Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Heartlands: A Bibliography of Sources

I have written before about completing the large music commission I spent most of last year writing, both words and music. I'd hinted a few times at my sources. My touchstones. There are several musical touchstones I'll write about separately; this essay is devoted to LGBT touchstones that fed the creation of Heartlands.

The most important source, of course, was the men of Perfect Harmony Men's Chorus. It was their stories, their thoughts gleaned from writings they shared with me, and from the interviews we did together, that make up the core of Heartlands. Some of the stories were so good that I basically converted them into poetic lines and set them to music with little change. Other threads emerged from several different people telling different stories; stories that had common threads. Some of these threads were tangled in mood, and I set them to music that matched the experience, both light and dark.

The stories in Heartlands are about what it's like to live, to grow up, to survive, to spend one's life, as gay men in the Midwest, in the Heartlands of the center of the United States. Lots of gay men's choruses have commissioned works about the experiences of the men who make up their membership, but most of those I've heard haven't been on this topic, from this terrain, grown from the fruits of the lives of the men (and women!) who live by the Great Lakes, on the eastern edge of the Great Plains, the open Prairie. I'm a Great Lakes native myself, having lived in many places around the world, but mostly, and originally, in Michigan, Wisconsin, and other states that border on the Great Lakes.

There is a spirit here, in the Midwestern Heartlands, that I testify to be unique: different from the rest of the country, maybe not in kind, but in degree. Maybe only subtly, maybe strongly. The dominant economic and cultural tides of America are indeed on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and they do tend to ignore us here in the Heartlands, even referring to us disparagingly as the "flyover zone." To their loss and detriment, I am convinced. But that's whatever it is. People are who they are. Actually, the live and let live attitude is very Midwestern.

So, the core of Heartlands is the stories of the men in the Chorus, of what it is like to live gay in the Midwest, to grow up here, to go through life here. That's the core of the main narrative of the 19 movements of Heartlands.

There were other sources to my inspiration, though. Not direct sources, but contextual ones, which I call touchstones. This is a topic that in some ways I feel was inevitable for me to write, as it's one I've been thinking about, reading about, and writing about for some years. It's a story I've lived. It's my own story, as well as theirs. Some of my inspirations came from my own rather extensive library of LGBT books. Within my library is a small subset of books that are about rural gay life, about Midwestern gay life—a very small group of books, which is all that has been published about such lives.

Most LGBT publishing is about city life, the gay ghettoes in the big metropolises, which most gay men view as normative. I've gotten into more than one argument with citified gay men about this: that their city ghetto lives are not only the only way to live, it might not even be the most humane way to live. I've gotten into arguments with city fags about Brokeback Mountain, along these same lines.

It seems to me a lot of misinformation still exists among the LGBT urban ghettoes about life outside the city. I’ll spare you the occasions, true as they were, when I’ve been wilderness camping with gay groups miles from electricity, when someone complained about the lack of access to their blowdryer, refrigeration, or reading lamps; I’ll spare you the details, but I do have to wonder what they were thinking before agreeing to come along on such a trip.

In fact, many of us live in small town America, or rurally, and prefer it that way. By choice. Not because we can't live in the Big City, but because we don't want to. Myself included. My favorite places to live, in the many places I've lived in the USA, have been small rural towns, usually not too far from the big city cultural centers, but far enough away to be peaceful during the day, and quiet at night. I like to be surrounded by green growing things, and I like to be able to see the sky at all times. I like being close to the weather, to the land. I like the changing of the seasons. Just a short walk away from my home is a placid river I love; just a short drive away are the farm fields under the endless sky.

I'm not alone.

Anyway. In the mid-1990s there was a wave of books published about rural LGBT living. Shockingly, nothing like these had ever appeared before. Some of these books were the first on the topic, and have yet to be supplanted or surpassed. In fact, it seems to me that most of the city queers I know have forgotten all about it, all over again. So I now believe it’s time to clear that air, once again. I know I’m beating a dead horse, and yet it seems to me that it’s time for another wave of understanding to develop between urban and rural peoples, in general, and between LGBT groups in general. So, here’s a sampling of books that are still required reading, in my opinion, about rural LGBT life.

So here's a partial bibliography of sources about rural and small-town LGBT life. I re-read all of these books while working on Heartlands, and thus the stories therein contributed to the commission's context and tone and grace. Each of these a gift.

Will Fellows, Farm Boys: Lives of gay men from the rural Midwest. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996) If you only ever have time to read one book on growing up gay in the rural Midwest, read this one. It is one of the best books on the topic that I've ever read, and re-read. The book is divided into three sections, by decade—it is mostly a book of oral history, interviews, and memoir (some of it creative writing), and is mostly about coming-of-age as gay in the farmlands. There are stories in here of grinding poverty; a lot of death and sadness and loneliness; but also revelation, connection, discovery and joy. More than one man talks about living presently in the city, often for economic reasons, but wanting to move back to the farmlands and live rurally. The interviews are with adult men who grew up gay and rural, on the farm; which accounts for some of the book’s occasional tone bittersweet nostalgia; but there is also much wisdom learned at a young age. Many men speak with pleasure and pride of their accomplishments in farm and home activities, set within the context of a conservative social climate, rigid gender roles, etc. Farm Boys is revelatory, essential reading. It breaks the silence that has often fallen on gay rural life. Very highly recommended.

Michael Riordan, Out Our Way: Gay and lesbian life in the country. (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1996) This book is mostly oral history transcribed from interviews, conducted mostly in person. The treasure to be mined in this book is the incredible insight and wisdom of ordinary people you wouldn't look at twice at the county general store; proving once again that life itself is the greatest teacher of wisdom. One thing a lot of couples talk about is their mutual dependence upon each other, in the face of otherwise sometimes severe isolation. There is much discussion of the pros and cons of public displays of affection. There are many voices here, with many different experiences and viewpoints. The people interviewed here run the gamut from young to elderly, First Nations to Anglo, individuals to couple to communities, country socials to rodeos, and more. This is a Canadian book about Canadian LGBT people, and tremendously insightful reading. If you ever felt like moving to Yellowknife, read this.

Karen Lee Osborne and William J. Spurlin, editors, Reclaiming the Heartland: Lesbian and gay voices from the Midwest. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996) If you believe that, just because you're LGBT you need to pack your bags and move to one of the big cities on the coasts, think again. This book of poetry, fiction, essays, memoirs, and interviews, is all about living the USA's heartland. This isn't purely a rural LGBT book, as there are Chicago and Milwaukee writers in here, among others. But as we all know, all of us who live out here, we have more in common with folks in Chicago than we do with folks in New York City, much of the time. The editors of this book are self-conscious about their book being a "corrective" to the usual rhetoric that gay culture only exists in NYC or San Francisco or LA (or Chicago, which is a Big City often overlooked by those on the coasts), but the strength of the book is that it does represent real Midwestern values presented by real queers living in the real Midwest. I can affirm from when I lived in San Francisco, that there really is a uniquely Midwestern viewpoint and attitude about life. So, for me, the real joy of this book is in the poetry and fiction, which show rather than tell the reader what that Midwestern viewpoint is all about. There are about 60 individual contributors here, so you also get a wide range of viewpoints on several different issues, for example, being accepted by one's small-town parents, growing up in small towns, finding love out here, and more.

Darrell Yates Rist, Heartlands: A gay man's odyssey across America. (New York: Dutton/Penguin, 1992) This is a "road trip" book, a travel book, a post-Kerouac book, a book in the footsteps of William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways. I have a special bookshelf in my library for books on nomadics: road trip books, travel memoirs, books very much like this Least Heat Moon's, and this book. (Nomadics is my own word, inspired partly by Bruce Chatwin's excellent book "The Songlines," which remains a seminal book on the topic.) This book by Darrell Yates Rist, though, is a journey through sexual desire and identity. It's a road trip book that looks to find the gay quarters of each sector of the continental USA. So we meet a Mississippi drag queen, we visit the Denver Gay Rodeo, we meet a roughneck on the Alaska pipeline. Ordinary men leading ordinary lives, in small towns, in big cities, in rural areas, dealing with everything from mild discrimination to outright bigotry, but also luminous moments of comradeship and neighborliness. Some of the most memorable conversations reported in this book are in small-town roadside bars and diners. One of the themes that comes to the surface several times is how, despite our many commonalities around being gay, around AIDS, and so forth, we are still incredibly diverse, even divided, about so many other aspects of life. You meet in this book leftist activists and conservative rednecks, and more—people who share being gay in common, but about many other things completely disagree, be it politics, race, religion, or attitude. You come away from this book with a sense of the incredible diversity and differences among gay men, which is why it's so hard to get all gay men to form a unified political front to create social change. Rist concludes that one reason much of the activism seems to happen in the coastal big cities is because you can get together enough men of like attitude to agree on any form of action and ideology: you get a critical mass of interested bodies who will join in. It may not possible to ever create a unified, monolithic "gay culture" that agrees on what to do about gay rights; and Rist concludes that it might not be possible but it also might not be necessary. Just by living our diverse lines, wherever we are, we make ripples of change that spread outward—that's what he comes away with after all his time on the road, and it's a good message. Rist is a New York City writer, but he wears it lightly; he misses a few things about rural gay men, but he isn't judgmental. So, this is a big sprawling diverse unending inconclusive chaotic adventurous disturbing illuminating empowering book—rather a lot like life itself.

James T. Sears, Growing Up Gay In the South: Race, gender, and journeys of the spirit. (Binghampton: Harrington Park Press, 1991) This is a book critical to the understanding of gay youth, containing many individual stories and overviews. This is one of those books that could help prevent gay teen suicide, if it was more readily available; bullying is a frequent topic of discussion. There is a unique Southern culture, just as there is a unique Midwestern culture. But Southern culture still remains more homophobic, more closeted, than many other regions of the USA. This was a difficult book to read, and a sad one. Not all of the stories told—stories of rebellion, in most cases, as being LGBT automatically makes you a cultural rebel in,say, Georgia—end in triumph. Some end sadly, some have no endings, just as in life we just keep going. Politeness and discretion have always been prized in the South; but this can lead to willful ignorance, and worse. In many instances, in the days of AIDS, gays in the South are the new "niggers." There is hope for change—but change will come from the rebels whose stories are told in this book, and it will have to be won through struggle, as the grace and politeness behind Southern politeness is also the inertia of the closet.

Chris Packard: Queer Cowboys, and other erotic male friendships in nineteenth-century American literature. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) More than just a book of literary history and criticism, Queer Cowboys reveals a great deal about frontier and rural culture, not all of it dead and in the past. I've lived in Wyoming and New Mexico, and I can attest that frontier culture endures. Face it: If you spend a lot of time outdoors with no women around, even supposedly straight men become erotic with each other; this was accepted, if not widely advertised, on the frontier. This book documents the literature that suggests, hints, and reveals country homoerotic life (long before the word "gay" was used this way), is profusely illustrated with period photos, and is a fun read with a light touch. Packard's tone is light-hearted throughout, supported by thorough research. This book reintroduces to modern readers a forgotten culture of exclusively masculine, sometimes erotic, camaraderie between men of the WIld West. It reminds us that Brokeback Mountain was in fact not a new story, but a modern instance of a long-standing one.

Scott Herring: Another Country: Queer anti-urbanism. (New York & London: New York University Press, 2010) This book, which I discovered mid-way through writing Heartlands, is my topic in an academic theoretical nutshell. The book begins with the same premise as I did: by expanding queer studies beyond the city limits. The author counters the usual (and easy) assumption of metronormativity that saturates LGBTQ politics, criticism, and artwork, by examining queer rural art, media, photography, literature, performance, and fashion. He develops a theory of queer anti-urbanism that, despite the somewhat academic technical language used at times, very much matches my own experience. (I have no problem with academic theory-speak, being a recovering academician myself, but some readers may find themselves needing to consult theory primers such as Riki Wilchins' excellent Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An instant primer, which I highly recommend.) The history of the Radical Faeries, and R.F.D. magazine are touched on, as part of the origins of queer anti-urbanism. (Being affiliated with the Radical Faeries myself, I found a lot here that resonated with me, and many other Faeries I know.) There is a fascinating look a queer redneck white supremacists in the Deep South featured in photographs by Michael Meads. There's a in-depth study of Alison Bechdel's Dykes To Watch Out For and other writings, which points out how Bechdel's small-town origins have led her to always have a critical take on urban lesbian culture. Overall, this book is a mind-bomb. If you're a dedicated city fag, there's a lot you'll see by looking into this book's mirror that will make you re-evaluate yourself, and might even make you squirm. But that's all to the good. There is something essential in Another Country and its thesis that gay culture at large must talk about among ourselves, now more than ever in this age of reactionary political retrogression. Very highly recommended.

Melissa Harris, ed. Our Town. (New York: Aperture, 1992) An issue of Aperture, the premiere photography magazine, devoted to small towns, hometowns, rural life, and related topics. There is a tone here, in the writings accompanying the photographs, of Big City snobbery towards the "ruins" of small towns. The photo essays do a better job of it, giving us slices of life, tableaus of Midwestern rituals, with no comments, just photojournalistic rigor. This is in some ways a book I reacted against in writing Heartlands, presenting my own version of Midwestern life that is authentic, sincere, and un-ironic—a stance few New York commentators seem unable to take, or even understand. One of the attitudes that makes us the Midwestern Heartlands is a willingness to embrace sincerity and authenticity, and a suspicion of knee-jerk Big City irony, especially in the arts. Two essays in this volume are worthwhile, though: "Whose Town: Questioning community and identity," by Michele Wallace, which asks us to think about what we take for granted as our community, our origins, our hometowns: in our culture of people moving around from town to city following work opportunities, our culture that is at least always partially nomadic, Wallace asks: "How many family locations in history determine one's community? How many races determine one's ethnicity?" The other good essay here is by Nan Richardson, titled "The Fruited Plain," a look at how essential agrarian culture is to our national consciousness. The Heartlands of the Great Plains are also called the "breadbasket" of the world, supplying grain and produce not only to our own nation, but to large parts of the world. Richardson discusses how changes in farming practices and political policies have led to many rural communities shrinking, even dying out; she goes on to discuss how rural landscape photography (I include some of my own photographic work in this bucket) has taken on an advocacy role, a response to the loss of the family farm, not only elegiac in tone but also questioning the government policies that have led us down this path, and if it mightn't be wise to return farmlands from the large agricultural corporations into family stewardship.

Philip Gambone: Travels In A Gay Nation: Portraits of LGBTQ Americans. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010) This is a book of interviews, made with people from all strata of LGBTQ culture, although focusing mostly on artists, activists, and movers and shakers. What was valuable to me in writing Heartlands was the recollections by the interview subjects of their lives, both rural and not, the stories of living LGBTQ in all parts of the USA, in difference decades. Wisconsin's own Tammy Baldwin was a memorable interview here; so was George Takei, who I have to say is one of my personal heroes. Life stories with common threads to all our experiences.

Ron Fisher: Heartland of a Continent: America's plains and prairies. (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1991) This gorgeously photographed book, part of a series by the National Geographic Society on the United States. It's the sort of book NGS does extremely well: excellent writing accompanying evocative, even iconic photographs that tell us the story all by themselves. This is a contextual book for me, an overview of the land and culture of my part of the country, Plains and Prairies and Great Lakes. I live on one end of the Great Plains, and some of my favorite places, including Wyoming, are on the other end, at the feet of the Rocky Mountains. This book gives us a sense of history, of continuity, and of speculation about the future. It's good reading, full of local stories from the Heartland. Recommended.

Alison Bechdel: Fun Home: A family tragicomic. (Boston & New York: Mariner, 2006) This is one of the most memorable books I've read in recent years. It's a memoir and family history in the form of a graphic novel, by Alison Bechdel, of Dykes To Watch Out For fame. The story is of a young lesbian growing up in a small town in New England, and her complicated family life. The story is in many ways about the mysterious life and death of her difficult father, who may or may not have been having sex with men on the side, on visits to New York City. The story revolves around public presentation of self, and private reality, and how they often differ—as every young person growing up gay knows. Especially in small towns, where everyone knows everyone else's business, being "discreet" is a buzzword that means hiding, secrets, and lies. The was the story is told is elliptical, spiral, circling back to the same events from different perspectives as the narrator, Alison, thinks things through and creates narratives that make sense. This is a great example of the art of memoir, a beautiful graphic novel, and a disturbing yet satisfying story about family secrets and truths being revealed, at last. very high;y recommended.

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Anonymous Swanee said...

Good essay; some of it is true regardless of sexuality. As a recent re-transplant to the Midwest, I'm feeling a sense of belonging that I never realized was missing during 20 years in California (although it's probably no accident that the majority of my friends, and my ex, were from suburban or rural areas).

Oh, and Alison's next graphic novel is coming out (pun semi-intended) in early May, I think.

5:46 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Yes, some of it is true regardless of orientation. A couple of the books on this list had nothing to do with orientation, too. When I lived in Minnesota, it was no accident that most of my friends were transplants, too, many as you say suburban or rural in origin. Ditto when I lived elsewhere. Of course when I lived in Taos, it was both small arts town and rural, as it remains.

9:30 AM  

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