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.

Queer Ecologies

Our argument is thus that we should reorient our politics and take on something like a queer ecological perspective, a transgressive and historically relevant critique of dominant pairings of nature and environment with heteronormativity and homophobia, in order to outline possibilities responsive to these relations and, equally, explicitly critical of the continued organization of dominant metrosexualities through an environmentally disastrous (and often ethically void) lifestyle consumerism. Here, we are advocating a position not only of queering ecology, but of greening queer politics. The extension of queer into ecology is not, then, simply a question of making nature more welcome to gay inhabitation; it is also an invitation to open queer theory to ecological possibilities, and to thus produce a queering of ecocultural relations along the lines of Halberstam’s queering of space: “in opposition to the institutions of family, heterosexuality, and reproduction . . . according to other logics of location, movement and identification” (2005, 1). Queer ecology suggests, then, a new practice of ecological knowledges, spaces, and politics that places central attention on challenging hetero-ecologies from the perspective of non-normative sexual and gender positions.

Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson, Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2010), 22.

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.

Wiping Out Power (Psyche)

If metropolitan lesbians and gay men had in fact succeeded in wiping out power in relationships, all we would have to do is enjoy our egalitarian practice and let everyone else in on the secret. But that is far from the case. The prevailing sex— gender system, we have every reason to know, is geared to the production of hierarchy and, as part of that, to the production of anxious, unhappy and violent people. It produces us and our psychic lives—straights and gays—and it is not going to leave us alone. It is a liberal-bourgeois delusion to suppose that ‘private’ space can be somehow innocent of and protected from the real world. In actuality, none of the power hierarchies that I have been highlighting is insignificant in metropolitan sexual practice. But, unlike people in non-metropolitan systems, we prefer to pretend otherwise. It would be better, at the least, to acknowledge what we are doing.

Richard Phillips, Diane Watt, and David Shuttleton, De-Centering Sexualities Politics and Representations beyond the Metropolis (London; New York: Garland Pub., 2000), http://site.ebrary.com/id/10100552.

On Queer Metronormativity

Suffice it to say that if recent strains of queer theory and recent forms of lgbtq politics (latent and manifest) share common ground, it’s usually a dismissal of rurality as such, a dismissal not only commonplace but, let’s bet the farm on it, chronic. Much of queer studies wants desperately to be urban planning, even as so much of its theoretical architecture is already urban planned .

[. . .]

If queers way out there—broadly conceived—have too often been stamped with scarlet letters that spell out backwater, rube, hillbilly, hayseed, redneck, shitkicker, and bumfuck, then what happens when this terminology turns against itself? What happens when countrified queers challenge the representational systems that underlie the perpetual citification of modern lgbtq life?

Scott Herring, Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism (New York: New York University Press, 2010) 5-6.

What This Is

This site aspires to create an online space within which we are able to reconsider popular notions of what it means to be country, Southern, rural, small town, backwoods, and queer. The work here seeks to offer an alternative to the irrevocable metronormativity of modern queer consumer culture and the unflinching “pride” of “post-liberation” LGBT identity politics. The discourse of queer liberation has been insistent upon equating a fruitful queer life with the utopia of the city and its cosmopolitanism. Country queers have no role in this narrative, save that of the naive migratory queer that escapes provincialism in a coming-of-age escape from the country into the city…

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