The Problem With Urban Gay Meccas
SOURCE: NYU Press
Scott Herring tells the story that most of us have heard: A young gay person grows up in a rustic, rural area, inundated with homophobia. All the while, they dream of a better life in the city, where they can surround themselves with other liberated gay people and define their own identity. It's those thoughts that get them through each day until finally, they move to the city, surrounded by those who accept them as they are, and live happily ever after. This story could be that of Constance McMillen, the teenager who was banned from her prom in Mississippi, defeated her school board in court, was whisked away to chat with Ellen Degeneres on her show, and received a $30,000 scholarship for her trouble.
After describing this familiar tale, Herring meticulously unwinds it with five chapters combining anecdotes and a theory he calls “queer anti-urbanism.” In the introduction to his book, Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism, Herring asks, “Why does 'hick' conjure a shameful rusticity?” (I suspect it’s probably because of the shame that gay people have felt in their lives living in those rustic areas.) He then points out communities across the United States that act as queer pockets of liberation, much like “gayborhoods” in cities do.
Arguing against “metronormativity,” Herring’s term for the idea of country bumpkin mouse being liberated after a move to the city, he provides a backbone to the argument that homosexual relationships can be had in rural areas. Metronormativity may sound familiar — it’s a play on “heteronormativity,” which dictates that heterosexuality is the normal sexual identity — it holds that gay people cannot be normal or liberated if they live in rural areas. Metronormativity also lends itself to upward mobility and whiteness, which he touches on briefly, noting that queer activist Audre Lorde never felt at home in New York City.
The book is straight out of a college sociology class; the words are a swamp you have to wade through, each sentence must be read intentionally. It is not a quick read, but once you get through all the big words, there are crucial questions that challenge gay urban culture. While the narrative of gay liberation in the city is common and familiar, the problem with it is that it alienates gay life outside of the city.
Herring highlights the artwork of Michael Meads, a photographer from rural Georgia. Two of the most striking and jarring pictures in the book include a photo of two men, both looking like stereotypical “rednecks” (one has camouflage pants on, the other a scruffy goatee and two pierced ears), standing very close to each other and in front of a confederate flag. The next picture is of the same two men, now naked and with one touching the other in a way that insinuates sexual energy. The photos knock the usual picture of two gay men on its back. They are not polished, groomed, or effeminate in the way that urbanized gay men are stereotyped.
Herring talks about “southern backwardness” in the same chapter in which he discusses Meads' work, and how it defines metronormativity. If a place is so lacking in cultural and social progressive values, how could two men live together freely? It seems counterintuitive. But that's the myth of the freedom of the city. Spaces outside of the city can be have LGBTQ communities; you just have to find them.
Herring’s argument seems to be that queers should be able to live in other places than the city with ease. There should be communities of queer people in each suburb and small town. Gay people need not flock the gay meccas in cities; they can stay in their own small, Southern, or rural towns. After all the queer theory and big words, his message is quite simple: Go out to the country and form your own community.
But there is a problem with Herring's argument: It's hard to tell if rural areas ready for the queer. There are pockets of rural queerness all across the country, but they are just that — pockets. Around those pockets are suburbs where kids grow up and think they are weird because they don't have feelings for boys like the other girls do. At the same time, it's not even an option to like girls. In queer city life, there is an option for girls to like girls or boys to like boys. And it isn't until you get to be around the other people who think like you, can you truly explore that.
Herring takes a look at The Advocate and the way it enabled the sun-glasses wearing, well-groomed, hunky man of the 1970s. He analyzes several Advocate ads, saying it “boilerplates a certain bicoastal stereotype of queer urbanism, one that naturalizes mid-1970s metro-norms.” The ad pictures a hunky man reading The Advocate with “What do 70,000 gay people have in common? The Advocate! That's what!” The author is critical of this ad, saying that it homogenizes gay culture. This ad gave hope to the commonality of gayness in a time when it wasn't accepted. The ad presents a possibility that there could be people like you in one town over, and you have no idea. It gives hope to those living in the closet.
The book attempts to disband metronormativity, and it raises good points. All gay people do not have fit into the cookie cutter definitions of the educated, sexy gay people in the city. They can be other things and live in other places. But the book also fails to mention the discrimination and experiences gay people have felt living in rural areas. Instead, it looks at the forged communities made and urges readers to consider an exodus to the country, but does not admit there is an almost intuitive tolerance that comes from living in a city. Herring paints a picture of what things could be like, not what they are.
Lisa Gillespie is a former staff writer for Campus Progress as well as the Managing Editor & New Media Director at Street Sense. She graduated from the University of North Carolina–Asheville.