Season 3 Episode 15:
Rural Stories

Phil: Hey, this is Phil, AKA Corinne.

Alex: And I’m Alex Berg. And you are listening to the I’m From Driftwood Podcast.

Phil: A quick favor to ask our listeners before jumping into today’s episode, take a few seconds to leave a five star rating on the I’m From Driftwood Podcast. More ratings and reviews, help the podcast appear in recommendations, which means more people who need to hear all these queer and trans stories will be able to find them more easily. It just takes a few seconds and will make a big difference. All right now, on today’s episode.

Alex: On today’s show, we are talking about Rural Queer Stories. And we heard a story from Rae who is from West Virginia.

Rae: I grew up on a 100 acre sheep farm about an hour outside of a town of about 3,000 people. I believe it’s the most beautiful spot on the planet. And I left for college. I went to college in Western Massachusetts. And I came out pretty much immediately after getting away from home. But all of my peers were either from cities or booking it to New York or San Francisco. As soon as we graduated, I ended up moving to Austin, Texas. I bought into this, I think very commonly held belief that rural places aren’t safe or welcoming for queer folks. And I felt like I couldn’t move home, even though I was achingly homesick for the mountains for pretty much 10 years. I have a really vivid memory of being on the bus. I had a four hour a day bus ride, and a lot of horrible conversations happened on the bus.

And one of those was a student behind me in the seat said we should put all the faggots on an island and drop a bomb on them. And I remember everyone on the bus laughing, and I remember just feeling nauseous. And I wasn’t out to myself as queer, but I just had this, like I have to leave. I have to go far away. I have to get out, and I wanted to. In high school, I wanted to leave. I’d tried everything I could to get out of here before I was a senior. And I did, I left for my senior year. I finally did move home in 2011 and I was really worried about it. I definitely didn’t know what it was going to be like. I felt like I was going to be incredibly isolated, maybe not have community.

Like, would I ever be able to date here? What’s it like to be here full-time? And I’ve largely found that there are rural queer folks all over the place who are not only surviving, but they’re thriving either in the communities where they came from or into chosen communities they’ve moved to. And I think there are unique challenges to being in queer and rural places. But I also think there are really unique joys to it. Right. And I think for some queer folks who grew up in rural places, they care just as much or more about, for example, the mountains where they were raised or the planes or whatever landscape it was, or traditions and histories around farming or different things that are happening in rural places that as they do about their queerness.

And so for me, moving home, I found a lot of that within Central Appalachian Youth Network, and found a lot of young people who are fighting that urge of the brain drain that happens a lot in Appalachia, that out migration of young people to try to find more opportunities. And so, I found a network of young people who are really committed to staying and committed to working on what we think needs to change in these mountains. A lot of whom are queer. And so, we have had a lot of conversations around what it’s like being queer in the mountains, what it’s like coming back to a town where everybody knows you and trying to bring your whole self into that space. I think it’s really important for young queer folks who are from rural areas to know that staying is an option.

Sometimes I think leaving is really important if you can, right? But some young people don’t have the choice to leave. What are they supposed to do? Right? If they live in a place that’s like incredibly isolating as a queer person, where they never see representations of people in media who are queer like them and are super proud to be West Virginian like them. Where are they supposed to find examples of themselves? Right. And I think that actually, there are all sorts of rural queer folks with amazing different types of experiences, whether positive or negative, incredibly diverse queer people all over the United States who are choosing to stay or don’t have the option to leave. And, I think our stories really need to be told. I think our faces need to be seen. I think we need to be visible.

I think we need to not be silent anymore so that young people know that it’s fine if they want to stay, if they are queer and maybe want to go to a Pride March sometime, but really just want to take over the family farm, you know? I had a 16-year-old kid from Canada write me an email last week saying that she lives with both parents who are pastors, her grandmother who makes homophobic comments all the time, but that she loves where she lives, that she cares so much about this rural place that she’s from. And that reading these stories on the Country Queers website, makes her feel like she could stay, she could be queer and she could have the land that she loves so much. You know? And I think more stories like this are really important for queer folks.

Phil: I did a little digging into what Rae’s doing. And Rae is doing a lot on this platform of talking about rural queer stories. Apparently, they have a podcast called Country Queers, which I think is so adorable.

Alex: I love that.

Phil: Yeah. And they are creating this whole movement of getting queer people who live in rural areas to tell their stories so that people who are from rural areas or moving to rural areas, know that queer people are there and they are living their lives there and enjoying it. We get these stories of like, what’s it like for queer people in rural areas? You think it’s dangerous? You think they’re isolated? And the truth is, there’s more to the story than that. And it sounds like what Rae’s doing is trying to create this whole movement of going to rural places and getting stories from queer people who’ve been there for years and who are living wonderful lives. And, they were saying that no two stories are the same. They’re all these different stories of queer people living in rural areas and doing great.

Alex: Yeah. I feel like there can sometimes be this cosmopolitan mentality that all LGBTQ people are in cities or should be in cities, or why would you want to be anywhere except a city? And that always negates the fact that queer and trans people are everywhere and oftentimes raised and born into locations such as rural areas. And I feel like sometimes it can be a very condescending mentality to act that way, and almost treat LGBTQ people who live in rural areas as like more provincial or something, which is ridiculous. And also, it feeds into this idea that if you are queer or trans, you have to be in a city, which we should be able to be anywhere that we want to be.

Phil: We should. But you know what? I would like to say, queer people are everybody in that, we have preferences. There’s some people who want the urban living, they want the clubs and the communities that are really close by. And there are others who grew up in rural areas and they love it. It’s where they’re from. And they love these places. They love the mountains. Rae talks about loving the mountains and missing the mountains. That’s a real thing just like a straight person would be like, “I don’t want to leave this rural area. This is what I know. This is what I love.” And people who are queer should be able to do that. No problem. And you’re right. Rae mentioned that some people can’t leave. What about that? What about the people who can’t leave? Shouldn’t change happen for them? Shouldn’t things change for them so they can live in the place that they love and not have to leave? And really still thrive and do great.

Alex: Yeah. I think that you’re raising such an important point, which is that not everybody can just wake up one morning and decide that they can leave or want to leave or have the access to the resources that it takes to uproot your life and leave. And so, I just think that it is this very passe idea of acting like, “Oh, if your LGBTQ just move to a city, it’ll solve all your problems.” And it also glosses over that there’s transphobia and homophobia everywhere. And yes, I think that it is easier to find your community in the city, but in the reality, the reality is it’s also here.

I think a lot of times when we think about being LGBTQ or any marginalized identity in rural areas, a lot of times you think of this horror movie mentality of being isolated. And there’s that creepiness of being alone, and maybe with people who don’t have the same attitudes and opinions of you. And I feel like a lot of times I have totally felt that way when I’ve been in rural places. But at the same time, it does erase the experiences of queer and trans folks who are in those rural places, and all different kinds of people who are in rural places and doing important work in those places.

Phil: Exactly. And again, going back to something like Country Queers, Rae’s podcasts, the idea of telling the stories of people who live in those areas and are enjoying it, liking it, and don’t feel like they need to leave. A lot of what I read about queers in rural areas is that some of them will leave and come right back. They’ll leave and they’ll go to the city and be like, “Okay, I need to go to the city because this is where my people are.” But then they end up coming back because it’s in their blood, it’s in their hearts. This is where they want to be. And they should be able to be everywhere. We should be able to be everywhere safely, of course, and enjoy our lives.

Alex: I also love this point that Rae made about how LGBTQ people oftentimes have a great deal of care for nature. And I was wondering where that comes from, because I do feel like, why is that? Like, the sense of autonomy and independence. And I guess maybe because sometimes in your LGBTQ you do care more about certain social issues about climate change or environmentalism. I think that sometimes because being LGBTQ connects you more with a lot of other issues around justice, you maybe are sometimes more connected in that way, and you care more about that.

Phil: I love that. Country Queers. Yes. I think I love that. I think I’m a Country Queer possibly. Okay. I definitely have some urban in me, but I definitely have a little country in me too. And I got to tell you, as I get older, I’m like, “Give me the country.” Seriously. I love nature. I really love nature. I love birds. I love trees. I love being out in that. And right now, I love both, but there may come a time in my life when I’m like, “Nope, take me out to the country.”

Alex: I also think that I’m a burgeoning Country Queer.

Phil: Oh, what has happened?

Alex: Well, as you known, now as I’ve talked a lot in my personal life about, I have a place in Upstate New York, and-

Phil:  Yeah. Which is awesome.

Alex: Yeah. And I actually think I also held as somebody who grew up in a city, I’ve only known life. I have been around many attitudes where people were like, “The country’s not for you. You’ll never find your people.” And what I found is that there is a really rich LGBTQ community. I mean, rich is in like the culture of it is rich and that also everyone should be able to have nature and take a breather from whatever is going on and walk outside and have space. Yeah. So I feel like it has made me challenge some of my assumptions about what that area would mean. And, people are doing rad stuff in the area. There are farms that are run by LGBTQ collectives of people. There are people doing amazing activist work. And I just feel like sometimes the city or media narrative is really unfair to rural areas.

Phil: It is. I totally agree with that. And I think you’re right. I think that we think that everything’s happening in the city, all of the goodness is coming out of the city, but we’re not thinking about people in some of these areas that are just out in rural areas, out in the country, somewhere where there’s no spotlight, right? So you don’t know about all the wonderful things they’re doing until you may go and visit, or you know a friend of a friend. And there are people doing incredible things that just are not getting publicized. They’re not any spotlight. One thing when I was reading up on Rae, it was very interesting. It was the idea that in the stories there is some talk of isolation, right? There is some talk of feeling isolated. And it was so interesting that in the article, I think it was actually a National Geographic article, they tied it into, no one could have known that COVID was coming. And when COVID got here, the general public had to deal with isolation. A lot of people had to deal with a thought of isolation, right? And it was so interesting to read this article, and I think Rae says something like, we know isolation, we’ve done that and now everyone else is learning some of what that looks like.

And I’m not saying that’s everyone’s story. I’m not saying that everyone who’s a rural queer is isolated, but some people who have lived in rural areas and they’re queer, know isolation and they know needing to find community, and the larger world had to deal with that when COVID hit. We didn’t have the everyday things we had around us. We had to stay indoors. We had to stay away from family members. We had to stay away from friends, and we had to understand how to surpass isolation and how to deal with it in a very different way. Yeah, so interesting.

Alex: Wow. I’m thinking about that for a second. Wow.

Phil: Right. When you sit with that, you’re like-

Alex: That’s so interesting.

Phil: Right. What I think is beautiful is watching a queer person who is building or creating this project based off of something they needed for themselves. I think Rae’s idea of doing something like this podcast, even telling their story to I’m From Driftwood, is a way of telling stories that need to be heard and that need to be witnessed. And I think that’s incredible.

Alex: Well, on that note, we also heard a story today that has a different perspective about staying and leaving a rural area.

Levi: My name is Levi Wade. I am from Harrison, Arkansas. So the town I’m from Harrison, Arkansas, there’s an active KKK outside of the town. And I remember specifically when I was younger, one time, my father who’s darker complected. He’s half Filipino. We were in the parking lot of a Walmart and some strangers yelled out the N-word at him. It was that moment that I realized I wasn’t living in a very diverse, colorful, tolerant community. But that of one where there were virtually no minority representation, no people of color, no gay people, just straight white people. Because I had no other gay people to turn to, I was seeking them out on Yahoo Chat Rooms. I remember specifically one night I was talking to someone on one of those chat rooms. I was telling them about how being where I’m from was really isolated and lonely.

And there was no one like me to really turn to. And he specifically told me that it wouldn’t always be like that. And that, I needed to follow wherever my gut was leading me to go, where there were more people like me. Fast forward to, I’m in high school, I’m all with my girlfriends and they’re crying over their relationship woos and the dramas that entailed that. And I remember oddly feeling jealous because it was just something that I wasn’t able to experience and didn’t know what it was like. And, I remember thinking back to the chat rooms and the people that I was talking to and telling me that I needed to go somewhere where I could experience these things. Fast forward, I’m 18. I made an online friend that lived in Little Rock. He introduces me to a guy that we start dating.

I graduate high school. And my mom was trying to convince me to stay behind in Harrison and go to the community college there. But because of this boy that I met, I was very adamant about leaving and not staying behind in Harrison. So, I remember my friends taking me out after me and the guy that I had moved down to Little Rock for, had broken up, and they were holding my hand, guiding me through it, making sure I was liquored up to get over everything. And it was definitely a full circle moment in that where I once was wondering what that was like, I was now living it, a support system, gay representation, gay visibility, gay nightlife, to hang out and a large group of people to rely on.

If you are an LGBT kid in rural America, you are not confined to where you are at. If where you are at is not okay for you to be at, you can escape where you’re at and you can come out okay. There are aspects of uncertainty to it. But if you are self assured and you know what you want, you’re going to land where you should be. And that’s something that you should hold onto and let guide you.

Phil: I think this is the other side of that coin that we’ll talk about. Right? So it’s the idea that, if you are somewhere where you can’t find what you’re looking for, you can’t find the community that you need, you can’t plug into community, take it, go somewhere else. Right. And, I don’t think that’s wrong. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I do think that it is about the individual. It’s like, what do you want? And what do you need out of your life, right?

Alex: Yeah.

Phil: Where do you feel most at home? And you really need to listen to where your heart belongs.

Alex: Totally.

Phil: Leaving was great for him, right?

Alex: Yeah.

Phil: You hear him talking about these friends who nursed him and made sure he was okay. And took him out for drinks after this breakup, just to be like, “We got you.” He felt held and supported. And I think that you do get a lot of that in the city, but I don’t think that that’s impossible to get also if you stayed in rural town, right?

Alex: Yeah.

Phil: Why don’t you just talk about it?

Alex: Yeah. Levi had some very violent experiences in his town. And, I think that we’re always saying there’s no monolithic experience of being an LGBTQ person that for him, it was very liberating to be able to leave and needed to leave and get out of there and find community. And, you put it perfectly, it’s the other side of the coin, right? Levi’s conclusion is that, he wants to remind people that LGBTQ youth can always relocate to find their community, which is also true.

Phil: Right. It’s weird. It’s an end. Right?

Alex: Yeah, it’s such an end.

Phil: We’re talking on all these ends. It’s like, you can leave, you can stay. And if you can’t leave, you can stay. And if you can leave, you can leave. You know what I mean?

Alex: Yeah.

Phil: It’s all of those things. Right. And it does come down to what do you need and where do you feel the fullest? Like I said, I can see getting old and fully being like, “Okay, should I get a of couple chickens? What do I do? Maybe a of couple goats. Some llamas.”

Alex: I feel like, goats, that is ambitious, you know? Chickens, I get. Chickens will just wander.

Phil: By the way, they are not easy.

Alex: Chickens? [crosstalk] You guys want the option of the chickens.

Phil: Right. The fresh eggs, I get it, unless I’m vegan by then. So by that point, it may not matter. But if you were to look at other stories, you hear sometimes them talking about going to the city and it not working out for them, even if they think that’s the way they need to be, they can’t connect the connections they want. They’re not finding the community that they thought was there for them. And it did go back, right? So I think what I want to say about some of this is that, if you have to go back, you do need to make your life in a way that works for you, and you’re happy, right? If you can’t be in the city, if the city’s not where you are and where you want to be, then how do you build something for yourself in the community you’re in? Find other queer people, create some sort of social circle, or something. What about the idea of, can we build something instead of just leaving to go find it somewhere else?

Alex: Yeah. It’s tough. I’m thinking about places that really, the violence of the interaction that Levi had in his town, what it would to take to build something knowing that you are actively unsafe there and that building community, it just can be such a challenge in those places but it’s also like, how do you know that people are even there until you try it? Yeah. It just makes me respect people’s own personal decisions about why they need to move. It’s interesting because I was thinking about this, having grown up in Philly, I always wanted to live in New York City and always knew that there were a lot of LGBTQ people here, a lot of gay culture.

I just always knew I wanted something bigger than Philly. But also never really had to grapple with the idea that I wouldn’t be able to find some kind of community wherever I was. And I feel like as an adult, now having much more autonomy and choice about the spaces that I want to put myself in, I see why it would be so isolating not to have those options and how I feel really lucky that I grew up in the city that I grew up in. But also I think to your point community, my family comes from a section of South Philly that was not open to just about anyone. And so, I also think that growing up specifically in the community that I grew up in, which is a very accepting community in Philadelphia, it is even so highly localized in that way. Had I just grown up a half hour on the other side of town, super different attitude, you know?

Phil: Yeah. That’s interesting. I loved what we were talking about earlier, how you feel like you’ve changed your mind a little bit about what it means to be out in the country and living out there or existing out there, and how you’ve changed your mind a little bit about that. With COVID, a lot of people moved. They moved and some of those people were planning on doing that at some point, some of those people left because they’re just like, “I need space. And if I get more space, COVID is easier to deal with.” There’s a number of things that are happening. So, there’s a lot of people who have left cities and gone to places where they get a little more space. And so, I wonder also what that migration’s going to look like, when we’re looking back, what is it going to look like? when we start looking at these areas and there’s more queer people in these areas and you’re like, “Wow, this was about COVID this happened.” And it may have happened over time, but it happened quicker because of COVID I think in some ways.

Alex: Yeah, I also feel like sometimes in more rural communities, it’s like, if you know who you’re looking for, you know. Do you know what I mean?

Phil: I feel like, do you need like to do… I was online today. I was on Instagram, watching how people were talking about the queer signals. And I was like, “Oh, I don’t know what the signals are. Let me find out what they are.” Sure. An undercut. We all know an undercut, great, but what else is there?

Alex: Yeah, what are those?

Phil: It’s like, “What else is there?” And apparently, there’s these earrings that people make. Is that a thing?

Alex: I don’t know about that. Are there? What are they?

Phil: Earrings that they craft themselves somehow. And I’m like, “That’s supposed to tell people you’re queer?”

Alex: Interesting.

Phil: And then, vintage pins with feminist sayings on, I was like, “I would see that and I would not know.”

Alex: Yeah. It would be hard to say. Yeah.

Phil: Right. So obviously, my gaydar, my queerdar is way off and it’s on the fritz.

Alex: You need to read up on your signals, you know?

Phil: I need to go get it tuned up, is what I need to do. It’s really bad. I have no idea. So, when you’re in these areas, I’m like, what happens? You said you know who you’re looking for, but would you know?

Alex: I just feel like sometimes I know. I don’t know. Sometimes I feel like, I don’t know, a really good haircut. No, that’s ridiculous. I get it. That just means that somebody has interesting taste. I’m just… You know?

Phil: Yeah. You just don’t know.

Alex: No, it’s so hard to say. Actually, what this is making me think about in Upstate New York. Again, countering sometimes these very dismissive ideas about rural areas. In Upstate New York, there were these resorts that were for, at the time, what was understood to be male to female cross-dressers in the ’50s and ’60s. And they were places where at the time, obviously the way people were understanding gender at that time was, that they were male to female cross-dressers. And you would go, and it was understood that these were men who were learning how to do makeup and learning how to pose for photos with their friends.

Phil: Upstate?

Alex: Yes, Upstate. I highly recommend anybody listening, go Google, check it out. One of them was called Casa Susanna. The photos are incredible, but it’s just one of those reminders that’s like, there are these other pieces of history, I feel like that actually have been seldom recorded because it was LGBTQ folk, gender non-conforming folk being Upstate in these houses that were incredibly isolated by design so that they could go do their thing. Yeah.

Phil: Yeah, maybe safely. And that just speaks to how there’s such a very well recorded history of the journey that LGBTQ the community has gone through here in cities. Right. But when it comes to those urban area, what are all these stories that people don’t know about? How much history has been not recorded or not talked about or people are not aware of? I can’t even imagine. If we really dug in, we’d be shocked.

Alex: Yeah. I even think now it’s interesting to see all these things that we’re talking about play out in the national news. I’m think about, there is some incredible organizing happening in rural areas, especially in the South around issues of bodily autonomy. I’m specifically thinking about reproductive justice, and all of these movements that are oftentimes led by queer and trans folk. And just how, a lot of times you even see in the national news, such a dismissive idea towards stuff that’s happening in rural areas.

Phil: I was born in Brooklyn, right. So, I am not a rural. I can’t really call myself that. I may end-

Alex: Rural queer in your heart.

Phil: Right. I may end up being a rural queer at some point, but right now I’m not. So I think the way I relate is in many ways to what Levi said, because even though I grew up in Queens, I was born in Brooklyn. I did have to go to a very urban area to find what I was looking for, to find community, to find the people that made me feel like they could be my chosen family. So, I really relate to that, but I definitely have a lot of admiration for people who stuck it out and said, “I want to stay here and I’m not willing to leave just because this area and this community doesn’t understand me and is not willing to accept me. I want to change it because I think that there are others who want this and I want to do that for them. And I want to do that for myself.”

Alex: Yeah. I feel like I relate to exactly, similarly to what you’re saying in that I am from Philly, born and raised there, and also had to move to other areas to find that sense of chosen family and community, and totally props to anyone sticking it out wherever they are, swimming upstream against whatever the tide is in that place.

Phil: The biggest takeaway, which is what we talked about earlier is that this is a very personal choice. This has to be a choice that resonates with you and is a personal choice. There is no right answer here. There is no right thing to do here. I think it’s about considering your safety, obviously, it’s about considering where you want to be. And if you are staying to make change, are you ready to take that on? Are you really ready to take that on so that you can create an environment that works for you and works for others who maybe are younger and going to really appreciate this as they get older?

Alex: I think my big takeaway is, people should live their lives however they want, and basically the same takeaway as you. And then also just that relocating is really freaking difficult. And I think sometimes it’s easy to be dismissive of people who choose to stay where they’re staying, because maybe other people don’t understand it, but just that it’s really hard and requires a lot of resources to move. And I also have a great appreciation for people who want to stay and change the culture of where they are.

Phil: The I’m From Driftwood Podcast is hosted by Phil AKA Corinne.

Alex: And Alex Berg. And is produced by Anddy Egan-Thorpe. It’s recorded as a program of I’m From Driftwood, the LGTQAI+ Story Archive.

Phil: It’s mission is to send a lifesaving message to queer and trans people everywhere. You are not alone.

Alex: I’m From Driftwood’s founder and executive director is Nathan Manske. It’s program director is Damien Mittlefehldt.

Phil: Our score is provided by Elevate Audio.

Alex: The stories you heard today are available in their entirety, plus thousands more at I’

Phil: You can also follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube.

Alex: Or subscribe to our podcast wherever you get your podcasts.

Phil: This program is supported in park by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

Alex: In partnership with the city council.

Phil: Additional funding is provided by the Humanities New York SHARP Grant with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Federal American Rescue Plan Act.

Alex: Thanks for listening, y’all.


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