Newsflash: Red-state America is crawling with queer people.
Those polite kids handing over your order at the Interstate exit drive-thru window? Queer. People peeing in the same bathroom as you at a gargantuan Buc-ee’s in Texas? Queer. Baking cookies at the youth and family center in the old Victorian house across the street from the Mormon Temple in downtown Provo? Queer. Free-falling on the Drop Line at Dollywood in Tennessee? Definitely queer.
And for six weeks in the summer of 2017, loading up on Chick-fil-A (despite the chain’s history of hostility towards our kind), two of those queers were writer Samantha Allen and her shotgun rider Billy, “a skinny transgender guy from a Sicilian family on Long Island,” road-tripping to gather material for Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States. “If the dominant LGBT narrative of the twentieth century was a gay boy in the country buying a one-way bus ticket to the Big Apple,” Allen writes, “the untold story of the twenty-first is the queer girl in Tennessee who stays put.”
A senior reporter on the LGBT beat for The Daily Beast, Allen made chapter-length stops in Utah, Texas, Indiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Georgia. Those of us who live in these types of places have grown wary of such visits from journalists since the 2016 election, when stunned coastal media outlets started flying reporters out here to help Americans understand America. But that’s not what Allen was doing. Instead, she went back to places where she already had deep connections, writing rich portraits of old friends, meeting new people, and reconciling her own past.
Her first stop was Provo, Utah. “I do not have many fond memories of my time here,” she writes of the days when she was, by appearances, “one of thousands of young men studying at Brigham Young University, school of choice for the Mormon faithful.” This was where she first felt the heart-and-gut pain of knowing she was going to hell every time she wore women’s clothes on lonely midnight drives up into the mountains, whose scenic grandeur gave her strength even from afar.
Coming back years later, out as transgender and happily married to another woman, Allen met LGBTQ people who had built a community that wasn’t part of her own experience but who share the same feelings and coping strategies. A hike with Emmett Claren, an openly trans member of the Mormon church, reinforced how nature doesn’t discriminate, how its openness and steadfastness are life-affirming when humans aren’t.
“The mountains were where I felt close to God,” Claren tells her. When he needed to know God approved of his transition, he hiked to the top of Squaw Peak and sat silently, listening to the wind. “I just felt so much peace,” he remembers. “I asked so many questions that I wanted answers to and I felt this calming release – like it’s all going to be okay.”
Everywhere, landscapes of home help keep people rooted in places where they work to make life better. In Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, which is so flat there aren’t any hills to justify calling it a valley, a nonbinary genderqueer person named George Longoria tells Allen that they and their partner, a transgender man named Kurt, like living in Edinburg even though they stay in after dark for fear of violence. “We are cactuses,” Longoria says. “Between a rock and a hard place, cactuses will grow anywhere, so I’m saying we’re Valley people, we’ll be okay.”
Allen is a scholar as well as a journalist (she has a PhD in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from Emory University), so her time along the southern border was an opportunity to engage with one of the Valley’s native daughters, the great Chicana, feminist, and queer theorist Gloria Anzaldúa. Anzaldúa died in 2004, but her spirit seems to guide queer activists in the Valley. “Anzaldúa also understood from personal experience,” Allen writes, “that the border wasn’t just a physical boundary but a socioeconomic and psychological space – a ‘borderland’ that leaves a lingering ‘emotional residue’ on anyone who crosses it, no matter how far away they travel.”
The lessons in queer social theory continued in Bloomington, where Allen spent time on a fellowship at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute—yes, that Kinsey—and where, in 2013, Allen met her future wife. By this point in the book we’ve visited enough red-state LGBT-friendly spaces that it’s easy to understand what Allen means when she refers to “queer world-making” as conceived by social theorists Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner. Allen dips into and out of the heavier scholarship skillfully and quickly; same goes for other contextual facts and stats delivered between drag shows and diners (most pages have footnotes, and an index would have been helpful).
As Allen shows, some places are a little less heteronormative now than in the ‘90s, when Berlant and Warner couldn’t imagine a world where heterosexuality wasn’t dominant. Allen set out to prove that the whole country is queer; whether you buy that might depend on how much your life overlaps with one of the tightly knit queer communities that’s not too far away (relatively speaking, given some of the distances between actual people in rural America) or how willing you are to see it. And lots of people are working hard to reverse this evolution. Like countless others, Allen was crushed when, during her time on the road, Trump announced his ban on transgender people in the military; by the end of the book, court injunctions have prevented it from going into effect, which Allen counted as a challenge “overcome.” But a month after Allen’s book was published, the ban became official.
Still, there’s no going back for the dozens of determined and fun people we’ve met on her road trip. These folks will never be famous like Ellen or Rachel Maddow or Anderson Cooper or the Queer Eye guys, but they’re the ones who are everywhere. Allen’s larger accomplishment is making sure they are seen.