U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Gay life in Rural America

I went to a talk last Friday by Mary Gray in the Speaker Series “Place Matters” called “There are No Gay People Here: Expounding the Boundaries of Queer Youth Visibility in Rural Kentucky.” I gave extra credit to my USIH class to go because I said that it was about ideas in action.

The talk was advertised by this paragraph:

Drawing on her experiences working in rural parts of Kentucky, Gray will map out how lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and questioning (LGBTQ) youth and their allies make use of digital media and local resources to combat the marginalization they contend with in their own communities as well as the erasure they face in popular representations of gay and lesbian life and the agendas of national gay and lesbian advocacy groups. This talk will explore how youth suture together high schools, public libraries, Wal-Mart, and the web to construct spaces for fashioning their emerging LGBTQ identities.

Her argument was that queer senses of self aren’t (just) discovered–they work through boundaries: places, times, politics–and are always mediated.


In rural Kentucky, queer youth use “boundary publics” to express themselves. Nationally, in media and in activist groups, “the good gay life” is seen as only urban. Moreover, according to this narrative, discovery of one’s queer self requires things unavailable to a rural youth–” provacy to explore one’s queer differences beyond the watchful eyes of those who presume to know everything about one; a visible community able to recognize and return one’s queer gaze; and the safe space to express queer difference without fear of retribution” (from Gray’s introduction to her book, Out in the Country:Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America).

In this “metro-centric” narrative, rural gays must be biding their time before they can escape to an urban space. But what Gray discovered is that gay youth stay in rural places. Their obsession is not how to leave, but who is the next gay person in the next county over. Gray’s idea of “boundary publics” blur offline and online spaces, transform the narrative about what it means to be gay and rural, and establish a chance for social interaction. They express strategies for social recognition and a dialectic between iterative, ephemeral performances of the self and material conditions (rather than having permanent places to be themselves, they take over public spaces and then let them go).

The three examples she gave of “boundary publics” are
1. A church skatepark that was taken over by queer youth, particularly in order to hear bands play. One of the bands then collected email addresses and emailed mp3s with gay lyrics (mostly about heart break between girls) to the listserve.
2. Drag at Walmart (it functions as a fantastic defacto public space because it is a private space with nationally set guidelines for how “guests” can be treated, and is also often the only place open 24 hours in dry counties).
3. A transyouth blog, where his family left supportive messages in the guest book, while emphatically not discussing his transition in real life.

These rural gay youth teach us:
1. Identities are a process of collective action, not a condition waiting for discovery
2. Multiple visibility strategies in play
3. We need to stop moralizing about who does queerness right.

The commentator afterwards, Carol Mason, appreciated several aspects of the talk, but explained that her University of Oklahoma students resisted Gray’s idea of “Boundary publics” as seeming to neglect protest.  She gave an example of an art history prof at the University of Kentucky in the 40s who was found by the cops in a car with a young man and arrested for disturbing the peace and on a moralism charge. The disurbing the peace charge was because he tussled with the police. He quit his job and went to Oklahoma. Mason suggested that the “boundary public” of the parked car was not in fact a liberating alternative zone, but instead a sad fact of gay life–that he was forced there when no where else was possible (I’m extrapolating a bit here–that’s the sense I got).

This point of disagreement between Gray and Mason reminded me a bit of my own work. I understand Gray to be exploring the alternative spaces that gay youth in rural places create, not because they are protest, but because they are the way that these youth have found to live and breathe and have their being. Whereas Mason wants to find the points of protest and oppression. I see my own work more in line with Gray’s–trying to see and validate how African Americans lived during the years of Jim Crow, without having to divide up their choices between protest or accommodation. (Which is ironic because my book is entitled “A Spirit of Compromise and Protest.” This suggests, as someone pointed out after a talk of mine recently, that I am exactly about looking at the eternal choice between compromise–a word which is related to, but different than accommodation–and protest.)

I checked in with Gray to see if my sense accorded with her own response to Mason. She wrote back, “I don’t know if Carol and I disagree so much as I’m interested in those moments of liberation that do also grapple with limits because they reckon with something beyond LGBT identities or desires. I’m thinking of any person who has to negotiate multiple social positions, including their LGBT-ness, and how that necessarily leads to give and take.” Give and take = compromise? And in my formulation, which does not suggest that compromise is the antithesis of protest, perhaps bringing an aunt into a virtual conversation about one’s trans-ness by being both visible and kind is a compromise (by not talking about it at the dinner table) and a form of protest (as simple visibility can be in a homophobic world). 

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Lauren,

    I wonder if the urban-rural distinction is drawn a bit too brightly here by Gray. Community living exists on a spectrum from families to villages to small towns to small, medium, and large cities. And then we have metropolitan clusters of cities with suburbs. I say this because the term “rural gay” seems, well, less than accurate in relation to what follows—to what’s in the talk and this post.

    I like the notion of a “boundary public” that captures spaces that are neither rural nor urban, villages nor towns, nor strictly public or private. With that, it seems that this kind of identity formation and emerging visibility occurs in urban areas too. So I wonder what is particularly enlightening about the talk (i.e. the topic) in relation to _KY’s rural youth_—what do they do differently? Blogs, skate parks, and Wal-marts are available in all sorts of areas, and used (potentially and really) by youth of all stripes to express themselves.

    I don’t expect you, btw, to have the exact answers to my questions.

    – TL

  2. I think part of what distinguishes rural youth is that there is no “gayborhood” easily accessible, nor is there a significant number of queers to assemble with. In that case, it is necessary to maintain positive relationships with straight friends and family, more so than those who live the “good gay life” in “gayborhoods” like those epitomized on the “L Word” or “Queer as Folk.”

    That said, I do think Gray’s analysis of boundary publics and people who need to balance multiple identities extends beyond rural areas. I would hazard the guess that most LGBT folk live outside of gayborhoods in spaces where negotiating the boundaries of straight and gay are daily necessities.

  3. hi all,
    Lauren, thanks for posting this discussion. Tim, thanks for the interesting question above. In the book, I talk about how “rural” is an imagined space, with lots of contested definitions. In many ways, I’m interested in the social identity of “rural” to think through why these youth not only consider themselves out of place as queer-identifying or questioning young people but why representations of the places that look like where they live routinely position them as “less than” because they haven’t moved to NYC or SF. I argue that “boundary publics” are not specific locations but, rather, moments of social engagement and that they don’t happen with just these youth in these places. They suggest how expectations and the politics of visibility shape what it means to be LGBT-identifying in relation to mediated representations of LGBT people’s lives. Beyond that, I really hope this theoretical rubric adds nuance to notions of the “public sphere” (Habermas) and “counterpublics” (Warner) to understand social negotiation of identities that “happen” in specific locations/geographies/contexts. So it (hopefully) isn’t about what KY’s rural youth do that’s so different but more a matter of what they teach us about how identity works.

    I think.
    : )

    Best,
    Mary L. Gray
    http://www.maryLgray.org

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