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.)