Searching for 'Real Queer America' in Red States' LGBTQ+ Enclaves

Author Samantha Allen (right) and friend Jennifer Culp in Roan Mountain, Tennessee.  (Courtesy of Samantha Allen)

While profiles of the gun-toting, Confederate flag-waving Trump-voter-next-door practically became a literary genre following the 2016 election, journalist Samantha Allen embarked on a mission to demystify what's actually happening in the heart of the country for her new book, Real Queer America: LGBT Stories From Red States.

A reporter covering LGBTQ+ issues for the Daily Beast, Allen grew up in Southern California and New Jersey, went to college in Utah and came out as a queer, transgender woman during graduate school in Georgia. She knows a thing or two, then, about the way coastal cities are perceived as safe spaces for the LGBTQ+ community while the Midwest and South are stereotyped as universally hostile. When Allen took a cross-country road trip to visit places like Provo, Utah, the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and Johnson City, Tennessee, she was surprised to find burgeoning, tightly knit LGBTQ+ enclaves united by a sense of urgency to fight against their state legislatures' conservative agendas.

'Real Queer America' by Samantha Allen.
'Real Queer America' by Samantha Allen.

Indeed, recent studies confirm Allen's observations: according to the Movement Advancement Project, 20 percent of the LGBTQ+ community lives in rural areas, and the majority of same-sex parents reside in those regions as well. Meanwhile, LGBTQ+ people, especially those of color, are increasingly priced out of places like San Francisco, where numerous queer and trans havens have closed in recent years.

Moving to gay-friendly places like the Bay Area, West Hollywood or Brooklyn may no longer be accessible to 18-year-olds from other parts of the country—but it may not need to be, as attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people continue to evolve in their home states.

Real Queer America tells the stories of these demographic shifts through Allen's conversational travel diary, which is equal parts autobiographical and research-driven, and with heartwarming anecdotes and meticulous citations galore. While Allen—now based in the Seattle area—was in San Francisco during yet another road trip, we met up to chat about Real Queer America and her views on America's changing landscape.

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Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

With the way that California's demographics are changing, themes from your book resonate with what's going on here. Before, LGBTQ people would move to places like San Francisco and West Hollywood to be themselves, but now with urban centers in California becoming unaffordable, the queer and trans community is shifting. What are your thoughts on this changing landscape?

I hear stories from older LGBT people about what San Francisco and the Bay Area meant to them in the '70s especially, and I just wonder if it's possible to reclaim that or if that history is gone forever.

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There's the bright side of the fact that urban gay bars in megalopolises like San Francisco and New York are closing, which could mean that people just feel more comfortable in a mainstream club or bar environment. But then also, these places have this rich history. For folks who are just coming out, those places could be especially meaningful for them. The fact is a lot of them don't want to close and it's just the rising rent that shuts them down.

On the flip side, your book shows that in somewhere like Provo, Utah, the young queer kids don't necessarily have to leave. They can embrace where they were raised and who they are, which is cool too.

When I was hanging out with the LGBTQ kids in Provo, Utah, a lot of them were excited to talk with me. They were like, "You're a writer and you've been to New York and Los Angeles. Those are the places we want to go." I was sitting there thinking, "Gosh, I would like to spend more time in a place like this, where the community feels more tight-knit, and where the community spaces take on this special importance and urgency because of the political environment of the state." I feel like there's a bit of "the grass is always greener on the other side," but I also feel like LGBT spaces in a place like Provo or Jackson, Mississippi have that feeling that LGBT spaces in San Francisco or New York might have had in the '70s for instance. It's the place to go where you feel safe, it feels like a shelter against the world.

I think the more enclaves like that across the country, the better.

The book is full of them. I was surprised that everywhere I went, people would tell me, 'Oh, here's this place you've never heard of but a lot of LGBT people went there.' Traveling through Arkansas, people would tell me I had to go to Eureka Springs. I had planned out my road trip pretty thoroughly and I thought I wouldn't miss any landmarks, yet I encountered new ones along the way. Every state has these tiny pockets and bubbles.

Samantha Allen (left) and her friend Justin Mitchell in Dollywood.
Samantha Allen (left) and her friend Justin Mitchell in Dollywood. (Courtesy of Samantha Allen)

Which community surprised you the most?

The most surprising to me was Provo, honestly. I attended school [at Brigham Young University] in Provo from roughly 2005–2007, and I was a closeted transgender woman. I was terrified to be there. To go back and see this amazing LGBT community center was eye-opening, life-giving.

I felt so under the shadow of the Mormon church when I was in Provo, and to go back 10 years later and see Mormon kids and supportive Mormon parents meant so much to me personally. Even though I knew that this center had been built there, I didn't know what to expect. I thought maybe this will just be a tiny little two-person operation with a single room and a few offices or something like that. And there was this beautiful remodeled Victorian house that was constantly filled with kids and supportive parents.

In that chapter, it really struck me how a few of the people that you interviewed didn't feel the pressure to leave their church or start a whole new life somewhere else. Like the story of Emmett, the trans guy who wants to have a big Mormon family.

I think you are still seeing LGBT people make little migrations to be who they are, but the difference now is you don't have to go as far. It used to be people felt like they had to get a to coastal city. They had to get to L.A. or San Francisco or New York. Now you can go to St. Louis or you can go to Salt Lake City or that sort of thing. It's refreshing to see people do that because it changes the culture of those places. Salt Lake City has an amazing, vibrant LGBT population now.

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I think if you've been on the coast for the last two decades, you can be surprised when you go to a place like Salt Lake and be like, "Whoa, there are a lot of gay bars here and queer-friendly businesses." But it's just what the people who stayed have been doing for the last two decades. They've built that.

Why do you think that is so surprising to people? Is it because media is concentrated in these big coastal cities?

Yeah, 100 percent. It's a turbulent time to be in media. When you already have media that's largely concentrated in coastal cities, and then you factor in limited resources and layoffs, especially limited resources for LGBT reporting, a lot of the stuff gets missed. Something like North Carolina passing a bathroom bill will become a major story because it is nationally captivating, but a lot of these little changes that have been happening in the middle of the country just fly under the radar, or get a quick blurb in AP here and there, or only really get noticed by LGBT-specific websites.

I also think there's a lot of reductive approaches to what people derisively refer to as flyover states, or a lot of guilt by association with what can come out of the state legislatures. I think every presidential election, when we see a map of the U.S. where each state is just shaded in solid red or solid blue, it really does a disservice to our conception of the politics of the country. In reality, the country is red in rural areas and blue in urban areas and that's true whatever state you're in. It just so happens that in the middle of the country the red rural areas can outvote the blue ones sometimes. But the country is pretty purple.

On the flip side, San Francisco has this reputation as this very liberal city, but there are so many things that are actually surprisingly conservative about it, especially with the drastic income inequality. 

When you have skyrocketing income inequality, it can hollow out the culture of the place. It comes for people with fewer resources first, LGBT people among them. I mean, from everything I've seen that's been happening to San Francisco, that's hard to watch. Most of the people I know who lived in San Francisco have now moved out to Oakland, and even in Oakland, rents are rising. It just pushes people further and further out. We've seen that happen in Manhattan, it's alarming to watch it happen to other hubs of LGBT culture. But the good news is there are more hubs available.

Samantha Allen in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah.
Samantha Allen in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. (Courtesy of Samantha Allen)

All that grassroots organizing that you write about in the book is so inspiring too. Do you think that the changing attitudes in conservative states are a product of local organizing, as well as the internet educating people on different gender and sexuality issues?

I think there's certainly more media awareness and people have more ready access to information on the internet, but I think that primary factor driving social change in the heart of the country is just people talking to each other. LGBT people are coming out to their friends, family and co-workers. When someone that you know and love comes out to you, whatever anti-LGBT ideology you have in your heart at least has to get challenged because you're presented with, "I love this person and they're something that I've been told to hate." I spoke with many people while writing the book who told me they'd had an experience like that.

Do you have any predictions for 10 years, 20 years down the line? What will the country's relationship to LGBTQ issues look like?

I write in the end of the book that I can't wait for the book to be antiquated; I can't wait for the book to seem outdated. I think it will still be close to 20 years before we see sexual orientation and gender identity covered in federal civil rights legislation. I could be surprised by that. It could happen in eight years with a new president and a different congress, but anti-LGBT legislators have enough of a presence in state legislatures and enough of a presence in D.C. that progress can still be really delayed.

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Another really worrisome thing is the number of anti-LGBT judicial nominees that the Trump administration has been quietly appointing while attention is diverted elsewhere. Things like Mueller, or whatever is captivating political media right now. Those judges are going to have an impact that stretches on for decades. I think culturally, we're going to get to a really amazing, accepting place maybe 10 years before legal protections follow. I think we saw the same thing with same-sex marriage where public opinion reached a certain tipping point, and then there was this agonizing period of trying to get it legalized everywhere.

I would say cultural acceptance will be in a pretty positive place in 10 years and legal acceptance to follow a decade after that.

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