- Queering the Countryside: New Frontiers in Rural Queer Studiesed. by Mary L. Gray, Colin R. Johnson, and Brian J. Gilley
Queering the Countryside: New Frontiers in Rural Queer Studiesis an eclectic volume that serves the crucial function of relocating queer studies scholarship from city to country. Drawing from a variety of disciplines, including history, anthropology, literature, and communication, this volume's sixteen essays range broadly in content. Uniting them is their authors' frustration with the exclusively urban framework driving the majority of queer studies scholarship. The book's contributors insist that attention to the experiences of rural individuals and communities is essential to understanding the broader LGBTQ experience in North America, and their essays reveal the boundless possibilities that a rural configuration can bring to the field of queer studies.
This departure from an explicitly urban context allows the authors to challenge concepts that are too often perceived to represent LGBTQ communities at large. For example, essays by Kelly Baker, Mary Pat Brady, Katherine Schweighofer, and Carly Thomsen question the usefulness of the [End Page 485]"closet" metaphor as a means of understanding sexual orientation. Noting that critics interpret the idea of being "in the closet" as a sign of self-loathing and denial of one's queer identity, these authors dispute the negative connotations that often accompany discussion of the closet. Many of the book's rural subjects, while open about their sexuality, do not see queerness as a fundamental element of their identities, or as something that sets them apart from the majority. Others might participate in same-sex sexual activity without identifying as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Collectively, the authors argue that the notion of being publicly "out," or committed to displays of queer visibility, is not a concept that has historically carried great meaning for rural Americans. In doing so, the authors show that ideas like the closet prioritize an urban—or "metronormative"—worldview that excludes the lived experience of rural dwellers (p. 13).
This effort to expand the geography of queer studies into rural regions is a much-needed intervention, and Queering the Countrysideis generally successful in making the case for its necessity. At times, however, in their efforts to illustrate the significance of rural spaces, some contributors rely on a flattened depiction of the urban spaces against which they are defined, suggesting that affluent, white, gay, male tastemakers represent the entirety of urban queer populations. This creation of an elite urban foil is useful in emphasizing the exclusion of rural inhabitants from mainstream queer culture; but it relies on generalization, and it obscures the ways that race, class, gender, sex, and ability create divisions within queer communities as well. In other words, the construction of too sharp a dichotomy between urban and rural queerness has the potential to erase the complex power dynamics that unite and divide individuals within specific regions and across the rural-urban boundary.
Several of the essays, as well as the editors' introduction, veer into jargon-laden and highly theoretical prose, limiting the work's appeal beyond the confines of highly specialized academic circles. This tendency toward inaccessibility is an unfortunate approach for a book that seeks to broaden the reach of queer studies beyond urban elite spaces. Fortunately, the volume also contains a number of highly readable and provocative essays, including its three historical entries. Robin Henry offers a probing investigation of same-sex intimacy in Colorado in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her essay reveals that laborers on the western frontier found opportunities for unmonitored sexual expression that were not available to residents of northeastern cities, living in the shadow of Progressive-era antivice crusades. Legal efforts to eliminate perceived sexual misconduct in Colorado only emerged as the state sought to attract greater financial investment through tourism and increased workplace efficiency...