence social attitudes,” Blanco says in a recent interview with The Guardian. One can only attain visibility in the city, but that visibility offers a basis for the most far-reaching kinds of activism. This is true. But it is also possible to feel invisible where you should feel the most visible.We attended a show in Wicker Park, and I stood in a big dark room with my girlfriend and her friends and watched twenty people materialize on stage. The air smelled like cigarettes and sweet stale beer. The room was filled with my queer community, people I did not know. A boy took my hands and I felt like a Gumby doll.
“Are you feeling it?” he asked me. “I’m feeling it. Are you feeling it?”
I knew that my heart was racing too quickly. I became intensely aware of the colors of the lights on the stage and the size of my pupils. I felt like asking my girlfriend, over and over, whether she was having fun. She finally asked me to stop asking her. On the cab ride home I finally realized that for all this time, for years, I should’ve been asking myself. I was not feeling it.
After six years in Chicago, I decided to move back to Alabama. A couple of months before I left, my friend Nathan took me to a house party. One of his friends was training to be a tattoo artist, and she’d offered beer and pizza to anyone who would devote twenty dollars and a small patch of skin to her craft. It was a bleak winter night––that last winter, nothing ever looked as beautiful as the snow from the window of that college classroom––but the apartment was warm and softly lit. One woman nursed her baby on the couch. A lot of others sat around on the floor, trading beers from various Chicago breweries. The artist had set up her workspace in one corner, with a pillow on the floor for her customers. I remember feeling warmth of community for the first time in months. When my turn finally came to offer up my skin, the artist placed one hand on my shoulder and poised the needle at her starting point, gazing at the image I held up for her on my phone. In dozens of pricks, she inked the outline of the state of Alabama. I remember feeling, in that apartment, a preliminary nostalgia for my life there. It suddenly seemed as though everyone was searching for their community. It had become impossible for me to believe that such a search was regionally isolated––that there were two different species of people in America’s cities and towns. Eight years had passed since I had started believing so fully in the danger of “small town values.” Now that phrase had returned, but I no longer felt convinced. I wanted to go home, where other people must also be searching for the best possible way to be themselves among everyone else. To believe in the urban/rural opposition would be to believe in the bleakest vision of the country: a place geographically divided into opposing camps like queer/heteronormative, educated/uneducated, inclusive/racist, entitled/disenfranchised.
I miss a lot about the city, like mediterranean food and the lights on a summer night. Poetry readings in local bookshops and seeing thousands of people gathered in the streets for political marches. But I love a lot about my small town, too––knowing the names of the regulars at the bar and going hiking when the light is low and Saturday morning artist markets where everyone knows everyone else. And I see the myth of “small town values” fading here. Along with non-whiteness and cultural heterogeneity, queerness in a rural space maintains the unique power, as Johnson puts it, to “use existing signs from the social field in distinct and novel ways as a critique of limitations on conservatism and rurality.” The dichotomy begins to break down when the definition of every place becomes visible as multiple, shifting, and unstable. We must be able to find pride and comfort in our rural hometowns––to be here for each other, and to protect each other.
The project “Embodiment: A Portrait of Queer Life in Rural America” provides portraits of the people you don’t think you see. In one that I find particularly beautiful, two older men in Iowa pose on the grass in front of a small country home. Their expressions seem serious but wry. One wears a pair of overalls over a checkered shirt with the words “Grant Would” printed on the front. And then we see it: the doubling of this portrait with Grant Wood’s iconic “American Gothic” in which a pitchfork-wielding farmer and his wife stare solemnly forward, standing outside their farmhouse as though protecting the “small-town values” within. But of course, no such values lurk beneath the paint. Grant Wood, artist of Real America, was a farm boy and a gay man and a student in Chicago and a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in Iowa. Here are layers, echos, transpositions, reinterpretations. There is power in notoriety, but there is power in quiet insistence, too.
We should understand the dichotomy between urban and rural in the same way we understand the dichotomy between out and closeted: false. No one occupies one uniform identity, just as no place is any one thing. Suggesting otherwise denies the dizzying number of ways in which people live honest lives. I recently drove along some of the small county highways I now know well. It was a foggy day, and outside the dull sigh of my car’s struggling heater, everything looked slightly eerie. I saw a flock of starlings, at first camouflaged by the season’s last leaves, alight from the trees across from the cotton fields. A bonfire burned out by the sawmill. A sign at one of the Baptist churches, at this point outdated, quipped that “the revelation is coming… hopefully before the election!” And when I turned onto the county road that would lead me where I wanted to go, there was the sign, lined with American flags, reading, “You’re in Trump country now!” But here in Alabama, in the South, in these red states lined with blue mountains, I am the undercurrent, and I know I am not alone. Scholars warn us, this year, about underestimating the margins. This is rural America, but not only in the way we tend to perceive it in our current political discourse or from an urban vantage point: as nativist, fearful, uneducated, homophobic. I want to be here, even when I feel bitter, angry, or worried. Where you think there are “small town values,” there is queerness, subversiveness, revelation. We build across these county lines like a river rising in a hard rain. In me, on me, Alabama is queer. This is my country. I claim it.
she, her, hers
Graduate School of Arts & Sciences
Department of English
I wrote this piece last year when I was still living in Alabama after the election. I still miss/have a lot of conflicted feelings about my hometown (although I felt very proud of AL after the election of Doug Jones!). As with any nonfiction I write, it felt—and still feels—incomplete. A gesturing toward something, a way of thinking about community.
Colin R. Johnson, Brian J Gilley, and Mary L. Gray, “Introduction” in Queering the Countryside: New Frontiers in Rural Queer Studies (New York and London: New York University Press, 2016), 1.
Johnson, Gilley, and Gray, “Introduction,” 4.
Jack Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York and London: New York University Press, 2005) , 36.
Kath Weston, “Get Thee to a Big City: Sexual Imaginary and the Great Gay Migration,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies (1995): 274, quoted in Jack Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York and London: New York University Press, 2005) , 30.
Dorian Lynskey, “Mykki Blanco: ‘I didn’t want to be a rapper. I wanted to be Yoko Ono,’” The Guardian (London, UK), Sept. 15, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/sep/15/mykki-blanco-i-didnt-want-to-be-a-rapper-i-wanted-to-be-yoko-ono
Johnson, Gilley, and Gray, “Introduction,” 12.
Landreth, Mary. Mel and John, Photograph. Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Wood, Grant. American Gothic, 1930. Oil on beaverboard. 78 cm × 65.3 cm (303⁄4 in × 253⁄4 in), Art Institute of Chicago https:/commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Grant_Wood_-_ American_Gothic_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg