I had never experienced a rural environment until I visited my boyfriend’s family in rural Arkansas. He grew up in Rudy, a town between a cow farm and a chicken farm. Rudy has a population of sixty people, which has slowly dwindled in the past decade. Everyone knows each other, if not by name then because they see them at family reunions. Having experienced minimal hate in my inhabited environments for being queer, I was surprised yet unsurprised by the hate that my boyfriend Cam had experienced there growing up.
He’s told me stories of “exercised straightness” through conversion therapy and excommunication by church and family. These are southern stereotypes I have sadly found to be true. But I experienced understanding and was welcomed when I had visited with him. Cam’s identity was formed here, whereas I am only witness to the result. The stories of his hookups and chance encounters are painful and beautiful. They make the environment itself become queer, delineating where these encounters happened as queer spaces.
There is so much land and so much to witness and take in. Cam’s family lives on their own property, on top of a mountain surrounded by bluffs and valleys. They hunt, they fish, and they discipline the land. It’s a fascinating thing to observe. There doesn’t seem to be a correct way to do this either. Every aspect of life here revolves around family and community and tradition. The masks of masculine and feminine identities are clearly designated, and the binary seems easily dissolvable, because they are only facades.
Cam knows things about the trees I could never learn or understand. He sleeps more calmly here, and so do I—everything is still. It seems as if pain dissipates here, because with the amount of uninhabited land, days pass the same but the environment changes often. Animals are everywhere, heard and seen. We hear coyotes at night and see deer during the day. I became accustomed to the chickens’ roosting habits, because they were always routine—just like everything else. The same tree, the same cock and hen on the same branch every night.
Relaxation is different here. Sleep and work are equally important. Cam’s father makes a living by doing handy work for family and friends year-round. His mother often helps, and they vacation often throughout the countryside in their luxury camper. Sex is different, less inhibited, because competition has evaporated. I feel alone, especially as a queer person in a viscerally gender strict environment—especially staying on a dirt road surrounded by Cam’s parents, uncles, and grandparents. But within this patchwork environment of farmland and loose-land, there are many unseen things as well as often seen but unrecorded things.
There is a small bookstore on a downtown strip just below the mountain that sells old, rare, and new books. I found a book titled “The Homosexual” from the 50s (a first edition) tucked away on a shelf, and one titled “The Joy of Gay Sex,” as well as gay erotic stories and erotica. Who had these books in this area, and who would get rid of them? I find this amazing and beautiful: the amount of unseen that is still here within this very American landscape. The environment becomes queer because of the significant overuse of masculine and feminine iconography. Deer antlers, guns, camo, bedazzled hats and jeans, straight highlighted hair, cheetah print, giant sparkly cross necklaces; these gender signifiers are everywhere. It seems as though there is so much left out—especially now living in New York City—there are so many layers between these strong identity visuals. These layers are present though; they just take some digging and observing. It is a tiring yet alluring endeavor.
(MORE IMAGERY IN PRINTED MAGAZINE)