Mary Gray, the queer author of Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America and In Your Face: Stories from the Lives of Queer Youth,sat down for an Autostraddle interview about the lives of rural LGBT teens. Out in The Country shatters some stereotypes about life in a small town and reinforces others. I first discovered Gray’s work in a gender studies class and was excited to meet her when she visited Tulane University. In person Gray is warm, engaging, and incredibly intelligent— and um, really attractive! During our interview Gray discussed rural realities, queer identity claim making, violence, and the girls she couldn’t put in the book. In addition to research and writing, Mary Gray is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University, Bloomington. You can buy Out in the Country HERE
Chloe: Tell me how and why you conceived the idea of Out in the Country?
Mary Gray: I grew up in a small town and I was really curious by the time I grew what it would be like to stay put. I didn’t like it, I didn’t hate it, but I definitely got a sense that if I wanted my life to look different than what was around me I’d have to leave and go to school. I wanted to imagine what politics could happen in a hometown like mine.
What was the age range and socioeconomic status of the people you interviewed for Out in The Country?
I focused on folks who were 14 to 24. I wanted to mostly focus on people who were under 18 and didn’t have the means to leave. Most of the people I worked with were working class, working poor, either on social security insurance or they have service jobs.
How would you say the experience of female sex LGBT youth differed from male sex LGBT youth?
The young men who were gay identifying had a little more room to be fairly open about their identities. Several of them commented that it was something they had always been told they were, so it was no surprise to anyone when they came out. The men were always “the gay kid,” but I didn’t meet any women who said “I was always the lesbian.” I would argue a lot of that is because in terms of representative and visibility a lot of the representations we have are of gay, white men, which isn’t true for women. We really don’t have a consistent representation of what kind of room one makes for a lesbian or bi identifying women in popular culture. The biggest difference is that there’s an accessible public identity that was always pinned on young men but wasn’t available for young women.
Does that seem like a negative or positive to you?
Both. I think women weren’t constantly pressured to make claims about their identity. While the young men would often comment about being the one gay kid, they were also consistently harassed from a very young age. That wasn’t the case with women. People didn’t assume they were gay for being a tomboy or athletic. So women certainly talked about being able to fly under the radar. At the same time, most women in their communities the step after high school was getting married and they didn’t want that either. I don’t think they had the room to say, as part of their identity, this was or was not about being a specific guy. Particularly for women who really wanted to be with other women I think they felt conflicted about the lack of ability of settling down.
How did the community reaction differ for women?
Because women were not assumed to be hiding something nor did they have the pressure to come out, I think that affected how they were harassed. The young women who were the most gender nonconforming were the ones who got harassed the most. If there was the level physical violence that men discussed, they weren’t willing to talk about it. It’s tough to know what kind of violence happens to young women, who constantly have to prove something about their gender through their sexuality. Being physically available to men was a way of coping. I definitely know that some young women felt remaining sexually available to young men was a way of keeping the peace. That’s pretty violent. It’s tough to say in terms of harassment because young men talked about more stories of physical abuse but I think young women experienced a different kind of abuse.
That’s a good point because I think media representations of gay women and men are so different. Girls are ok as long as ultimately they’re performing for men, and that’s equally toxic.
Absolutely, I totally agree… And I think that’s precisely why there was some room given to homoeroticism between women, but only up to a point. The mentality is as long as it’s contained and has nothing to do with a relationship, we’re good here. I think that’s one of the places women struggled the most was, “how do I lay claim to specific identities and be part of a broader queer nation of women if I’m expected to act like a lady, marry, and be a mother”? I think things will really shift in the next decade or so because people won’t find it contradictory to be a queer women and a mom. It’s really rocking people’s world right now that it’s an option.
What factors do you think influenced the level of visibility?
I think the things that limited someone’s visibility were precisely the things that enabled it. The expectation that they’re going to be visible, out, loud, and proud was a testament to them. There was a group of guys who had a car with a rainbow sticker on it. Whenever they went through a specific county, they would peel off the rainbow sticker. I asked, ”Don’t you feel like your closeting yourself, doesn’t that feel demeaning that you can’t have your rainbow sticker on all the time?” One of them responded “I’m not less gay when I take the rainbow sticker off my car. I just know that if I have that in my car, I’m going to piss off people who are already angry at me.”
How did religion play LGBT experiences?
Many were ambivalent towards organized religion, but still felt a deep spirituality. Not too many of them seemed to be too broken up about not being in their church because I don’t think they necessarily associated their church with their sense of spirituality or religion… For the parents, I was surprised by how many of them turned to faith as a source of support for their children. One of my favorite families included a young person transitioning from female to male, whose mom was amazingly supportive woman. When I asked, “Where did your support for your child come from?” she replied, “You know, I’m a very religious person. God doesn’t make trash. So my child is not trash.”
What stereotypes or preconceptions about LGBT life in rural areas did you find most inaccurate?
The idea that everyone is going to be a hater. More often than not I found folks were either neutral or positive, and just didn’t have the forum to say they were absolutely fine with LGBT identifying people.
What negative stereotypes or preconceptions about LGBT life in rural areas were true?
Substance abuse. One of the things I didn’t write about in the book that I wish I had more courage to write about was recognizing how much of a problem methamphetamines and prescription pill abuse were, particularly in this age group. There are definitely folks getting no support that would give them the option of feeling hopeful. So that was pretty hard.
You said there were 7 girls that withdrew from the book. Is there anything in particular about their experiences that wish you could have written about?
If there was one thing I wish I would have been able to say, it was that young women in rural places carry a lot of weight and responsibility on their shoulders. I think they really have needs and in particular advocacy that we are woefully unable to provide, and I think sex and sexuality was a way for them to feel powerful and in control.
For more about Mary Gray visit her blog.