Amanda Tinkle: Yeah. And it seems like even the LGBT community like um talked about has like evolved into being more inclusionary and having more labels. And I I always thought that it was curious how there's such a broad spectrum of people, you know that this community and I'm sure that there is conflict within that community as well because it's so broad and they're so different with trans rights and then um lesbian and gay rights and then also a sexual and intersects and all these different kinds of things within this one community. And it seems like the commonality is just that difference. They have that difference in the love of one of the recognition of that even throughout history up until now. And I think that's wonderful. They are able to build communities on that.
Johnson: And I think there's a hope. I– I honestly sometimes– I think it's a naive hope, but it's you know, hope springs eternal. I think there's this thought for all the differences in that– in the kind of LGBTQIA+ community broad– as broadly understood as possible. I think there's always a hope that people will be able to think kind of laterally they'll be able to think by for example, you would think that people who are persecuted because of the kind of consensual sexual behavior that they were engaging in with somebody else would also be able to understand and appreciate how oppressive it much feel for example for a sexual folks who feel stigmatized because of the fact that they don't have– they have a different kind of relation to sexual desire, right? But they;re nonetheless marginalized and persecuted in somewhat stigmatized, because of the fact that they– they don't have the same the kind of right kind of sexual desire according to dominant norms.
And there's always this hope that people will be able to look at that and say these are different situations but they are analogous in some regard. And the fact that they're analogous should mean that people have this experience and know what this is like… can feel compassion and empathy and an investment in the kind of injustice that has been done to the– to other people. And I think that's one of the great strengths of the LGBTQ+ community is that there are a lot of different experiences. There's a lot of opportunity to think laterally and and kind of analogically in that way we don't always succeed where it's like if you can understand what it's like to be persecuted because you're you know, uh, you know, a gay man– why can't you understand? Or at least have some investment in the injustice for example, that structural racism is inherent in people. Even other gay men or lesbians or whatever. There's always this hope that people will be able to extend their kind of empathetic capacities enough to care about issues that are quoted quote not their own. Sometimes we've been very successful at that, sometimes less so, but it's an ongoing struggle.
Kate O’Brien: No, I think this is a really good point, and– and one that has also been heavily talked about and continually needs to be talked about, quite frankly, because the community is very large and– which is great, which is great. I'm honestly very glad for it, but it also does leave room for debate and obviously we all have opinions about that and and can argue what kind of debate we need in the queer community and what kind of debate and there should not be there when we should definitely be arguing through some different things, per se. But I think it's important to be able to talk about that and be like, yeah, like this is I think we should extend how much we care to– beyond ourselves, because this is a big topic… like, this isn't going to get better if we just solved one thing, this is gonna get better if we help everything that we can. And so I think it's a really good– I think it's a really good topic. It's such a big topic.
Johnson: We could sit here for like hours probably have the conversation of like this and this and this because I guess, and the other thing I would say is it's it's they're also not unrelated like the history of racism in this country is not unrelated to the history of homophobia, which is not unrelated to the history of sexism, which is not unrelated to the history of all that equality and you know, class oppression, like they're related things not just kind of know emotionally, but literally people borrow from, you know, forces, they learn oppressive forces learn from one another and they export the logic, you know, of one form of oppression in order to kind of weaponize other discourses against other people. You know, I think it's one thing to talk about that kind of expansion of concern as an exercise in empathy and exercise and kind of ethics and exercise and even political self interest, right? Like, like political struggles are kind of one through coalitions often.
And so it's in your interest to figure out how to kind of work alongside people towards whatever the baseline, shared goals are and then to support other people in the pursuit of their goals, right? But it's more than that. It's literally they're tied to–together historically in terms of how certain kinds of mechanisms of repression are kind of forged and remade. And so it's– it's not just an exercise in empathy. It's really an exercise in understanding the origin of the struggles that I think anyone who either is or feels, you know, kind of marginalized under sir, pushed out not included. Those histories are complex and they're there, but they're related in demonstrable ways.
Amanda Tinkle: That's a really good point, especially to talk about just definitely how combined this all this because I mean, this is all built into history and this has been so intertwined for so long that if we try to unravel one part, we're going to find another. And so I think that's really important to have that discussion. I will say before we run out of time, we can talk about the one thing that everyone can relate to living in a rural town.
Kate O’Brien: In fact, your book “Just Queer Folks: Gender and Sexuality in Rural America,” talks about queer identity, especially how it functions in a rural America and sort of what that means. I feel a lot of queer media has been very sort of… like, big city: New York City, California, very big cities, very– urban is the word I'm looking for. Very urban– talking about rural American queer identity, can you talk about sort of like the things that you found and maybe how curious actually is navigated in rural communities? I feel like people have some indication of that… it may not be talked about as much, but I'm kind of curious to see sort of what you found with all this research and sort of what came out of learning more about this.
Johnson: So let me ask you a question, because you said something really interesting, that I think is actually related to one of the things that I found, which is you said, you know, you live in a smaller town or in a rural area and things and people– things aren't talked about as much. Is that the same thing, however, or in your experience is that the same thing as saying, people don't know that it's there because…
Kate O’Brien: I'm... not sure that I feel like a lot of people assume that it's not talked about in rural communities and I don't want to put that down as a definitive like, yes, it is because there are a lot of world towns in the United States and they're all very different. They have– all cities have their own culture, no matter what happens, even even little northern Indiana where I'm from. And so I think it varies I think, and I think it varies because some people may know nothing about it and some people may know stuff about it and talk about it or may know things about it and choose to say nothing about it. And so I think it's a variety when it comes to all of that because we are not one set group of people. We are vastly different.
Amanda Tinkle: Yeah. I think that in my rural town experience it's mostly this is a generalization I guess. I would say it's not talked about because I think people would rather ignore those kinds of conversations. So it's a choice that they make to just kind of act like it's not there or if it is, you know, kind of just brush over that kind of, I didn't.
Kate O’Brien: I think it also strongly depends on background.
Johnson: Right. It absolutely is. I mean, you're both pointing to– and Amanda I will say it's– it's partly the brushing over it. Part that I found really interesting in my research because one of the things that I found was that even going back into the 19th century is– I would find these… sort of discussions of people in small towns and communities who clearly were the way they had organized their lives was clearly not in the mainstream. They had not done certain kinds of things right? Like they were, they had not married at 18 and formed families and had children and, you know, all this other stuff. Right. But they're still very much part of the communities of which they were apart mostly in– in– in– in a lot of cases because they had been born there, they had been raised there. Everybody knew them from the time they were, you know, zero years old until in some cases they were seven years old. And one of the thing, it's really interesting that was always really interesting to me. So, you could tell that even in the terms of these communities, you know, people were aware of the fact that they were different in ways that had something to do with how they inhabited their bodies in a gendered sense or what kinds of, you know, intimate or sexual relationships they had or didn't have. There was this very clear sense that whatever else was true, these people were not like everybody else. But what I found fascinating was very much to the point you were making is they all have very particular ways of accounting for that, right? So one of the things that I find so fascinating about kind of world where history is human beings are when something is familiar to them for one reason another, right?
Like, “I went to school with this person since I was, you know, four years old, I know them,” that when you have those kinds of intimate local connections, bonds to people because you live in a town of 500 people and everybody knows everybody's business. And also people have an– an extraordinary capacity, not just to sort of make allowances or to forgive the behavior of their neighbors. If those people are considered to be kind of more them, you know, part of their community than not, it's not just about allowance. It's also about the kind of rich ways that these communities and people themselves would go about explaining the way their lives were organized, right? People would not come out and say those are local lesbians, right? They would not do that for various reasons. Although frankly, people wouldn't do that in most contexts, they wouldn't do that in cities either, right. They would point to two women who live together and say who as far as I can tell them. In some cases, I was able to kind of corroborate had, you know, sexual intimate relationship, they would point to them and say, “well, they're school teachers, so it makes sense that they would live together and have lived together their entire lives,” right? Why? Well, because there are school teachers. So if you did right, and it was just like, that's their function in the community, right? They– these are two women who are schoolteachers and they've always been school teachers. And apparently in that universe, school teachers aren't supposed to have like, you know, or don't you don't have to talk about what their same-sex living arrangements mean, because the fact that their school teachers Explains everything right? And in many cases, our much beloved members of the community, like they have this way to account for how people function in the community and how their lives are organized. That is just extraordinary.
And some people would look at that and say, well, that's clearly inauthentic deception. Like these people are not, you know, they're not out and fighting against whatever. I mean, I'm talking about the 19th century, so there's not a lot of that running around anyway. But even more recently, absolutely. That would be viewed as a kind of bad and authentic, not politically mature relation to same sex intimacy or gender nonconforming or whatever. And I think that's the wrong way to think about it, right? There's a lot of utility to coming out being public being politicized, being resistant in the way that I think is more familiar to us, but the actual history of that experience of organizing life around, you know, same sex intimacy of being gender, nonconforming and kind finding a way to live under the circumstances where you find yourself is as much a part of LGBTQ+ history, you know, history is anything, it has a lot of genius wrapped up in it. One of the tensions in gay and lesbian history specifically, that's always been there is this story about, well, people would move to cities and they would, for example, build vibrant sexual subcultures, right? That were the foundation than for the emergence of kind of the modern gay and lesbian community queer community. Um, so we're talking about bars and all sorts of other things where people could find one another where people could sort of see themselves as being part of the same sexual subculture. That was read as this evidence of kind of urban America's amend ability where the kind of growth of queer life was concerned and that's true. It is also true that those institutions were routinely raided by police and people were unceremoniously thrown in jail in places like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, everyplace else, whenever there was a mayoral campaign going on and somebody wanted to make a point about cleaning up, you know, the kind of undesirable underbelly of American cities that rarely happened in small town.
It was very rare for people, you know, kind of mid life to be arrested and thrown in jail for, for anything. And part of the reason for that was it's a lot easier to arrest somebody who's a stranger to you at a bar in midtown Manhattan on suspicion of doing something, you know, the Office of Anti-Vice control console to be undesirable on a particular thursday evening than it is to march in and arrest the person who's the son or daughter of the largest landowner in the county, you know, or or the person that you've known from the time you were in grade school, you know, primary school, it's just like, so my argument about kind of rural, small town life has always been that the things that make from a kind of modern perspective that made it difficult to to be queer in one sense or another in small towns and rural areas:
The fact that everybody knew you, the fact that, you know, everybody knows one another's business, the fact that it's very hard to like go out and meet somebody, you know, um and strike up an intimate relationship with them or whatever, you know, find a partner or whatever it is, you want, all the stuff that's supposedly easier to do in cities, all the stuff that made it hard to be queer in small towns and rural areas also made it possible to be queer in small towns and rural areas, right? Because you have the protection of your family in many instances, you have the protection of lifelong relationships with people, you had this sense of, well they may be weirdos, but they're our weirdos. And so we've found a way to live with them. But you know, will protect them from somebody else. Some outsider coming in and trying to pass judgment on them… people can be very censorious of people in their immediate orbit and do not at all like other people speaking ill of them, right? Because it's a reflection on them. So it's act attention, which is very different than all queer subjects are individuals who kind of go into a context and forge their own lives, you know, from kind of scratch without attachments to other people that I really find to be kind of the most common theme in a lot of the research that I did: these weird allowances and kind of ways of talking about things that, if your only definition of what it means to be successful at queer politics is you go and you, you know, move to a city and you join an NGO and you, you know, you're whatever you're, you know, fighting, that's your definition of what it means to succeed as a queer subject, none of the people I study would necessarily qualify.
But if your definition of what it means to succeed as a queer subject is to like forge a livable life that has its challenges and has its great rewards under the circumstances in which to exist. That's it. Then then there are a lot of those people in small towns and rural areas and they're not, they were not stupid. They knew what they were doing and interestingly, most people around them knew what they were doing to, they just didn't want to sit down and have a conversation, you know, where it's like “now I'm the local radical queer activist,” you know, I mean that, but that would have been done with anything. You would have done that with what it meant to deal with your baptist neighbors. If you were a methodist, it was the same thing. You know, it's like we don't, you know, conflict needs to be put to the side, we have to learn to live with. So that's I guess the biggest theme historic. I mean there are other specific examples of things we could talk about, but I think that's probably the point that often gets lost.
I mean, I remember when I went to college in the city and I showed up, where are you from? A lot of people from the east coast and other places. And I said, “I'm from a small town in downstate Illinois,” and their first response was “oh, I'm sorry to hear that.” And I was so offended. It was because of the fact that they felt like they knew everything they needed to know about me and my life history and my own capacities to kind of survive or something and just didn't square and then they would tell me about, you know, whatever they're supposedly phenomenal lives and whatever horrendous suburb of New York they were from and they all sounded the same, right? Like… all of their experiences sounded pre packaged and delivered by, you know, MTV or Mattel or whatever. And it didn't sound anything like my experience, which was much more– from my perspective, complicated, difficult in some regards, but also from my perspective, much more interesting.
Amanda Tinkle: Yeah, I think that in my experience and rural communities it seems like a very much insider outsider culture. So they tend to hold onto and take care of the people in their communities that have always been there for a long time. And so that ability to just brush off or look over this kind of difference that they may not have necessarily been comfortable with or used to within their communities. I– I definitely see that where it's like, well, you know, they may be lesbian or maybe gay, but they're a really great person. I grew up with them with the kids. You know, they they do all these amazing things in the community. And so regardless of the kind of differences that may come about and that, you know, discussion, it can be overlooked or, or at least not focused on and not used against somebody.
Johnson: Well, I guess what I'd say too is those experiences, the way they're portrayed by people is, well, that's the exception to the rule, write anything in real space that is at all affirming is characterized as being the exception to the rule, whereas so any anything that's positive, at least in my experience, anything that's positive or complicated or interesting whether it becomes the exception to the general rule, whereas it there's plenty of sort of homophobic violence, trans violence, racist violence, like obviously enormous class exclusion in major metropolitan areas. I mean, you don't have to be particularly attuned to urban politics or sociology to know that, but that gets characterized that in that context, gets characterized as being the exception in comparison to the rule, which is yes, people get gay bashed, yes, people get thrown out of housing because they're trying in– in, you know, in Manhattan or Chicago or San Francisco or wherever, but on balance, right, things are better than they are worse. And I think it's that tendency to kind of flip the burden of proof in– in terms of what constitutes goodness and badness in general. I think it has a lot to do with just the tensions between the urban and the world. I mean, in my book, I talked about the fact that urban spaces on the one hand, kind of a class of experience, which is to say, we can look at a map and say, well this is this is what urban space looks like as opposed to rural space, but urban spaces always simultaneously very particular, right? So it's not just any city, it's New York or Chicago and everyone concedes they have different histories. The rural is this enormous sprawling category, right? That's often defined as the kind of negative other urban space. And it usually isn't very particular.
Or if it is particular, if you say I'm interested in what's going on in Beanblossom, Indiana, for example, that's seen as so specific that it can't possibly have anything to teach us. You know, it's always going to be an outlier and unrepresentative, but because New York is New York, it's kind of, it's simultaneously local enough and generally significant enough to kind of stand as being representative of something important about american society in a way that poor Beanblossom, Indiana never has a chance to. But that's a really selective way to tell that story. And to understand things, as you say, there are way more being lost in Indiana than there are Manhattan, which are kind of singular in some regard, but it's also true that, you know, people tend to think of those things as being balanced in a particular way.
And it– it is also true that I think something on the order of 85% of Americans now live in what's considered statistically urban areas, right? Even though they may not think of themselves that way, right? They– if you talk to people from Chicago, they'll say, “Oh, I'm from the suburbs.” Well, that's a very specific kind of experience. But it's also, you know, it would be considered more urban certainly than rural, even though they may never leave a 10 block radius of– in their suburb, right? I mean, they may be more– so it's a big long thing and it has to do with how we think about space and history and representativeness and all sorts of other issues, but it's– it's significant. And I would say it was a kind of odd preoccupation of mine, except if you look at the political landscape of the United States right now and really over the past 40 years, I can think of no cleavage that's more significant in terms of determining the fate of gay men and lesbians and queer folks broadly, and trans folks– then the kind of conflict or what is imagined to be this kind of existential conflict between urban urban America and rural America. Right, As somebody once said to me, it's it's a dist– it should be a 19th century distinction. Right? We all, you know– Internet is broadly available. You know, all sorts of things conspire to make those kinds of geographical differences not matter.
But if you look at how American– the landscape of American politics works now, I can think of no distinction that matters more in terms of people, people’s sense of who the good guys are and who the bad guys are in that urban rural divide. It's really extraordinary.
Kate O’Brien: I'm glad you talked about this because I feel like I knew some of these things and some of these things I just just a little blindsided with– about– I don't know if I expected all of that about– about rural America, because I don't think that they teach us a lot about that. If you don't live in rural America, I– they don't teach you anything about it.
Johnson: That's why I'm here. You know the only reason that supposedly one of my value added in the universe is to try to put that into the conversation, because even– even being a part of the community, you know we have access to social media and seeing things and seeing the LGBTQ community in like an urban setting, or on a social media setting, and you don't really think about that. I don't even think about that in a rural setting and someone that lives there with that experience, I don't even think about that kind of thing. And so it's really nice to think about it in different ways and how it functions and bring kind of awareness to like there are no exceptions to that that rule that that one's worse or one's better and you know it's such a diverse you know there's diversity within rural communities and also different rural communities will function differently. I think it's– I would just say one other thing, which is: I think there's also this idea that somehow whatever you know homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism, classism– classism exists in rural- rural spaces– somehow was born there. Like it just is in the water, which is like, it's just inherent, you know, to kind of that space. For another reason, I think it's easy to think that because it's like, people are older, they're more, you know, they're kind of more religious, they're all these other things, and I associate all of those things with these kinds of inclinations. And so I assume that they're all related in a kind of naturally self reinforcing way.
But I think it's really important to remember that sure, there's some of that, you know, in rural areas, there's some of that in urban areas. I mean, I always say some of the most kind of aggressively anti homophobic religious movement in the United States did not start in small towns and rural areas. Right? I mean, they started in the suburbs in the 1970s. I mean, they were really antidotes to a kind of a sense of anime that a lot of people felt in the 19 seventies and, you know, as a result of suburbanization and the kind of disconnection from communities, certain kinds of religious orders organizations stepped in to fill that gap. If you had gone into these small town in rural areas earlier, basically, it would have been like they were the mainline protestant denominations that existed since the 19th center would have been the Methodist church, the Episcopalian church, the president, you know, they're the Presbyterian church that whatever anything else would have been seen as like completely alien to the landscape of a lot of small towns and rural areas. If you were in the south, would be– Baptists and Methodists like they're, you know, those things were there forever. And a lot of that stuff was actually imported, quite intentionally, into smaller towns and rural areas as demographics change. And also like a lot of that animosity, it's not like it started in, you know, a wellspring in rural Arkansas and made its way to the rest of the country. A lot of it was quite intentionally manufactured by people who should have been in a position ethically to know better, right, to know what they were doing. And it was sold back to people who are not dupes, but who were nonetheless kind of having to make complicated decisions about how they're very complex set of interests related to what they saw on what became an increasingly acrimonious national, you know, political level. A lot of people, they felt like they had to choose sides, right?
And that ended up meaning that they were sort of shut out– all this stuff shoveled at them, not from their local churches or their local community groups or whatever, but from multibillion-dollar media corporations located in midtown Manhattan. So I think we also have to ask about what is, what are the actual historical origins of a lot of, kind of, dispositions and, you know, political inclinations that we too easily naturalize, uh, sort of inherent to certain kinds of spaces. They may be endemic in those spaces now. But it's not clear to me that those spaces are responsible for having produced them.
Amanda Tinkle: It's a stereotype that I even have that I know that it is not necessarily positive of just thinking of, like, being in rural communities or a specific kind of person as enemy number one or like would be the person to watch out for stay away from or just be cautious around. Like I find myself not usually talking about things that are political just to be sure it's– it's really good that we're having a conversation about how it is so more– much more complex than that. And it is there is good and bad and ever and even, you know, more gray areas than we will ever know.
Johnson: People face a lot for all kinds of challenges in all kinds of spaces. And so I think the question of goodness and badness, relative goodness, is it better to be queer you know, in New Orleans than it is to be in whatever small town. The question of relative goodness and badness. I understand why people ask it, but it's not the most interesting right? Things can be differently difficult in all sorts of context, but that doesn't mean that they are possible in one context and impossible in another context. And I think that's often been the assumption that has simply left people feeling like there was nothing particularly interesting to learn or say about queer experience outside of urban areas.
Amanda Tinkle: I really appreciate you joining us today, and I just hope that you had a great time talking to us and–
Johnson: I really enjoyed having this conversation with you!
Amanda Tinkle: – and, Kate is anything else you'd like to add?
Kate O’Brien: Thank you so much for coming out and doing this conversation with us. I think it's– it's a really long conversation to have, but I think it's also important and honestly a good conversation to have. It's really interesting, it's really informative and I think it's a good it's good information to get out to people, especially in a world where being queer and being openly queer is coming back per se. It's a long history. And I think now as we enter 2022, 2023 and there's a lot of young queer kids that are coming in college and actually graduating from college as well. It's a really good conversation to have to keep everyone informed, quite frankly.
Amanda Tinkle: Yes, thank you so much. I believe that's all the questions that we have today. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Johnson: Thank you very much.