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Disrupting Cultural Selves: Constructing Gay and Lesbian Identities in Rural Locales

Abstract

Research points to the increasing geographical diversity of gays and lesbians, in contrast to cultural narratives that link gay and lesbian sexualities to urban spaces. Examining the sexual identity constructions of rural gays and lesbians thus provides an opportunity to analyze the connection between cultural and personal levels of narrative identity. Drawing on data from thirty interviews with rural gays and lesbians, I address how this group negotiates cultural narratives about queerness and constructs sexual identities in rural locales. I find that their interpretations of geography make clear distinctions between urban/rural and draw on elements in rural culture. These interpretations provide resources to modify cultural understandings that narrate gay/lesbian identities in rural areas as closeted, hidden, and oppressed.

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Notes

  1. These publications include Between the Lines, Lesbian Connection, and What Helen Heard.

  2. I placed a request in a number of LGBT organizations’ newsletters and websites, including chapters of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), Washtenaw Rainbow Action Project (WRAP), Out & About Illinois, and Gay and Lesbian Association of Decatur Illinois.

  3. These included: University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University, Michigan State University, and Illinois State University.

  4. The bulk of the in-person interviews took place in their homes, although I also met people at libraries, parks, and coffee shops.

  5. That said, all interviewees were asked some variation on the following questions: Can you tell me a little about what your town is like? How did you come to be living here? (If they had lived in city, I also asked about experiences there). What do you like/dislike about living here? Do you feel similar to other people living here? Can you tell me a little about your coming out experience? Can you tell me a little about what it is like to be gay/lesbian living here?

  6. The assumption that people will migrate out of rural areas if they can is not only relevant to gays and lesbians, but here I am most interested in its importance in narratives about gay and lesbian sexual identity.

  7. The lack of explicitness around gay/lesbian sexuality mirrors historical research on same-sex desire and/or identity pre-gay liberation. Scholars analyze, for instance, how discretion characterized lesbian life in the early 20th century (Kennedy 1996). Here I am most interested in illustrating how people attributed the implicit recognition of gay/lesbian sexuality in rural areas to their interpretation of rurality, namely the close-knit nature and its consequence of a “live and let live” attitude.

  8. Again, I am most interested in the fact that the implicit/explicit recognition underscores that people make varied interpretations of how rural “everyone knows everyone” matters for their sexual identity. The explicit narrative resonates with recent shift in gay/lesbian identity to be out (Seidman 1999), but the ages of the people discussed here range from late 20s (Andrea) to mid-fifties (Nate; Laura; Lisa).

  9. Building on work that analyzes the consequences of urban renewal and gentrification for urban queer populations, specifically around gender and class stratification (Delaney 1999; Knopp 1997; Rubin 1984), an important question to consider is how these processes matter for people’s interpretations of who the gays and lesbians are who live in cities. Likewise, research addresses how claims of anti-gay religious organizations demonize and stereotype gays and lesbians and gay communities (Fetner 2001). Future work could assess if and how such stereotypes overlap with the narratives that rural gays and lesbians produce about “urban gays.”

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Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the people I interviewed for this project for their time and willingness to share their stories. I also owe many thanks to Laura Hirshfield, Nadine Hubbs, David Hutson, Zakiya Luna, Katherine Luke, Karin Martin, Helen Moore, Carla Pfeffer, Gayle Rubin, Kristin Scherrer, Margaret Somers, Alford Young, Jr., as well as the QS editors and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback on earlier drafts of this article.

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Correspondence to Emily Kazyak.

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Kazyak, E. Disrupting Cultural Selves: Constructing Gay and Lesbian Identities in Rural Locales. Qual Sociol 34, 561–581 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-011-9205-1

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Keywords

  • Gay
  • Lesbian
  • Geography
  • Rural
  • Identity