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hat are queer issues, and what should the goals of LGBTQ politics be? Carly Thomsen’s Visibility Interrupted: Rural Queer Life and the Politics of Unbecoming pushes us to ask this question, and rethink commonly held assumptions about what a good (queer) life might entail. By urging queer activists and scholars to let go of visibility as our main focus, Thomsen points to a much broader, and potentially more life-giving, queer politics. To make her feminist rural queer critique, Thomsen addresses what she considers two “intertwined” problems: “how good LGBTQ (loving) people imagine and deploy gay visibility (Possibility! Freedom! Change!) and rurality (Homophobic. Backwards. Dangerous.)” (viii). Why are these notions problems? For one thing, they are simplistic and arguably inaccurate. Further, as rural queer studies scholars point out, they are all too often taken for granted in dominant, metronormative  queer studies scholarship. Given how intertwined these two notions are, “rethinking the celebratory affects attached to visibility politics creates possibilities for rethinking the negative affects tethered to the rural, and vice versa” (viii). Visibility Interrupted provides a cogent critique of the visibility politics, an important intervention in this political moment.
More exciting to me, however, are the possibilities opened up by this critique, combined with Thomsen’s extensive research among rural queer women. Thomsen’s project attends to what we notice when we step back from visibility. She poses a key question: “What, after all, does it mean to be (in)visible?” (ix). The question of visibility is not new to queer studies, and has received careful attention from transnational queer studies scholars, such as Martin Manalansan (2003) and Carlos Decena (2011). Indeed, Thomsen points to transnational scholarship on the question, especially Manalansan’s work. The potential connections between transnational and rural queer studies are not addressed in depth in Visibility Interrupted, and this is an area that deserves further attention in future scholarly work. What Thomsen’s book so innovatively does is show how the question of (in)visibility is much bigger than simply what it means to know queer people as queer. To live a queer life that is not organized around visibility (which does not necessitate being “invisible” or “closeted”) shifts legibility. As Thomsen states, “It is my position that rural LGBTQ women are illegible not to rural people but to urban people; self-identified liberals, progressives, and leftists; and gay rights groups, and, further, that rural LGBTQ women become illegible through visibility discourses” (x).
Built on interviews with queer women in rural South Dakota and Minnesota, as well as cultural analysis of news stories about physical and institutional violence against queer people in the Midwest and Plains regions, Visibility Interrupted is an interdisciplinary analysis of both the challenges and the joys of LGBTQ life outside of coastal metropoles. Thomsen’s scholarship is firmly located within the field of rural queer studies, yet the book is arguably as much an intervention into the assumptions, discourses, and practices of metrocentric LGBTQ scholarship and activism as it is about any rural locations, communities, or individuals. This, together with the author’s unapologetically feminist perspective, is the strength of Visibility Interrupted. The book is a sharp critique of the metronormative bias in both queer studies and LGBTQ activism. Rather than the rural being hostile to queer people, Thomsen argues, it is urban queer studies and activism that are dismissive of the rural. Explaining the title of her book, she writes, “I suggest that rural queers are unbecoming, not for rural folks, but because the metronormativity of hegemonic and LGBTQ subcultural narratives renders them untenable and illegible” (xiii). Because of its urban bias, queer studies at large has been unable to meet rural queer life on its own terms. Importantly, the illegibility of the rural to metrocentric scholars and activists has been read as a problem of invisibility, and the proposed solution to the supposed plight of rural queer people is an increased visibility. Thomsen challenges us to consider the possibility that, while not visible according to metronormative standards, rural queer women are also not invisible, nor do they necessarily strive to become more visible. This is not, Thomsen argues, because the women in her study want to be invisible, but rather because the very framework of (in)visibility does not adequately describe their lives.
Thomsen’s work on metronormativity is so generative because of her both broad and deep view of the concept. She defines metronormativity not just as a focus on the urban, but as a mode of thinking that reifies certain binaries: “metronormative narratives naturalize urban/rural binaries, render the rural simultaneously anachronistic and unremarkable, and assign value to the one-directional move from the rural to the urban” (65). Despite queer studies’ commitment to questioning binary thinking, it upholds spatial binaries, reinforcing ideas about urban and rural areas. In this model, “the metaphysics of the metropolis become normative, prescriptive, hegemonic – always already assumed to apply transgeographically” (65). Scholarship does not have to center on the city in order to be metronormative; rather, metronormativity is a logic that suffuses scholarship about many locations, including rural ones. And, Thomsen provocatively argues, this logic is tied up to a sexist bias in queer studies.
Thomsen’s work is resolutely – and refreshingly – feminist, arguing “that women can teach us something particular about the metronormative logics that subtend the project of LGBTQ visibility” (xiii). She notes that sexism has received inadequate attention in queer studies, and posits that this could be one reason for the field’s urban bias: “Perhaps the city-centric nature of LGBTQ studies and activism reflects not just disdain for rural life – as other rural queer studies scholars have argued convincingly – but also disdain for women. One of the most important feminist contributions of this book is the simple, but heretofore unmade, point that metronormativity not only disproportionately impacts women but is itself sexist” (xiv). In this argument, Thomsen draws on Emily Kazyak’s important work on masculinity, rurality, and lesbian existence. Kazyak points out that gay men are more likely than lesbians to live in urban areas, and that “masculinity underpins both the categories rural and lesbian, which may afford some lesbians the ability to stay in rural places” (2012, 827). From her interviews, Kazyak notes that “rurality and more butch-like gender presentations are constructed as compatible” (2012, 837). This norm of masculinity does not mean that queerness is okay for women; on the contrary, it coincides with an expectation that women be heterosexual and have children (2012, 837).
Still, we need to read this through a different lens than the metrocentric, androcentric lens dominant in queer studies. We need to engage the kind of feminist curiosity political scientist Cynthia Enloe advocates for in her books, most notably The Curious Feminist (2004). I find Thomsen’s argument that metronormativity is itself sexist intriguing and convincing, and wish for further explorations of this, by Thomsen or other scholars. Queer studies, including rural queer studies, needs to pay more attention to the experiences of women. As Thomsen models, we also need to interrogate what barriers there are to centering women in queer scholarship.
Visibility Interrupted is a book about the experiences of queer women in rural South Dakota and Minnesota, but it is also a much bigger project. As Thomsen asks in the introduction: “What lessons might we learn from LGBTQ women in rural South Dakota and Minnesota about the rural more broadly? About LGBTQ politics? And about the relation between the two?” (viii-ix). In addressing these queries, Thomsen raises other questions that queer studies needs to address: What does a spatial analysis bring to queer studies? Why is such an analysis so sorely lacking? Thomsen argues – and I agree – that the analysis she presents “offers new possibilities for understanding the depths to which sexuality and gender are understood, experienced, and framed as spatial” (liv). The spatial analysis is, in my reading, tied to a key yet underemphasized aspect of Carly Thomsen’s work: an attention to the whole human. Nobody is only their sexuality. This seems obvious, but it is not the dominant framework in LGBTQ activism or scholarship. The interviewees in Visibility Interrupted refuse to center their sexuality, or make it the most important aspect of their lives; simply put, they are adamant about being whole persons. While all interviewees have, by agreeing to be part of the project, identified as LGBTQ, this is rarely how they speak of themselves. For example, “Claudia” states that being in a same-sex relationship is not part of her identity, but being a woman is (45). Thomsen notes that “Claudia’s signaling to a distinction between the roles of gender and sexuality in terms of her understanding of herself extends what we might think of as the feminist stakes of this project” (45).
In scholarship and activism that views the rural as a site undesirable to queer people, the queer people who do live in non-metropolitan areas all too easily become one-dimensional, notable only for their suffering. In her critique of media coverage of Matthew Shepard, Thomsen notes that, even in a significant work such as Jimenez’s Book of Matt, “readers actually learn little about what made Matthew Shepard Matthew Sheppard: What were his favorite foods, bands, and books? What did he most value in his friendships and in his romantic relationships? What did he most often eat for breakfast?” (19).
The holistic vision that Thomsen employs allows us to conceptualize LGBTQ movements differently. In discussing the case of Jene Newsome, who was discharged from the military under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Thomsen argues, among other things, that “Newsome did not care about being able to be out at work, but she certainly cared about having a job, something taken from her by what she viewed as the unethical practices of local police officers” (32). Access to work – and work that pays a living wage – must, in a rural queer studies lens, be considered a queer issue. And not just protection from being fired for being queer or trans, but the very structure of the economy, where rural areas have been marginalized.
When, a few years ago, the Human Rights Campaign, one of the largest LGBTQ non-profits in the US, finally started a campaign focused on rural areas – Project One America, which worked in Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas – the campaign had a “lack of specificity; the goals of this campaign simply mirror those of the national organization. This includes their prioritization of visibility and outness, both of which lack cultural traction in many rural places” (136). Thomsen’s book is a call for specificity, and a challenge to look far beyond the conventional goals of LGBTQ activism for that specificity. In the words of one of the women she interviews: “They can take on the L…G…BTQ whatever it is. You know, go for it on the national level. I want a sewer system at [the lake where I live]. And that’s how my world is” (155). Sewer systems, too, need to be put on queer agendas.
 In this review, I frequently use the terms “metronormative” and “metrocentric.” “Metronormative,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to “heteronormative,” is a term that describes phenomena (scholarship and activism, in the case of this review) that assumes that ways of doing things in cities are “normal” and good, and by extension that life in rural and suburban locations are less good, less desirable, and somehow flawed. Similarly, “metrocentric” scholarship and activism is centered on cities, and usually miss what is going on in other locations. For in-depth critiques of metronormativity and metrocentricity, see for example Scott Herring and Karen Tongsen.
Decena, C (2011) Tacit Subjects: Belonging and Same-Sex Desire among Dominican Immigrant Men. Durham: Duke University Press.
Enloe, C (2004) The Curious Feminist: Searching for Women in a New Age of Empire. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Herring, S (2010) Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism. New York: New York University Press.
Kazyak, E (2012) “Midwest or Lesbian? Gender, Rurality, and Sexuality.” Gender & Society 26(6): 825-848.
Manalansan, M (2003) Global Divas: Filipino Gay Men in the Diaspora. Durham: Duke University Press.
Tongsen, K (2011) Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries. New York: New York University Press.
Stina Soderling is a postdoctoral fellow in Women’s and Gender Studies at Hamilton College. She is a scholar of rural queer studies and anarchist and feminist pedagogies.