Queering Nowhere

Danielle Cormier
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Queering Nowhere Nolan [00:00:09] I identify as a black trans man. I use he/him pronouns and I'm 22... I almost forgot. Danielle [00:00:18] That's Nolan. Nolan [00:00:20] Before I realized I was trans, I identified as a gay woman. Tess [00:00:26] I'm white, asexual panromantic... Danielle [00:00:30] That's Tess. Tess [00:00:32] ...and I identify as trans non-binary and use they/them pronouns. Danielle [00:00:38] And I'm Danielle. I'm a white, cisgender, queer woman and use she/her pronouns. Danielle [00:00:42] The three of us are friends from the middle of nowhere: queer people from different corners of rural Virginia. Danielle [00:00:55] When you think about small southern towns, one of the first things that comes to mind is "conservative religion." And Christian denominations - the kinds found most throughout the South - are infamous for having a queerphobic reputation. That combination of a rural, conservative, Christian environment can be hard to grow up in as a queer kid. Danielle [00:01:18] I moved to Virginia about 12 years ago, after living in upstate New York, and I still can't get over the fact that after your name, in my small town, people always ask which church you go to. I mean, it is called the Bible Belt for a reason. Nolan [00:01:35] My grandmother, bringing religion, told me about hell for the first time and the Bible, and I was like, "What?" And so, I freaked out and had this urge to like tell my parents like, "Hey, I'm gay." So I came out to my mom first, at eleven, and she was like, "I suspected and I love you. We can talk to the pastor tomorrow morning." I was thinking like, I'm so happy that this was her response, because I didn't know any better. Danielle [00:02:01] Nolan has struggled with reconciling his queerness with religion throughout his life. He had even joined a Christian group in college that directed him to... a combined support group for students struggling with eating disorders and queer identity. Nolan never actually went to those meetings, but was so influenced by them that he broke up with his partner at the time and decided to be celibate. But then... Nolan [00:02:27] I came home for the summer and I went to church, and I literally felt like I was outside of my body. Nolan [00:02:34] I stood up in front of my church family and I'm like, "I'm gay. And this is something I've struggled with my entire life. And yes, it's a sin. But the way that you guys are treating gay people is absolutely the most hateful thing that you, as Christians, can do." Nolan [00:02:52] And after church, everyone was coming up to me, and they're like, "I've always known, but, you know, I'm glad you made it out. This is the right thing for you." I felt that cognitive dissonance, like, "Why the fuck are they telling me this?" But I did this to myself. So, I was kind of like always going back and forth and having internal struggles. And then, now I'm accepting who I am. Danielle [00:03:13] When I first heard this story, I thought Nolan was nuts. I could never imagine coming out to my entire church. In fact, there the ONE group from my small town that still doesn't know I'm queer... and if they do, it definitely didn't come from me! Danielle [00:03:32] These people watch you grow up. They know your family, your family's struggles. Most rural Virginia towns are tight knit, small communities. People tend to go to the same church for years and years - if not for life. Tess [00:03:47] I have a very large family and almost all of them live within the same stretch of a few miles. Within that same stretch was a church. People that I am related to helped build this church. And that church was, by and large, an extension of my family. And growing up in that, I connected that very closely with family and home. Tess [00:04:17] When I think I started getting inklings of how I was, I was different. I had started having depression - what happens when you reach puberty. I started looking for the only thing that I could think of to help myself. The only thing that people around me seemed to be talking about. I started delving deep into Christianity, but trying to find my own brand of it. Around the time when I started to come to terms with my queer identity and recognize how much I had been suppressing it because of my Christian identity, I started to question it when people I knew and cared about said things that directly went against what I believed, especially in terms of my own queer identity. Danielle [00:04:57] I'm lucky, my family is pretty accepting of me. But family can often be tense for many queer people, depending on their level of acceptance. Nolan had already come out to his parents: once as a gay woman, and recently as a trans man, but found his family's reactions differed based on his identity. Nolan [00:05:15] Being gay is like familiar. So it's like, "Oh, you're gay. That's not natural." But trans is like, "What the fuck are you doing?" Like, it's basically like I'm mutilating my body. But, at the same time, the outcome for me personally is a million times better. Like, it's right. It just fits. Danielle [00:05:34] Tess, on the other hand, is not out to their family about their trans identity. Tess [00:05:40] If I had an opportunity to tell them, I don't know if I'd trust them to understand. I'd love to tell them that. I'd love for them to believe that queerness is okay. But to convince all of them? Impossible. Some of them, maybe. Tess [00:05:57] I have a mother, a father, a little sister and an older half-brother - he is also queer... And I have told them that I am bi. I think my dad was more confused on what it meant, although I definitely think he is more intolerant of the two. With my mom, she said the words, "No parent could be happy with two gay sons." And well, that hurt a little bit. Eventually they learned to just ignore that it exists. But, it wasn't the worst possible thing... and I'm happy with that. Nolan [00:06:30] There was a certain age where I would do everything with my dad, like I would help him work on his car, and we would go fishing, and like all this stuff. And then it was like, a certain age, where it just stopped. Anything that I did, it was attributed to just me being a tomboy, until I got to that age where it's like, it's not cute. And then it was like, "Oh, it's because of your gayness." But they never accepted me being like trans. If my dad had been more accepting, and then I would have come out as like his son, and we still would've had that closeness. Danielle [00:07:02] It took me until my second year of college to realize my own queer identity. I hadn't realized that I had inadvertently absorbed years and years of microaggressions. As a kid, you often don't realize that people just expect straightness to be everyone's default or the "norm." I certainly would have found myself sooner had I viewed sexuality as a discovery or journey, instead of something to conform to. And I know I'm not alone in this. Nolan [00:07:31] I kind of just started out as this black kid who had understandings of gender and how things are supposed to go, but never feeling comfortable in that at all. And like, I grew up and I was being told so many times, like, "Girls don't do this. You need to wear these things..." Literally down to how I freakin' walk. And so not only did I have internalized misogyny and sexism, but also a lot of internalized transphobia before I even knew I was trans. Danielle [00:08:00] Both Tess and Nolan told me that queer representation and exposure outside of family can be life changing, but sometimes that's hard to find if you don't befriend the right people in your small town. Tess [00:08:13] I think when I started to realize at least aspects of my queer identity was later on in high school. I started learning more about different identities and I started talking to other queer people about, "Hey, I'm experiencing these things and I'm not sure what they mean..." Tess [00:08:29] When I got further away from my home, where I could explore those things that I had been questioning for a while. You know how in rural towns, if there's news, it spreads. If I did anything out of the ordinary, other people would know - especially in church. Tess [00:08:43] When I was more with like-minded queer people, I was able to finally shed the final layers of doubt and insecurity and... allowed me to realize that no matter what they may say about religion, I am what I am. I think that's mostly what made it such a long journey, because I was constantly thinking that, "No, that can't be me." Danielle [00:09:11] Representation and connecting with other queer people is important in self discovery. Tess and I had a hard enough time finding the right fit of a queer community, and we're white. Nolan had an extra layer of difficulty finding acceptance and community as a queer person of color. Danielle [00:09:28] After the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and quarantine started, I called Nolan to ask about how race impacted his experiences. Nolan [00:09:36] Difference never came up because, like the whiteness was so suffocating that it forced a lot of people to not bring up those things. Nolan [00:09:44] So it took a lot of me getting angry, like taking people saying like, "Oh, you're you're so white," or like "You're not like other black people," as a compliment, and then realizing that that's really offensive, and then getting angry for me to realize that I was literally just a pawn in white, heteronormativity, and racism. Nolan [00:10:05] Queerness feels very white if you're not around queer POC, because of so many different factors. Just having that layered oppression, like in my parents perspective, I'm a black woman, so when you add this gay shit on top of it, let alone transness now, it's like, why would you want anything else for your life? Like you already have it hard. And when you have all of that in your head, growing up as a gay or trans person, and your family is giving you all of this religious and cultural shit like, you just think that there's something wrong with you. Nolan [00:10:39] The second thing I would say is definitely representation, because when you look at a lot of gay pride, it's a bunch of white people. That's what you see everywhere. It's kind of just like this idea of like, "Oh, that's for white people." Nolan [00:10:55] It's like they have so much privilege that they don't see the nuances of what it means to live in scarcity mode all the time. They demonize what it means to be black, like they're not able to see the nuances that put my culture or my family in that position to have to think like that. So it's hard to find solidarity with white queer people sometimes when they're not able to see the struggle or have a similar struggle. Danielle [00:11:24] Growing up, I hated rural Virginia. But... now that I'm away... I feel a strange attachment to it. It took me a while - not only because I was trying to figure out my own identity, but because I was ignoring a lot about the identity of the place I grew up. Tess [00:11:43] But I don't think there's something specifically about being rural that makes you queerphobic, besides just more queerphobic churches being there, more people who are just cling closely to certain traditions. Danielle [00:11:56] Yes: there's a lot about the rural south that isn't queer friendly. Nolan, Tess, and I can all attest to that. But we also each have unique experiences and relationships with our hometowns - that queer people from larger cities might not. In some ways, it's unique to be queer AND from a rural place. Tess [00:12:18] I mean, queerness has always been in every space at some point, but the acceptance of queerness has not. Ruralness and queerness aren't opposites in any way.

There are many complexities alive in the creation of queer rural spaces, as queer youth negotiate their existence with their surrounding culture and make their own space for community. The monolithic notion of queer as an urban phenomenon is obviously incorrect and although queerness is not an urban coincidence, much media perpetuates this narrative through films like Brokeback Mountain. A strict dichotomy of urban and queer-friendly versus rural and queer-phobic subsequently provides a framework for the erasure of the existence of queerness in rural America. Not only does this dichotomy ignore queerness in these areas, it creates a system that defaults to an urban understanding of queer visibility and/or activism that queer lifestyles in the country may not support, depending on the surrounding social climate of the area. Regardless, queer youth find ways to build community and exist simultaneously within and on the margins of a restrictive heteronormative rural culture.

Overall, rural queer identity and visibility is complex and varies from the monolithic scope of homophobia and hillbillies perpetuated by the media and metronormative visibility. Queer rural folx resist different forms of heteronormativity than many urban queer people, so shifting their politics of visibility and queerness is necessary for their existence in rural America. The dichotomy of ‘invisible’ and ‘visible’ as well as ‘out’ and ‘closeted’ are blurred and take on new meanings of community building in these rural areas. Media plays the part of a double-edged sword, working to both perpetuate narrow ideas of rural queerness as well as provide a platform for queer community and exposure to rural queer youth; it simultaneously informs much rural queer visibility while also promoting a mainstream urban queer culture. In the end, while the monolithic myth of the foreboding and homophobic Appalachia may haunt the heads of urbanites, queerness has always existed and continues to exist in these areas, innovating ways to survive and thrive within the existing and evolving social structures.

“Queering Nowhere” is a project seeking to promote the voices and perspectives of queer rural Virginians, and it aims to bring light to some of their struggles with religion, location, family, and identity. As a queer woman from the rural south myself, I have seen a lot of intolerant behavior, some from rural spaces, other times towards them; it is time to recognize the nuances of these areas and their people. The intersection between these small communities and the lived experience of being queer in these areas is under-researched and can prove to be a complex web of conflicting emotions in relation to the intersectionality of identity.

The podcast’s first collaborator, Nolan, is a straight black transgender man and the second, Tess, is a white asexual panromantic nonbinary transgender person. In turn, as the interviewer, I would like to take a moment to acknowledge my white, cisgender, and class privilege through the completion of this project. Privilege can work as a blinder that makes anyone who holds it unaware to not only the life experiences of others who do not share those same privileges, but also basic systemic forms of oppression that work to benefit me, and others like me, while disenfranchising already marginalized people. I have worked very closely with both participants to ensure that they maintain as much agency in this process as possible; each has been an integral part of each step of the creation process, including approval of the audio and sometimes the editing itself. One further disclaimer, these stories are not representative of all people who share these identities nor are they from a similar geographical location.

Additional Reading

I’ve reference ideas from each resource listed here; if you would like to research on your own, I recommend Mary Gray’s “Out in the Country” chapter, “From Wal-Mart to Websites,” Katherine Schweighofer’s “Queering the Countryside: New Frontiers in Rural Queer Studies,” and Mattias Detamore’s “Queer Appalachia: Toward Geographies of Possibility.” These three readings focus on queer visibility in the rural south, but more specifically Appalachia. Gray’s reading follows multiple queer rural youth in their quest to find and create solidarity, community, and visibility. Schweighofer’s article primarily focuses on the political implications and limitations of the metaphorical closet and its relation to queer rural community building and visibility. Finally, Detamore’s chapter explores the implications Appalachia has on queer people and their place-making within existing social structures. All three articles discuss various complexities of queering rural spaces, and together they offer a more comprehensive insight on the queer rural experience.

Detamore, Mathias J., “QUEER APPALACHIA: TOWARD GEOGRAPHIES OF POSSIBILITY” (2010). University of Kentucky Doctoral Dissertations. 57.

Gray, Mary (2009). “From Wal-Mart to Websites: Out in Public.” In Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America. New York University Press.

Schweighofer, Katherine. (2016). “Rethinking the Closet: Queer Life in Rural Geographies.” In Queering the Countryside: New Frontiers in Rural Queer Studies. New York University Press.

Project Contributors

Danielle Cormier

Danielle Cormier

BA Candidate, Women and Gender Studies and Studio Art

Danielle Cormier is a third year student with a double major in Women and Gender Studies and Studio Art, and a minor in Entrepreneurship. She is interested in how queer issues intersect with rural identities. Her work visualizes this intersection and shines a light on problems—like the absence of sexual education courses—facing LGBTQ+ youth in rural areas. In bringing awareness to these issues, Cormier hopes to inspire change.

Additional Credits

I’d like to thank my participants, Tess and Nolan, thank you so much for opening up and sharing your stories and experiences. This project would not have been possible without you. Further, thanks to senior producer, Emily Gadek, and editor, Kelly Jones for lending expertise and guiding me through my first podcast project. Finally, thank you to Professor Federico Cuatlacuatl, without your recommendation and continuous support, I would not have even had this opportunity. A huge thank you to the Religion, Race & Democracy Lab for offering this opportunity and supporting this project.


This project was made possible with funding from

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