After President Obama’s reelection in 2012, a former student of mine posted this as his Facebook status.
Jake lives in rural Nebraska. Jake is a farmer. Jake is the son of a Math Instructor at the community college where I currently teach. This woman has another son, Luke, who wanted to do his 8th grade speech on why gays should not be allowed to marry. When I asked my colleague as to why she would allow her son to even suggest this as a topic, she quoted the first amendment.
I am constantly awed by the way many rural residents view the world. Jake is now 22 years old and has recently graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a degree in Agriculture. Last week he married his high school sweetheart. They have a son that is eight months old. Sound familiar? Not only is he voicing a rural ideology via social media, but he is performing one as well. My purpose here is not to judge this young man’s life, but rather to unveil the shroud of how outsiders perceive small towns. In Judith Halberstam’s, In a Queer Time and Place, she talks about the murder of Brandon Teena that occurred in Humboldt, Nebraska. In her book she discusses a talk she gave at a lesbian and gay film festival in Seattle. Halberstam skimmed over the topic of rurality and commented on the personification of Nebraska (by the filmmakers) as the breeding grounds for racism, homophobia, and prejudice (31). While these stereotypical people still exist, there appears to be seams that fold into rural society that subvert heteronormativity.
A friend of mine owns and operates a frequented bakery/coffeehouse in town. He and I have coffee often and get into rather philosophical conversations. I can remember, one conversation in particular, when we stumbled upon the topic of queerness. He told me a story about a music festival that he and his family and some of his friends attend each summer. As he was telling me about his encounters with particular music artists, his face started to search for the right words to engage in a conversation about the number of lesbians he had met. Though I was thoroughly amused at his discomfort, I began to understand the mentality of someone who was born and raised in a small town of 8000 that is catastrophically situated four hours from any major city. He continued,
“On the way home, I couldn’t grapple effectively with the issue of homosexuality. My religious beliefs don’t match up with my personal beliefs. When I voiced this to Dale ( a friend that had gone along) he laughed at me. He told me, ‘You love who you love, man. Who cares if that’s a man or a woman?’ Whereas, my wife would most certainly say, ‘It’s wrong’ but I do not agree with that.”
His coffeehouse is a place where I can have the conversations I need to remain sane. I, among others, do not have to remain silent in this space. Outside of safe places such as these, the community chooses to remain silent in the public sphere regarding any issue of queerness. One may argue that Jake’s manifesto Facebook status counters that argument. However, I know that Jake would never actually say that. Facebook gave him a space to write, not verbalize, his dissatisfaction and prejudice.
Silence is a topic that Halberstam addresses at the Seattle film festival when she categorizes every small town in America as breeding grounds for racism, homophobia, and prejudice. Soon after she makes this statement she is greeted by and uncomfortable silence. “The audience was quiet, too quiet” (Halberstam 31). That hesitation to react, that silent pause is directly indicative of a small town’s code of how to act in the public sphere. For instance, I taught a English 2030 this past spring, a poetry class, which dealt with a variety of social and political issues. While the name of the poet and poem we were discussing has eluded me, I do remember the poem was prefaced with a bible passage and the poet is a lesbian. Ethan, a white male from Oklahoma with a staunch religious background, remarked,
“That she would start with a passage from the bible when she’s, you know…”
“So you’re telling me because she identifies as a lesbian she can’t believe in
While I was met with a brief moment of silence, a buddy of his, Raul, who is a Mexican-American and also extremely religious, said,
“Well it’s against the law.”
I didn’t have to say anything. The president of the Gay/Straight Alliance and several others were so appalled that no one spoke for a while. A few people’s mouths hung open, others faces flushed with anger, and a non-traditional student laughed in amazement while I waited. All hell broke loose. The conversation lasted about five minutes before I had to step in and save Raul and Ethan from getting jumped.
The “…you know…” part of Ethan’s comment is representative of the silence that defines the public sphere in rural communities. He was not comfortable with saying “lesbian.” By saying it, would give validity and acknowledgement to queerness. If it isn’t spoken, it doesn’t exist. This is comparable to the “it’s against the law.” I should have asked what he thought was the infraction of the law but I think I can guess which law he was referring to. Religion is a common excuse for the homophobic right. They validate their discrimination by quoting passages of the bible while remaining hypocritical in several aspect of their own lives.
I will argue, however, that the small community college helps with the integration of ideas from around the country. Karen Tongson writes about the suburbs in relation to the urban and uses the metaphor of cloverleaf interchanges in her book, Relocations (8). Where Tongson’s metaphor can be illustrated as literal at moments throughout her argument, I believe that these metaphorical cloverleaf interchanges are central to the realm of public institutions of higher education. Students from all over the country gather and assimilate into a community of ideas. Ethan and Raul would never have been face to face with angry LGBTQ activists if it was not for their cohabitation of my classroom on that day. Unfortunately, liberal ideas do not seep out beyond the college classroom and dorm into the fabric of the community that surrounds. It is a centered landscape versus Tongson’s idea of “centerless” (11).
It would also be a mistake to suggest that everyone in higher education shares the same liberal ideologies of mine. This has already been proven by Jake and Luke’s upbringing, but extends to another colleague of mine. Zoe Budge, from Bountiful, Utah, was a student at Mid-Plains Community College for the past two years and identifies as a straight woman. During her last year, a gay student approached her about starting the Gay/Straight Alliance (GSA). The young man who approached her did not have the GPA to start the club and sought out her help in doing so. Zoe willingly agreed but was not prepared for the adversity she would face. When Zoe explained to another colleague of mine, who was born and raised in this community, as to what she was getting involved with he replied, “But Zoe, what will people think about you?” The blinders had been removed and Zoe began to see and feel the prejudice permeated through one individual, a product of rurality.