Real Queer America: the review I didn’t want to put on Goodreads because I saw the author reads them

Real Queer America book cover

Little, Brown & Co.

This was a book club read, but once I saw it I got excited and actually bought a copy instead of my usual library rental approach. I grew up in a rural red area, and thought from the ad copy that this would be a sort of anthology or at least one writer traveling and telling stories/sharing interviews with queer people she met on her road trip.

What it is, is part of something that I think will be reflected on in ten years as an era of lazy navel-gazing journalism chiefly by the likes of NPR and the New York Times as liberal publications scrambled to act like they understood the red/rural/working class votes in the 2016 election and wound up doing hokey “they’re just like us!” bits in places like coal mines, bars in Montana and Missouri, and towns with abnormally high opioid prescription rates.

Some of the other book club members who did not have any personal attachment to the locations profiled in the book were able to clue in on some grander themes that I suppose the author was trying to draw, but to me personally it felt like even these were so shaky that they didn’t merit being built on the backs of people trying to live and work to improve quality of life for LGBTQ+ people in areas that aren’t openly or commonly thought to be friendly. Maybe this is a bit of a harsh criticism, as even I feel the author wasn’t trying to use the subjects for any personal gain – many are her friends, colleagues, and former profile subjects for her main career as a journalist – but authorial intent means very little.

I suspect, based on a throwaway passage in the end portions of the book in which the author references pitching a travel memoir and having it received well, that perhaps this whole problem of marketing not matching content can be blamed on the publisher. This, however, does not excuse some remarkably thin and cursory profiles in the book. Ostensibly the author is on a road trip to meet LGBTQ+ people who live in red states and do activism work of some sort, but instead of painting rich stories around these subjects, many people wind up with a scant few quotes of their own and instead serve as talismans for the author to wrap around and use to support paragraphs of her own story. Perhaps more excusable in a memoir, but still not done in a particularly masterful manner. In at least two instances I felt the few quotes given only stood to make the person seem less personable or interesting; unless their hours-long meetings were incredibly terrible I feel this could have been avoided. (One example is a man who comes across tone-deaf stating that he could have totally lived his life being discriminatory and xenophobic but luckily he turned out to be gay, which bestowed upon him some empathy, and another who states possibly multiple times that they could just ‘sell the whole plot’ as it were and move to Europe but bravely! valiantly! chooses not to do so. This is at odds with one of the book’s many tepid theses which I believe is that queer identity in red areas forces one to be more proactive about politics and civil rights and by nature. (Someone tell this to all my WLW relationships/friends who found it perfectly possible not to.))

The book also manages to be spectacularly oblivious to how Blackness and racism and homophobia in the rural South/Midwest all intertwine, although I suppose to go into this would highlight how many queer spaces are often run by white gay men or possibly, rarely, white cis queer women, so that it is very likely that nonwhite queer folk can find themselves still without a safe and supportive and friendly place to go even in a “gay Mecca” like….(checks notes) Jackson, Mississippi. A place lumped in with Alabama and described as an area that hadn’t, until the author’s pals opened gay bars, had any sort of meaningful civil rights movements as long as you forget almost all of the Civil Rights Movement and how the SPLC is still headquartered in Birmingham. I bring this up in particular because the author has enough self awareness to point out her whiteness and when there are more than five nonwhite people in an area, but doesn’t take it any farther than that.

Long story short, everyone go find a copy of Electric Dirt instead. I appreciate what the author is trying to do here, I guess, but it’s done in a hamfisted manner and the presumed meddling by the publisher really snowballed things into a Katamari mass of, in my opinion, disrespect for most of the areas mentioned.

whatever thoughts aug 25

Even though I started this account largely because I know I am incapable of journaling by hand because I write slowly and with the readability of a Pekingese dog given a pen, I haven’t been writing much here EITHER because instead my problem is continually thinking I should only publish a blog post if I have a clear thesis and good writing.

This post will likely have neither of those things.

This post is me being angry inside as I read Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino and a group chat among acquaintances and two friends (because for some reason at the dawn of group chats it seems we’ve decided it is too brazen to leave or remove someone from a chat, at least in my social circles, so they all seem to become shitpiles of people I mostly don’t talk to or even like but still contain jewels of people I do want to hear about so I stay but mute the chat to only pop in when I have the wherewithal). The two are wrapping around each other in my brain and I thought I was first angry about classism and class divides and the unfairness of them but more tangibly I’m angry about how the desire to present an image of wealth on social media has tainted so many of my friendships.

Backing up: I grew up kind of broke and then lived some of my life, concurrent with the 2008-2009 recession and aftermath, so broke I’d say it had two syllables. I was buh-roke. Not to be confused but humorously homonymous with ostentatious baroque styling.

I was mad about it for a while and still am sometimes. I am still working through my internalized stigma and shame around secondhand shopping as ThredUp and Poshmark become popular and thrifting seems to be entering a renaissance because it is so clearly marked as ecologically friendly. After all, it is trivially easy to post and location mark your local Goodwill with a caption about how you’re working to save the planet. I agree with this in concept even as I am annoyed to see how picked over every resale shop is getting either for virtue signaling or for flipping on apps like Depop, having been someone who relied heavily on those cheap clothes to keep me out of the other cheap clothes (Walmart) which could be easily picked up on by classmates as being, well, cheap and the place where only losers shopped for back to school outfits.

I do grow more and more grateful for it every day; I realize that the things I learned because they were common in my household (reusing food containers so you don’t need to buy new ones; minor and sometimes major car repair; sewing holes and adding on lost buttons; creating games and worlds and toys out of odd things and heavily using the local library) are sometimes completely new ideas to my middle and upper class acquaintances and colleagues now in this strange new world I’ve moved to and they make me look sometimes like a keeper of secret knowledge and intuitions. I’m pretty open about where the knowledge actually originated in part as my ongoing effort to claim or reclaim my origins but admittedly also because I am entertained watching these people try not to flinch. It seems people who were born into houses that were sprayed at the perimeter with pesticides and with two and only two running cars out front (or perhaps in the connected finished garage!) have some sort of built in divide from and concrete mental image of what the poor folks look like. Maybe that’s not it and I’m projecting or maybe that’s not it just because it’s a simpler answer, that socially it’s usually unacceptable to loudly and openly discuss class and pay rates and having missed meals as a teenager.

At any rate, it becomes clearer and clearer to me that my very existence in a friend group otherwise comprised of the middle, upper middle, and lower upper class (because we know middle class has almost no meaning – but I mean the range of “we went to public school but we were driven in an SUV to the drop off and were packed a lunch” to “we went to a private school and got a new car as a 16th birthday gift, we all had plenty of expensive hobbies like violin and gymnastics and took at least a weeklong vacation with a flight annually but I still insist we weren’t like rich we couldn’t do anything” — there is a uniting lack of recognition in these groups that not being rich to most other people means no vacations, no flying, the free or reduced school meal plan, and only doing extracurricular if the bus can bring you home because all the adults are working) – my existence in these group chats and brunches almost always begins to feel unwelcome by a few months in. This is usually the point by which multiple people have defended leasing a car as the most economically smart plan because “cars fall apart after like three years anyway” and my eyeballs have rolled out of my skull putting everyone off their mimosas. My existence and inability to just shut up has by this point led me to point out that I could help my friends who own houses before 30 because of down payment gifts from parents change their oil since they’re not bound by apartment agreements forbidding car work (which is, in itself, often a class issue as what they really don’t want is the complex to look like a place where dirty working class people do automobile labor) and this causes everyone to tilt their head slightly before recovering and crowing that I’m sooo resourceful to know how to do that kind of thing and just say they’ll take it to the shop they had just been complaining about overcharging them but thaaanks.

Moreover, by this point everyone will have asked for my Instagram and I will have followed theirs back due to social pressure and the bittersweet sad hope I always have that some of them will at least be cool, maybe just one, and we can be friends, and I will have started to see the parade of imagery suggesting their perfect life…..which I will never understand because the followers seeing the pictures of their new car, new shoes, vacation, and visits to pop-up experiences basically made to be ‘grammed are the same people (I’ve yet to encounter someone whose following is mostly strangers) who SPEAK TO THEM IN REAL LIFE to hear them complain about their lease payments and fees, their credit card debts, their shoplifting habits, and that they spent two hours of fleeting lifetime waiting in a line to Venmo an LLC $20 to stand a foot away from thousands of other people who are more or less staying politely just out of frame and taking turns taking each others’ photos so they can simultaneously look like the only people at an installation but also like they went with a fleet of friends willing to lay on the ground and get their best angles. It’s a display of time and money that I ostensibly know the person does not have, because they will say so in real life with the understanding that I guess I’m supposed to comment with a bunch of fawning emoji to boost their engagement…even though we all know it’s a damn sham.

I feel simultaneously like I’m missing a huge clue to understanding and relating to this behavior and being able to just make a freaking friend once in a while, and like my prior poverty is a cloak keeping me from whatever consumerist pressure is in the world. Not all of it, clearly, because I definitely just bought two different deluxe versions out of four for Taylor Swift’s new album even though her fans are diligently posting the special contents of each online….. I have been moving every two to three years of my adult life as a constant game or race of job and rent and lifestyle changes, sometimes because I picked it and sometimes because I was ushered into it by rising costs of living or soul crushing and “illegal but the cops don’t care you need a lawyer you don’t have money for” circumstances, meaning my social life is perpetually fractured and damn, sometimes I just want to be able to settle in but it seems inevitable that I lose or forfeit friendships over the disdain/jealousy/confusion developed after recognizing that yet another person seems relatable and friendly over lunch but expects me to pay lots of money and take lots of photos of whatever would be currently best received online.

I just want to eat Doritos on the floor or my cat-shredded couch or an old blanket outside and talk about library books. Shit. Stop making me dance around why I still have and love my filthy ten year old car because we’re all uncomfortable with anything but acting like we have too much money to know what to do with. Stop inviting me to spend my precious rare vacation time and money in this capitalist at-will employment hellscape on flashy trips that wind up being full of waiting lines, expensive drinks and hangovers, and clothing we wear one time. Most of all, stop asking me to return to past locales to visit when I am thoroughly broke and midwestern in heritage meaning I will always make room for you to crash and feed you but if I take my ass back there you’ll tell me your neighborhood’s newer and more gentrified name when I ask about suggestions on where to sleep, not even more detailed data so I could stay close and save on a ride by walking, god forbid an offering of your couch. I guess that’s not Instagrammable even though you bought it from Article with a podcast coupon.