Last April, my friends and I found ourselves driving through rural Illinois around 1 a.m. We spent an evening at The Office, the only gay bar in Rockford, Illinois — home to the fictional Rockford Peaches of A League of Their Own — where we grabbed drinks and stayed late to watch the Saturday night drag show. We were all faculty members at a liberal arts college in Beloit, Wisconsin, a small city of about 36,000 on the border of Illinois, and made the trip 18 miles south because The Office was our closest gay bar. Older faculty members told each of us about a gay bar in Beloit, but it had long since closed. So off to Rockford we drove.
I was thrilled to see a diverse group of queers show up to cheer on the local queens that night. Having lived in New York City and Chicago for most of my adult life, I was accustomed to LGBTQ scenes in larger metropolitan cities, where nightlife is often segregated by race, age, and gender. Do rural queers spend more time in community with each other, if only because they have fewer places to go?, I wondered. This resonated with my own experience: I was at the bar with three gay male colleagues who had quickly become my lifelines to queer community that year. In a small city without many resources or social networks for LGBTQ folks, we became a small queer crew, frequently showing up for one another to celebrate our achievements and kvetch about our complaints.
Clare Forstie’s book Queering the Midwest: Forging LGBTQ Community explores how LGBTQ Midwesterns cultivate community in seemingly “unfriendlywp_postscities, in places like Rockford and Beloit. Forstie interviewed more than 50 residents of “River City,wp_postsa pseudonymous city of about 50-60,000 people in the Midwest, to understand the nuances and complexities of building community outside of major metropolitan areas. The book resonated deeply with my own experiences of looking for and creating queer community in the Midwest.
“I am a queer person who grew up in and has lived in small communities, small towns, and small cities for my entire life. And I found that some of the narratives both that we hear nationally [and] within academia about LGBTQ communities more broadly tend to flatten the experience of folks in small cities and towns,wp_postsForstie, an Education Program Specialist at the University of Minnesota, told me when we spoke about the book last month. Pushing back against generalizing narratives that cast the Midwest as a conservative place to escape from, or a group of monolithic “flyoverwp_postsstates without rich culture or community, Queering the Midwest tells a dynamic story about the varied ways queer and trans people experience life in River City.
Forstie’s interviews and ethnographic observations of LGBTQ events in River City painted a picture of what she calls “ambivalent communities.wp_posts“Ambivalent communitieswp_postshelps describe how LGBTQ people in River City feel about their community as well as how community institutions wax and wane over time. “LGBTQ communities are persistently ambivalent and not easily located along a trajectory toward assimilation or progress,wp_postsForstie writes in her Introduction. “While LGBTQ institutions anchor communities in large cities, people anchor communities (and sometimes LGBTQ institutions) in smaller cities like River City. As people migrate to and from these communities, relationships, institutions, and events rise and fall…LGBTQ community has been necessarily temporary in contexts where institutions cannot be sustained.wp_postsIn other words, in towns and cities too small to have an LGBTQ community center or a network of LGBTQ cultural institutions (bars, social clubs, sports teams, book stores, activist groups, etc.), a sense of community may fluctuate over time and is often dependent on particular individuals who help create it.
Forstie’s understanding of communities differs from other sociological accounts of queer community, which tend to imagine it as moving through particular stages of development: At first, LGBTQ people are largely closeted, then enter a coming out era, and eventually assimilate into the mainstream (what some scholars have called “post-gaywp_postscommunity). Complicating this progress narrative, Forstie argues that the “unsettledness of communities varies and is specific to each community’s contours and histories.wp_postsShe explores how the broader contexts of communities like River City — geography, racial and gender demographics, political and industrial histories — shape how LGBTQ people feel and experience it. Rather than generalize about LGBTQ community formation based on case studies of urban coastal cities, Forstie wants to see how our understanding of community shifts when we look elsewhere.
“What, precisely, does ambivalent community look and feel like?wp_postsForstie asks. To find out, Forstie asked LGBTQ River Citizens about their relationships. She found that friendships between LGBTQ people were key to their sense of community (or lack thereof). While existing research focuses on how queer “chosen familieswp_postsare crucial to LGBTQ community survival, Forstie finds the reality was a bit more complicated for the people she interviewed. It is not just that friendships create community: Forstie wants to know, “Which friendships generate community, and under what conditions?”
Interestingly, she told me there is very little research on LGBTQ friendships in general: “There’s a lot of research on LGBTQ folks in families and what that means for folks, there’s a lot of research on LGBTQ institutions as a source of community, but not so much about the relationships that form them or don’t form them. So I think there’s a need to dive deep into understanding what relationships actually create a sense of community.wp_postsHer work helps us understand “how friendship may, in fact, hold LGBTQ institutions together or constitute communities after such institutions have faded away.”
Forstie told me,“Friendships where folks affirmed and validated [queer] folks’ identities were really important for LGBTQ folks’ survival. But not all friendships are created equal, right? Just because someone had a shared identity doesn’t mean that they were going to be friends…Some friendships didn’t allow LGBTQ folks to be seen at all.wp_postsFamily relationships and friendships were variable, and some of her participants complained that LGBTQ community in River City was too “clique-y.wp_postsYet those without connections to LGBTQ friends, romantic partners, or acquaintances often felt lonely. People without those community ties “were the folks who are most likely to leavewp_postsand move to other cities, Forstie said.
This is the ambivalence that Forstie finds so interesting about LGBTQ communities. She writes, “Ambivalent community reflects a sense of both/and—a sense of both the need and lack of need for LGBTQ community.wp_postsSome of Forstie’s participants complained about the community that existed but still desired to be a part of it. Others had close LGBTQ and straight ally friends, but still didn’t feel an attachment to a larger community. Still, others felt safe in River City precisely because they didn’t tend to associate with other LGBTQ people. For Forstie, these tensions and contradictions show us community isn’t a linear, stable, or objectively “goodwp_poststhing. As she told me, “communities can be inclusionary and exclusionary at the same time.wp_postsInstead of romanticizing community, Forstie suggests that exploring how people understand community can tell us about “how people imagine their futureswp_postsin relationship to one another.
As two East Coast transplants living in the Midwest, Forstie and I ended our conversation talking about how the political context has shifted here since she conducted her research in the 2010s. As state legislatures introduce record numbers of anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ across the country, will this shift how we understand and feel a sense of community? Forstie shares that LGBTQ activists in River City occasionally create one-off events — like a 2016 vigil to honor the lives lost after the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Florida — to support one another. Standlone events put on by dedicated organizers can help create a sense of togetherness and solidarity during times of crisis without relying on longstanding organizations or institutions, she suggests. Forstie also predicts that “migration patterns are really going to change pretty substantially,wp_postsas LGBTQ people, and especially trans folks and/or families with trans children, consider leaving states increasingly hostile to their wellbeing. She and I colloquially share stories of friends and colleagues planning to leave Ohio and Missouri, the states where we both currently live.
“But folks do stay, for a variety of reasons,wp_postsshe affirms. “I think it’s important for folks who don’t live in small cities in towns to be good allies to folks who are in small cities and towns. We [can] think about how we can support those folks in this moment, and to not be like, ‘Wow, it must really stink to be there,’ [but] to think about how we can share resources, right? So I started a monthly contribution to a mutual aid organization in the state that River City is located in.wp_postsRather than just encouraging our friends and loved ones to leave their rural communities, Forstie encourages us to ask what they might need to sustain their wellbeing.
Despite the increasingly dystopian news about transphobic and homophobic legislation in the Midwest and across the country, Forstie wants us to recognize “there’s something to be said for the joy that can be found in those communities, for those of us who live in them, who are from them, who choose to stay.wp_postsShe tells a heartwarming story about attending a small town Pride celebration with her family in Brunswick, Maine last summer — the town’s first! — where she ran into a former professor who hugged her warmly. As she tells this story, I think back to the joy I felt last year at The Office, surrounded by my colleagues and queers of all kinds. It felt powerful to participate in Rockford’s local LGBTQ culture, out with my friends at a thriving gay bar in a region many don’t associate with queer nightlife. “There’s something about a small town pride that really reinforces the importance of relationships, and not viewing community as a source of consumption,wp_postsForstie reflects. “So I don’t want to lose that. I don’t want to be all doom and gloom. I want to retain that feeling of joy alongside the struggle. So ambivalence to the end, right?”