Out in the Country
Identities are commonly thought of as deeply personal and often experienced as an internal resonance of who we are. Yet, in mapping the construction of identities, we see distributed, technosocial processes that entangle multiple sites and fields of power beyond the location of a solitary person. In my study of rural lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth, new media technologies are at the heart of the matter. Unlike their urban and suburban peers, youth living in the rural United States face vastly different access to agencies serving LGBTQ-identifying young people. Many live beyond the reach of publicly funded LGBT health programs, community-based support services, or historically visible constituencies that nurture and augment such resources. Popular and sociological imaginings of rural LGBTQ communities often presume pre-existing, yet alienated, gendered/sexual subjects who seek belonging in their own skin and a connection to a culture that exists in an urban elsewhere. By extension, such representations frame rural queer youth sexualities and genders as “lacking” or “incomplete.” However, there is no empirical basis for these assumptions—we’ve never studied the experiences of rural youth and their negotiations of sexual and gender identities. Rather than presume an absence of critical materials for identity work, I wondered how rural youth might do identity work differently. How are their efforts inflected with positions of race, class, and location? And, with the rapid but unequal incorporation of new information technologies into the lives of youth and their support agencies, what difference does the Internet’s increasing presence—and presumed ubiquity—make to youth negotiating their sense of sexuality and gender in the rural United States?
In an effort to address the above questions and the gap in research on how new media are implicated in the constructions of rural sexual and gender identities, my project examined how rural young people and their advocates use support services, peers, and new media as sites and technologies of gender and sexual representation or what I call “queer identity work.” I used a mixture of ethnography and critical media analysis. Specifically, I collected data through: 1) Participant observation among both youth and organizations involved in youth advocacy and support throughout rural Kentucky and its border states. 2) Ethnographic interviews with 34 youth participants (ages 14-24) and more than 20 support service workers and youth advocates. 3) Critical textual analysis of relevant websites and web-based discussions produced by and for LGBTQ-identifying youth and youth service agencies.
I examined the unique relationships youth have to the modern constructions of sexual and gendered subjects. Young people’s pronouncements of identity are easily dismissed as products of adolescent confusion. Their legal status as minors effectively bars them from directly representing their needs. In short, their position as “youth” complicates the picture of queer political citizenship imagined by feminist and queer scholarship. Additionally, I considered how rural life challenges us to theorize queer genders and sexualities in a way that breaks from a de facto reliance on urban paradigms. Most significantly, I investigated how the Internet takes part in producing and circulating gender and sexual categories and how young, rural life increasingly—although differentially—involves entanglements with new media technologies. My methods and findings challenge communication studies’ tendency toward technology-determinant models of new media use that neglect how these technologies reflect, reproduce, and embed society’s gender and sexual mores and ethics.
Chapter One: Introduction
Because this research covers uncharted territory, I introduce my project by reconstructing the predominant models of rural youth gender and sexuality. I draw from literatures on the sociology of youth, feminist and queer studies of gender and sexuality, and cultural geographies of rurality. I use these writings to challenge the psychological framing of queer youth identity formation as an individual mental health issue. I argue that young people’s lives are a battleground for legitimacy struggles over these identities and introduce the argument that new media technologies in the hands of rural youth are quickly becoming important tools in forging politicized queer sexualities and genders.
Chapter Two: Methods
The second chapter details the methods I used to carry out my research. Here, I discuss the labors of studying new media as both a tool for and a significant location in a multi-site, rural ethnography. I also discuss how I found youth collaborators for this project. I characterize the social topographies that mark the rural communities I encountered.
Chapter Three: Websites and Wal-Mart: Counterpublics and space-making projects
Chapter three discusses rural young people’s construction of alternative counterpublics as a strategy for space-making and locations for identity work. Contrary to the presumed invisibility of queer genders and sexualities in rural spaces, I found youth asserting their presence despite the impoverished infrastructures of rural public spheres that doubly render them absent as youth and as queer subjects. Youth pieced together resources in and beyond their communities, carving out what I call “peripheral publics”—from websites to drag outings at the local Wal-Mart and advocacy efforts during the State Capitol’s Youth Lobby Day.
Chapter Four: Finding identity on the Discover Channel: Rethinking “media effects” in a digital age
In my research, youth turned to new media not to replace their networks of peers and support services but to augment them. My fourth chapter reframes “media effects” debates in order to develop a more complicated model of new media’s role in everyday life. Youth browsed the online personals of commercial LGBT community portals like PlanetOut.com to find other youth living nearby; they also built their own websites to document personal journeys—from the same-sex dating drama of a self-described “questioning” teen to the physical transition for one young female-to-male transgender youth. They sought connection to local others and to a translocal, imagined community of others like them. In the cases referenced above, the search for community and identity was mediated by racial categories that segregated not only who was “datable” but literally who lived nearby while class categories made access to hormone therapies possible for one transsexual youth and unattainable—but now even more imaginable—for another. Instead of asking whether technologies intrinsically offer political promise for queer youth in rural places, this project explores how technologies are used (and not used) across multiple sites, how they come to be seen as conduits of activism and socialization, and the broader possibilities of identity representation both enabled and disabled by engagement with these technologies.
Chapter Five: Locating identity
This case study of rural sexualities and genders offers a fresh vantage point to consider what sociologist Anselm Strauss called “conditional matrices”—linkages between larger structural issues, such as statewide social service funding and local race relations, and processes of individual presentations and negotiations of identity. In the fifth chapter, I look at the significance of “locality” and the interlacing of the rural, urban, and electronic environments that rural youth mediate. I found that rural youth, their advocates, and disparate infrastructures both erase and produce gender/sexual identities and practices as they fashion recognizable subjects able to tap local and extralocal social services. Equally compelling, I found that different race and class positions informed these rural sexual and gender subjectivities and their routes to accessing information.
Conclusion: Complicating identity work: New media as tools, sites, and artifacts of cultural production
Finally, in my conclusion, I argue that these young people complicate how we think about the dichotomous narratives of rural areas as indelibly hostile and urban spaces as liberating, as well as the very distinctions we make between “public” and “private” spheres. Their collective processes of identity negotiation and articulation illustrate the texture and social depth of gender and sexual identity development. Using a symbolic interactionist framework, I analyze the kinds of classifications available to the youth in my project and their expression of sexual/gender identities in rural spaces. My findings not only challenge researchers to question the narrow, psychological focus that pervades this area of research but also suggest advocacy for a more engaged sociology of gender and sexuality. In my conclusion, I hope to show the value and importance of these challenging engagements.
Epilogue: The methods and ethics of new media studies
Building from my methodological description in Chapter Two, I shift to an analysis of the difficulties that arose in securing institutional permission to conduct and carry out my research. I look at the tensions between Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) and queer gender/sexuality research that played out over the course of my study. I also consider the ethical conundrums that surfaced during my fieldwork. I analyze the methodological bootstrapping and ad-hoc ethics-making produced by my negotiations with both the IRB and local regulatory agencies encountered in the field.