Taylor Brorby knows anti-queer red America. Here’s his prescription for changing it.

Author Taylor Brorby

This interview is part six of LGBTQ Nation’s Queer State of the Union, in which we speak with some of the nation’s leaders about the challenges — and solutions — in our struggle for equality.

When I picked up a review copy of Taylor Brorby’s Boys and Oil: Growing Up Gay in a Fractured Land, I expected a dry environmental tract sprinkled with reflections on his childhood.

Instead, I was greeted with a beautifully written narrative of growing up in America’s heartland, filled with startling personal confessions, colorful characters, and thoughtful insights into the red state queer predicament, all set against the backdrop of the ongoing destruction of the natural environment in pursuit of fossil fuel profits.

Chatting with Brorby via Zoom from his Salt Lake City apartment, the passion behind the just-published memoir comes into focus. Despite the bleak anti-gay landscape of his youth and the environmental challenges posed by global warming, the bespectacled University of Utah professor bubbles with enthusiasm for our collective ability to overcome both.

In a conversation with LGBTQ Nation just days before President Biden’s address, Brorby talked about the Queer State of the Union, why equal rights and environmental justice are aligned, and how queer people are vital to helping overcome the rural-urban divide in the nation. 

Author Taylor Brorby
Taylor Brorby, left, author of ‘Boys and Oil.’ Photo provided by the author

LGBTQ NATION: We are in this weird place between advancement and backlash. But I want to start with another weird place, Elon Musk. As an environmentalist, how do you deal with the contradiction that he made such a contribution to popularizing electric vehicles, but at the same time, he’s using those profits to unlock some of the worst anti-queer propagandists in the world on Twitter?

TAYLOR BRORBY: People usually aren’t completely good or completely bad. Getting us off fossil fuels is a really good thing. However, let’s change the conversation about Elon, who is a distraction. It would be better to invest in solar power rail systems than automobiles. I was in a car accident earlier this fall, and I thought, “I don’t want to fix this, I don’t want to drive a car again.”

LGBTQ NATION: What do you think about the political moment, where there is also a ton of distraction being thrown up by the right wing? Red states are pushing hundreds of anti-queer bills.

TB: It’s a time to be nervous. Being nervous is different than being afraid. We live in a country that allows the targeting of vulnerable people whose rights aren’t fully enshrined in our governmental documents. It becomes a lot riskier to be out and proud if you know you can be discriminated against based on where you live, your housing choices, and your job applications. We do have marriage equality. But what we don’t have is uniform civil rights across the nation, which is why you’re seeing such hostility in rural areas and red states. There’s simply no protection.

It’s a time to be nervous. Being nervous is different than being afraid.”

Taylor Brorby

LGBTQ NATION: Did we get complacent eight years ago after marriage equality?

TB: I’m a single gay man. I don’t necessarily aspire to be married. I don’t think marriage equality is the end goal. We could have been pushing things into a far more radical territory–controlled rent, universal basic income, universal health care, things that impact nearly all queer people. If you’re someone who needs gender reassignment surgery, and you live in a state where it’s not covered under your insurance policy, it’s going to be financially prohibitive. I’m thinking about what it’s like to live in this country if you’re burdened with medical debt. In fighting for equity, there’s not a lot of time to rest, but that’s why you have to do it within a community, so we all have support. Thank God, it’s not all up to me to stop hydraulic fracking–that would be a big burden on this tiny ginger [laughs].

LGBTQ NATION: Do you think the threats to democracy posed by the MAGA right are real?

TB: It’s so rare to get a political win in this country, and we did get a big one in marriage. But we have to be mindful of that because now we’re really up against it. And not just the fight for basic civil rights. There is a viable population in this country that would rather not live in a democracy because it’s intellectually easier to be told how to think and what to do. And to be told you are doing the right thing by hating on people like us or turning on others.

LGBTQ NATION: You are talking about what you might call “haters,” a group of people who can’t be reasoned with. Yet you’ve been able to have conversations with people where you grew up, with people very different from you. Most people are not haters. How do we have difficult conversations with people who start from different assumptions?

TB: It’s that old story of the Country Mouse and the City Mouse. We have to start the conversation by reminding ourselves we’re actually dependent on each other. City people value rural people, too. Growing up in North Dakota, we knew rural America enriched everyone’s life, and the goal now shouldn’t be to get everyone to an urban center. It should be possible to have a good life wherever you live. We do not hear each other’s stories. We need ambassadors.

A North Dakota oil field.
A North Dakota oil field. Photo by William Campbell/Corbis via Getty Images.

The question reminds me that North Dakota, at the turn of the 20th century, was the most socialist state in the country. There’s still an operating state bank, state grain mill, and state elevator; there was the Nonpartisan League, where you could run on a socialist platform. Someone needs to get a doctorate in history to help me understand this: How does North Dakota go from that — being socialist — to one of the deepest, reddest, most homophobic states currently in existence in this country in a very short period of time, within generations? That’s terrifying to me.

LGBTQ NATION: What’s the explanation? Is it that people look at cities and see people living a sort of freedom they don’t necessarily have, and that breeds resentment? Is it because rural areas are suffering economically?

TB: Working people put in long hours at farms or ranches. There’s not much time or energy at the end of the day. People are exhausted. And rural America is the testing ground for horrible things. Cancer rates are high there. Why? Because we use a large amount of pesticides to grow crops or biodiesel. It’s where we do hydraulic fracking, which means you then breathe in fracked air, which is chemically laced. Urban areas depend upon these things produced, but they don’t bear the consequences in the same way. So then there’s a politics of resentment. We should be building urban/rural coalitions. 

Oil field workers with Wisco work on a pump jack in Tioga, North Dakota. Photo by Getty Images
Corbis via Getty Images Oil field workers with Wisco work on a pump jack in Tioga, North Dakota. Photo by Ken Cedeno/Corbis via Getty Images

Plenty of people I speak to in rural America want to stay where they are and want where they live to get better. Part of the problem is that there aren’t policies in place to allow people to succeed and have a middle-class life. So it becomes easier to hate on someone I’ve never met than to actually solve the problem and bring people together.

San Francisco and Seattle are physically far away places from North Dakota, but they are also intellectually far away places. You have people who’ve spent their whole lives in San Francisco viewing North Dakota as a foreign country, you know, and have these negative stereotypes of rural life. So what we need to do is increase dialogue, which the media isn’t best at. The media is often selling sensationalism. And so I think it comes back to your original question about Elon Musk. We must recognize that people and regions in the country are complicated, and it takes time to understand that complication.

A majority of Americans support marriage equality now because they’ve heard the stories of queer family members and friends in love. They understand we should have the same rights as everyone else. But now we’re seeing the situation where they hear the distraction of right-wing propaganda on social media or talk radio in their cars. So they have stopped hearing our stories and are hearing negative ones instead.

LGBTQ NATION: In your book, there’s a chapter where a teacher introduced you to John Steinbeck. All I could think of is Steinbeck today would end up on a banned list next to the queer authors.

TB: Totally. He was a writer who supported labor unions and workers.

LGBTQ NATION: So how do you bring the conversation to working people who are already overwhelmed; who are hearing anti-queer propaganda? And now you have schools locking out ideas that are disfavored. And you can’t talk about gay kids in the classroom or gay life in general. Granted, no one checks out books anymore. Kids with internet access can go straight to social media, where they are also confronted with propaganda. Although obviously, there are plenty of beautiful queer content creators on TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube.

TB: We could start by reinventing and reinvesting in old structures like the public library. Where else in America can you go where they’re not asking you to buy anything? You can just read and relax in peace? Not only do you not have to buy anything, but they’ll also help you find what you need. They’ll help you with a cover letter. They’ll help you get on the internet. They will help you find the reading material you need to understand your world. It’s an incredible gift. It’s a model that supports a true democracy of people like me compared to people like Elon Musk.

“When working-class people think that limiting book options and closing down conversations are in their best interest, they’re only harming themselves.”

Taylor Brorby

The wealthy class will always have access to good education and information. But when working-class people think that limiting book options and closing down conversations are in their best interest, they’re only harming themselves. And then it makes it easier for them to be controlled.

I’ve had no problem getting speaking engagements in rural America because I think people want to hear from someone who’s either like them or who is very different. They want to have their thinking pushed and understand a bit more about their world. So one answer to your question is figuring out how to get queer artists and writers, creatives, to go into rural spaces and have conversations, and the reverse is important too.

There’s a show I’m obsessed with right now, HBO’s We’re Here. Three drag queens go into small towns in rural America like Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Spartanburg, South Carolina, or Twin Falls, Idaho. And they have three mentees from trans people to white straight cis men, and they put on a drag show, and it gets risky at different points. It gets complicated.

Shangela, Eureka, and Bob the Drag Queen at a Just Say Gay rally in Brevard County, Florida. Photo by Greg Endries/HBO
Shangela, Eureka, and Bob the Drag Queen at a Just Say Gay rally in Brevard County, Florida. Photo by Greg Endries/HBO

It’s not Queer Eye, where they parachute into your life and gay guys glamify you, and then everything’s fabulous. This show is about the process. They go into towns of 10,000 people and try to have a conversation. I think it shows that for writers like me, we have to be brave enough to go back into these places and say, ‘this is what it was like when I grew up. It was horrific. I don’t think you want your kids living like that. And can we all agree on that, and what’s our path forward? And how do we create classrooms of care and compassion where all questions are valid?

LGBTQ NATION: There’s a section in the book where you talk about a kid who was pretty flamboyant back when you were in high school. People imputed his sexual orientation based on his attire. And petitions circulated banning him from changing in the boy’s dressing room. There was all this anxiety about what amounted to zero, just harming a kid and other kids like him. And now we see anxiety play out in classrooms and red state legislatures, this anxiety about young people and their queerness. Gen Z is adamant about queerness.

TB: Though some might not admit this, there’s nuance to who we are. We are not all the same. To some people, this idea is threatening, and it goes back to the idea that it’s easier to be told what to think than to think for yourself. You know, it’s the “God hates gay people” idea. That way, you don’t have to think about it yourself. It’s dictated to you. There are no nuances. And now we are adding to the complexity. There are bisexual and trans and non-binary. People just shut down and act out of anger and frustration.

I also wonder if there’s some envy because so many people try to work within the system rather than working to change the system. But the system doesn’t necessarily support a lot of people in this country. It’s not easy to make ends meet in America anymore. And if people believe that they played the game the system requires but still are losing, that really sucks for them. And what I mean by this is that if you were brought up, let’s say, like my father, in the ‘70s. I’m just using him as an example of American masculinity. My dad found the way that he had to exist was by being a tough guy. And if you know you spent your whole life being a tough guy, you realize it’s not a very happy life.

And then you see the joy younger people feel when they just get to be who they f***ing are.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Author photo provided by Taylor Brorby. Additional photo by Celal Gunes/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images. Illustration by Kyle Neal for LGBTQ Nation.

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