A late winter weekend evening in River City featured a surprisingly well-attended event held at a local casino bar: a drag show featuring community and regional performers drawing a crowd of over 400 attendees. As recently as a decade ago, such well-attended events would have been unthinkable in this small, largely Catholic, primarily white midwestern city, notably among the cities with the lowest population of gay couples in the country, as measured imperfectly by Census data. The arrival of marriage equality has coincided with the rise of this consumption-oriented form of gay community in River City, alongside other markers of LGBTQ community more broadly: a well-attended, biweekly LGBTQ youth group meets at a local community center, a new weekly transgender-focused LGBTQ adult support group has been meeting at the same location, each of the local high schools supports an active GSA, and local organizations have sought “Safe Zone” training for their staff. While no commercial establishments advertise themselves explicitly as gay venues, and some mourn the loss of previously-existing gay bars, “everyone knows” about the local gay-owned bar and which establishments are owned by lesbians and lesbian couples, generally through word of mouth.
Participants in my research, both LGBTQ and “ally” community members, have remarked on the strange tension between the rising “friendliness” of River City in the post-marriage era and the ongoing challenges for LGBTQ people seeking survival and community in this small city. Specifically, while marriage equality offers some legal protections for LGBTQ River Citizens, it operates largely as a symbol for community members and allies, both as an indicator of rapid progress and as a clue that marriage equality has not eliminated everyday experiences of marginalization and invisibility. River City’s LGBTQ community is long-standing, if dispersed and, according to participants, disconnected, and efforts to unify “community” have proceeded in fits and starts, taken up by long-standing River Citizens as well as more recent community members.
My research examines this tension between rising “gay community” and LGBTQ community members’ ongoing isolation and seeks to explain the recent explosion of LGBTQ community institutions and events. In this presentation, I engage a key question prompted by recent changes in River City’s LGBTQ community, changes that have been signaled, but not solved, by marriage equality. Given participants’ claims of community “progress,” what might explain the explosion of LGBTQ (or at least LGBTQ-themed) community organizations and events? Critical to the particular form LGBTQ community takes in River City is the role of queer kinship. The term “queer kinship” in my research, signals a very specific, but also flexible, set of relationships. In brief, “queer kinship,” for my purposes, builds on the idea of “chosen family” (Weston 1991) and includes close friends, family, and romantic partners, but not extended friendship networks of acquaintances. Queer kinship allows LGBTQ participants to manage the ambivalence of life in River City, as members of participants’ close kinship networks help them survive and generate the kind of community institutions that might be seen as a marker of River City’s progress in the post-marriage equality era, at least in terms of LGBTQ identities. In addition, and importantly for LGBTQ community in River City, LGBTQ allies also have queer kinship networks, and allies form and maintain LGBTQ community in distinct ways.
However, queer kinship networks for both LGBTQ and ally participants contain normative limitations in terms of relationship status, legibility, and intersecting identities. LGBTQ participants whose lives do not fit neatly into a linear narrative of coming out, transition, and marriage are left out of a sense of community; for example, single, highly educated, genderqueer, and LGBTQ community members of color express difficulty connecting deeply with community, and some frankly admit to planning their exit. Queer kinship integrates some LGBTQ and ally participants into a sense of LGBTQ community, while others remain disconnected and, as one participant noted, “really lonely.” While queer kinship generates LGBTQ community, the specific form this community takes, for LGBTQ River Citizens and allies, is limited in ways that require deeper understandings of local normativities. In other words, in an increasingly “post-gay” era (or so it seems), where marriage equality suggests both the realization of a neoliberal gay dream and its normative limits, only some kinds of LGBTQ community seem conceivable and achievable, and queer kinship both enables and constrains those community possibilities.
While it might be tempting to propose queer kinship as a radical alternative to marriage equality, my research suggests caution, as even seemingly radical relationship formations entail a range of normativity that play out in specific ways in specific contexts. Key to the future of LGBTQ scholarship are research questions and methods that recognize the limits alongside the potential of queer kinship formations as alternatives to, and in alignment with, marriage and other normative relationships. In sum, this presentation engages questions about the meaning of marriage equality and the ultimate realization of the normative “post-gay” (and possibly post-trans) dream through queer kinship in what outsiders might understand as a rural, hostile community context. While the format for this presentation is traditionally academic, it could also be modified to fit an informal roundtable discussion, should it be most productive to present this paper in conversation with other research on queer kinship.