Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Book Reviews: Rural Living

The first in an ongoing series of short reviews of interesting LGBT books from my personal library. I'll be posting more of these as time permits.

It seems to me a lot of misinformation still exists among the LGBT urban ghettoes about life beyond city life. I’ll spare you the occasions, true as they were, I’ve been wilderness camping with gay groups miles from electricity, when someone complained about the lack of access to their blowdryer, refrigeration, or reading lamps; I’ll spare you the details, but I do have to wonder what they were thinking before agreeing to come along on such a trip.

In the mid-1990s there was a wave of books published about rural LGBT living. Shockingly, nothing like these had ever appeared before. Some of these books were the first on the topic, and have yet to be supplanted or surpassed. In fact, it seems to me that most of the city queers I know have forgotten all about it, all over again. So I now believe it’s time to clear that air, once again. I know I’m beating a dead horse, and yet it seems to me that it’s time for another wave of understanding to develop between urban and rural peoples, in general, and between LGBT groups in general. So, here’s a sampling of books that are still required reading, in my opinion, about rural LGBT life.

Michael Riordan, Out Our Way: Gay and lesbian life in the country. (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1996) This book is mostly oral history transcribed from interviews, conducted mostly in person. The treasure to be mined in this book is the incredible insight and wisdom of ordinary people you wouldn't look at twice at the county general store; proving once again that life itself is the greatest teacher of wisdom. One thing a lot of couples talk about is their mutual dependence upon each other, in the face of otherwise sometimes severe isolation. There is much discussion of the pros and cons of public displays of affection. There are many voices here, with many different experiences and viewpoints. The people interviewed here run the gamut from young to elderly, First Nations to Anglo, individuals to couple to communities, country socials to rodeos, and more. This is a Canadian book about Canadian LGBT people, and tremendously insightful reading. If you ever felt like moving to Yellowknife, read this.

Karen Lee Osborne and William J. Spurlin, editors, Reclaiming the Heartland: Lesbian and gay voices from the Midwest. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996) If you believe that, just because you're LGBT you need to pack your bags and move to one of the big cities on the coasts, think again. This book of poetry, fiction, essays, memoirs, and interviews, is all about living the USA's heartland. This isn't purely a rural LGBT book, as there are Chicago and Milwaukee writers in here, among others. But as we all know, all of us who live out here, we have more in common with folks in Chicago than we do with folks in New York City, much of the time. The editors of this book are a little self-conscious about their book being a "corrective" to the usual rhetoric that gay culture only exists in NYC or San Francisco or LA, but the strength of the book is that it does represent real Midwestern values presented by real queers living in the real Midwest. I can affirm that when I lived in San Francisco, there really IS a uniquely Midwestern viewpoint about life. So, for me, the real joy of this book is in the poetry and fiction, which show rather than tell the reader what that Midwestern viewpoint is all about. There are about 60 individual contributors here, so you also get a wide range of viewpoints on several different issues, for example, being accepted by one's small-town parents, growing up in small towns, finding love out here, and more.

Will Fellows, Farm Boys: Lives of gay men from the rural Midwest. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996) If you only ever have time to read one book on growing up gay in rural areas, read this one. It is one of the best books on the topic that I've ever read, and re-read. The book is divided into three sections, by decade—this is mostly a book of oral history, interviews, and memoir (some of it creative writing), and is mostly about coming-of-age as gay in the farmlands. There are stories in here of grinding poverty; a lot of death and sadness and loneliness; but also revelation, discovery and joy. More than one man talks about living presently in the city, often for economic reasons, but wanting to move back to the farmlands and live rurally. The interviews are with adult men who grew up gay and rural, on the farm; which accounts for some of the book’s occasional tone bittersweet nostalgia; but there is also much wisdom learned at a young age. Many men speak with pleasure and pride of their accomplishments in farm and home activities, set within the context of a conservative social climate, rigid gender roles, etc. “Farm Boys” is revelatory, essential reading. It breaks the silence that has often fallen on gay rural life. Very highly recommended.

Darrell Yates Rist, Heartlands: A gay man's odyssey across America. (New York: Dutton/penguin, 1992) This is a "road trip" book, a travel book, a post-Kerouac book, a book in the footsteps of William Least Heat Moon's "Blue Highways." I have a special bookshelf in my library for books on nomadics: road trip books, travel memoirs, books very much like this one. (Nomadics is my own word, inspired partly by Bruce Chatwin's excellent book "The Songlines," which was a seminal book on the topic.) This book, though, is a journey through sexual desire and identity. It's a road trip book that looks to find the gay quarters of each sector of the continental USA. So we meet a Mississippi drag queen, we visit the Denver Gay Rodeo, we meet a roughneck on the Alaska pipeline. Ordinary men leading ordinary lives, in small towns, in big cities, in rural areas, dealing with everything from mild discrimination to outright bigotry, but also luminous moments of comradeship and neighborliness. Some of the most memorable conversations reported in this book are in small-town roadside bars and diners. One of the themes that comes to the surface several times is how, despite our many commonalities around being gay, around AIDS, and so forth, we are still incredibly diverse, even divided, about so many other aspects of life. You meet in this book leftist activists and conservative rednecks, and more—people who share being gay in common, but about many other things completely disagree, be it politics, race, religion, or attitude. You come away from this book with a sense of the incredible diversity and differences among gay men, which is why it's so hard to get all gay men to form a unified political front to create social change. Rist concludes that one reason much of the activism seems to happen in the coastal big cities is because you can get together enough men of like attitude to agree on any form of action and ideology: you get a critical mass of interested bodies who will join in. It may not possible to ever create a unified, monolithic "gay culture" that agrees on what to do about gay rights; and Rist concludes that it might not be possible but it also might not be necessary. Just by living our diverse lines, wherever we are, we make ripples of change that spread outward—that's what he comes away with after all his time on the road, and it's a good message. Rist is a New York City writer, but he wears it lightly; he misses a few things about rural gay men, but he isn't judgmental. So, this is a big sprawling diverse unending inconclusive chaotic adventurous disturbing illuminating empowering book—rather a lot like life itself.

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