In summer 2017, journalist Samantha Allen took a road trip to visit parts of the United States, which, depending on your outlook, might be considered the “real America,” the “flyover states” or a complicated mixture of those terms. The GLAAD Award-winning journalist — and senior reporter covering LGBTQ news for the Daily Beast — assembled her experience into her new book, “Real Queer America: LGBT Stories From Red States.”
The purpose of “Real Queer America,” Allen writes, is “to document what’s actually happening in the ‘real America’ that more and more LGBT people are calling home — to capture some of the progressive cultural shifts that people on the coasts don’t read enough about in a media environment that focuses mostly on a handful of horrific incidents and regressive laws.” After all, she says, almost half of the queer population in the U.S. is “spread across the South, the Midwest, Texas and the Dakotas, and other red regions.” So where are their stories?
Allen, in this book, pushes back against the singular narrative of suffering in these states, choosing instead to showcase the resistance, the community-building and the culture of LGBTQ folks who live in Utah, Texas, Indiana, Tennessee, Mississippi and Georgia. And for me, a queer person who moved to the red state of Nebraska, these uplifting stories of community are very familiar.
Folded into the reportage too is Allen’s own story.
Allen has a good reason for making Utah the first stop on her weeks-long road trip crisscrossing the country’s middle. Utah is home to Brigham Young University, which Allen attended as an undergraduate, an institution that then had a very anti-LGBTQ honor code and which, although it allows out gay students in, still bans any “homosexual behavior.” It was in this restrictive Mormon institution that Allen first packed a bag full of women’s clothing, got in her silver Honda and found isolated parking lots where she could change. She’d drive around at night, makeup messy, clothes still ill-fitting, but, as she writes, “as long as [her] foot stayed on that pedal, [she] felt alive.”
Allen shares her path to transition in short anecdotes that unfold over the chapters, cleverly keeping readers enthralled with both her careful reporting and personal narrative, which brings her from the closeted Mormon young man she was perceived to be all the way to a queer transgender woman, married to her wife, Corey, whom she met — it’s too perfect — at the Kinsey Institute in Bloomington, Ind. (Alfred Kinsey was a sex researcher, inventor of the Kinsey Scale, which introduced sexuality as a gradient rather than a binary; as Allen writes, “If you’re an American who has had good sex, you owe a debt to Kinsey.”
“Real Queer America” is far more than one trans woman’s coming out story.
The bulk of the book is spent doing what Allen has been doing for years, and doing well: reporting. In each state she visits, she meets people who are trying to make a difference, like Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, a queer advocacy group; black trans activist Nicole Lynn Perry, whom Allen meets at a protest at the Texas State Capitol where Perry wears a shirt reading “Transgender Veteran: I Fought for Your Right to Hate Me.”
Allen also interviews those who benefit from this kind of work, like 19-year-old Jeannie, who finds a homey, welcoming space in Encircle, a Provo, Utah-based LGBTQ family and youth resource center, which sits directly across from a Mormon temple in the city’s downtown — and which hadn’t existed yet when Allen lived there.
She also talks to those who are simply trying to live their lives and do good work where they are, like Jess Herbst, the trans mayor of New Hope, Texas, who tells Allen that “being transgender has nothing to do with my job. The car on blocks and the house next door are way more important than what I’m wearing.” There’s also Temica Morton, who, in 2016, organized the first pride parade in Jackson, Miss., or Jesse Pandolfo, a Boston native who now runs WonderLust, an LGBT nightclub “where everyone — including Jackson’s burgeoning transgender community — feels welcome.”
And “Real Queer America” reflects the story of people just like me.
When I chose to move from New York City to Lincoln, Neb., for graduate school, I knew what I was getting myself into. Nebraska is a red state, infamous in the LGBTQ community because this is where Brandon Teena was raped and murdered — not exactly the place where a queer, Jewish, leftist person with a wishy-washy gender would expect to make a home. What I didn’t know before moving here was how many queer people I would meet in my department, or how much I’d fall in love with the Alley, a recently shuttered bar that was home to nightly (yes, nightly) drag shows, or how many Black Lives Matter rainbow signs I’d see in my neighborhood reading, “All Are Welcome Here.” I didn’t expect it, and my coastal friends certainly didn’t either, nor that I would meet and start dating a woman in my first month in corn country. So, when I first saw the title of Allen’s new book, I breathed a sigh of relief — finally, I thought, here was a book that could both educate me and affirm what I’d begun to understand about red states.
None of which is to say that Allen is trying to sugarcoat the LGBTQ experience.
She doesn’t try to sell middle America as a fuzzy, warm place that is unilaterally safe for or welcoming of queer folk. “Real Queer America” is a book necessary for anyone in — or allied with — the queer community, especially those of us who see the bad news day after day. But she’s sharing the beauty of the spaces that LGBTQ+ people have carved out for themselves, and she’s giving credit where credit is very much overdue, because it’s the queer folk who live and stay in red states — whether by choice or due to a lack of options — who have to survive there and work to make them better.
Little, Brown and Co., 320 pp., $27