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The popular narrative of gay liberation seems inseparable from the urban landscape. From the drag balls of 1920s Harlem to the Stonewall Riots to the devastation of HIV/AIDS, rural America’s participation in gay history is largely restricted to its renowned repressiveness, propelling gay men and women to coastal cities where they find tolerance and each other.
In Just Queer Folks: Gender and Sexuality in Rural America, Colin R. Johnson seeks to disrupt the story of rural prejudice and urban liberation with his account of rural America’s distinct contributions to modern sexual identities.
John D’Emilio’s landmark essay “Capitalism and Gay Identity” describes how postwar urbanization created opportunities for young, newly independent gay men and women to create sexual communities outside of the stifling effects of familial and small-town supervision. While paying respect to D’Emilio’s contributions to writing a history of American sexuality, Johnson relies on D’Emilio’s thesis as a foil for his own study.
Johnson might overstate the impact of D’Emilio’s essay to understandings of American sexual history, but the point that the majority of gay histories have been written by men who experienced urban gay liberation movements of the 1970s is well taken. In writing a history of sexual identities, Johnson sees a gap for the story of rural sexuality left by historians, including D’Emilio, whose writings were motivated by “historically specific political investments” (8).
Johnson’s goal is two-fold, and it drives the organization of his study: 1) highlight the rural origins of modern American sexual identities and 2) show how urban, mostly governmental, institutions targeted distinct rural sexual practices for reform.Throughout the period under study, the goal of these urban interlopers was to spread knowledge about proper sexual behaviour, which typically occurred between one man and woman united by marriage. Reformers were especially eager to eliminate bestiality, which was seen as the major problem in rural sexuality.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the eugenics movement sought to instrumentalize sexuality for the ends of idealized reproduction. Government and philanthropic investments in agriculture, largely through universities and research institutes, switched to eugenics in the 1920s and 1930s. Through their interest in using sex to ensure normative goals, eugenicists contributed to tying sexuality to reproduction, thereby aligning it with the goal of heterosexual reproduction.
Johnson claims that rural agriculture formed the baseline for eugenics research in America, but the shift in some research priorities from agriculture to eugenics does not add up to a convincing portrait of rural contribution to normative heterosexuality. Research into ideal animal reproduction existed before and continued after the eugenicist moment, and its link to heteronormativity is never satisfactorily fleshed out. Likewise, the association between sexuality and reproduction in America has remained strong, with some lapses, since the beginning of colonization in the seventeenth century.
The second part of Just Queer Folks focuses on the itinerant working poor of the interwar period. Popularly known as tramps and hobos, the men who drifted across 1930s America in search of work employed a lexicon for describing sexual relations between men that overlapped with prisons and urban environments. Despite this, much of the historiography of sexuality presumes the urban origins of terms like “wolf” and “punk” (used to describe the active and passive participants respectively in homosexual sex). Johnson makes us question the essential “urbanness” of early twentieth-century male sexual cultures by positing their rural origins in the same way Regina Kunzel argued we should make room for the distinct contributions of the penitentiary in Criminal Intimacy.
Just Queer Folks aims to illustrate the rural origins and complicate the story of rural prejudice not by showing what was so particularly “gay,” in the modern sense, about these places, but by revealing the array of sexual identities and practices that were accommodated across rural America before World War II. Combating “the insufferably cramped logic of modern sexual identitarianism” (18), Johnson defines his methodology as “queer historicist” as opposed to studying traditional social history, which sought to uncover traces of the present identities in the past. Just Queer Folks succeeds by finding an astonishing variety of “queer” activities in the past whose queerness has become illegible to us today.
The final two chapters—on the idealized male bonding of government work camps in the 1930s contrasted with the shame felt by rural women in response to feminine marketing of clothing and appearance from urban areas—illustrate why a queer historicist approach has expanded the range of materials to study sexual history. Sedgwick’s description of shame as a fundamentally queer affect allows Johnson to include “hard women,” the famous dust bowl era mothers with their broken shoes, bad teeth, and weather-beaten faces, in a story of queer rural history because normative femininity, conveyed to them through institutions and commercial marketing, rendered their womanhood perpetually uncertain.
While rural women’s claim to femininity was weakened by their geographic isolation, all male work in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps celebrated the hard work of rural life. Men lived communally,entertained each other with gender-bending performances, and celebrated the male physique honed by hard labour in body building competitions. Johnson attempts to make the point that because the hardened bodies of farm wives confounded gender norms, they qualify as a kind of “queer” figure, made to feel shame for their opposition to normative gender notions.
The men in CCC camps, in contrast to rural women, had their masculinity bolstered by their experiences in the CCC. Although their behavior reads as non-normative from the standpoint of contemporary sexual and gender norms, rural, government-sponsored work camps of the 1930s seemed to indulge aspects of it, including mock drag performances. The tolerance of certain “queer” practices in the CCC illustrates the rural origins of aspects of queer culture, such as 1950s physique culture, proving that rural America could even provide a refuge from intolerance. The CCC camps also reveal how the normative gender expectations of rural men and women resulted in divergent experiences, where the roughness of rural life left women feeling shame and men feeling pride.
Johnson’s Just Queer Folks expands the repertoire of sources available to historians studying American sexuality and, most importantly, convincingly argues that a queer rural history requires greater attention for its contribution to the development of modern sexual identities, as well as resistances to them. Although the scope of Johnson’s conclusions do are not always matched with equal breadth and diversity of sources, those sources consistently fascinate and surprise, and his readings of “hard women” portraits in particular display an agile working of queer historicism to chart new territory of historical investigation.
Just Queer Folks: Gender and Sexuality in Rural America
By Colin R. Johnson
Paperback, 9781439909980, 264 pp.