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When reading Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America, after I had pried myself away from Google-stalking Mary L. Gray to figure out where she was from (She’s from where I’m from! Sort of.), I had one of those “I never thought of that before, but it’s so true!” moments with her argument that there is a link between the ideology of coming out and that of being disembodied and free on the internet.

As she puts it, “the politics of LGBT visibility’s demanding refrain to ‘come out, come out, wherever you are’ echoes the rhetorical invocations of disembodied freedoms and escapist anonymity attributed to the ‘effects’ of the Internet” (p. 15). In both of these discourses, that is, family/community/the private is framed as bad and oppressive as opposed to the individualist liberation to be who one really is—whether by coming out or becoming digitized.

However, as Gray presses us to ask, who are family/community/the private bad for? They’re necessary, she argues, for rural youth, for whom they are the means of distribution of both emotional and material support.

They’re also necessary—as her analysis hints at with the story of African-American queer youth Brandon but doesn’t interrogate in depth—for many people of color, as has been argued by a number of scholars working on issues of queers of color (and I know it’s horrible, but I can’t remember which right now. I think one place this was articulated was the Combahee River Collective Statement [originally published in 1981]. Bear with me, it’s early).

This raises the question: “why are those who privilege gay visibility valorized as ‘beyond the closet’ and youth of color, rural young people, and other individuals with core identities vying for recognition seen as in denial?” (p. 134) That is, who is it that has the privilege or inclination be public/visible?

Moreover, as Gray’s analysis shows, public and private don’t really work the way we think they do on the internet anyway. These technologies are, first, both public and private, as anyone who’s posted something meant for one audience that subsequently made its way to an unintended other audience knows: “Internet technologies can be both a private experience and a suspended moment of public engagement” (p. 106).

Additionally, as the articulation of the internet as enabling “public engagement” suggests, the idea that the Internet serves a “need or desire to mask queerness from an imagined inherently more hostile social world,” that it promises some sort of alternate public space of freedom from local, embodied troubles is in need of interrogation (p. 106-7; of course, others, including quite prominently Lisa Nakamura, have argued that offline inequality follows us online).

Thus, Gray argues, her findings “complicate the presumption that new media liberate our bodies from locations and highlights what rural queer-youth identity work can teach us about the politics and conditions of sexual- and gender-identity formation and their indissoluble entanglement of the ‘public’ and the ‘private’” (p. 108). And that’s pretty cool.

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