I’m Just A Small-Town Lesbian Wearing Flannel, Building Community

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Up in the northwest corner of Montana, the leaves are crimson and gold, crinkling underfoot and dancing in the breeze overhead. That same breeze carries with it a breath of winter with just enough chill to sneak down the neck of your shirt and tickle your back. Fall is upon us here, and I can only say that for about a month before winter takes over. I love most aspects of the season — hello, crockpot dinners — but none mark it for me as much as the return of my soft, warm friend — flannel.

As long as I can remember, I’ve been a creature of comfort. When I was a kid, my mom would have to chase me down to brush my long, blonde hair; one time, when I was about 7, I refused to let her tame the curls and snarls before church, and asked her if my looking good was more important than me feeling good. I also refused to wear jeans until at least fifth grade. Sweatpants were where it was at for me, and jeans were too stiff and scratchy.

All of this changed, though, when social pressures started mattering to me in middle school. Jeans became the everyday wear, and suddenly I cared what other people thought about my hair. But even then, I wore my flannel proudly. Even my parents, who were to some extent worried about me looking too “butch,” couldn’t say no.

In Montana, flannel is what black is to New York City or leather to Florence, Italy. Everyone wears it here, and flimsy fabric is rarely tolerated. No, our flannel must be thick and hearty, else we freeze in our classrooms or offices or ski boots.

This works out well for me, because yes, I’m a stereotypical lesbian when it comes to my love for the plaid and fuzzy. I celebrate fall as a time I can wear my favorite clothes and look my gayest without standing out so much in an otherwise largely heteronormative culture.

But as much as I love flannel, it can be a bit of an emotional red herring here. I know at this point it’s a cliché to conflate lesbians and flannel, but clichés are clichés for a reason. A quick perusal of the Internet has articles about lesbians and flannel on Slate, Jezebel, Esquire, BuzzFeed, and more. One Yahoo! Answers question (always the font of wisdom) just reads “Flannel Shirts = Lesbian?” The question is reiterated in various forms on Yahoo! enough times to fill up 10 pages of results. When people ask those questions, it’s not about clothing. Well, maybe a little bit — like those querying where to buy the best shirts. But in general, it’s about identity. Flannel has been a lesbian signifier for Melissa Etheridge knows how long, but the associations run deep.

For a kid growing up in relative ruralness, it was tough enough finding friends when I was a kid. I was (and still am) a nerd, I love learning, and I thrived doing the outdoor activities that only the boys did, like fishing and hunting. I felt alienated for my interests, especially when my parents stopped letting me have sleepovers with my boy friends when I was 10 or that one time when I was 12 in hunter’s education class and one of the instructors made a dick joke and I felt like I couldn’t do anything but turn red and wish there were other girls there.

But when I started realizing I was not like my gal friends, that I didn’t care about the boys but had some pretty intense, painful, unrequited friendships with girls, the relief of understanding that I was gay, that I wasn’t something new and therefore unknowable, was quickly followed with that familiar pang of loneliness.

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I didn’t find others like me until college, or none who I knew about anyway. A few childhood friends have come out in our adulthood, but back then, I thought I was alone, a lesbian Matt Damon on Mars (without the troublesome racial or homophobic statements, clearly).

When I did find community, though, I reveled in it. I wanted to be as gay as possible, and luckily for me, I already had the flannel. It accompanied me through my first romantic encounters and relationships with women, it dried my tears when Dana died on The L Word, and it kept me warm when the wind blew so terribly in the winter that my eyelashes froze together.

College is land of transition, however. Nothing lasts there, and the fledgling queer community I had finally found spread across the country upon graduation. I moved to an even smaller town in Montana, up in the northwest corner near Glacier National Park, where I can drive to Canada in an hour and where wolves and bears run through town.

My hometown, Missoula, is known as the blue freckle on Montana’s otherwise red face — the liberal bastion in an enthusiastically conservative state. My new home was about as opposite as it could be from Missoula — no Democrats in office, no university to keep things progressive and young and fresh, and definitely no noticeable gay people. I lived there because it was the closest journalism job I could find to Missoula, where my girlfriend was still going to school. Once again, I was alone, without my partner or my crew of lesbians. I couldn’t decide if it was worse not knowing queer people existed, or knowing they did but not living around any of them. The only enjoyable part about digging around and trying to find the LGBT community here was that it made me feel a bit like Indiana Jones on a treasure hunt, and we all know he had the best outfits, and was probably a flannel fan.

Otherwise, I felt lonely again. The tried-and-true lesbian signifiers of short hair and flannel shirts failed me; the women who looked like the stereotypes of lady gayness were usually married to men, with children, a ranch, and a 10 Commandments billboard in their yards. Winter was especially difficult, because everyone dresses practically and resourcefully here. Jeans, leather boots, beanies, flannel — you name it, straight women wear it. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this; I’m a fan of women wearing whatever they want to feel comfortable, and honestly, most women’s clothing falls apart under the stress of really living here — think hiking, camping, weather changing every five minutes — unless it’s quality gear.

However, there was a bittersweet disappointment that came with seeing a woman dressed like I did, like a stereotypical lesbian, and then finding out that she wasn’t one. My loneliness had reached the level of disappointment in strangers for not being who or what I wanted them to be and I was applying said stereotypes in a way that I’d hate for someone to do to me, which, as just about anyone can tell you, is about as attractive to potential friends as hot, wet garbage.

I should mention that I’ve made lifelong heterosexual friends here, and I love them dearly. But there’s always a pull to find people like me, a drive that has existed since I was young and new, when I was trying to find people to whom I didn’t have to explain myself, with whom I could just be.

It took years of living here to finally find who I was looking for. My then-girlfriend (now my wife) moved here, which helped immensely. We were not closeted about our relationship – if someone asks, we tell the truth with as much kindness as we can muster – and eventually, other queer women and men approached us. A straight friend even set us up on a blind friend-date with one of her gay friends, who has become one of the cornerstones of my new queer-lady squad.

Oddly enough, none of these friendships were formed over flannel, or any other lesbian signifier. I had to learn to see deeper than the plaid, to get to know the people underneath the conventional haircuts, to let myself be truly open to friendship of all kinds instead of throwing it away because it didn’t meet my preconceived notions of what I wanted.

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Now, six years after moving here, my wife and I continue to build our community. There are days when we feel like giving up and moving to a city where the queers are plentiful, a sort of rainbow Promised Land flowing with undercuts and sleeve tattoos, just to feel the relief of not feeling like we’re the only ones.

But Montana is my home. It’s where my roots grow, the Big Sky state, where a million people share 147,164 square miles, a place where the mountains and the sky and the water are as much a part of my life as my friends and family. I refuse, largely out of stubbornness, to subscribe to the notion that I have to leave my home so I truly can be myself.

So while it may take more guesswork than our peers in larger cities have to do, we will continue to search for our kind here. I don’t believe it’s our responsibility to educate an ignorant public about how my wife and I deserve to breathe and live and love just like everyone else, but I do know the more open we are about who we are, the more responsive most of our neighbors and community members have been to us.

Sure, we get the occasional homophobic remark in bars, we have to look around before holding hands, and it’s still legal in Montana to fire someone or kick them out of a rental for being LGBT.

But for change to happen, for the community I want to grow, someone has to stay. Someone has to wear the flannel not just because of its function.

Someone has to wear it because flannel and skinny jeans and boots and a snapback are the way I can pay homage to those who came before me and couldn’t dress the way they wanted, and because one day, when I’m wearing that outfit with my undercut and tattoos, maybe a lonely queer kid will look at me and feel less isolated and more like a part of a constellation where the stars may be few and far between but they make something beautiful.

Until then, I’ll keep building. Which actually works out great, because do you know what construction workers love wearing?

I bet you can guess.

Molly Priddy is a writer and editor in Northwest Montana. Follow her on Twitter: @mollypriddy

Molly has written 43 articles for us.

52 Comments

  1. “I refuse, largely out of stubbornness, to subscribe to the notion that I have to leave my home so I truly can be myself.”

    I connect with this a lot. I’m from a small town in Oklahoma, and I still feel guilty for leaving it behind. I never entertained the idea of staying, but I know there are other gay kids in school having a tough time there, there are people living in the closet out of fear, and most people who don’t subscribe to the dominant conservative Christian mentality leave as soon as they’re able to. I know if these people keep leaving, nothing will change, but I couldn’t bring myself to stick around.

  2. Your writing is an amazing mix of humor and deep sincerity and your personality really shines through.

    Also, the part about wearing “skinny jeans and flannel” to pay homage to those before us because they couldn’t always comfortably do so/the chance of being a beacon of hope to a young queer kid is totally something I’m gonna remind myself of whenever that sneaking thought of “…is this too gay?”decides to rear its ugly head.

    So, y’know… thanks.

  3. I love this!
    Also, don’t hate on me, but that picture in the bar could’ve come straight out of a hipster bar in Berlin-Neukölln!:-D
    Keep battling on, and staying open and visible, maybe, with brave people like yourself, we won’t have to migrate towards the cities anymore.

  4. I was wondering what town you were talking about the whole time, and when I saw your bio I was so excited! I absolutely love the Kalispell/Whitefish/Flathead Valley area. I’m from Calgary, Alberta, and I head down to Whitefish every New Years (you all sure know how to ring in a new year right!) This will be my first year that I am bringing a girlfriend down with me – I entered into my first relationship with a woman earlier this year. I have actually been thinking about how traveling to some of my favourite destinations might differ, for better or for worse, now that I am in a same-sex relationship. My girlfriend jokes that the biggest hurddle is just convincing them to give you 1 bed for the two of you, haha!

    Thank you for the lovely writing!

  5. Thank you for sharing this. Your writing is beautiful. My wife and I also live in a smallish town with a smallish and not-so-vibrant LGBTQ community, and we talk nearly every day about whether we are going to stick it out and try to build our own community here, or move on to a place that fits our hippy-lesbian style. It’s very tempting to go somewhere where people with similar interests are already meeting up, rather than stay where we are, where those people certainly exist but are fewer and haven’t found each other yet. Anyways, it’s nice to hear another point of view, so thank you.

  6. This was so great to read. Thank you!
    I’m from a really rural area too, and have definitely felt like I needed to move before I could “be myself”, so it’s comforting to read there are people who are making it work!

  7. Sigh. I have many many feelings. I feel similar about my small town in New Mexico, and the signified lesbians I knew were masculine of center. I am someone who sits very firmly in the middle of the butch/femme dynamic, and I live in a town that very much favors traditional masculinity (where men are men and so are the women!). The queer subgroup I click with are bi, queer and trans women, I’ve always felt very separate from lesbian subculture as a whole. I don’t want to have to present as stereotypically lesbian to validate my identity as one. On any given day, a lesbian is the least interesting thing I am. I respect your journey to building a gay group in your rural area (dear God I can relate to feeling like a Lesbian Lone Wanderer), but I resent that there should be a way lesbians ought to signify themselves.

    • I feel you on this, Anne. And I tried to stay away from it, to identify that it’s a cliche and a stereotype so it’s not true of everyone, nor should it be. The queer community I’ve found here aren’t anything like I thought they’d be, and I’m better for it.

  8. I’m so into your essay. I am considering moving back to my childhood home, where there are few people in my age range, let alone other queer people, and almost no “visibly queer people.” I was telling my therapist yesterday, well, I’ll just have to try to build a community there. And it seemed terrifying, as I was saying it, but here is your essay, giving me hope and strength.

  9. A few years ago I went to Summit Prep School, the therapeutic boarding school in Kalispell, and I can definitely say that there are plenty of youth there that need visible queer representation. Thank you!

  10. This read was a real pleasure. I grew up not too far away, near Kellogg, ID. I felt compelled to leave, but whenever I visit, I keep a sharp eye out for the queers who stayed or appeared later. Your grit is plain to see.

  11. I just commented to a friend today, I’m a little sad that flannel is “trendy” right now. I’ve finally gotten to a point where I’m comfortable enough with myself to have short-ish hair and wear flannel shirts, and then I went to Oktoberfest here last weekend and probably 50% of the people there were wearing it as well. Le sigh…

  12. Into this! The other day this woman in one of my classes came up to me to tell me that target was having a big sale on flannel because she thought it would be “up [my] alley.” I was like ~first of all~, how DARE you stereotype me! but second of all thanks SO MUCH i’m for sure going to check that out asap.

  13. I love this piece. It reaches right out to where I am – perched for a bit in tiny (tiny!) town, Texas. And trying to decide whether to stay or leave.
    Late tonight, as I was closing up shop, someone I know walked past and we visited for a bit. He’s older, gay, and married to his partner. We had a really great and honest conversation about what they have experienced since moving back here, to his hometown. I explained that I haven’t felt ready to invest in being completely transparent with everyone in town yet. (Not hiding, but not being too vocal about being out.) And he was very encouraging in terms of the fact that people may surprise you (in a positive sense) with their reception. It was really a beautiful conversation – and then to come here and find this story – perfect timing. Thank you.

  14. I REALLY REALLY LOVED READING THIS. I can certainly identify with being queer and not having queer friends/people around to sort of hang out with/be gay with. LOL. I mean for me college was that one phase you know. Like ‘wow I wish there were other gay people here’ and if there were I certainly didn’t know them at the time and I suppose we weren’t meant to be friends.

    A lot of the time I wish that I had somehow TRIED to at least find out about an LGBT center in college in teh Philippines or connect with a group of people in the city but I think I was introverted at the time.

    This makes me really really thankful that places like Autostraddle exist. This is the place where I can just be who I am and not care about being called weird or whatever.

  15. I too am a lover of plaid, though not as much in a traditional way one might label as “butch.” And I certainly have had the experience of learning to look beyond the typical signifiers of gayness. I’m still in college, and I have quite the circle of friends who get me at my home university. This reminds me though of my current situation, as I’m studying abroad, and those signals don’t cross cultures here.

    Japan has a real love affair with plaid flannels. Really. Sometimes I still notice a woman walking past looking like she portrays some of the stereotypical signs, but have to remind myself that those don’t apply here.

  16. I love reading this. I too am from a small town in Montana, moved to a different small town in North Dakota for college and now want to move back to Montana. I know that I want to live in a small town (although I wouldn’t necessarily quantify Kalispell as small) and need to hear stories of people making it work. I need to know that the future I dreamed of when I was 12 is still possible while being my real, massively gay self.

  17. I love this. I love the comments. I really want to make lesbian friends. But it’s so hard. I hear there are lesbians in my town. But how do I find them? And once I do, what, hi you lesbian? Me lesbian too. Can we be friends? Never mind that the only thing we have in common is that we like girls. I suck at making friends. But it’s encouraging to know that there are people out there who are willing to be found by other lesbians. That maybe when I do find someone who seems to be gay they might actually be willing to hang out with me.

  18. Watch out for a group of lesbians coming into Whitefish this spring. Pretty sure that is the location we chose for our annual Leztravaganza that involves about 15 lesbians drinking, snowboarding, nakedness, and debauchery on the mountain and in town. We looooooove Montana!

  19. This is an awesome article! I like the idea of what you said at the end Molly about having young kids seeing you and not feeling alone. Even though I live in a big city, it always makes me, a young gay kid, happy to see older people being their gay selves.

  20. Wyoming girl living in Missoula so this hit home. It’s also crazy exciting to see something on Autostraddle and be like “I live there!” or “I know that place!” That doesn’t often happen.

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