This weekend I went to the first ever “Rural Freaks” conference at Arkansas State in Jonesboro, AK. It was a bit tricky to get there, as rural spaces often are, but the organizers were fantastic about organizing rides and hosts, and I had an amazing time. I greatly appreciate all the work that went into organizing the conference and making sure that folks could make it.
The keynote was J. Jack Halberstam, who did a talk revisiting a Queer Time and Place. While I enjoyed the recap, it seemed like it was mostly a summary of that book. There were moments when I thought yes! that’s exactly right. I love the way that Halberstam puts together words and ideas. For example he made a really important point about understanding the context of various identities and the way that changing ideas about gender and sexuality have an impact on what is seen as possible. For example, people who we might call transgender today did not have the same access to identities and medical transition in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, and thus their life trajectories are shaped differently than youth today who have access to a different type of language and medical options. Halberstam also answered a student’s question about why he is against gay marriage with a clear, wonderful, compelling description of the way that we should re-conceptualize relationships and kinship outside the norms of marriage, blood and capitalism. On the other hand there were other moments when I was frustrated by the disconnect between the theory of representation that he was discussing, and the lived realities of trans people’s lives.
I know that he is primarily a cultural theorist, and I believe that critical engagement with media representations and literature is incredibly important, but I think that it also needs to be connected to trans communities. He made a comment for example about the fact that the gender-neutral pronoun”they” is ugly, and grammatically incorrect, and that he doesn’t agree with its use, which was frustrating and erased genderqueer youth’s identities, and doesn’t acknowledge the present reality and the way that language and non-binary identities are shaping the current trans community.
On the first full day of the conference Halberstam gave another talk, presenting a chapter on memoirs about falconry which will be in his new book on Wildness. This really show-cased his literary background, and I am interested in reading the book when it comes out, especially as there will be a chapter on the Wild Child. After his talk I approached him and asked him if he ever read “My Side of the Mountain” and he was very excited about that recommendation, which was cool.
Overall this conference was fabulous. It made me feel re-invigorated about research and academia and queerness, and I loved how diverse the presentations were. It was wonderful to meet undergraduate students, grad students, independent researchers, and faculty who all have work that connects to rural queerness in some way. I was very impressed with Ced Block, a senior from GW who presented on Rae Spoon’s documentary “My Prairie Home.” They gave a great break-down of what metronormativity means, and I think that I may have a new favorite musician in Rae Spoon. There was a scholar from Australia, Guy Kirkwood, who presented on the McKoy conjoined twins from the late 19th century, and a scholar Jorge Venegas, from Mexico who presented on the Nahua communities of San Luis Potisi. It made me think about how important it is to consider non-western ways of thinking about gender and sexuality. I also had a great time talking with Jorge–it gave me a chance to practice my Spanish, he has visited Zinacantan, and he knows my granddad’s close friend! It is a small world!
I also really enjoyed the work of Paul Brenin, an artist whose work explored his relationship to his family and religion in regards to his sexuality, and think that the work of Rachel Garringer is doing with the oral history project “Country Queers” is really important. I appreciated that Rachel sees the academy as a possible place for work like this, (she is doing her masters degree), but she said that ultimately she is not invested in the academy, but rather the communities that she cares about and works for. Finally, it was interesting to learn about social nudism from the perspective of Leslie Owens–who had the tricky job of presenting about nudism within a state with anti-nudist laws!
The conference also served to remind me of particular resources and texts, like Scott Herrings “another country” and introduced me to new ones like “Rednecks, queers and country music.” I can’t wait till I get a chance to read that last one! It is wonderful to realize that there are lots of people doing work on rural queer identities and that in the past ten years we have moved away from the binary understanding of rural = homophobic, and city = gay mecca. I look forward to exploring this topic further in regards to my own personal experience as well as the work that is being done by other queer scholars.
Finally–stay tuned for the paper that I presented, which I will be posting here.