Southern Strategies: An Architectural Rapprochement of Queer Ethics and Rural Space in Alabama’s Black Belt

The Rural Studio is a design and build architectural program at Auburn University in Alabama. The studio was co-founded by Samuel Mockbee and D.K. Ruth in 1992 with the mission of building an “architecture of decency” for families in Alabama’s Black Belt region that lacked access to stable and permanent housing. The studio utilizes found, discarded, and donated materials to craft innovative housing solutions and public spaces in and around Hale County—a region that has played a historic role in the state as the seat of King Cotton in the antebellum south; it has since seen economic disinvestment leave it ruined, and has notoriously claimed the tittle of one the country’s poorest counties. The Rural Studio aspires to confronting this historical legacy head-on by building private and public structures throughout the county at little to no cost to its citizens. This thesis brings the work of the studio into conversation with queer theories of metronormativity and anti-urbanism as developed by theorists including Judith Halberstam and Scott Herring. I develop the architectural practices of the studio and its relationship with its clients as a queer structure of feeling that challenges contemporary architectural values with its insistence on rural, vernacular building solutions—this, I claim, is parallel to self-identified rural queers who live in the country and defy metronormative and urbane conceptions of LGBT identity. By deconstructing modern, metropolitan definitions of queerness, I seek to expand the mantle of queerness to include the clients of the Rural Studio, as well as rural-identified queers who consider the country as an inherent aspect of their queer identity. By dissecting the geographic and temporal characteristics of the urban/rural dialectic, I attempt a rapprochement of rural space and queerness as such, disabusing the notion that to be queer is to be urban. Tracing the intersectional political alliances at the heart of the Rural Studio’s design-build process, I hope to view the studio’s work as a queer organizational model for marginal subjects— one that confronts the twin legacies of Queer and Southern history—through the production of strange and intersectional political and social alliances in rural spaces.

Welcome to the Country

From back porches to back woods, we navigate these spaces as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. We are pregnant high school drop outs, sex workers, closeted and not closeted preachers, first-generation immigrants, DREAMERS, sons and daughters of slaves and sharecroppers and migrant farm workers, unemployed and underemployed college graduates living with our parents and not living with our parents, trans people hitching rides and carpooling two to four hours to the closest clinics, country dyke mamas wearing flannel and wearing heels, and high femme gay boys working at gas stations and in hospitals. We sow seeds, we work in factories, we teach young people, we volunteer at the county Fire and EMT stations, and we serve coffee at the local dinner or dive. We came up in trailer homes on cinder blocks, in old falling down farm houses sitting in fields miles away from anything, or in towns with one grocery store and what seems like half a doctor’s office.

This is life in the country, on the back roads, in rural counties and small towns in the American South. There is no one rural queer experience. We come from every walk of life across this great land that is filled with both a haunting and resilient legacy.”

-Southerners on New Ground, Small Town Crossroads Report 2014

Remapping Same-Sex Desire

In contemporary American queer studies, not only is there a metropolitan bias in thinking about queer location but a coastal one as well, and we have yet to address the limitations of narrowly ascribing queer culture(s) to concentrated geographic areas and political spheres. Specifically, in the US, we have not yet begun to challenge popular assumptions that the seaboard cities are the only centres of queer culture and the primary locations from which queers can speak, when, in fact, many lesbians and gay men in the American Midwest, and in other non-urban parts of the country, often express dissatisfaction with queer communities in large urban areas on the coasts because queers in coastal cities often have a rather narrow image of what constitutes a queer identity and simultaneously exclude or marginalize those who do not fit their image of ‘queer’.

William J. Spurlin, “Remapping Same-Sex Desire: Queer writing and culture in the American heartland” in De-Centering Sexualities Politics and Representations beyond the Metropolis. London; New York: Garland Pub., 2000, 192.

Rachel Garringer Speaks

“I think it’s really important for young queer folks who come from rural areas to know that staying is an option. Sometimes I think leaving is really important if you can, but some young people don’t have the choice to leave. What are they supposed to do if they live in a place that is incredibly isolating as a queer person, where they never see representations of people in media who are queer like them and super proud to be West Virginian like them? Where are they supposed to find examples of themselves?”

Another Peculiar Institution

“Peculiar indeed it is that the South somehow could be both the citadel of perversity and too backwater for the gay social register, for gay history.”

Charles E. Morris, “Introduction: ‘Travelin’ Thru’ the Queer South,” Southern Communication Journal 74, no. 3 (2009): 233–42.

Be A Beautiful Corpse

“We will discover an honourable and sustainable way to live intelligent and blissful lives as gay men and to be able to detach from a commercial and predatory gay culture whose deathwish mantra is Live Fast, Die Young, Be A Beautiful Corpse.

— From the Edward Carpenter Collective’s Alchemy: Tyger Tyger! Weekend.

A Few More Rednecks

Given the thinly-veiled self-congratulation and condescension that informs such intellectual efforts, it is not surprising that self-consciously rustic people often become emphatically anti-intellectual…Charlie Daniels (1990) follows a lyrical call for “a few more rednecks” with the threat that “you intellectuals might not like it but there’s nothing you can do,” while Aaron Tippin (1993) glorifies “pride, honor, and dignity” of the “working man’s Ph.D.” It is tempting for intellectuals to dismiss such criticism as “rural idiocy,” but once we recognize anti-intellectualism as an aspect of identity politics, we need not take it personally. Instead, we can see it as a part of urban hegemony: as long as rustic discontent is directed exclusively at intellectuals, its poses no great political threat. Nevertheless, when rustics target intellectuals or champion conservative causes, they render their identities less interesting to scholars fascinated by the resistance potential of identity politics. These intellectuals thereby collude with “liberal” urbanites in casting rustics as homogeneous oppressors of other marginalized groups. Thus demonized, rustics seem to merit whatever degradation and neglect they may experience.

Barbara Ching and Gerald W Creed, Knowing Your Place: Rural Identity and Cultural Hierarchy (New York: Routledge, 1997): 11.