Calluses and Cow Sheds: How I Found My Queerness in Rural America

I found my queerness in rural America. In the whirring of the female operated Massey Ferguson tractor, in the big brown boots that farm life let me wear.

I learned to lick a vagina balanced on the 2 ½ foot wide bed of my trailer with the collective rumble of 43 female goats ruminating grass just outside.

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That year I spent a lot of time watching the goats and cows eat grass. Mostly because I found their single-minded focus incredibly comforting. Also because our fences were shoddy and I had to figure out how they were constantly escaping. I was learning to care for animals like I was learning to listen to myself: in silent and slow observation.

And each perception felt like a revelation, or perhaps it’s just that I was confident enough and in love enough to find metaphors everywhere: the entwined sleeping heap I found the ewes in each morning, the intuitive gathering of a doe’s matrilineage during her groaning and pacing labor, and the universally understood seclusion when death was near.

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I was just out of high school. A group of heterosexual cis farm boys had run that school. So loud was their interpretation of the rural landscape: the four wheelers, mountain bikes, and hunting rifles, that I didn’t think to stop and listen to the landscape myself. I went on uncomfortable dates with those diesel boys. I didn’t know why I felt so alone when I was naked. Finding myself on a farm run by queer women allowed me the space to listen to a landscape, which meant I finally learned how to listen to myself.

And I loved what I found at every jagged corner. I was operating tractors and herding cattle, doing way less sexy stuff like spending weeks on weeks digging four foot postholes. My body was changing; my calluses were hardening, my jeans were permanently loose and dirty, and all this disorder felt like a second puberty. Not terrifying and diminishing like I had experienced the arrival of menstruation and breasts, but expansive and exciting, in some ways a return to the confidence of my tomboy childhood, of kick-the-can and hide and seek in corn fields with all my cousins.

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Rural life is wild. This sounds like a circular statement, but I think it’s the best word we have for a living system of constant surprises. There was the day the yaks escaped for a walk in the woods; there was the day the Nigerian Dwarf birthed quadruplets, each smaller than a fist, each needing to be bottle fed; there was the cow shed that nearly collapsed on top of us, the daily tractor repairs. Each of these pastoral events were completely unforeseen at the beginning of the day, and by darkness, each of these were resolved in their own way, just as I fell asleep every night to a different world than that in which I awoke. On farms there’s a necessity for flexibility and there is a reveling in the unknown and unforeseen. Animals conform to no one’s schedule; they birth and die and trample fences on a timeline all their own. The natural world’s disregard for the rules and schedules of humans appeared to me a confidence that I in my lifetime of people pleasing envied. I gained an appreciation for messiness, which enabled me to welcome and wander within my own queer identity.

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It was months later that I found internet gaydom. It was both a revelation and a loss of self. It is completely addicting to find out there is a parallel world to the one you felt you would be left out of forever. Even if that world is built on the same consumerism you told yourself you were glad to be free of. I didn’t have a computer, and that first girlfriend, who had been to college, who had lived in gay Seattle, irritably commented that Effing Dykes was now a top visited site on her web browser. I was addicted. The farm and the small town it was in began to feel constrictive compared to the massive multiple orgasmic possibilities of an urban queer existence.

I moved to a faraway city not thinking about white gentrification or queer migration. I think I moved like many twenty somethings do, drunk on the allure of My Narrative, that there was a world just waiting to discover me, just as I had discovered the world of clover grasses and ruminating and hourly nursing and rotational grazing.

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There is very important work being done to address the problems of gentrification and its intersections with race and sexuality. I want to encourage my white peers to educate themselves and act with deliberation and humility because our heritage is one of violent occupation, both rural and urban, and our impact needs to be checked at every turn regardless of geography. As for gay flight, I am thankful to the rural queers who stayed to provide people like me with role models. I’m also entirely understanding of the queers who leave in search of a place that feels like home.

I certainly have no answers. I myself returned to rural farming after a year of city living. I missed the prideful joy I got from my own capability. Sometimes I feel alienated and lonely and I spend hours on the internet late into the evening just for the comfort of reading queer related things, and I wish I lived in a more gay place. Other mornings I step out of my cabin to a kingdom of tall grasses that overnight gained perfect droplets of magnifying dew and I feel the world I am living in is very very queer indeed, there are certainly rainbows everywhere.

Lila is a freelance writer and radio producer in Minneapolis.

Lila has written 3 articles for us.

19 Comments

  1. This is beautiful – I felt many of the same things when I was learning how my queerness fit into the sciences and environmental activism. Thank you for writing this.
    Side note that my goal is to return small town schools like the one I grew up in, so I can be a positive roll model for people like me, and an ally to the people that need it.

  2. “I learned to lick a vagina balanced on the 2 ½ foot wide bed of my trailer with the collective rumble of 43 female goats ruminating grass just outside.”

    – This is possibly the best sentence I have ever read! I loved this article 🙂

  3. I really enjoyed this so much, thank you for writint it. I’m from the rural midwest and always love reading about the experiences of other rural queers. And I’m still torn between wanting to stay here and wanting to leave and what each of those things means

  4. This is so beautiful, parts of it literally brought tears to my eyes. I grew up in the country, and still grudgingly live in it. My relationship to the country has changed a lot as I grew up; loved it as a child, then hated it for the hatred and ignorance my classmates made it represent, then started to love again because it’s impossible not to love the deer in my backyard and the acreage that lets my cats safely roam outside and the spiderwebs that decorate the yard in the mornings and the foxes that have a den in the woods nearby.

    My partner and I plan to move to the Bay Area next year (for job and other reasons, not because we think SF is a queer paradise). Part of me can’t wait, but part of me is trying to soak up all the best parts of rural living while I still can, and trying not to think of the things I’ll miss. Such as the sight and feeling you describe here: “Other mornings I step out of my cabin to a kingdom of tall grasses that overnight gained perfect droplets of magnifying dew and I feel the world I am living in is very very queer indeed, there are certainly rainbows everywhere.”

    Excuse me, I think I have something in my eye.

  5. This piece is fantastic, relatable, evocative and humorous. The personal essays are perhaps my favourite part of AS.

    I’d love to claim some queerness in a/my rural setting, but as it stands I have there and here. Mutually exclusive, but with the hope that someday I can make the two overlap.

  6. “…All this disorder felt like a second puberty. Not terrifying and diminishing like I had experienced the arrival of menstruation and breasts, but expansive and exciting, in some ways a return to the confidence of my tomboy childhood…”

    I related to SO much of This piece, but wow this was EXACTLY what discovering my queerness (and lettering go of some of the BS heteropatriarchal expectations placed on me by society) felt like.

    I hope to read more from you in the future!

  7. Thank you for this piece! It gave me a lot of feelings about how I’d like to be able to fit my adult, queer self into the kind of small-town life I grew up with. I’m living in the city right now, and while I love the opportunities, it’s just not me. Hopefully next year when I’m done with my masters program I can relocate to a place that feels more like home.

  8. Yes, yes, yes. I grew up in a smallish farm town that feels bigger than I remember when I visit my parents. I’m at home in the fucking wilderness like woah. And that’s distressing because it feels like I need to compromise in where I want to live because oh hey, I want a queer-friendly environment that’s not a city that also has jobs (because like I’m cool with living out of my car for the summer (or two or ten) and being just another dirtbag paddler/guide, but decidedly not cool with the homelessness in winter).

  9. I also grew up in the rural Midwest, couldn’t wait to move out after college and have come to the realization that I think I’d really like to go home one of these days.

    …I only worry that holing myself up in rural existence basically eliminates any chance of ever finding a partner. :/

  10. I grew up in a rural farming community and deliberately distanced myself from it because I knew intrinsically that I didn’t belong in that town from a really young age. I went away and spent my teenage years in the suburbs and a large part of my adult life in cities. It never felt right; the hum of people and cars and mindless consumerism made me nervous and anxious. I moved back to a rural farming community three years ago and spent the last two years doing farm work. Recently, I moved into the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, a very different kind of rural community

    I love rural life. I appreciate the quiet. The expanse of space and land is a constant reminder of how small and inconsequential my very human worries are. The tasks I do are tasks to keep me and my loved ones alive, warm and healthy. Here, I spend much less time worrying about purpose and my place in the world. My place in the world is what I am doing at that exact moment, be it splitting wood or gathering eggs.

    There is peace for me in a rural life.

  11. I love how many queers here have grown up or lived in a rural area. Love this reminiscing, and similarity of experiences. Having moved away from the country as a teen, and now in my early twenties and weighing the pros and cons of moving back, this piece struck a chord. Any time I do something intense and physical outdoors, I feel a little taste of this quote; “all this disorder felt like a second puberty. Not terrifying and diminishing like I had experienced the arrival of menstruation and breasts, but expansive and exciting…” Thank you Lila, for your wonderful words!

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