Wildcrafting Our Queerness: Metronormativity Primer (Update #3)

During my conversation with Mamone (@queerappalachia), they succinctly pointed out that, both historically and currently, “everybody has a hot take about Appalachia.” Following the 2016 election especially, news outlets, the memoir-industrial complex (I’m looking at you, J.D. Vance), and popular media have all looked to Appalachia and rural areas as a scapegoat for their political anxieties.  Such a scapegoating naturally leads to a flattening of the diversity within such areas.

One particular version of this flattening that often flies under the radar is metronormativity. Metronormativity, a phenomenon that’s existed for decades at least, first appeared as a term in the 2005 book In a Queer Time and Place, written by Judith Halberstam.  Halberstam defines metronormativity as “the conflation of ‘urban’ and ‘visible’ in many normalizing narratives of gay/lesbian subjectivities.”[1] Put a bit more simply, metronormativity is the (wildly false) assumption that LGBTQ+ identifying people cannot thrive or even exist outside of an urban environment and that those which may exist in rural areas are universally suffering and struggling to escape.

The Appalachian protesters from the “You Need to Calm Down” video, note the signals of poverty like toothlessness, signals of rurality like the overalls and plaid, and the ways these signals are equated with moral inferiority

Before getting into some of the ramifications of metronormativity, let’s look at an example. Fresh on the minds of many of the people I talked to was the recent music video for Taylor Swift’s single “You Need to Calm Down.” For those unacquainted with the video, it depicts dozens of LGBTQ+ icons ranging from actors to drag queens to musicians to YouTube stars dancing and celebrating in a trailer park while ignoring the occasional intrusions of anti-gay protestors shouting and carrying homophobic signs.  While seemingly benign and even progressive in the current political climate, the video’s opposing presentation of queer people and rural people betrays its potentially harmful metronormative underpinnings.  As Raina Rue (@junipermoonfolkarts) explained in her oral history:

It would’ve been a great video, I guess. Even though it had half my favorite drag queens in it, I felt pandered to. And then the stereotypes. The toothless, and the misspelled signs and all that and I was like “Oh man.” I’m not super heart hurt about it because I still believe there are communities who are way more marginalized and way more hurt by misguided opinions than me and mine but at the same time, oh my gosh, something else. When is it going to be not okay to make fun of or just assume that Appalachians are uneducated and toothless? You know all the things. It’s just frustrating. And then to see the other half of the gay community I know just completely gagging over it and loving it.[2]

Along with depicting Appalachian and rural people as wholly poor, uneducated, and unhygienic (and equating this poverty to moral inferiority), the video presents these rural stereotypes as directly opposed to the dozens of queer people who are well-dressed in the latest urban fashions, presumably wealthy, and likely not from anywhere rural.  The simple conclusion from this juxtaposition is that rural people cannot be queer and that queer people cannot be rural—the basic assumption of metronormative thinking.  While Taylor Swift is hardly a scholar of queer theory or a rural lawmaker, her video and other popular media like it still point to the popular conceptions of rurality and queerness that circle throughout the broader public.

The effects of metronormativity operate on two levels, personal and institutional.  On the personal level, many of my oral history narrators noted that they often face bewilderment at their existence from urban or suburban people.  Dustin Hall, when asked if he ever experiences stereotyping regarding his sexuality and rural background, explained to me that:

If you talk to people and say you’re queer from Appalachia, in a way it’s why you’re interviewing me, it’s an anomaly a little bit. To be out and queer in Appalachia, I guess. And the big thing with that is they want to know how you live here and what your experiences are. “How are you having sex?” is the big question. People want to know what the experience for you is. It’s sort of bleak. And it’s like “what your relationship like?” It’s the typical thing.  That’s about it. That’s the thing people get in their head when you say where you’re from and that you’re queer.[3]

As a likely result of having no conception of what a rural gay man is, many urban people tend to rely solely on their stereotypes of Appalachian people to navigate interactions with rural queers.  Dustin recounts the classist stereotyping he received from a store clerk in New York City:

She asked me where I was from and I said, “Oh no I’m from Kentucky” and she asked “Oh Louisville? Lexington?” and I was like [laughs]. That tells you everything you need to know because there’s this outside ideology that those are the only two places where people who bathe live. If you’re in New York or Chicago, around really late April they’ll say, “oh are you going to the derby?” They want to know if you’re going to the fucking derby.  And that’s acceptable for them, that’s the Kentucky culture they want to be a part of, it’s so rich and beautiful and glamorous. If you say “I’m from Appalachian Kentucky, very close to Virginia” they have this tight-jawed fear where they think you’re going to take away their money or something. You’re going suck it away.[4]

Bob Morgan similarly recounts the stereotyping he received from the urban gay men in Andy Warhol’s Factory, which he visited in his youth. He explained to me that, after being shocked at his rural roots, many urban gay people he encountered then perceived him to be an unintelligent “studly country boy”[5] and they “thought that they could sexually take advantage of me but of course I’d been trained by Henry [Faulkner] so I acted like I was letting them take advantage of me but I could do what I wanted to do usually.”[6]

While both Dustin and Bob emerged from their situations relatively unscathed—likely aided by their race and gender expression—the same cannot be said for many other rural queer people venturing out into urban spaces. As I continue to transcribe my current oral histories (a surprisingly tedious process) and conduct more, I don’t doubt there will be a multitude of stories recounting far more precarious situations.

Expectedly, this assumption that out queer people simply can’t exist outside of a city contributes to the legislation (or lack thereof) regarding LGBTQ+ rights in rural areas.  Mary Gray, in her book Out in the Country, recounts a particularly salient instance in which Kentucky Representative Lonnie Napier once declared that he “doesn’t have to be educated on LGBT issues because there aren’t any gays living in Berea!”[7] Such metronormative assumptions by lawmakers naturally lead to their reluctance to pass LGBTQ+ affirming laws in their states and counties.  To give one example, though West Virginia is home to almost 50,000 LGBTQ+ identifying adults[8] and the largest percentage of transgender youth in the United States[9], there are still no legal protections for employment, housing, or other forms of discrimination on the basis of being queer.[10]

In order to maintain a whiff of brevity I will not get into the second, more subtle thrust of metronormativity (though this may make an appearance in a future blog post)—that though queer people may exist in rural areas, they are all certainly suffering and that the process of “coming out” requires moving to a city.  For now, I will leave you with some simple facts: queer people DO exist in rural spaces, not all of them are suffering, and many actually enjoy living where they live.  If you want to work on unearthing any metronormative biases you may have and try to dispel them, here’s a few questions you can ask yourself:

  1. When you imagine a queer person, where do you imagine them? How are they dressed and what is their financial status like? How do they walk and talk?
  2. When you imagine a rural person, are they toothless, dirty, bigoted, or otherwise unclean?
  3. It’s a simple truth that many Appalachian people are living in poverty. Why do you think this is? Is it due to a personal failing or a structural one?
  4. Look at the queer media that you consume, whether that be online, on TV, in movies, in books, etc. Do any of these sources depict queer rural people of any kind? If queer rural people do appear, are they happy where they live or itching to “escape” to a city?
  5. Do you know any queer people from rural areas? If so, talk to them about their experiences. If not, ask your queer friends, you may be surprised where folks are from.

 

[1] Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: New York University Press, 2005. pp. 36

[2] Maxwell Cloe, “Raina Rue Oral History, transcript of an oral history conducted 2019 by Maxwell Cloe, Monroe Summer Research Project College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, 2019

[3] Maxwell Cloe, “Dustin Hall Oral History, transcript of an oral history conducted 2019 by Maxwell Cloe, Monroe Summer Research Project College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, 2019

[4] Ibid.

[5] Maxwell Cloe, “Bob Morgan Oral History, transcript of an oral history conducted 2019 by Maxwell Cloe, Monroe Summer Research Project College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, 2019

[6] Ibid.

[7] Gray, Mary L. Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America. New York, NY: New York University Press, 2009. pp. 2

[8] “LGBT Data & Demographics.” The Williams Institute. Accessed August 17, 2019. https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/visualization/lgbt-stats/?topic=LGBT&area=54#about-the-data.

[9] Herman, J.L., Flores, A.R., Brown, T.N.T., Wilson, B.D.M., & Conron, K.J. (2017). Age of Individuals who Identify as Transgender in the United States. Los Angeles, CA: The Williams Institute.

[10] “Equaldex.” LGBT Rights in West Virginia, United States. Accessed August 16, 2019. https://www.equaldex.com/region/united-states/west-virginia.

Comments

  1. jlbeardsley says:

    Hi Maxwell, this is great work.

    I was pretty surprised by the comments about “You Need to Calm Down,” even though I really shouldn’t have been. I already thought it was problematic for the video to blame homophobia on uneducated poor people instead of, say, wealthy Republicans, but it didn’t occur to me that it would harm rural queer people as a class. While I always took some issue with that video, I know I’ve enjoyed similar things in the past, and I felt pretty called out by Rue’s comment about how (sub)urban gays are “just completely gagging over” the ridicule of rural people.

    [cw sexual assault]

    I was confused by Bob Morgan’s comments about the urban men who tried to “take advantage of” him. Does this mean sexual assault, or something else? Are you aware of any evidence that metronormativity contributes to sexual violence on a larger scale? Since I read this, I’ve really wanted to know whether that comment was nodding at a larger problem.

    I really enjoyed reading this post, particularly the interview portions. I hope you’ll share more of your oral histories with us.

    Jake