Saturday, February 13, 2010

Review: Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America,

Out in the Country
Mary L. Gray

New York University Press

Review by Sophie Mayer


Rural America gets a pretty bad press in queer culture: think of the no-way-out brutality of Brokeback Mountain or the teenage boy who phones Harvey in Milk in a sub-plot that suggests glimpses in national media and a bus ticket to San Francisco are the only lifelines available for young people growing up LGBTQ in the heartland. Indiana-based communications professor Mary L. Gray begs to differ. Her work for Internet start-up PlanetOut made her wonder about the value of nationwide, and even transnational, media to those living at a distance from hubs of community, services and cultural institutions, and particularly to young people exploring their identities.

She grew frustrated with the presumption that access to media, and queer visibility therein, was the most important factor for queer youth removed from urban centres, and set out to study queer youth activism in the Midwest. Having grown up in rural California, she experienced a sense of familiarity as she traversed rural Kentucky and its borders while researching her book. The title of her prologue “Never Met a Stranger” suggests a counter-view of non-urban America: one in which local community, with its complex of delicate interconnections and old-fashioned manners, overrides individual difference. One Kentucky interviewee, Shaun, comments that Brokeback was “just ridiculous” as “it seemed unfathomable that such extreme violence would be exacted by a mob of people you considered neighbors” (115).

What she found was a complex web of support both likely – local PFLAG chapters – and unlikely – the Homemakers Club – that “used the powerful institution of the family to bridge the divide between queers as strangers and LGBT young people as local sons and daughters” (58). This small, interconnected world of neighbourly groups and local organising can be “all too much drama,” as one gay PFLAG put it, but it also challenges some of the more oppressive stereotypes, maintained by both mainstream and alternative media, of rural America. Gray describes drag revues at Wal-Mart, Pride meetings at Christian bookstores, queercore punk at Pulaski High School and a strange but welcome blend of radical activism and politeness. the Highland Pride Alliance’s website “invites you to enter with the following clarification: ‘The Contents of this page are of a Homosexual Nature (not sexually explicit) so if you find Gays, Bisexuals, Lesbians, and Transgender people gross and against your beliefs or if your not interested in supporting the Gay, Bisexual, Lesbian, and Transgender Community Please Click Exit and Have a Nice Day!’ ” (103-04)

The nitty-gritty of the book is as all-American as that final exhortation. Details of high school gay-straight alliances, the Discovery Channel, and church meetings are context-specific – but the discussion of online identities has become more relevant, with the impact of social networking, since Gray undertook her research in the days of limited online access. Her argument that online networks provide “queer realness,” rather than reductive virtuality, is well worth reading in depth, as is her overarching discussion about the relativity of rural and urban areas as safe spaces. Gray takes issue with Samuel Delany’s observation that “small towns…contempt for difference [is] the driving force behind New York City’s moral cleansing [under Rudy Giuliani post 9/11],” arguing instead that rural community can create acceptance through knowability and interconnected responsibility, while urban alienation leads to a fear of difference (114).

As she concludes in her reflections on the politics of same-sex marriage in the US, however, what might stitch families and high school communities together has little effect at State Capitols. As Amy, one of Gray’s correspondents put it, “Even if everyone has a gay cousin, they [the voters] don’t think there are really very many gay people here, so why should they do something for gay people?” (180) That lack of strength-in-numbers – intensified by court challenges to public school programmes, urban migration (for work as much as community), and intensive online activity in virtual communities – may be the most pronounced difference between urban and rural areas. This book is an effective and often affecting read for those, whether homophobic politicians or liberal organisers, who would deny that “there are really very many gay people” out in the country.


Sophie Mayer is a writer, editor and educator. Find out more at http://www.sophiemayer.net/

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