Oct 19 2009

New York City?!

I find it impossible not to throw on an accent (my version of the Texan variety) when I tell people I just returned from some book talks in New York City. I grew up with that Pace Picanté Sauce (“Pick up the Pace!”) commercial that jiggled salsa made in NEW YORK CITY was just blasphemous. Well, perhaps a book on rural LGBT and questioning youth seems equally out of place against the backdrop of Manhattan’s skyscrapers? But I can’t think of a better audience than the folks I met delivering talks for the Second Tuesday Lecture series at NYC’s LGBT Community Center and, later in the week, at Hofstra University. City dwellers are a key constituency I hope to recruit as I share the stories of rural LGBT youth working to improve their lives and those of their communities.

The LGBT Community Center talk generated some fantastic discussion about what urban queer organizers and advocates can or should do for their country cousins. While I don’t land anyplace definitive in the book, I argue that the lessons I learned from the youth I worked with can teach us all about the limits of statewide and national organizing that ignores the specific needs and contexts of rural communities. So my message is less about what rural communities “need” from city centers and more about what models of organizing they suggest for our collective future (BIG HINT: coalitional politics go much further than single-issue fights in communities with limited capacity to organize people, money, and political momentum).

Students and faculty at Hofstra University taught me how to translate the specifics of this case study on digital media and identity negotiation that, to date, I’ve primarily presented to LGBT-identifying non-academic types. My heart-felt thanks to the Hofstra faculty and students for pushing me to underscore not only the political but intellectual/scholarly implications of this work. I tend to downplay what I think I’m academically up to in “Out in the Country” and there’s nothing like a smart, attentive audience to remind me of the other conversations I hope to continue as I carry on this “Queer Country (http://queercountry NULL.fromthesquare NULL.org/?page_id=38)” book tour.

Lastly, thanks to Dr. Cynthia Chris for snapping this photo bookculture of my book stacked on the shelves of NYC’s Book Culture (http://www NULL.bookculture NULL.com/). There’s nothing like seeing a book you wrote living on a shelf someplace that isn’t in your own home.

Sep 3 2009

Review on Bitch Magazine’s blog and Wiretap

You know, every time I do an interview with a sharp journalist (like Mandy Van Deven (http://bitchmagazine NULL.org/profile/mandy-van-deven)), I learn a bit more about my own book. Mandy’s questions really pushed me to more fully articulate the lessons I hope this book offers LGBTQ activists and our allies.

When Mandy interviewed me for Wiretap Magazine (http://www NULL.wiretapmag NULL.org/stories/44464/) (and reviewed Out in the Country on Bitch Magazine’s blog (http://bitchmagazine NULL.org/post/of-queers-and-cowboys), cross-posted to the Feminist Review (http://www NULL.feministreview NULL.org/)), she captured one of the most important insights I think rural LGBTQ youth have to offer statewide and national queer organizers: until we grapple with the contingencies that shape the lives of rural LGBTQ youth and their communities, we cannot effectively move a national LGBTQ rights agenda forward. To substantively change the day-t0-day lives of those living beyond or rendered invisible by urban queer scenes, we must radically rethink the unexamined urban and classed biases that animate much of our political work.

While we’ve attended to Harvey Milk’s credo “move to the nearest city” we haven’t given as much attention to the importance of Milk’s other political legacy: a deep commitment to finding common cause and prioritizing coalitions to advance an issue that encompasses–rather than narrowly targets–our own. It is not politically enough to tell people they should care about our issues. The day that LGBTQ community organizers dedicate as much energy (financial and human) to the fundamental needs we share with rural communities (access to healthcare, for example) as we do securing specific forms of social recognition (marriage equality, for example) will be the day that the gay agenda really does take root in the rural United States.

Aug 30 2009

Podcast of latest talk

Hi everyone,

A few friends (and relatives) out in Dallas, Texas, may have heard me on NPR-affiliate KERA 90.1FM’s Think w/ Krys Boyd Wednesday August 26th. For those who missed the program (which was WAY fun), you can check out the podacast of the hour-long, call-in show archived here (http://podcastdownload NULL.npr NULL.org/anon NULL.npr-podcasts/podcast/77/510036/112280019/KERA_112280019 NULL.mp3?_kip_ipx=1762292935-1251655965). I received my first crank call a few days later. A man with a twang not unlike my own phoned me, asked to speak to Mary Gray, argued with me that I didn’t sound like Mary Gray, and told me “Steve heard you in Dallas…you know he’s moved in with him.” It didn’t make any sense to me either. But he sounded peeved. I told him since I didn’t know who he was and I knew who I was that I would hang up now. Nothing says “recognition” quite like a crank call.

Aug 27 2009

Meeting Fred Phelps of “God Hates Fags” fame

I actually met Fred Phelps shortly before I moved to Kentucky to start my initial research for what would become Out in the County. For those unfamiliar with Westboro Baptist Church minister Fred Phelps and his church congregants (reported to be made up entirely of his extended family), they have made a name for themselves toting “God Hates Fags” signs around the country to protest events ranging from Matthew Shepard’s memorial service to funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq.

I was a graduate student in Communication at the University of California, San Diego at the time. I was in Lawrence, Kansas, for the first Association of Internet Researchers (http://aoir NULL.org) conference (they’ve grown into a great group of digital media researchers and will celebrate their 10th anniversary this year). Little did I know that Fred Phelps would be in Lawrence that same weekend (and me without a proper counter-protest outfit to wear). I thought he was your garden variety false prophet crackpot until I spotted the “God Hates Fags” signs. This was 1999, only a year after Matthew Shepard’s murder in Wyoming. Every queer activist knew about the “God Hates Fags” guy but I didn’t know the name of the person behind the sign until that day. He was on campus protesting…well…it was hard to decipher what exactly he was protesting. Some of his signs said “Gayhawks” so my guess was that he thought the University of Kansas Jayhawks needed to man up or something (just teasing Jayhawks fans).

Anyway, it was wonderful to see so many college students buzzing around Phelps challenging his biblical condemnations of homosexuality and generally letting him know his spew was not welcome on their campus (gotta love college students for their penchant to respectfully talk back to grumpy old white men). Like so many agitators who traffic in hyperbole, Phelps’ thin-lipped smile betrayed the deep satisfaction he seemed to draw from all the attention. He stood on a concrete step, in strikingly bright, white gardening gloves clutching his golden oldie “God Hates Fags” day-glo orange sign and basked in the hatred. Before the party broke up, I managed to grab one of the young progressive passers-by and have my picture taken with Phelps (but for the life of me! I can’t find it–I will keep looking and hopefully post it later).

Truth be told: Phelps is a godsend to LGBT organizing. He makes homo haters embarrassed of their hatred. Who wants to stand next to someone who brandishes signs like “Thank God for Sept 11” or “Fags Burn in Hell?” as his followers did in Boyd County, Kentucky back in January 2003. In Chapter 3 (School Fight! Local Struggles Over National Advocacy Strategies) readers will find a discussion of one community’s struggle over accepting the presence of a gay-straight alliance (GSA) club at the local high school. Area churches held rallies in the town protesting the club. But, when Pastor Fred Phelps’ clan traveled from Topeka, Kansas, to launch their own protest (not of the GSA but of the local churches for allowing the club to form in the first place), the local Commission on Human Rights office (an office established in 1960 in Kentucky to monitor and prevent job discrimination based on race) organized a rally. Dubbed the CommUnity Rally, the event attempted to challenge state and national depictions of rural Kentucky as simply homophobic and narrow-minded, protest the Westboro Church’s presence, and condemn discrimination of all kinds in their county’s small towns. Interestingly the CommUity Rally stopped shot of publicly advocating for the gay-straight alliance but praised the youth involved in creating it (the GSA’s youth leaders were conspicuously absent from the rally’s line up of speakers).

The presence of Fred Phelps was just what the town needed to sort out who was the more abhorrent stranger. These kids might be queer. But they were Boyd County’s queer kids. In fact, some residents a few counties away used the Phelps’ Kentucky visit to fundraise for their own community groups working with LGBTQ youth. They collected pledges of nickels to dollars for every minute Phelps’ group stood out in the January cold waving their signs.

And, as important, the CommUnity Rally was an opportunity to redeem the town’s reputation as a tolerant and accepting place (the limits of its success and links to a history of attempts to name and address discrimination against racial difference will have to wait for another blog entry). While uncomfortable recognizing and naming the queer difference in the room, the event’s organizers used the logic of familiarity and the language of civil rights to demonstrate the community’s embrace of all locals and repudiate any stranger coming to condemn their own.

Thanks, Pastor Fred. Keep up the great work.

Jul 24 2009

You’re in Queer Country now.

Welcome to Queer Country, the blog counterpart to Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America (http://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/gp/product/0814731937?ie=UTF8&tag=np050-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0814731937) (published by NYU Press in 2009).

What this site is about?
This site is (hopefully) not your typical blog. Sure, you’ll find reflections from me about the current state of all things rural and queer that build on the stories discussed in the book (and more on those stories in future blog posts). You’ll also find resource lists and blog rolls of interest to rural queer and questioning youth—those tweens, teens, and early twenty-somethings living beyond the bright lights of a BIG CITY who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer or who are unconvinced that heterosexuality and gender norms are right for them. Queer youth, allies, and advocates might find Queer Country a great place to poll queer peers, swap organizing strategies, or let others know about the work they do. But, ultimately, the goal of Queer Country is to create a space for rural queer and questioning youth to share their stories with each other and those who value their take on life out in the country.

What type of stories should people post to Queer Country?
Out in the Country discusses my experiences working for nearly 2 years in rural parts of Kentucky and in small towns along its borders. I researched what it’s like for queer young people who forego or never make it to the gayborhoods of the BIG CITY. I examined how queer youth and their allies make use of peers, new media, and local resources to combat the marginalization they contend with in their own communities as well as the erasure they face in popular media about gay and lesbian life and the agendas of national gay and lesbian advocacy groups. But Out in the Country is just the first chapter. Queer Country is Part 2 and you are its co-authors.

I’m inviting Queer Country readers to submit their own stories—whether it’s to say the events in Out in the Country reflect your own or to add something completely different and unexpected to the mix.

Out in the Country offers examples of rural LGBT organizing and the lessons they hold for campus, statewide, and national advocacy more broadly. My hope is that conversations about the book will spark debate here about how those invested in national gay and lesbian political work can better address the needs of rural communities. I want Queer Country to bring together the audiences I had in mind when I wrote the book: LGBTQ youth, communities, and our advocates.

I hope you’ll use this blog to expand the boundaries of Queer Country. Email queercountry@gmail.com and tell readers what it’s like out in your rural queer corner of the world.

Jul 16 2009

The Book

Pre-order Here! (http://www NULL.nyupress NULL.org/books/Out_in_the_Country-products_id-11057 NULL.html)

From Wal-Mart drag parties to renegade Homemaker’s Clubs, Out in the Country offers an unprecedented contemporary account of the lives of today’s rural queer youth. Mary L. Gray maps out the experiences of young people living in small towns across rural Kentucky and along its desolate Appalachian borders, providing a fascinating and often surprising look at the contours of gay life beyond the big city. Gray illustrates that, against a backdrop of an increasingly impoverished and privatized rural America, LGBT youth and their allies visibly—and often vibrantly—work the boundaries of the public spaces available to them, whether in their high schools, public libraries, town hall meetings, churches, or through websites. This important book shows that, in addition to the spaces of Main Street, rural LGBT youth explore and carve out online spaces to fashion their emerging queer identities. Their triumphs and travails defy clear distinctions often drawn between online and offline experiences of identity, fundamentally redefining our understanding of the term queer visibility’ and its political stakes. Gray combines ethnographic insight with incisive cultural critique, engaging with some of the biggest issues facing both queer studies and media scholarship. Out in the Country is a timely and groundbreaking study of sexuality and gender, new media, youth culture, and the meaning of identity and social movements in a digital age.