Of Bubbles, Scary Ones

The Real Bubble,” maybe not. But as someone who grew up in the rural Midwest, there is A Real Bubble there, intentionally constructed or not. There is an assumption of righteousness by simplicity, of realness by tradition. And there are also painfully obvious ways in which our elites, media elites, financial elites, political elites have ridiculed and abandoned rural populations in the US. But that abandonment will never be sufficient to excuse the kind of xenophobia and outright hate that is really, truly present in too many communities. The rage and lashing out are understandable but not excusable.

I live in and spend the overwhelming majority of my time in Madison, WI. I love it here. I don’t leave often because that requires time I don’t have and incurs costs I can’t afford. Once or twice a year, though, I muster the reserves needed to go back to my Iowan homeland. I like Iowa. It’s a very pretty state, often because of its flatness rather than in spite of it. I grew up being able to see to forever in every direction, being able to see every last star in the sky. Iowa isn’t big, but most places feel small and confined in comparison.

But when I go back to Iowa, I don’t feel safe. I’m a queer white man who can basically move incognito. I look kinda funny, but in ways that often give me the trappings of masculinity, a nontrivial shield. But I still don’t feel safe. I don’t like stopping for gas on the way to Burlington, and I don’t like going out for groceries once I’m there. I move quickly. I avoid eye contact. I try to look straight. I try to get my business done before anyone has a chance to object to my presence. And I don’t act this way because I have an invented version of the average Iowan in my head. I remember what a lot of Iowans are like. Not all, maybe not even most, but plenty, enough. I remember how they talk about people different from them. I remember what they think about the dignity, the humanity of queer people. And even though I also remember the kindness of Iowans, their willingness to help, and their practical goodwill, I cannot let me guard down when I’m there. I don’t assume malice, but a dangerous ignorance and a defensive sense of identity are just as bad.

I bristle when anyone belittles people in the Midwest, especially those who live in rural areas. That kind of derision is almost always based on some grotesque ignorance. But the Midwest also needs to move outside its vision of itself. This isn’t the land of pastoral virtue or live and let live passivity. Not everyone is welcomed here. Not everyone is safe here. It’s a white-ass, straight-ass, forcefully cis place, and we need to do something about that.

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