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.

The Other Side of the Tracks

How railroads, highways and other man-made lines racially divide America’s cities.

Shreveport, La.

“Look at racial maps of many American cities, and stark boundaries between neighboring black and white communities frequently denote an impassable railroad or highway, or a historically uncrossable avenue. Infrastructure has long played this role: reinforcing unspoken divides, walling off communities, containing their expansion, physically isolating them from schools or parks or neighbors nearby.”

Wishing for a Benign Vision

At one level, my interest in the historical experiences of queers in the South reflects a desire to create a narrative that would allow me to bring the seemingly disparate parts of my identity together, if only for a textual moment. Yet I am leery of this desire for synthesis, for given the normative definitions that coalesce around “the South” and “southern,” (i.e., the South as more racist, sexist, heterosexist, etc. than the rest of the country), this desire seems suspect. I have had to ask myself what this “togetherness” would symbolize. Is reconciliation necessary, desirable, or even possible? The impulse to distance myself from dominant definitions of southern seems as suspect as the desire to create a definition of southern  that could include me, however. Is this impulse a wish for a benign vision of my regional identity–one that would place me outside the oppressive structures of power that shape normative definitions of southern? Is it a search for a place of innocence? Whom would a potential reconciliation serve, and whom would it serve best? And perhaps most important (to return to the issue of my own assumptions about what constitutes “southern”) who is this “we” I wish to make visible?

– Donna Jo Smith

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

A Convening of Southern Queer Leadership

outsouth

We’re gearing up for Out South at the historic Penn Center on Saint Helena island in South Carolina, one of the oldest and most sacred sites of resistance and sanctuary for Blacks. We hold deeply the significance of the ground beneath our feet in the aftermath of decisions of a system that is doing little to hide its irreverence for Black people, for Mike Brown, for Renisha McBride, for Eric Garner, for Sage Smith, for Monica Jones, for Islan Nettles…

As the trans and gender non-conforming pre-convening begins this morning, and as we convene more Southern LGBTQ leaders over the next few days to talk about the work we are doing in our communities, we hold deeply the great honor and legacy of survival and work towards liberation of our ancestors and the call to us as organizers and leaders to fight for our collective futures. We take this moment and this weekend to breathe when the whole world is trying to choke us out, to remember our duty to fight, and to stand together in the vision of the thousands of you across the country that are demanding more for our people.

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.