driving toward queer resistance in deep red america.
7 min read
I am a fifty-three-year-old, white, married, educated and happy Trans man living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Last year I bought this sweet 1988 Chevy G20 conversion van. I named her Cookie Monster because of her royal blue velour upholstery and wall-to-wall shag carpet. My wife and I took her on a month-long road trip to California and back.
Even though we drove through Iowa, Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and Arizona, I was never harassed for my gender identity or sexual orientation. We generally pass as a heteronormative couple even though I’m shorter than she is. It’s astounding what people don’t notice when they’re not accustomed to diversity. My gender journey has led me to a life of relative liberty and stability, almost entirely free from the mundane and relentless discomfort I often experienced as a Butch Dyke for most of my life.
I have the privilege of passing. This is not the experience for a great number of my Trans siblings. I often miss being visibly, identifiably Queer. I liked being a Butch. But, I don’t miss my depression. I don’t miss how exhausting and occasionally dangerous the world’s gaze can be. If America could have treated a Butch the way they treat a mediocre, middle-aged white guy, I might have been boring and content much sooner.
I intended to change the world when I was younger. Many of us do. The last time I tried to change the world was in the mid-aughts when I opened a queer bar in Minneapolis to combat the mainstream LGBT movement’s obsession with same-sex marriage and assimilation. I didn’t want to be like everybody else. I wanted us all to stay Queer.
I lost that fight. And after only two years, during the Great Recession, I lost the bar, too. It was the best, hardest thing I’ve ever done. I still haven’t finished processing my grief. Its demise left me broken. I lost my faith in my own Queer resistance. I gave up on changing the world. A few years later, I changed myself.
I don’t regret my choices, but I do miss that inner craving for Queer insurrection. It’s the only beauty I ever worshipped, the only spirituality I ever needed. It’s difficult for anyone to maintain zeal as we age. It has become almost impossible to reconnect to that baby Dyke being outed in high school, in a crappy little town during the AIDS epidemic and the Reagan Era. I can’t remember what it feels like to have existed before visibility and corporate sponsorship, when the full weight of the world’s injustices feels like a personal calling.
In the past twenty years, state sodomy laws were overturned nationally. Same-sex marriage was legalized. RuPaul brought drag into America’s living rooms. Queer Eye made gay men essential cultural professionals then had a an even more successful reboot. We have romcoms and Super Bowl commercials. Gay-Straight Alliance groups in high school, which were non-existent in the mid-Eighties, have already morphed into Gender-Sexuality Associations to accommodate the proliferation of shiny new identities being incubated and nurtured by our youngest generation of Queers.
It’s cool to be Queer in much of America. In Minneapolis, I assume allyship at all events and businesses. If someone were to start harassing me, in some outwardly transphobic way here, I might be temporarily confused, then amused and I might help them find the nearest freeway onramp to make their escape. What is happening in the rest of America, Red America, feels so distant, politically and geographically, it often feels like parody.
My social media feed informs me daily of fresh atrocities targeting Queer children perpetrated by conservative state legislatures, Christian Nationalist militia attacks on drag performers reading to children, and desperate pleading from right-wing pundits to their supporters to preserve the patriarchy by smashing rainbow retail displays and disemboweling cases of shitty beer with assault rifles. I’m awash with memes, highlighting Christian hypocrisy, infantile hysteria over the sexuality of candy, and anything uttered by Marjorie Taylor Greene. And my own echo chamber warns me frequently that “they” — the fascists, the Nazis, the Supreme Court — are trying to take us back. Back to a time before our progress, our normative entitlements, our human rights.
They can’t take us back. The absence of protections and basic humanity that existed for Queers prior to the turn of the century existed in a culture of assumed self-hatred and shame. We assumed that for ourselves, and the world assumed we would remain in the closet. Homophobia was a cultural norm. Transphobia was but a theoretical concern for the mainstream. No one ever thought Trans people would come anywhere near normative America.
What has happened in a remarkably short time is that liberal/urban/blue America has fully integrated Queer inclusion language and protocol into its larger platform, much like recycling and composting. This has created cultural and geographical bubbles of comfort, awkward enthusiasm from heteronormative politicians, and even mundanity for many Queers living in cities or being famous.
This has led to localized, selective apathy within those bubbles. Just two years after Minneapolis lit a beacon fire for anti-racist revolution for the rest of the world, the comfortable neo-liberal majority here voted to not to replace our racist police department with a department of public safety and they re-elected a mayor who doubled down on punitive policing and increased their funding. I cannot imagine there were no Queer voters in support of the status quo here.
The mainstreaming of Queer and the targeted entitlements that resulted also led to a conspicuous psychological disconnect between urban Queers and those Queers living in those places we can’t imagine living. I’m positive we have way more gay Republicans than we used to. I’m not claiming we all used to get along, but we all used to share a common oppression. I feel sometimes footage of a drag ban in Tennessee plays like a Sally Struthers infomercial about starving children in Africa. Urban Queers care, but it’s so distant, it doesn’t seem personal. It seems like another country.
Maybe that’s the plan. Maybe there’s a slow-rolling, legislative secession underway. Minnesota just passed sanctuary laws designed to harbor folks seeking abortion or gender-affirming care. An asylum migration is beginning. But there are millions of Queers that can’t afford to or don’t want to leave their home, their families, their communities.
Our Queer family in red states or areas is in a fight urban Queers can’t remember. How are they doing? What are they doing? My personal exhaustion and hard-won stability is feeling uncomfortable. I can’t watch this live-action Simpsons spin-off with cynicism and incredulity as if I’m a distant, untouchable target.
The legal battles currently being waged against the anti-Queer canon of legislation produced and anointed by right-wing think tanks, seek to nationalize the norms of inclusion and access already established in liberal America. Conservative leaders in red states are striving for an America that never existed. Violence and oppression toward Queers have always happened, but they are now speaking in terms of eradication.
There’s a whole new generation of Queers that’s grown up with the internet, representation in media, and an expectation of civil rights that’s suddenly being confronted with a genocidal spotlight. Their moms love them and are largely supportive. They are furious their kids are being targeted for political profit. There’s a bunch of small-town Queers who may have moved to a big city twenty-five years ago, but that option has been foreclosed by the cost of living in any urban area.
Deviance and defiance were my religion in the Nineties. I’m pretty sure I won’t find my way back to Mohawks and motorcycles, but I don’t think that’s where my potential usefulness resides anymore. I want to meet the Queers on the front lines. I want to hear their stories. I want to discuss strategy. I want to find a conduit for Queer community and my own soul.
Two years ago, I went on a small-town Pride tour and wrote a sweet series of articles about the relatively recently established, heart-warming and kitschy delight of holding a Pride in tiny town.
I’m going on another small-town Pride tour, but I’m specifically traveling to red states and conservative towns. I want to meet the people who organize a celebration of Queer resistance in a place I probably wouldn’t have driven through before my transition. I’m going to write about what I learn.
I’ll also use this series to research and report the specific political and legislative situation in each state I visit. I admit to conflating red states and their collective politics as so much dingalingary. I want to be better informed. I’ll also make every effort to connect with a professional organizer from each state who might be willing to educate me further on their local strategies of Queer resistance.
This is going to be fun. I am fucking pumped to meet some new fierce Queers. And I’m taking Cookie. I haven’t figured out if the money I save on hotels will be canceled by the money I spend on gas, but you can’t put a price on hipster envy.
***Cookie and a trucker hat also play well in the Ozarks. I already went to Hardy, Arkansas on May 20th. I’ve got some good stories to tell, and I’ve got pictures and videos. The next article should be out early next week.