Uncovering the history of gender and sexual nonconformity in rural America during the first half of the twentieth century
Just Queer Folks
Gender and Sexuality in Rural America
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Colin R. Johnson
Most studies of lesbian and gay history focus on urban environments. Yet gender and sexual diversity were anything but rare in nonmetropolitan areas in the first half of the twentieth century. Just Queer Folks explores the seldom-discussed history of same-sex intimacy and gender nonconformity in rural and small-town America during a period when the now familiar concepts of heterosexuality and homosexuality were just beginning to take shape.
Eschewing the notion that identity is always the best measure of what can be known about gender and sexuality, Colin R. Johnson argues instead for a queer historicist approach. In so doing, he uncovers a startlingly unruly rural past in which small-town eccentrics, "mannish" farm women, and cross-dressing Civilian Conservation Corps enrollees were often just queer folks so far as their neighbors were concerned. Written with wit and verve, Just Queer Folks upsets a whole host of contemporary commonplaces, including the notion that queer history is always urban history.
"Johnson follows the back roads of twentieth-century U.S. history, tracing same-sex desires and relations as they flourished in small towns, on homesteads, on farms, in work camps, and everywhere in between. Challenging the centrality of urbanization in narratives of queer identity formation, Just Queer Folks demonstrates the variety and range of sexual and gender expression in rural and small-town America. At a moment when the contours of gay and lesbian life are rapidly shifting, Johnson offers an original and fascinating account of the rural roots of contemporary queerness."
"Johnson posits that hetero-normalization was an early-20th-century phenomenon rooted in the discredited eugenics movement of its time and was a middle-class morality handed down from urban elites.... [He] doggedly decodes contrasting versions of 'Big Rock Candy Mountain' that hint at gay sex, and pores over pages of the journal of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and 1940s to breathlessly report that gay people did, in fact, exist in rural areas."
"In this splendid book, Johnson teaches us to suspect received wisdom.... and dispel the notion that in the first half of the 20th century, same-sex intimacy and gender nonconformity were urban specific.... Johnson proves the worth of rigorous, scholarly interdisciplinary research.... VERDICT: This complex and original work should be read widely by all readers in its interrelated disciplines."
"Colin Johnson’s pioneering book argues that the way we think about modern lesbian, gay and queer identity forms a kind of 'metro-chauvinism'.... Via carefully prepared case study after case study, Johnson shows us how largely poor and working-class men and women lived out their queer diversity in situ, and he argues that small towns and rural communities accommodated eccentricity and often protected 'their own'.... In Just Queer Folks, he both reorients a cliché of rural backwardness and challenges the convention that metropolitan gays somehow 'have it easy'. It is his political acuity, grounded in meticulous archival evidence, that makes this social history so good."
"Johnson’s Just Queer Folks expands the repertoire of sources available to historians studying American sexuality and, most importantly, convincingly argues that a queer rural history requires greater attention for its contribution to the development of modern sexual identities, as well as resistances to them.... [H]is readings of 'hard women' portraits in particular display an agile working of queer historicism to chart new territory of historical investigation."
"Grounded in queer theory and an interdisciplinary approach, Johnson carefully challenges and qualifies assumptions that problematic sexualities and behaviors found freedom of expression only in cities. In nonmetropolitan regions across the US in the first half of the 20th century, primary sources including film, fiction, graphic images, government commissions, police surveillance, and scientific studies revealed a variety of sexual behavior and gender roles for rural (mostly white) folks, despite heteronormative prescriptions..... [A] fascinating study.... Summing Up: Recommended."
"Johnson has produced a book that is both well-reasoned and readable, an expedition into an often neglected area of gay and lesbian history."
"Just Queer Folks provides a powerful corrective to the faulty assumption that gender and sexual nonnormativity and rurality are incompatible.... Taken as a whole, the book succeeds in mapping the wide range of queer practices that were commonplace for men in rural America. Further, the range of sources Johnson draws on is impressive and thus the book serves as an exemplar for scholars seeking to do queer historicism."
"[A] fascinating and gracefully composed dialogue between queer theorists and historians of rural America that expands the geography of queer theory.... Johnson finds that rural Americans at the beginning of the last century did not necessarily subscribe to rigid notions of gender and sexual behavior.... Johnson writes with tremendous sensitivity about queer cultures among working men, hoboes, and the “hard women” of Farm Security Administration portraits who operated on the peripheries of femininity defined by access to consumer goods.... [T]he beauty of Johnson's work is that it is truly synthetic. By focusing on a few well-selected examples he reminds readers that he is building new theoretical foundations. For example, to see [John] D'Emilio in conversation with Mary Neth, a historian of rural women, one realizes that such dialogues are long overdue.... [T]he lively narrative in Just Queer Folks is accessible to readers from a variety of fields."
Conclusion: Mansfield, Ohio
Colin R. Johnson is Associate Professor of Gender Studies and Adjunct Associate Professor of American Studies, History, and Human Biology at Indiana University Bloomington.
In the series
Sexuality Studies, edited by Janice Irvine and Regina Kunzel.
Sexuality Studies Series, edited by Janice M. Irvine and Regina G. Kunzel, features work in the field of sexuality studies in its social, cultural, and political dimensions, and in both historical and contemporary formations. The editors seek proposals that bridge theoretical and empirical methodologies, and that are located within both disciplinary and interdisciplinary frames.