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Homosexuals in Unexpected Places?: An Introduction

From: American Studies
Volume 48, Number 2, Summer 2007
pp. 5-8 | 10.1353/ams.0.0127

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Of all the cultural truisms that lend some sense of coherence to queer life in the United States today, few are as widely cherished as the belief that lesbians, gay men, and members of other sexual subcultures somehow belong in cities in a way that they don't belong in suburbs, small towns, or the rural recesses of the American hinterlands. Indeed if queers and the conservative ideologues who have spent the better part of the last decade scapegoating them for everything from the degradation of the Catholic church to the attacks on 9/11 agree on anything at all, it is precisely this point. But why? Why is this point so easy for everyone—everyone—to agree on?

I think it is partly because, for the moment at least, thinking of same-sex sexual behavior and gender non-conformity as distinctively urban phenomena actually serves a diverse array of political interests remarkably well. For cultural traditionalists, for example, it merely confirms what they claim to have known for some time: that cities—particularly northern and coastal cities with their enviable wealth and fearsome poverty, their porous boarders and strange ethnic enclaves, their institutional bastions of intellectual and cultural elitism and wasted, warzone-like ghettos—were never really part of the "real America" anyway. Add to that the fact that many American cities appear to tolerate, welcome, and even celebrate gays, lesbians, and other hedonistic degenerates and—presto!—yet another fine reason to exhume agrarianism from its early twentieth century grave and to continue to nurture all of the other ugly "isms" and "phobias" that anti-urban sentiment, historically speaking, has tended to catalyze and sustain. For the record, these include, but are certainly not limited to racism, nativism, and xenophobia; libertarianism and anti-federalism of various kinds; masculinism, gynophobia, and misogyny; anti-secularism; sectionalism; and, rather inexplicably from my perspective, the belief that having decent local and interstate public transportation in the United States would somehow qualify as a greater affront to the spirit of the Constitution than banning the sale of assault weapons. If Richard Nixon had his Southern strategy, George W. Bush and Karl Rove more recently had a "rural" one. We would be deceiving ourselves if we did not acknowledge that urbane homosexuals who tout their own cosmopolitanism as a form of moral superiority over supposedly backward provincials have played—or have been forced to play—an incalculably important role in allowing the right to realize its divisive agenda. As it turns out, class-based resentment is an incredibly powerful thing, particularly when it is experienced as being grounded in something other than class—say, for example, resentment of cultural elitism and smug sophistication.

Regardless of where they actually live, a possessive investment in urbanity serves a different, though equally important, function for queers themselves in the contemporary United States. On the most basic level it has given shape to one of the few cultural narratives that bind us—the by-now familiar, indeed almost folksy, rural-to-urban migration narrative. At the same time, however, it has also focused our intellectual attention, often to very positive effect, on particular moments in time and locations in space where queer cultures of various sorts have emerged as cognizably social formations—formations suggestive of a collective consciousness we weren't supposed to possess; formations that gave rise to institutions and networks of sociability that weren't supposed to have existed; formations that served as foundations for the unexpected solidarities and minoritarian identities that literally and figuratively saved many of our lives at certain moments; formations, in other words, that look like they matter in both historical and political terms.

Yet, simply because urban space has played a demonstrably significant role in facilitating the emergence of particular—even particularly important—networks of queer sociability and political engagement, non-metropolitan space is far from devoid of its own unique histories and cultures of same-sex intimacy and gender non-conformity. And given the fact that the term "rural" has, in recent years, come to be used by almost everyone as a shorthand descriptor for that which is most antithetical to queer forms of life, I would argue that we ignore...



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