Scott Herring teaches in the Department of English at Indiana University. He is the author of Queering the Underworld: Slumming, Literature, and the Undoing of Lesbian and Gay History.
23rd Annual Lambda Literary Award Winner
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.
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’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.