In plain sight
an exploration of gay rights, lgbtq women, and rural place
Several concepts and terms appear in the film and throughout the materials on this website that are rarely used outside of LGBTQ Studies or gay rights activism. Here we offer additional information related to some of these terms and concepts. These include: heteronormativity, homonormativity, LGBTQ, metronormativity, progress narrative, queer, rural/urban, and visibility politics.
Some of the material in this section has been pulled from Dr. Carly Thomsen’s book Visibility Interrupted: Rural Queer Life and the Politics of Unbecoming.
Metronormativity, a term coined by J. Jack Halberstam, refers to those ways of thinking that assume that cities are better for LGBTQ people than rural spaces (2005). Metronormative thinking links welcoming, safe, and liberated with the city and dangerous, homophobic, and closeted with the rural. Rural Queer Studies scholars have challenged the assumption that the lives of LGBTQ people in rural places are defined by homophobia, violence, and fear; in fact, some scholars have argued that there are no more hate crimes per capita in rural areas than in urban places because of the ways in which such crimes are enabled by the types of anonymity that do not typically exist in rural places (Gray 2016).
A reduced number of hate crimes does not, of course, necessarily mean that LGBTQ people in rural places feel less discriminated against or feel supported, welcome, or safe—but this is, in fact, what scholars have found. In a study of 632 “sexually active” gay men and lesbians who live in towns with populations of 10,000 or less, researchers found that “rural gay persons fare no worse than their urban counterparts when it comes to their sense of wellbeing—a pattern of findings that holds for both men and women…If anything, the results from this study suggest that living in the largest cities may be detrimental to gay people’s wellbeing, although more so for lesbians than for gay men” (Wienke and Hill 2013). The following reasons, according to these authors, may account for this gendered difference: lesbians earn less than gay men (because women earn less than men); lesbians are more likely to be raising children than gay men; and LGBTQ subcultural scenes are largely dominated by gay men. The gendered make-up of rural LGBTQ life ought to make us consider who is displaced from urban LGBTQ communities and for whom these spaces are, actually, liberating and for whom they are undesirable.
Metronormativity makes it difficult to understand why LGBTQ people stay in or move to rural places. Consider the following figures, brought together by rural queer sociologist Emily Kazyak (2012):
From 1990 to 2000, the concentration of same-sex couples in urban areas declined (Rosenfeld and Kim 2005).
In 2007, seventeen percent of same-sex couples lived in rural areas (Gates 2006).
Between 2000 and 2007, the number of same-sex couples living in rural areas increased by fifty-one percent (Gates 2006).
These figures speak to the need to push back against the metronormativity that renders the people represented by such figures illegible.
In short, for Rural Queer Studies scholars, metronormativity--not rural place!--is the problem. Scholars have argued that metronormativity is evident across LGBTQ Studies scholarship and gay rights activism. As Scott Herring points out, “if recent strains of queer theory and recent forms of lgbtq politics (latent and manifest) share common ground, it’s usually a dismissal of rurality as such, a dismissal not only commonplace, but let’s bet the farm on it, chronic” (2010, 5). Garrett Nichols elaborates, claiming that “queer theoretical frameworks implicitly centered on urban queer experiences run the risk of inappropriately imposing their conclusions on communities for whom the urban experience may have little to no cultural purchase” (2017, 44). For more information on how Rural Queer Studies is disrupting metronormativity, check out our pedagogical resources section. To see metronormativity in action, explore our metronormativity in media page.
Metronormative thinking links welcoming, safe, and liberated with the city and dangerous, homophobic, and closeted with the rural.
“Queer theoretical frameworks implicitly centered on urban queer experiences run the risk of inappropriately imposing their conclusions on communities for whom the urban experience may have little to no cultural purchase.”
Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner describe heteronormativity as “the institutions, structures of understanding, and practical orientations that make heterosexuality seem not only coherent--that is organized as a sexuality--but also privileged” (2000, 312). Heteronormativity, in other words, refers to the idea that heterosexuality is natural and stable and that any other forms of sexuality are deviant as well as those social institutions and policies that reinforce the presumption that people are heterosexual and that benefit heterosexual people.
Leftist LGBTQ activists and queer studies scholars are just as critical of homonormativity as they are of heteronormativity. Homonormativity describes the approaches of mainstream gay rights groups that are rooted in the desire to access dominant and oppressive institutions, such as marriage, the military, and the marketplace. Homonormativity, Lisa Duggan says, refers to “a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions, but upholds and sustains them, while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depolicized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption” (2004, 50).
LGBTQ is an acronym that stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer and is often used as an umbrella term. At the present time, LGBTQ Studies scholars and gay rights activists seem to most often use this version of the acronym. However, elsewhere you may see additional letters included in the acronym, such as IA2S. The IA2S refer to intersex, asexual or ally, and two-spirit people.
A progress narrative refers to the assumption that the contemporary moment is inherently more progressive and less repressive than prior historical periods. Within progressive understandings of time, social injustices--such as homophobia, racism, and sexism--are imagined as worse in the past. By extension, people living in this moment are imagined as more liberated than people in previous periods. Scholars have critiqued this way of thinking because it ignores both ongoing forms of oppression and also how marginalized people have resisted throughout history. Although most scholars have written about progress narratives in terms of history, or time, others have said that ideas about geography, or place, are also central to progress narratives (Thomsen 2016, 247). In other words, certain places--like the Midwest or the non-West--are imagined as less progressive than the urban West.
Queer remains a contested word among LGBTQ people and supporters of LGBTQ freedom. Some people oppose this term because it has been used in derogatory and hurtful ways toward LGBTQ people. Others have “reclaimed” the term, often using it as an umbrella term for “LGBTQ” or as a contemporary stand in for “lesbian and gay.” Queer theorists and leftist queer activists critique these usages, claiming that the term’s explicitly leftist political orientation is lost when we use it to refer to people’s sexual identities alone. For these scholars and activists, queerness refers to a commitment to non-normativity and to disrupting the assimilationist goals of contemporary gay rights groups. As Lee Edelman says, queerness “can never define an identity; it can only ever disturb one” (2004, 17).
“Rural” and “urban” are commonly imagined and defined in terms of population. Rural Queer Studies scholars push for more complicated ways of thinking about place. Scott Herring, for example, suggests that “something in excess of empirical geographic specificities or the faulty logic of population density governs the urban/rural divide that informs U.S.-based queer studies” (2010, 8). Following Herring, we see that “any ‘urban/rural’ distinction is as much context-specific, phantasmatic, performative, subjective, and…standardizing as it is geographically verifiable” (2010, 8). In other words, what “rural” and “urban” mean differs across place and refers to things other than population density. The women in In Plain Sight confirmed this point time and time again. One interviewee who currently lives in Sioux Falls, South Dakota—a city of 160,000 people that comprises 28% of the state’s population—suggested that the city feels rural because so many of the people who live there are from rural places.
Visibility politics refers to activist calls for LGBTQ people to “come out.” Such approaches ascribe personal and political value to being “out, loud, and proud” and rely on the assumption that visibility paves the way for increased tolerance and political equality (a position LGBTQ Studies scholars have contested). Such calls ignore that what visibility means, what it looks like, and how it is valued depend deeply on geographic context. Visibility politics “rely on an understanding of LGBTQ subjectivity as inherently victimized (it is through our personal and cultural visibility that we move from marginalized to liberated, after all); view visibility as a fixed place at which one arrives and stays; and rarely conceptualize visibility in terms of risk–aside from the potential risk of being “out” in unsafe (rural and non-Western) place” (Thomsen, forthcoming).