The Quiet Country Closet: Reconstructing a Discourse for Closeted Rural Experiences

By Garrett W. Nichols

Transcript of Garrett’s Screencast

I begin this presentation with a picture of a tattoo I have on my right forearm. The tattoo is of a twisted apple and comes from a passage in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio in which Anderson’s narrator describes “the twisted little apples that grow in the orchards of Winesburg.” He writes,

In the fall one walks in the orchards, and the ground is hard with frost underfoot. The apples have been taken from the trees by the pickers. They have been put in barrels and shipped to the cities where they will be eaten in apartments that are filled with books, magazines, furniture, and people. On the trees are only a few gnarled apples that the pickers have rejected. . . . One nibbles at them, and they are delicious. Into a little round place at the side of the apple has been gathered all of its sweetness. One runs from tree to tree over the frosted ground picking the gnarled, twisted apples and filling his pockets with them. Only the few know the sweetness of the twisted apples. (14)

The book is Anderson’s short story cycle about the peculiar characters that inhabit a small town in rural Ohio. The characters in his novel are like the twisted apples in the orchard. Imperfect and often out of place, they stay in the town, deemed too particular and twisted for the city, yet they possess a sweetness and tenderness specific to their lives and experiences that those in the city will never understand. I relate to these characters, even when I don’t always comprehend them, because I, too, am a twisted apple, and my tattoo is a way of telling myself a story, of constructing a tale out of the loudly unspoken discourses and conventions that inform my sense of history and identity, of finding and forging alternative ways of understanding who I am.

The first thing you should know about me is that I am very much alive. I am not dead nor am I suicidal. I have never been assaulted behind a bar, dragged behind a pickup, tied to a fence, or shot at in the woods. I tell you this because these are the things that are supposed to happen if you grow up gay in a rural small town. They are the things I was taught (though not necessarily told) would happen to me if anyone found out the truth about my sexuality. They are the dominant discourses about rural queerness, reinforced by tragically unfortunate and systemic incidents of hatred and homophobia that occur in rural America and attract the attention of the rest of the country.

American rural spaces have long been constructed in popular and academic culture as straight, to the extent that the existence of rural queerness has been a sticking point in traditional queer theories in which LGBTQ rural folk either do not play a part or are figured as fleeing to the safe anonymity of the metropolis. Recent work on rural and queer communities has begun to challenge this assumption, studying the rhetorical and communal practices of LGBTQ subjects who have no desire to flee their supposedly oppressive rural communities. Judith Halberstam’s work with the Brandon Teena archive, for example, interrogates the intersecting discourses of race, gender, class, and sexuality that permeate American retellings of the tragedy. She has also challenged what she calls the “metronormativity” of queer discourse that assumes that rural areas are too repressive and constricting for meaningful queer experiences and posits urban settings as the idyllic panacea for rural sexual oppression (36). Scott Herring similarly argues for a “queer anti-urbanism” that negotiates “the relentless urbanisms that often characterize any U.S.-based ‘gay imaginary’” (13). Most of the work being done to challenge this trajectory understandably does so by studying out rural queer folk, or at least those who are out enough to participate in research, but has yet to say much in the way of an analysis of closeted rural queerness. E. Patrick Johnson’s oral history project, Sweet Tea, brings the discussion to the overlapping influences of religion, race, and region and inspires my own project as I look for the influence of these critical factors on my own closeted upbringing.

Most of the work being done to challenge this trajectory understandably does so by studying out rural queer folk, or at least those who are out enough to participate in research, but has yet to say much in the way of an analysis of closeted rural queerness. When I read critical work like the kind done by Halberstam, Herring, and Johnson, I am grateful to see them challenge false binaries of urban and rural that structure so much of American and queer discourses; yet, I also feel slightly discouraged because, as necessary as their work is, I sometimes struggle to find a place for my own history within it. This essay and its accompanying visual presentation is an attempt to reconstruct a discourse about my own past. To be closeted in a rural community is to lack access to certain available discourses through which to understand one’s own experiences. I recognize that the closet takes on many forms and many gradations for different people. For me, the closet was totalizing and informed by intersecting dynamics of family, community, and religion. For example, because of mutually constructed bonds of trust and confidentiality, I knew that if I chose to come out, I would need to tell my family first; yet, I also knew that coming out to my family was impossible because of mutually agreed upon bonds of religious belief and practice. This double bind kept me completely closeted until I was well into my twenties and brave enough to tell them over the phone, two thousand miles away, while pursuing a Ph.D. in Texas; thus, my history as a rural queer youth is somewhat obfuscated by the specific structure of my own closet at that time.

This project imagines how one might reconstruct a discourse in the present through a bricolage of narratives and perspectives, both mine and others, in order to retell one’s experiences with closeted rural queerness. There were times that my ruralness and my queerness intersected growing up, but there were also times when neither had any bearing on the other. This project is composed of a collection of images and stories that sometimes reflect my own experiences, sometimes reflect the experiences I wished I had had, and sometimes reflect experiences that I didn’t understand. As I tell my own story and experiences in this presentation, I use the accompanying slideshow both to illustrate my essay and to provide the alternative cultural discourses through which I have constructed my own understanding of rural sexuality. They are a way of triangulating my own position in a discourse about rural sexuality that I have only recently been able to join in, a discourse that I lacked growing up because of my own experiences in a closet constructed out of religious, rural, communal, and racial norms.

I begin by remembering and examining some of the rural discourses that structured my childhood. These are not hidden in my hometown since rural pride and Idaho history are instilled in each of its residents through, among other things, school curriculum, annual festivals, community organizations, and the local newspaper. I was born and grew up in St. Maries, Idaho, a logging town of about 2,500 people in the Idaho panhandle. Neither of my parents had grown up in rural areas: my mom was raised in San Diego and Denver, and my dad came from a suburb of Detroit. They moved to St. Maries in 1979 when my dad got a job working as a forester for the state of Idaho. St. Maries is a town in which family ties are extremely important. Most of my classmates, for example, could name at least a handful of cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and other relatives who lived, worked, and studied in the area while I had no extended family ties to the community. This meant that even though I had been born and raised in St. Maries, I still lacked a sense of generational grounding to the area.

Many of my friends could also easily point to landmarks such as roads, buildings, valleys, mountains, and rivers with which they shared a last name. Mary L. Gray argues that “in a small town or rural area, family ties transform the strange or the queer into something (someone) recognizable. . . . The possibility of a local family connection gives every rural resident a claim to community membership” (39). Gray claims that rural LGBTQ populations, particularly LGBTQ youth, use these rhetorics of heritage and relationship in order to make claims for cultural inclusion and equality within the community. Her assertion that a possible family connection gives every resident a claim ignores the fact that each resident’s possible claim is weighted according to other strata such as race or class. In St. Maries, for example, the weight that one’s family connections have are often contingent on which family they are connected to. The names tied to the geography of the area are also the names of families who broker power in the region, while other family names can actually carry with them an unwanted stigma, and still others have little to no impact since they belong to unknown, unwanted, or ignored family histories.

I know now that many of the geographic names attached to the land are themselves erasures of an indigenous presence with which white residents are in a long-standing ideological battle for supremacy. This newspaper quote, for example, highlights the ongoing struggle between political leaders in St. Maries and tribal leaders with the Coeur d’Alene tribe, a struggle over land and water rights, cultural and political sovereignty, and racial inequality:

Comments made to tribal officers by Eleanor Buell and her husband, County Commissioner Jack Buell, on Sunday suggested a racial dimension to an ongoing disagreement between the tribe and Benewah County over control of the southern end of the lake. (Graman)

Half of St. Maries is divided by the current Coeur d’Alene Indian reservation on which the tribe has lived since time immemorial. The original land “where the old ones walked” encompassed over five million acres stretching across present day Montana, Idaho, and Washington, but, through a series of deceptive treaties with the U.S. government, it was reduced to its current 345,000 acres (“Official Site”). The existing reservation boundaries divide the town both geographically and ideologically to the extent that the tribe no longer officially will conduct interviews with the St. Maries Gazette Record because of its history of misrepresenting tribal members in its pages.

Since my dad is both a forester and a logger and also owned land on the reservation, he was acutely aware of the role that the tribe played in local and state politics, especially in land resource disputes. He believed strongly that the tribe’s past grievances with local, state, and federal governments should have little bearing on present politics, and, because his views were shared by the majority of the town, I spent very little time learning about the history of the land on which I was raised. The history of St. Maries, though, for all intents and purposes, began with its “discovery” by white settlers despite its location as a border town on the Coeur d’Alene reservation. It is essentially a history written to result in my hometown’s current demographic breakdown, which is, according to the St. Maries Chamber of Commerce, mostly white, mostly married, and mostly patriarchal. The town perpetuates this history through its stories and memorials to the past such as the town’s loggers memorial or tourism videos that proclaim the natural beauty of the landscape that were what “brought people here to begin with” (timberplus). St. Maries thus constructs its identity through certain specific discourses of race, colonialism, and heritage, discourses that inform the politics and community structures that all members of the town navigate from day to day. These are also the discourses that structured my childhood and early adulthood. I understood myself as a white boy whose parents were not native to the area (in more ways than one) but who were nevertheless welcome and active members of the community.

Because St. Maries does not have a visible LGBTQ community and because of my parents’ evangelical beliefs, nonheterosexual forms of sexuality often went undiscussed growing up, except when national political moments would intrude into our daily discussions. Because of the aforementioned evangelical beliefs, I also relied on the near absence of these conversations to keep my sexuality hidden from my family, my community, and myself. The only exposure I had to nonheterosexual identities was what I would see on television, in books, or in the movies, and, since these sources rarely if ever portrayed rural queerness, it was easy for me to understand my feelings as something both temporary and impossible. For me, homosexuality was a metropolitan or exotic concern, as evidenced by shows such as Friends or Philadelphia and the fact that Hawaii kept trying to legalize marriage between people of the same sex. Of course, whenever I could I also actively avoided cultural moments and conversations about sexuality because I was afraid I would hear something I couldn’t un-hear that might contradict my tenuously held beliefs about who I was.

My sexuality was not just something I didn’t talk about growing up, it was something I couldn’t talk about because I didn’t have any real reference points in the community or in my family through which to understand it; thus, it was especially confusing when I started getting teased and bullied for being gay as early as the second grade, teasing that continued almost daily up through and beyond high school and involved students, teachers, and other adults. I suppose my perceived sexuality marked me for this even though the bullying didn’t always take the form of taunts about being gay. Often I was also singled out for my interests, religious beliefs, body type, and general awkwardness.

There were moments in particular, though, that shaped my understanding of who and where I was. One took place in the locker room after freshman gym class, a site of heightened anxiety for me since I was not only expected to undress before some of the very same people who had a history of tormenting me, but I was also exposed to the bodies of these same people; thus, I made it my mission to change as quickly as possible so as not to attract unwanted attention as well as to avoid giving any unwanted attention in return. One morning as we changed, I had finished early and was bending down to pick up my gear when an upperclassman grabbed the back of my neck, shoved my head into his crotch, and told me in front of everyone that if this is what I really wanted to do, he would be happy to let me. I wrenched away from him red-faced and fuming but essentially powerless to respond since nobody else in the locker room, including the teacher, seemed to care.

What that moment brought to bear on my understanding of both my sexuality and my town was an awareness of discourses that said small towns were no place for queers. It wasn’t necessarily something I had understood as a thing at that point, but, after being violently shoved into the genitals of another student while everyone watched and nobody did anything, I was perhaps more aware of narratives that not only said these behaviors were expected but also appreciated. Matthew Shepard, a gay teen in neighboring Wyoming, was tortured and tied to a fence not long after my experience, and the subsequent media discussion about rural homophobia convinced me that if I ever disclosed my sexuality, a similar fate would inevitably befall me.

While this moment was traumatic, it was also pivotal in helping me situate myself in the community where I lived. I began to recognize the masculinist homophobic discourses that undergirded these actions and the discouragingly silent responses of those around. I also began to recognize my own inability to match up to the expectations of these discourses, and as I progressed through school, I began to take advantage of the town’s communal structures to test my own understandings of gender and sexuality even while I remained firmly closeted to myself and others.

Sherrie Inness remarks that queer theorists have long recognized that gay identity is “not constituted in a singular moment of ‘coming out’; rather, it is a lifelong process that is influenced by one’s community” (259). From my current vantage point, I can see how this understanding of sexual identity and performance was being played out in my hometown even though I had not come out (and wouldn’t at least for a decade) and there was no visible gay community through which I could construct an alternative discourse. It’s also a perspective I could see my own parents grappling with when I came out to them at the age of twenty-seven, as evidenced by this letter my father wrote me blaming my sexuality on too much feminine influence in the home and at school. “We are today,” he wrote,

a society that in large part has feminized our boys by allowing their mothers to raise them. This is not the way it used to be but in many cases is reality. The moms raise them while dad works, we send them to school to be taught by primarily female teachers, and society stresses the equality of the sexes instead of recognizing the differences. Should we be surprised by the outcomes?

It sometimes seems easy, in an It Gets Better world, to simply let our rural queer youth know that their futures will be bright even if their current lives aren’t. But as my experience suggests, growing up in a rural closet often precludes one from even hearing such messages, and when those messages do get through, it can be cold comfort to hear that it will get better with no explanation for why it isn’t already. In hindsight, my own attempts at fitting in were also strange attempts at understanding gender and sexuality by interrogating and sometimes accidentally challenging the structures that made them seem so easily assumed by others at home, at school, at church, and in town.

For example, my junior year I participated in a mock beauty pageant to raise money for a fellow student injured in a car accident. For the talent portion, I planned to sing “Build Me Up Buttercup” by The Foundations. Unfortunately, I lacked any sense of stage presence and was so afraid that my unmasculine body would betray me that I refused to move at all during rehearsals, and my performance seemed destined to be a low spot in the entire production. One of the teachers approached me, asking if I knew any other songs since this one just didn’t seem to be the right fit. At that time, the only artist whose songs I’d ever memorized was Aretha Franklin, and I said as much even as I knew that there would be no way I could pull off the Queen of Soul. I was told that I could lip sync and dress in drag if I wanted since other contestants were doing the same, but I knew that drag for me would not be the same as drag for the captain of the football team. His would be seen as parody and an affirmation of his masculinity. Mine, on the other hand, would be seen as homage and an affirmation that I didn’t have access to the right kinds of masculinities.

Still, I agreed to do it, dressing up as a waitress and syncing the hell out of Re-Re’s version of “Think” as performed on The Blues Brothers. Before the performance, I was terrified, worrying how I was going to face everyone at school the next day, how I would face my father who had once confronted me as a child about trying on some old costume dresses we had in the basement, how I would face my church who held an understandably dim view of these things. To my surprise, though, I found out that rather than being ostracized for my flamboyance, I was actually celebrated. People congratulated me at church the next day, and even my father said it was “funny.” Part of me wonders if few were surprised by my performance and therefore reacted in kind, or if perhaps the town was not as hostile as I’d been led to believe. When I recently returned home for a high school reunion, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my sexuality was not just accepted but was a nonissue to nearly everyone with whom I spoke, a response that could be a product of our times but that I suspect also reflects the town’s real concerns about sexual difference.

These are the experiences from which I draw my understanding of closeted rural queerness; they are the stories of a boy who was sometimes confused, sometimes depressed, often happy, a boy who sometimes felt divided by his loyalty to his town and family and his dedication to keeping a secret that he thought would alienate him from everyone. I experienced some bigotry and bullying, but with the perspective of age and distance, I can also see that my relationship to my community was more nuanced than a simple stereotype of rural homophobia can even attempt to explain, though I was happy to let it for many years.

I don’t know that I’m discovering anything new with this presentation, but this is the first time I’ve worked out the experiences of my life and put them into a context that feels true to what I believed and felt growing up in St. Maries. It’s incomplete, partly because one never finishes coming out of the closet. Eve Sedgwick has said that “there can be few gay people, however courageous and forthright by habit, however fortunate in the support of their immediate communities, in whose lives the closet is not still a shaping presence” (68). This is true, but I would like to add that there can also be gay people and straight people and many people for whom the closet can be reshaped by their lives. The closet can be a malleable structure, even after one has stepped out of it. My experiences growing up in Idaho have left an indelible imprint on who I am now, but those are the experiences of being white, of being rural, of being male, of being cisgender, of being gay. They are the experiences of loving Aretha Franklin, fearing locker rooms, being an oldest child, and having evangelical parents. And they are also the experiences of a twenty-seven year old, happily partnered adult male pursuing a Ph.D. and living in rural Texas, far away from his hometown but not so far that he feels alone.

Works Cited

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  • Nichols, Garrett. “Untitled Photograph of Boots and Bikinis Sign.” 24 Oct. 2011. JPEG file.
  • —. “Untitled Photograph of Idaho Landscape.” 12 Aug. 2004. JPEG file.
  • —. “Untitled Photograph of Meadow and Mountain.” 12 Aug. 2004. JPEG file.
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  • “Untitled Photograph of Matthew Shepard.” 16 Sep. 2008. The New York Times. Web. 13 Nov. 2011.

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