Stonewall, the Great Gay Migration and the Monumental Divide

Last Wednesday I watched a somewhat slimmed-down version of the new documentary Lavender Scare, based on the 2004 (!) book of the same name by David K. Johnson.1 In the film Meryl Streep’s narration explains how the influx of homosexuals from rural to urban regions began in the 1930s, the start of the Great Gay Migration.2

Washington was a boom town. The government was creating thousands of new jobs to combat the Great Depression. Many of the young men and women who came for those jobs were homosexuals. They grabbed the chance to experience a new level of acceptance and friendship in a big city far from home.

I was reminded of a recent essay, “Forget Stonewall,” in the May/June edition of The Gay & Lesbian Review, by Yasmin Nair who reminds readers that the source of that influx still exists.

The problem with this urbanization of lgbtq history isn’t simply that it takes attention and resources away from non-urban areas, but that in further reifying the idea of the urban as essentially liberatory, it persuades onlookers of and participants in “gay history” moments that they are simply about gay and lesbian identity (the B, the T, and the Q are shunted aside) and that notion of identity is immersed purely in emotion these days, and of course that emotion is love—the only thing that defines anything remotely queer. In the process, the larger public is persuaded to forget (if it ever knew) that gay and lesbian identity is in fact part of a larger framework of public life, surveillance, and the incursions of the state.

In other words, We’ve given you queers permission to fuck who you want, so shut your… mm… cake holes. (Do read the entire essay.3) And yes, Nair is a self-described “cofounder of the radical queer editorial collective Against Equality.” Also from that essay:

The idea, too popular among historians and commentators and the public at large, that queer life is only truly queer once it escapes rural areas is part of a larger cultural perception that non-urban areas simply don’t matter and don’t deserve resources. We can consider the vibrancy of non-urban life without fetishizing it as more authentic (or more adorable).

In the spirit of Nair’s argument, I thought I’d browse my bookmarks for short-form films that touch on that vibrancy. Even if many of them are framed as standard romances, the rural/urban dissonance—the monumental divide—is front and center.

No Homo

In researching LGBTQ+ historical figures and events I didn’t realize that there was a whole lotta gay video out there. Sure, in my web queries I was presented with skin, static or otherwise; it can get a little distracting…. But I wasn’t aware of the sheer volume of the LGBTQ+ genre until, one night years ago, I searched on the term “no homo.” I’m not sure if I knew the song by Lonely Island or had heard the phrase in a hip hop track. What I do recall is coming across “The latest No Homo” by a quartet of high schoolers offering what appears to be an ironic message with an almost blithe bouyancy.

One thing led to another….

Town & Country

As I’ve written before, when you watch streaming video, you’re offered suggestions by the streaming service. And sometimes those suggestions are quite suggestive. Take Davy and Stu. Set in a Scotland bog, the initial taboo transgressed is the portrayal of desire twixt teens, with the seemingly younger Davy upending his time-honored powerlessness. Ambitious Davy yearns for the indifferent, invisible transparency of “the city” while stubbled Stu is content with a rural domesticity and “privacy.” Davy and Stu is based on a stage play, which would give the grateful viewer some distance—missing in video’s intimacy—from the unsettling suggestion that Stu has knowledge of one of the bog’s secrets.4

In El Inicio (The Beginning), set in Argentina, two young friends are not separated by age, but somewhat by color, with the one on summer break from college in Córdoba being called “Gringo” by Rafa (short for Rafael), who remains on the rancho. Perhaps what began during their encounter will be taken up in the city, but there’s a bit of ambiguity.

The female couple in Natives travel from their Manhattan home back to the reservation Anita grew up on. You’ll cringe through much of it due to Rachel’s well-intentioned but off-putting patronization. But it’s penetration as well.


The following three videos deal with challenges and responses.

In Finding Franklin, Violet comes home for the funeral of her beloved grandfather Eugene. Evidently knowing she’s involved in a same-sex relationship he appears to have left her the key to unlock the story of his own experience. I’ve used this little gem to explain how I got hooked on looking into the histories of men who would become homosexual organizers in a hostile world.

In The Letter, Adrian and Patrick have a conversation about their future on a country road in 1930s Australia. They, and the missive in question, are torn apart.

A decade later men are forced to come together…

Alkali, Hawai‘i

I’ll close with seven shorts in the order they were released, from 1995 to 2018.

As in Finding Franklin, the protagonist of Alkali, Iowa is given the key of a departed forebear, but he has to do some digging.

Fishbelly White is not for the squeamish. Duncan is influenced by the world-wise Perry into exploring possibilities but also repressing sensitivity. It’s a volatile, logical chemistry.

In Silver Road one of two friends is leaving rural Ontario, but not before confirming why. The last lines are profoundly confounding.

Heartland, set in Iowa, is Silver Road in reverse.

The Isle of Wight’s inland fog is a metaphor for Anthony and Kyle’s last day together in We Once Were Tide.

A Place in the Middle documents the tenacity of Hawai‘ians to maintain their ways.

Landline dramatizes the lifeline for gay farmers in the UK.

One more…

The only introduction needed is explanation of the code itself: a signal by way of a colored kerchief (bandanna), in the left and/or right rear pocket, indicating one’s predilections. A keyring also could serve the purpose. [This pointed to Indigenous Luvvv by Demian DinéYazhi.]

Header image:
WV Hero T-shirt design (center),
Queer Appalachia

  1. I discuss this in Secrets & Lies & Biden’s Gut Reaction. For public broadcast on PBS the film’s 75 minutes (as noted in its EPK) were trimmed.
  2. Pleased with myself to have likened this rural-to-urban relocation to that of African Americans two decades earlier, I did a web search only to find that anthropologist Kath Weston used the phrase in 1995.
  3. Nair lists instances of resistance less remembered than Stonewall. Not mentioned is a later struggle in Montgomery, Alabama, recounted recently by The Daily Beast.
  4. I discuss such a case in A Perfect Crime?.

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