Several old men wearing seed corn ballcaps sat around in the feed store in St. Charles, Iowa, drinking Folger’s coffee out of Styrofoam cups. Although Doug and I never heard this conversation, I imagine it went something like this:
Have ya’ seen what those two sissy boys that bought the old Palmer place are doin’?
Isn’t that the darndest thing you ever saw! (Good Baptists didn’t say “damn.’)
They’re gonna raise some weird lookin’ cattle with a white stripe around the middle.
Those cattle belong in a zoo. They look like Oreos. (Everyone chuckles.)
They even bought a Russian tractor, ‘stead of a John Deere.
Well, I’ll be. Never saw such a thing.
And they’ve never farmed before!
They’re plannin’ on sellin’ GRASS-fed beef. (Heads shake all around.)
That meat ‘il be as tough as a fourteen-point buck!
Well, they won’t last long out there.
St. Charles, Iowa, is a town of a little over four hundred people about thirty miles south of Des Moines. And yet, it was a world away from where we’d been living. St. Charles’ claim to fame is as the site of the oldest of the covered bridges made famous by The Bridges of Madison County. I drove by the Imes bridge each day on my commute to my job in Des Moines.
Doug and I stood out from the rest of the people in St. Charles, Iowa, for several reasons.
St. Charles could be any-town in rural America. These small towns are often characterized as friendly and overly nice. But small towns in rural America are rather insular. They welcome visitors but can be inhospitable to interlopers that stay too long and threaten their way of life.
People don’t lock their houses. and they leave their keys in the car. But they also have a loaded shotgun under their beds. Life centers around church and family. They are overwhelmingly traditional, and the community quickly identifies, judges, and shares any deviances from those expectations.
Democrats are as closeted as gay people.
People in St. Charles knew who Doug and I were before we knew them. No one ever asked us about our relationship. Still, whenever we introduced ourselves to anyone, the townspeople knowingly raised their eyebrows, moved their eyes to the side, and said, “Oh, you must know Tom and Dan.” In twenty-five years of living there, we never met Tom and Dan.
Having grown up in a small town, I was a bit nervous about living there. I fully expected to come home to the farm one day and see FAGGOTS spray-painted in white letters across the length of our long red barn. But it never happened.
Willful ignorance is a powerful force in rural America.
If you pretend not to know the truth, you can avoid making tough decisions based on that information. If we didn’t make a fuss about being gay, most of Madison County tolerated us. Some might even accept us.
. . .
When the realtor called to tell us about the place, he said, “I think I’ve found the place for you. It’s a bit further from Des Moines than you wanted. And it’s quite a bit bigger than you wanted. But it has everything else you wanted. It’s 240 acres, about one third in old-growth timber, another third in pasture, and the rest tillable. It has four ponds and a creek.”
We drove by the farm the following morning. Even though it was Easter Sunday and we hadn’t even been on the property, I called him back and made an offer. We had fallen in love with it.
Several days after signing the contract, we drove out to walk the property to see what we’d just bought. The farmer who was renting the pasture for his cattle was there. I said to him, “We just bought this place. But we’ve really never really seen most of it.” He was a big, bearded man wearing a ball cap, torn t-shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots. He spoke like a movie cowboy.
“Just climb in the truck. I’ll take ya’ around.”
Doug and I grew more excited as we surveyed the property. The farmer stopped his truck on a hill looking to the south. Not another farmhouse in sight. I said to him, “The realtor said there are four ponds on the place, but we’ve only seen three of them.”
He pointed into the distance and said, “That there’s yer other pond.” Doug and I looked at each other in surprise. We suddenly realized that we owned 80 acres we didn’t know was ours.
“That pond needs fishin.’ A lot a’ bass in it. Ain’t been fished in quite a while. So many in it they don’t get very big.”
. . .
Doug and I both grew up in the country. We envisioned a return to a quiet and simple life filled with rustic pleasures. In many ways, the farm was precisely that.
We moved to the farm a 115-year-old farmhouse from fifteen miles away. It had recently been inhabited primarily by raccoons. People thought we were as crazy as they did when they discovered we were going to raise Oreo cows.
The house sat on the site as if it had been built there over a century before. While we renovated the house, we lived in the barn. With three dogs and two cats, we lived in a room about twelve by fourteen feet. We had a shower, dial-up AOL, a microwave, and a portable outdoor toilet. When I woke up in the morning, I could shut off the alarm, put on the coffee, and turn on the shower without getting out of the queen-sized bed that filled the majority of the space.
We learned how happy you could be with only just enough stuff.
Our grandkids still think of it as the place they’d like to live someday.
We lived a quarter of a mile back from the infrequently traveled gravel road that ran by the place. The dogs alerted us if anyone was coming, but hardly anyone ever did. The only regular visitors were the UPS man and the two women who were Jehovah’s Witnesses.
We tended our garden naked. We raised most of our food and heated our home with wood. Our only option to dine out was Annette’s Bar in East Peru. We always order her homemade pork tenderloins the size of a dinner plate.
We swam and fished for the bass in our farm ponds. Doug and I stood about twenty feet apart, using the same rods, the same gear, and the same bait. He stood there with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He pulled in fish after fish while my bobber rarely dipped below the surface. Then he’d look at me and say, “My arms are so tired from pulling in all these damn fish.”
Our first winter with cattle, we had begun calving in April. A late winter storm emptied twenty inches of snow on the farm. We had to check the cows every two hours for new calves because they must get up on their feet quickly and suckle, or they will die of hypothermia. We lived in our red Dodge Ram pickup truck for three days, sleeping in naps, and eating Ho-Ho cakes, and drinking whiskey. A slug of whiskey for us and one for the calves to get them moving.
A few days later, Doug stopped at the feed store for some grain. One of the guys asked with a smug look — obviously expecting we’d had a disaster — “Hey, Doug. How many calves did ya’ lose in that storm?”
“None. How about you?” The conversation shifted quickly. Doug’s star had risen.
. . .
Life in the city
For most of my teen years, I wanted to escape from my hometown of Wakefield, Nebraska. It wasn’t that something drew me away. I wanted to flee from something, not to something. I knew that I was different from most of the people who lived there, and — with the arrogance of youth — that included feeling superior to them.
Growing up in a rural environment, most of them felt they were the only gay individuals. Like me, most LGBTQ in rural environments feel alone. Being gay in rural America is difficult, as it implies stepping outside of the heterosexual matrix.
Urban gay men have been the subjects of most research done on LGBTQ men and women. The research emphasizes that escape from the country is the only possible option for living an authentic life. The city is their way out, and they run away to a new life in the city. Many see gayness as inseparable from city life.
The city plays a central role in the lives of many gay men. Most of them explored their same-sex desires, had their first same-sex experience and came out in a city or college town far from their hometown. The city is intriguing, exciting, and liberating.
When LGBTQ men and women discover the existence of gay culture, it sets them free. They see the city as a gay paradise and the country as a gay desert. Gay people view the city as a place where there is sexual freedom, affirmation, and most important, inclusivity.
The city plays an ambivalent role for rural gay men.
A brief visit to the dreamed of urban gay life can be overwhelming and problematic if you don’t know the rules. Gays in the country misjudge gays in the city. They find that their own identity does not resonate with the lives of urban gay men.
Although in the city, one can explore alternative sexual practices, many rural gay men see urban environments as feminizing. They struggle with the stereotype of gay men as effeminate, a gender identity that they can not or do not wish to recognize in themselves.
Willful ignorance operates in cities as well as in the country.
Some think of gay life in the city as “a bunch of homos in dresses.” men who are flamboyant and effeminate. Having never seen the great diversity within the larger gay community, they see gay life in the city as monolithic. They think I don’t want to be a part of that scene. That life just isn’t for me.
. . .
Life in the country
Are rural life and being gay incompatible? Are we less queer if we choose to live in the country? Just as country folk misunderstand city life, city people don’t know life in the country.
The country for gay men is not idyllic, but neither is it as abysmal as urban gay folklore suggests.
When we study gay life, place matters.
Many LGBTQ live in rural America. Their lives may be quite straight and traditionally masculine in all respects other than their occasional same-sex encounters. They may have wives and families and embrace masculine norms.
Country gay men see roughness, manliness, and earthiness as essential. So, they “butch up” or “cowboy up” to guard against appearing effeminate. Many compartmentalize all aspects of their sex lives and remain forever discreet.
Due to the rules of conformity, rural regions can feel oppressive. They feel restricted because everyone knows each other. They also know if you need an extra hand, someone is always willing to help. That is, assuming you’ve followed the rules. Country people see the city as indifferent to the needs of others.
Urban gay people misjudge the rural life and often discount the positive aspects of living in rural spaces. It is less oppressive than many imagine. Although prejudice exists, not all country folks are homophobic and intolerant. Many of them are homo-naïve.
. . .
Sex in the country
Dating can be problematic for gay men in the country. With a limited population, the pool of sexual partners is limited.
Country boys often seek sexual partners with men like them. If you’re straight and only have occasional sex with other straight-appearing guys, it doesn’t threaten your masculinity. You’re not gay if the guy you’re having sex with is someone who doesn’t seem gay at all.
Doing gay and being gay is not the same thing.
It used to be different. Men could go to the city to porn stores with glory holes. They hooked up in the darkness of a park or bathhouse, or they found men with whom to have sex in public restrooms. But those places also created anxiety for those who didn’t know the rules.
The world of hookup apps has all changed all that for them. In the city, gay dating apps have a grid of men, men who are sometimes located very few feet away. In the country, there are large blank squares with no photo and little information other than “must be discreet.” The nearest prospective partner may be 100 miles away. In remote areas with low population density, sometimes pop-up gay bars have been set up to give gay men a reprieve.
Developing a gay identity means discovering who you are today and who you expect to be tomorrow. Men who are still closeted and struggling with their sexual identity frequently have a harder time in country living. Their fears of the reaction of the community isolate them and make them lonely and invisible.
. . .
Acceptance is a possibility
In rural space, traditional gender roles and codes are difficult to transgress. Many struggle with the choice of gaining a new gay identity while sacrificing their homespun rural identity. Maintaining two distinct social identities is an impossibility in a rural community.
Rural gay men and women must weigh the option of stepping away from their very straight and traditional, gender-defined home and to the transgressive urban gay world. They may lose friends, jobs, and happiness in the process.
Being an out gay couple in a rural environment was much easier for Doug and me than it would have been if we had been single. We weren’t thought of as a threat. Single gay men who are out are like the attractive new divorcee attending a cocktail party who makes the wives nervous. As a couple, we were “settled.” We had a circle of friends, all straight, who included us as any other couple.
Because Doug and I didn’t think like traditional farmers, we could implement innovative strategies. We were on the cusp of the grass-fed beef movement. We sold small breeding herds of our Oreo cattle throughout the United States.
At the feed store, I can picture those same old men having this conversation:
Those gay boys just sent a load of those weird cattle to California!”
It figures. California. Heads nod in agreement.
Did you hear what they got for them!
Can you believe it?
Maybe they’re on to somethin’
Our presence as a successful gay couple in that rural Iowa countryside was an innovation, too. We were no longer just two sissy boys with crazy ideas. We were a different kind of man.
When we learn to know each other as real humans with different stories to tell, stereotypes disappear. Acceptance becomes a possibility.
This post was previously published on Equality Includes You.
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