Fifteen years ago, I sat down at my inexplicably heavy dorm desk in my first-year room in the middle of Montana and wrote an email to Righteous Babe Records.
I’d purchased an Ani Difranco album, you see, and it was supposed to come with a small patch sporting the RBR logo: a woman in a dress and combat boots flexing her arms above her shorn head. The patch wasn’t much bigger than a quarter, but in my 19-year-old mind, it was a huge, pulsating target I was attaching to my backpack.
Let’s get down to brass tacks: No one in Helena, Montana was looking at the patch on my backpack, and if they were, they likely weren’t recognizing it as an indie music label created by a — hold on, let me check to make sure the coast is clear before I say this — queer person who makes queer music.
It didn’t have rainbows; that would be too obvious. I’d learned early on as a young teen in Montana that the world as I understood it in rural areas was not kind to a visible LGBT community. As a sixth-grader, I watched my state’s Legislature make same-sex marriage unconstitutional, and I remember bumper stickers crossing out two woman symbols intertwined with one another.
This message came through loud and clear from the church pews, and from my peers. An openly lesbian high school athlete was met with a chorus of “Dyke! Dyke! Dyke!” from the opposing crowd at a basketball game in town. Everything that made a boy or man uncomfortable was “gay.”
Then, those men killed Matthew Shepard in Wyoming.
It wasn’t just a horrifying instance of virulent homophobia and hatred; it was a cautionary tale for those of us in the West and Midwest who thought we had the right to be who we are like those coastal, city queers.
Later, when I was in high school, a house belonging to a pair of lesbians in my town was set on fire, and the couple, along with their young child, escaped out a window. They moved away.
As I, a very stubborn person, realized I was gay and there was nothing I could do about it, I decided I was going to do what I could to safely assert my identity, even if it was just a small patch on my bag. In my fantasies, another semi-closeted babe would see my patch while I was having coffee on the quad, and she’d immediately know I was gay and we’d become friends and possibly make out somewhere safe and away from hetero eyes.
The patch was the start of this surreptitious effort to tell the world through my clothing that I was gay without wearing a pride shirt or otherwise rainbowed gear. There’s nothing wrong with those things, and I’d venture that everyone looks good (or equally bad, at least) in rainbow.
In a rural small town, where there is little to no visible queer presence to back you up as a legitimate human being, rainbows can be risky, can make you an easily identifiable Other to be targeted. LGBTQ+ folks in America’s rural pockets have to reckon not only with their identity, but also how they want to express that identity, taking their safety and health into consideration before putting on that suit or those heels or that lipstick.
This means that whenever I go to a city and find myself in a whole mass of diversity, I’m surprised and sad to feel the relief flooding through my backcountry-loving, mountain-dwelling veins, because I don’t get to feel like that at home. Strength in numbers of queer people and a more progressive attitude found in cities is like getting to take a full breath when I’ve trained myself to breath through a straw in Montana. (Also, I look like a lost lumberjack whenever I’m in a city.)
That still didn’t chase me off. I still live here, and would posit that I’m actually gayer than I’ve ever been — at least outwardly. Every day, I go through life here in this small, conservative valley with a short haircut, pants, flannel shirts, other button-ups, and always leather shoes or sneakers.
The furthest I push my fashion choices here is going in public wearing a flatbill hat. It covers my hair and eyes, and makes people look at my jaw and nose and height and think, “ah yes, a man.” I always put a hat on when I come home from work, but have made the decision many times to remove it before I leave the house. When I use a public restroom, I stick out my tits and put on a smiling, soft feminine face so as to not get my ass kicked.
So far, misgendering, unpleasant staring and loud children’s questions about whether I’m a boy or girl have been the worst to happen (knock on wood). I’m saved from too much scrutiny partially because a lot of women dress like this here, and throughout the Midwest, perhaps minus the flatbill.
This was the subject I first wrote about for Autostraddle: when flannel doesn’t differentiate lesbians from straight women. It’s also the subject of a 2012 paper from Emily Kazyak, an associate professor of sociology and women’s and gender studies with the University of Nebraska. The paper’s title, “Midwest or Lesbian? Gender, Rurality, and Sexuality,” reminds me of games I’ve played with my gay friends here, trying to decide if someone was gay or just worked on a farm. Kazyak expands on this in her paper through a quote from Nancy, a small-town Midwestern lesbian.
“Growing up in a small town, I worked on a farm. A lot of women worked on farms or in road construction or nontraditional jobs for women. I told somebody that if you were to drive by [my town], you’d think the place is full of lesbians! They’re all wearing flannel shirts and cowboy boots,” Nancy said.
Kazyak writes that constructions of masculine gender practices are more accepted than feminine ones, that gay men are associated with male femininity and thus are more likely to stick out more, or, as Kazyak puts it, “for some gay men, that ability to stay put in rural areas might be constrained.”
Lesbians, however, align more with the constructs of masculinity, which are also the underpinnings of so many rural traditions, allowing lesbians to stay in rural areas longer.
Masculinity is also the perceived thread running through lesbian style, and while many lesbians do express their masculinity, there is no one way to be gay and wear clothes, even in the Midwest.
Dr. Kelly Reddy-Best at Iowa State University wanted to figure out, then, how the LGBTQ women and AFAB non-binary folks of the Midwest do dress, and then build an exhibition around it. “Queer Fashion and Style: Stories from the Heartland” ran at Iowa State University’s Textiles and Clothing Museum earlier this year.
It was a groundbreaking exhibit in a museum that previously had little to no queer representation in its collections. Such exhibits exist in New York City, where the Fashion Institute of Technology’s museum turned out “A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk.” There was a similar show in Los Angeles, Reddy-Best said, but these shows largely focused on high fashion and the experience of LGBTQ+ folks in urban areas.
Reddy-Best, who identifies as bisexual, came to Iowa State in 2016 with a background in researching the intersections of queer identities, appearance, fashion, and the body, and was immediately interested in this overlooked, small-town queer demographic.
“It’s about everyday fashions and styles of queer folks living in the Midwest,” Reddy-Best said. “In smaller towns, not necessarily rural, but places where you don’t see a lot of visible queer culture.”
The result was 33 mannequins dressed as small-town queer women, with shoes and accessories, a pride banner, and a short film about the people who contributed. There were nine themes: Fitting the Stereotype; Not Queer Enough; Celebrating the Ceremony; Queer Crip; Chapstick Lesbian; Masculine of Center/Butch; Feminine Leaning/High Femme; Against the Skin; and Overtly Proud.
The exhibit is available online, and even a cursory click-through will give a thrill to any small-town dyke or queer who has felt alone in their clothing choices. Simple flannels are given museum-piece status; a fleece cover-up means as much as any other work of art on display.
My clothes are in there: the long shorts, the flannel shirts, the worn Birkenstock sandals, the men’s sweaters, T-shirts, ties, jackets, and vests. Not literally mine, but in every other way, yes.
It’s us, worthy of museum walls. Us, our history in threads and rubber and strap-ons and binders, the small-town queer folk who feel compelled to stay in places where the land always welcomes us but the people don’t. We exist, our histories running silently and concurrently with those of the much-touted and documented winners. And here in this exhibit, that history is as important as any other.
So often in my 20s, I assumed I was being a bad lesbian because I had long hair and didn’t dress like Shane (or anyone, frankly) from The L Word. I didn’t go out partying every night to the club and have wild love affairs. All I had were the clothes I felt skirted the line of too masculine, and the hope that some other lesbians would notice.
My experience didn’t feel valid because it wasn’t like anything I’d seen before. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I know there were other LGBTQ+ people just like me there, who had the same concerns and the same loneliness, but didn’t know how to tell the other queers we were here.
To be able to see Midwestern lesbian fashion researched and documented in the same way everyday fashion has is striking and touches a piece of my heart that I’d sealed off to keep it safe from bigots and ignorant people. The way I dress, and the way so many LGBTQ+ people between the coasts dress, is valid.
I got a divorce last year, but before that, I was married to another woman. Back in high school, when my state banned my kind of love and just after Matthew died, I never thought I’d be able to say, “I’m gay,” aloud, let alone “This is my wife.” Once I said it out loud, nothing in my clothing choices would hide me from those who would do me harm.
But I grew.
I realized everything we do is an expression of who we are, and having a backbone is important when other people question those expressions out of ignorance or fear or hatred. I’m comfortable in my long shorts and T-shirt, and it’s a comfort I’ve started prioritizing over the comfort of strangers looking at me.
When I got married, I didn’t wear a wedding dress – in any wedding fantasy I had as a kid, I couldn’t ever picture myself there in that role. Instead, I made the choice to wear a suit, no matter what my parents said. I went to Portland and had a beautiful, gray three-piece suit made for me, and with it I wore all-white Van’s.
Never before had I felt so bold, so free, and so much like myself. Even after divorce, that suit remains one of my favorite pieces of fashion I own, and I still wear the various pieces from time to time.
And you know what?
I look good.
edited by rachel.