By Eryn Brothers, Staff Writer
Cover photo by Cody Barlow
Watching the news unfold on January 6th, sitting at my computer, torn between work and watching the collapse of something, I felt a familiar rock settle in my guts. I didn’t have its name until I saw that the man who put his feet on Nancy Pelosi’s desk (Richard Barnett) was from my home state, Arkansas. The nameless feeling I had been trying to avoid was Shame, with its slithery capital “S.” I felt that intimate discourse between myself and where I am from, a feeling all too worn and tried. Knowing that the stream of anger coming would be tinged with expressions like, “dumb redneck,” and “ignorant hillbilly,” I sat at my computer, both of us mutually confused machines, and cried. The angry tears mixing with the feeling of hopelessness and Southern Shame.
I thought of the many times I had felt that shame. Traveling with my father and telling another traveler I was from Arkansas. They asked me if I had bought shoes specifically for the trip. Confused, I responded by telling them about my new hiking boots. They laughed at me, and I realized they were making a joke at my expense – people from Arkansas were shoeless hillbillies.
I thought of when I was in middle school, watching a homecoming parade with my mother. The tail of the parade featured two boys on a donkey, one of whom was Black and swinging a confederate flag. I was standing next to my mother, who taught at the high school, and I started to go run up to the boy and take the flag from him. My mother grabbed me and whispered, “You know that they don’t understand what that means, you know it’s just Southern pride to them.” I glowered back with tears in my eyes and knew that she was not only right, but that if I had indeed gone to capture the flag she would be fired from the work our family depended on. I thought of the shame I still carry to this day for not doing something in that moment, for not stealing that flag.
I thought of the years of hiding my accent while traveling to big cities, and even during my time in Texas. You can only explain “fixin’ to” so many times, or be laughed at when the drawl comes creeping in during casual conversation or a fight.
I thought of the shame that comes from telling people you’ve lived in trailers (and not in the cute Marfa way), of patched jeans and bad teeth.
It all reminded me of when Taylor Swift, in 2019, released her music video for “You Need To Calm Down”. There was not only backlash within the queer community, but within the Appalachian community as well. The music video, with its brightly colored high jinx, queer celebrities, allusions to the end of a dramatic friend feud (i.e. the Katy Perry vs. Taylor Swift drama), stood out brightly against its protestors, awash with misspelled signs, bad teeth, dirty skin, overalls, and bad hair. The hamfisted intention was to frame Southerners and Appalachians as personally responsible for the rise of violent white supremacist groups and oppressive Christian nationalism.
These symbols make shifting the paradigm extremely difficult, and are deeply rooted in the classism and racism that pervades not only Southern and Appalachian culture, but ALL American culture. By reinforcing these stereotypes we place the wreath of blame for systemic issues like the election of Trump solely on southerners instead of the politicians that continue to benefit from these injustices.
Marginalized Southern Voices
I think I need to make one thing extremely clear before I continue: I am not making excuses for the terrorists at the Capitol on January 6th. Not in the slightest. I do not condone neo-Nazism, racism, fascism, sexism, or homophobia of any kind. I’m not making excuses for any person who voted for Trump. No fucking chance.
However, it is a point that needs to be made for the safety of our queer and BIPoC family in the southern US: when you group every southerner into a stereotype of bigoted, violent, toxic whiteness, you are not using an inclusive lens to look into our culture. This debilitates these marginalized groups in their pursuit of recognition and safety within southern communities. The American South has always been a battleground within American politics, but it’s also home to many persons of color, queer people, and progressives. The media’s focus on the toxic whiteness and fascism that exist in this part of the country allows this stereotype to not only run wild, but to continue a divide that incentivizes politicians to engage the most violent and despicable aspects of southern culture.
This also deters those who diversify the South from staying here, while discouraging transplants who could usher in change at a more rapid pace.
According to a study in 2019 carried out by the Williams Institute UCLA School of Law, 24% of queer adults living in the South live in poverty. This is due in part to the extremely damaging laws regarding LGBTQNBIA+ rights. Such policies are more prevalent in the South and Midwest due to those regions voting more Republican. (As the Georgia Senate runoff election proved, this is to some degree a result of voter suppression tactics.) On top of this, Southerners statistically tend to be single issue voters, something that right-leaning politicians take advantage of. They know their voters will always err on the side of religious conservatism. It becomes a perfect storm: single issue voters, emboldened by voter suppression, and encouraged to vote according to their their worst instincts. All the while, within their own cultures and systems, consciously or unconsciously, they perpetuate homogeneity and reject diversity.
Queering Country Culture
At this point, you’d be excused for wondering what that hell any of this has to do with Country Queer or queer country culture. It has everything to do with it. Ensuring that the mechanisms for gatekeeping within country culture are dissolved, and that more representation is allowed, is absolutely crucial in the healing of this nation.
This is why these images, from Taylor Swift’s protestors to the insurgents at the Capitol, are so dangerous. If these are the only images of southern and country culture that people see, it not only makes it harder for queers to take space within the country realm, but it makes it dangerous for them to interface with country culture. This perpetuates Southern shame – which prohibits true change – and normalizes bigotry. In turn it allows the people that hold up these ideals to continue in their cruelty and judgement with safe passage.
Southerners and country music lovers are not just camo-wearing Trump supporters, we’re a diverse rainbow in this nation. Queer people need to exist in the South, not only to usher in change in terms of LGBTQNBIA+ rights, but to help grow and stand alongside Black and PoC southerners. You need to see us here so you can support us, too.
The Courage of Queer Country Artists
In essence, and keeping these paradigms in mind, the queer musicians that engage with country, folk, americana, and traditional music are the most punk mother fuckers you know. In almost every one of my MIXTAPE interviews, most, if not all, of the musicians I spoke with grew up loving country music, but feeling very disenfranchised within it, either because of the macho dudes blasting country from their pickup trucks or because of the high-content masculinity and femininity mainstream country reveres. Those not of the South may find it hard to understand the gnawing need to fit in, as it meant not only fitting into a genre of music that we felt passionate about, but also a culture that we were raised in, and from which we were, bafflingly, excluded.
We’ve had to grow up and find ourselves in places where we have not been allowed; tried to survive in the nuanced areas of this Southern shame, along with the shame that comes with growing up queer in Southern culture.
I grew up in a larger college town in Arkansas, and while my experiences in being openly queer have not been easy (just three months ago I, themme that I am, was assaulted by the epithet “faggot,” hurled from the window of a passing truck), I understand that there are those in my state who do not have the same luxury of openness that I have, simply because of the cities and counties they live in. It’s a very real factor of Southern life: there are people with extremely conservative values here. But that shouldn’t deter those who are not from here from living and growing here, nor should it prevent people who are from here from living full, open, and out lives. Safe lives.
One of the quickest avenues to that is representation.
In this article from The Week, experts and journalists alike debate who the insurgents at the Capitol were. It’s a mixed bag, to quote Jack Schafer from Politico:”Capitol insurrectionists represent a bigger slice of white America than just the low-class knuckle-draggers who rolled in from the sticks on Donald Trump’s command.” Shafer and I make the same point: that it’s not just rural, working-class people that carried out the insurrection, but people with money and power. Why are they not being called “knuckle-draggers”? Why is this the most acceptable form of representation of Southern and Appalachian culture?
This is why being openly queer in country music – as a fan, artist, journalist, DJ, or businessperson – is a profound way to create representation and, therefore, change. Country music statistically has a pretty solid economic footing, a fan base that continuously buys records and streams diligently. Making sure that the hallowed halls of country music are wide open spaces instead of being fortified gates (with their glass ceilings and Jim Crow policies) is a no-brainer in terms of advancing the cause of equality in America.
There are reasons why Brandi Carlisle’s music video for “The Joke” , Beyonce performing with The Chicks at the CMA awards, or Dolly Parton discussing the Black Lives Matter movement were massively important moments. It indicates not only a necessity for change from the outside, but from inside the gates of Nashville as well. It indicates that making space for everyone to be represented in country music can also help those who are starving so deeply for change that they will storm a government building in a fit of delusion, hate, confused malice.
Maybe making sure there is representation in the music they love will help them see that people they’ve demonized are actually human, little different from them in most respects.
It’s painfully clear that mainstream country radio would rather ignore representation, and continue to silently pander to people who choose to be hateful. There’s a reason why in the 1970’s everyone decided that Nashville could go fuck itself, and created the Outlaw Country we love today. There are no new tales, just told in different ways when it comes to country music. The message that still rings stinging and true: the South has to change. Country music has to change. Nashville has to change. It all goes and flows together.
W.E.B Du Bois once said, “As the South goes, so goes the nation.” This idea can be applied to country music. Think of the things that could happen, what inclusivity could bring in terms of representation to political advocacy. Publications like Country Queer fight these gatekeepers by simply working to create a space for musicians that are queer and country, so the kids coming up will feel less alone in this crazy world. To honor those kids that we were, Southern and full of shame, shame of our poverty, our queerness, our Southerness. Of a lineage full of racism, poverty, and pain.
We are country and queer now because of the hope that one day we could be witnessed without pain, to eradicate it from the future versions of country. To be queer in country music is in its very core to make sure that we have a chance to be seen and heard, not only by our queer families, but to be seen and heard by those who maybe wouldn’t engage with us in any other way but through music. For country queers like me, the dream is to create a different kind of southern pride that has nothing to do with Confederate flags or storming the Capitol, and everything to do with our rich and diverse history, and a future that we can co-create, where we all have a chance to sit and sing at the table.
Until then, I keep the words of Woody Guthrie’s New Year’s Rulins to heart: Fight Fascism, Wake up and Fight, and Keep The Hopin’ Machine Alive. I hope that you do this too, from spinning queer country records to supporting Black country musicians, sharing articles and songs with the vision of a future South that has changed, and that will continue to grow and learn, a proud rainbow-speckled quilt that adorns the homes where our forefathers’ sins used to reside. I’m ready for that brand of pride. I am tired of the shame given to me by wars I did not fight, by Richard Barnett, and by Taylor Swift.
During the writing of this article, a bill in Arkansas was introduced that would ban the teaching of Black History in public schools, including but not limited to K-12, two year colleges, and certain four year universities. This bill is called the HB1218. Another bill was introduced, HB1231, which not only prohibits public funds for the 1619 Project (a long term journalism project that was developed by The New York Times that centers on slavery and the history of its consequences) but for Gay Straight Alliances as well. You can read more about the bill here, here, and here. Please help us in our fight for representation by contacting these representatives and tell them that you believe that the South can change.