I do this work for the 10-year-old tomboy running wild through the woods of the Eastern Shore, climbing trees and through barn-lofts, swimming topless in the creek, who grew up with a sense of freedom and autonomy that many are not as privileged to have. I write too, for the 16-year old coming to terms with her sexuality in a rural town, trying to balance personal identity with fitting into community. And for the 20-something year old activist fighting to create spaces for LGBT students and youth to feel safe and supported, who is heart-broken every time she learns that a queer youth has taken their own life. For all of us, who grew up a little “sideways” in a society that expected us to grow up heterosexual and gender-conforming; and for all the tomboys, the gender rebels, the princess boys, the queerbies, gaybies, and trans kids who are hopefully growing up into a world with more possibilities and diversity of being.
–Jessica Ann Vooris, Ph.D.
Consultant, Women, Gender and Sexuality
It’s our pleasure to share with you Jessica’s story, reprinted here with permission.
Home has always been a complicated concept for me, as the daughter of an immigrant, as a “third culture kid” growing up between the US and the UK. Traces of Britain linger in certain words that I say, like yoghurt, tomato, basil, banana, trousers, vitamins. When people ask where I am from, curious about this slight accent, I say it’s complicated, but start with the Eastern Shore. To me, home will always mean the landscape of an eastern shore farm: open fields covered in white; deep drifts of snow sculpted against fence-lines. Home is sweet-berry juice, cool Choptank river water against my body, the slow blink of thousands of fireflies over darkened fields of corn. But home also means confederate flags flying in my town or attached as stickers to the bumpers of cars. It means 70% of the county voted against gay marriage for Maryland in 2012. It meant isolation and fear as a queer teen, and that I yearn for a small-town community but wonder if I could ever build a queer life or family there.
In Eli Clare’s book “Exile and Pride,” he writes about the exile he feels as a queer person from a rural place, at home neither in his rural homophobic small-town, nor as a rural person in queer urban communities. He writes, “What I don’t say is how homesick I feel for those place names, plant names, bare slopes, not nostalgic, but lonely for a particular kind of familiarity, a loneliness that reaches deep under my skin, infuses my muscles and tendons. How do I explain the distance, the tension, the disjuncture between my politics and my loneliness?” (19) For years I have similarly been grappling with what it means to be a rural queer, to navigate the feeling of belonging and not belonging where-ever I go. This essay is my first attempt at writing about my own experiences growing up in rural Maryland, and draws on the work of Eli Clare, J Jack Halberstam and Mary Gray to explore the complexity of rural queer identity, community and identity.
Early Identities and Language
Like Eli Clare, I was a gender non-conforming kid, and strongly identified as a tomboy. Not a boy. But not quite a girl either. My best friends were boys, and I spent my summer days running around barefoot on their farm, building hay-bale forts and swimming in the brackish creek. My friend group was full of kids who wanted to be biologists, engineers, and environmentalists, we were connected by a love of the land, but always presumed we would leave the area for education and jobs. My class location, my parents’ social circle of fellow agnostics, and my international extended-family separated me in many ways from the white, red-neck, working-class culture around me. There was classism involved in this separation, but it also protected me in part from the heterosexism and racism of the wider community, though I still felt the sting of homophobia when I came out to myself at 16. I didn’t know how my religious friends would react, and remained closeted in the community for years after I was out to my immediate family. And even though my friends and I had always planned on leaving the Eastern Shore, my leaving felt like exile when I realized that my queerness meant that I could not stay even if I wanted to.
As is the case for many rural queer youths the internet was one of my only sources of information on lgbt identities. The local library had one book addressing homosexuality, an advice book for parents, which I am glad I didn’t read until after I came out to my parents, as it counseled parents’ through their “grief” and emphasized that this might feel like the end of the world, but that they could adjust to having a gay or lesbian child. Had I read that first I would have never dared “devastate” my parents with information about my non-straightness. It was on the internet, accessed through our slow dial-up, where I connected with other gay, bisexual, lesbian and queer teenagers, and tried to figure out how to identify myself. Mary Gray writes that websites, search engine results, chat rooms, and coming out stories, “provide moments of storytelling that transform how rural youth think and talk about their identities.” Online I learned about a whole spectrum of sexualities, and was comforted by others who told me there was no rush to find a label, even though I desperately wanted one.
When I found the word queer, I thought I had found my word, as it resonated with my fluid sense of sexuality and gender, and the way that I didn’t seem to fit into any of the other categories. But when I told my Dad that I liked the word queer, he explained that it was a derogatory word and that I should never use it for myself. I assumed he knew better than I did, and didn’t return to queer until I moved to DC and began graduate school at UMD. I now use a variety of labels and am comfortable mixing them up, using multiple ones, choosing what fits according to context and audience. But it is queer that has become home.
When deciding on a college, I knew that I didn’t want to go to a city, or a large university. I was scared to be swallowed by urban anonymity, knew from experiences visiting New York, Philadelphia and DC that the concrete, asphalt, people would make me claustrophobic. Lewisburg was bigger than my home-town, a fact that always shocked my fellow Bucknellians with city backgrounds who complained about being in the middle of nowhere on a campus that smelled of cow manure in the spring. Meanwhile, I was happy that there was a movie theatre on the main street, and a variety of restaurants to choose from to go out to eat.
When I applied to college I thought that my sexuality wouldn’t matter, that it was separate from academics, something that makes me laugh now. Given my lack of attention to matters regarding student life for LGBT folks, I was fortunate that I didn’t end up at a more homophobic place. Bucknell even had an LGBT Office! Fran, the director, tirelessly fought for better campus policies and was a second mom to the lesbigay kids who came through the office. She was one of my fiercest advocates, and closest mentors, and I am still brokenhearted about losing her a year after I graduated. She taught me a lot about navigating conservative spaces, of walking the fine edge of pushing and making noise, but working within an institutional culture in a way that does not alienate and facilitates change. The other students and I were sometimes frustrated that she wasn’t more radical, and indeed there were ways that she didn’t push hard enough, especially in regard to transgender identities but she also knew what it meant to be in a small close knit community.
When I arrived on campus there was a small group of students who were out, a Gay? Fine By Me t-shirt campaign and a National Coming Out Day support list. The library was full of books on LGBT lives and even had DVDs of The L Word and Queer as Folk, which I quickly devoured. As Mary Gray points out, the media, along with the internet, is one way that teens/youth access narratives about their own lives in the absence of a physical community, and given that it would be a while before I became part of any significantly sized queer population, this media was important to my own sense of identity and self. Notably, the L Word gave a very femme, rich, white, Hollywood version of what it meant to be a lesbian or bisexual woman, but it also was the first time I had ever seen queer romance or sex, and that was life-altering. In fiction, through Stone Butch Blues, and queer theories texts I learned about gender and sexuality beyond L Word-like portrayal
Yet, while Bucknell had more LGB students than I had ever met in my home-town, it was not an easy place to be queer. Overall, the student body was apathetic and generally conservative. I was often the token queer voice in my classes speaking up against heterosexism or offering my non-straight perspective. My first year on campus, a boy on my hall was physically and emotionally harassed for being perceived as gay, which influenced my own decisions about remaining closeted to many of my hall-mates.
Navigating coming out is tricky for many people in a society that presumes heterosexuality, especially when there is a threat of violence as there was on my first-year hall. This is perhaps becoming easier for today’s youth as parents are more open to the possibility of having queer kids and there are more representations of lgbt identities in mainstream media. However, it is important to recognize that even today, coming out is not a singular experience, and visibility and pride have different significance to people. Lal Zimmon writes “Coming out narratives are largely about coming to be, and they are stories worth telling because of the challenges inherent in coming to embrace a contested identity.” However, he points out that for gay and lesbian people coming out often means the embracing of a true self, whereas for trans people disclosure of their gendered past can cause people to reject true self. Other writers like Martin Manalansan and Carlos Uliles Decena have written about the different experiences and identities of queers of color and same-sex desire in immigrant communities which do not map onto dominant white, homonormative understandings of gayness and being out.
In my own life, navigating queer visibility is one place where I have felt the disjunctures between the experiences of rural queers and urban queers. At one point when I was struggling with the decision to come out at home one of my friends at Bucknell gave me some advice. He was a hilarious, white, femme man who I will refer to as Emmett in this essay, as he reminded me of the character from Queer as Folk. He said, I only needed to be confident, if I was out and proud people would generally support me, and if they didn’t like me, then I shouldn’t care about what they thought. While I think he is right in a way about the role of confidence for acceptance, at the time, I was frustrated that he didn’t understand the politics of my small-rural town. Emmett had a very different coming out than I did—he was open about his sexuality in his middle-class New York City high-school where there were other gay kids, and he had access to the greater gay community. In contrast, the only gay person I knew in my school was a boy who came out our senior year. He was spat on in the hallway and called the f word frequently. As a woman I would not have dealt with such physical harassment, but if I had come out and been rejected, there would have been nowhere to hide, no other community or queer students to support me. Looking back, I am aware that my experience as a gender-normative, presumed straight woman meant that I also was navigating the coming out process through passing privilege that Emmet did not have access to. His gay identity was shaped in part by the fact that he was perceived as gay from an early age, but he was also fortunate to be in a place (at least for high-school) where that did not translate into violence).
More recently at a queer women’s group in DC, I was frustrated when the mostly white, middle-class participants responded to another member who talked about how hard it was to be closeted to her Indian family, many of whom still live in India. The advice everyone gave was that she should just come out, and that it would probably be fine. She then explained that some of her family members advocated the death penalty for gay people, and then was told she should just cut her family members off. I was very frustrated that there was no conversation about how to deal with the complexity of self, family and community in a way that kept up connections and did not create a narrative of the closet being a place of shame and visibility being a space of pride. As Mary Gray argues “for rural youth…the politics of LGBT visibility do not provide greater access to unequivocal pleasures of acceptance and identification and put at risk the necessities of familiarity.” These experiences point out to the ways that the politics of visibility and “coming out” are not singular, and cannot be applied across culture, race, region, or nationality.
DC Queer Community
Since starting graduate school, I have become a part of the DC queer community. Sometimes I feel like I live in a queer bubble, or am part of a modern-day version of Dykes to Watch Out For. Most of my friends are queer women, many are queer women of color, and we are artists, graduate students, activists, massage therapists, counselors, musicians. Eli Clare writes about his experience of finding dykes and coming into queer community saying, “I felt as if I had found home again” a sentiment that mirrors my own. It was hard to adjust to how big UMD is (student population the same size as my whole county on the eastern shore), and the first few years I felt claustrophobic, but I also felt comfortable in my queer identity in a way that I had never done before. For the first time in my life I was surrounded by people like me, and I didn’t have to continually fight to breathe.
Being in DC, and most significantly being in a same-sex interracial relationship also shaped my relationship to back home. The confederate flags have always made me cringe, but now I feel a much deeper sense of fear, and anger at the sight of those stars and stripes.
Graduate school has also allowed me to connect with other rural queer and trans folks and has shaped my identity as a rural queer. Sometimes our connection is over something simple like our willingness to drive places, because growing up if you wanted to go anywhere you had to drive long distances. Some of these friends and I have also talked about navigating rural places and the politics of visibility, and how the radical queer politics of urban youth (what one of my friend likes to call radicool) do not always match with the lived realities of people who are trying to create a space for themselves within small communities.
As I approach the end of my program I have been thinking about where I will end up after I get my PhD. I am interested in pursuing tenure-track teaching positions in Women’s Studies, or administrative positions in LGBT offices, which means that I will need to go where the jobs are, and in regards to the professoriate in particular this could mean moving anywhere. On one hand, I don’t want to move to a small town in the middle of nowhere Nebraska, especially when I think about having kids—I don’t want them to have to navigate being the only mixed-raced kids of a same-sex couple. But another part of me longs to go back to a small town, open landscapes and close-knit community. “The rural queer may be attracted to the small town for precisely those reasons that make it seem uninhabitable to the urban queer” J Jack Halberstam writes in A Queer Time and Place (43). Like Eli Clare I sometimes struggle to articulate my feelings about going “home” when others only see the small town as homophobic, and racist. “How do I explain the distance, the tension, the disjuncture between my politics and my loneliness?” (19). One of the biggest fights my girlfriend and I had was after I read Clare’s books and was trying to explain my loneliness and desire for a small-town home. She said that if I had felt rejected because of my queerness than I had never really belonged there, and furthermore, her black body would never be welcome in a small town, would never belong. Ultimately, she felt like I had an idealized version of community and I felt like she didn’t understand my experiences. We met an impasse, because I cannot deny the racism of the Eastern Shore. I cannot know what it is like to move through the world without the protection of whiteness. While I can hide being queer, she cannot hide her skin color and it is not for me as a white person to say what it is like for a black urban person to navigate a rural space. I know that community is always made up as exclusions as well as inclusions—something Miranda Joseph makes clear in her work. And yet ultimately, I feel that my girlfriend and I met an impasse because we were unable to figure out how to talk about the intricacies of our intersectional identities and the different ways that race, class, sexuality, and rural/urban environments have shaped our understanding of community, safety, and identity.
This conversation also emphasized to me the lack of conversations around rural identities and race. Where are the accounts by rural people of color or queers of color? Why is the rural person or southern person viewed as a white, red-neck person? Quita Tinsely brings up some of these questions in her article “Why I Refuse to Leave the South” which was published yesterday on the blog “The Body is Not an Apology.” “As a Black, queer woman, there are far too few places or cities that are safe for me. I felt no more safe interacting with people in San Francisco that I did in rural Georgia.” While recognizing the personal choices of people who want to leave the South, she argues that these decisions should not be made due to “misconceptions or Northern white liberalism.” She continues, “If we love our homes, we shouldn’t be isolated in those feelings. We should be empowered in that decision and provided with what we need to safely thrive.”
Ultimately, I hope that queer theory and LGBT studies continues to work against the valuing of the metropolis over queer areas and considers the unique experiences of rural queers and trans people, and that we think critically about class, race, sexuality and location. As a lover of rural spaces, and a queer person in an interracial relationship I do not know if I will find a home in a rural space that has access to a city, or live in a city while making sure I take time to go into the rural areas around me. The job market might make this decision for me, but what is clear is that my experiences coming out on the Eastern Shore have indelibly shaped my identity and understanding of self.
Jessica Ann Vooris, Ph.D.
Consultant, Women, Gender and Sexuality
Jessica Ann Vooris, Ph.D., is a Consultant and Educator in Women’s Studies, Gender and Sexuality. Her subspecialty focuses on transgender individuals. Dr. Vooris offers consultation and program development for K-12 educators, organizations, clinicians and families. For more information, please see Dr. Vooris’ blog site.