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.

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?”

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.

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.

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.

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.