Queer Backroads is a podcast that focuses on queerness in rural Minnesota. According to the
Movement Advancement Project, an estimated 2.9 to 3.8 million queer people live in rural communities across the United States. This podcast aims to tell their stories.
I grew up in Bemidji, a small, conservative town in northern Minnesota. Bemidji is home to two American folk heroes: Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Two large statues of these mythical icons loom over the town. Paul Bunyan was a giant lumberjack and mythical hero of the lumber industry in the U.S. A symbol of “bigness, strength, and vitality,” he is a hero of the Midwest, and a popular tourist attraction, the second most photographed icon in the entire nation. In high school, I worked at the Tourist Information Center, and was required to know all the “facts” about Paul and Babe. I knew the ins and outs of their stories, as did everyone else in the town. It was a form of storytelling I was familiar with, and a story I loved to tell. Growing up in that small town, I knew the power of storytelling. The preservation and memorialization of these stories fostered community and could quite literally help to build towns. Stores like the Lumberjack Shack, bars such as Lazy Jack’s, and our high school mascot The Lumberjack all memorialize folklore, and tell the story of Paul and Babe. But in Bemidji, not all stories are proudly shared.
In high school, I knew I was queer, but never came out to anyone. There is a lot to be said about the metronormativity of queerness. In metro areas, there are countless gay bars, coffeeshops, sex shops, bookstores, even libraries. In Bemidji, we didn’t have any of that. I often wonder to myself, “Why did I not come out sooner?” -- and I realized that because nobody in my community told the stories of queer people, I didn’t feel comfortable coming out and potentially being isolated. I assumed because there were no queer stories and no queer spaces, that there were no queer people. Once I left Bemidji for college and was able to come out and reflect on my growing up, I wondered: where were these stories, and how could I tell mine?
Upon further research, I learned that there are few textbooks, stories, movies, journals, and scholarly research done on rural, queer communities for a variety of reasons, but the most important was because queer history isn’t written and preserved the way most American History is preserved--by cis, straight white men. Our stories don’t exist in a “traditional” historical context, because these stories need to be told by queer people, for queer people. That’s when I decided to capture some of these stories in a podcast, Queer Backroads. I started by soliciting rural queer storytellers through Instagram, since my community of rural queer folks is large. I then asked questions about their lives, like where they grew up, their favorite things, what they wanted more of in the world, projects they wanted to shout out. I also asked what they would say to folks who might be listening to this podcast--fellow rural queers feeling isolated more than ever right now during the pandemic. Within our conversation, I also asked everyone different questions from the 36 Questions that Lead to Love, which is a project near and dear to my heart. I wanted to include so listeners could feel they were really getting to know my guests.
Once I completed my conversations with several rural queer storytellers, it was time to compose theme and transition music to play between segments. I wanted to include ethnographic field recordings into each individual guests' episode. I wanted the field recordings to be both similar and different, to show continuity within the podcast as well as uniqueness of each episode. I also wanted the field recordings to hold meaning; they weren’t simply random field recordings I found online. Within my podcast, you’ll hear transition music between segments inspired by my guests’ rural communities. My guests are from four different locations, Racine, Bemidji, Luverne, and the Iron Range. I decided to use Minnesota bird recordings as the basis for my transition sound, for birds each have their own unique birdsong within their local communities. Next, I researched which birds were most well known in each of my guests’ towns, and found recordings online within those communities. In addition, I layered the bird recordings with some ambient noise and a small tag within the transition to make it recognizable throughout the podcast, while also giving each episode its own individual sound, local to each guests’ story. For my theme music, I created an audio collage of both new recordings of myself playing violin, guitar and mandolin, as well as manipulating and distorting audio from records of when I was younger playing at recitals. Through this, I was able to encapsulate the inspiration and meaning behind this podcast project -- showing my roots in a small, rural town to where I am today, and how my rural identity will always be a part of who I am.
If just one rural queer person listens to my podcast, I will be overjoyed and consider it a success. When we listen to the life histories of people from these marginalized groups, we are able to recognize the inherent societal discrimination of the institutions which they have been a part of. When we learn people’s stories directly from the source, we learn a new kind of history. These collective memories are an act of resistance, creating a counter-narrative told in opposition to the dominant narrative.
Through consciousness raising, forming relationships, and talking about their own lived experiences, marginalized people can break down the systems put in place to prevent them from doing just that. Life histories and collective memories become counter-narratives to dominant narratives based on historical memories, beliefs, and stereotypes. Memorializing the art of these current stories takes work. It takes making sure that these stories are told by the people who have these lived experiences. It means changing our K-12 curriculum to include collective memories instead of just historical memory. It means funding projects meaningful in preserving and protecting stories that are ongoing. It means actively breaking down and abolishing oppressive systems we live in every single day. We must uplift and nurture the folx telling current stories in order to preserve movements, histories, and the lives of people historically left out of history, media and data. My podcast does just that, and this is only the beginning.