My review of this book was inspired by the fact that Will Fellows is an openly gay Wisconsin writer who at one time wrote for Milwaukee’s non-gay press. He also contributed an interview to the February 1998 issue of Q.Voice, an alternative lifestyle publication (now merged with IN Step News), where I currently write queer book reviews.
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My point of view will be that of a layperson, I am no expert in this field. I will simply pick up on the things I can identify with or that strike me as interesting. For a more scholarly look at this book, please read the excellent review of Farm Boys by Stephen_Murray at http://www.epinions.com/book-review-640F-13115BE6-39EE3585-prod5
In the Q.Voice interview, Will Fellows was asked how he felt about the experience of writing Farm Boys: The Lives of Gay Men From The Midwest, and what he got out of it personally. He responded by saying, in part, “I think that the most significant consequence of doing that book for me has been an appreciation for the mix of things--Midwestern, Yankee, rural farm backgrounds that are a big part of my upbringing and my constitution . . . . how that intersects with my being gay.”
The opening sentence of the preface of this book explains everything. The author says, “This work is about the lives of gay men who grew up on farms in the Midwestern United States during the twentieth century. . . . It is not uncommon for gay men who grew up on farms to regard their rural roots as irrelevant and embarrassing.” Fellows has set out to disprove that statement by giving readers “some insight and clarity into the lives of the gay men whose stories they will find in Farm Boys. The stories range from “bitter to beatific.”
The author has let us in on how this project was conceived and planned. He tells us how he “discovered” the stories of these men. After placing press releases in gay publications throughout the targeted area that explained the Gay Farm Boys Project. He asked gay men who grew up on farms to contact a discreet telephone number for more information and to arrange for an interview.
One hundred and twenty interviews were set up, and we find out how Fellows picked the seventy-five men that he eventually interviewed. Of those, he included 26 full stories. Some of these men emphasized the importance of anonymity and discretion in their initial contacts. I‘m sure that not everyone knows all the terms used on a farm, but I found the inclusion of the Farming Glossary to be a bit tiresome. I felt like I was in some sort of class. Old photos and drawings give the work somewhat of a homely, period look. It seems to me like it must have been a mind-numbing chore.
Each of the three chapters deals with a different period of time and has an introduction that gives the reader clues as to what the prevailing attitudes were towards homosexuality and mores in general for that ten-year block of time. The author says he has not set out to prove or disprove anything. He has simply collaborated with these gay men to tell about their lives.
For many gay men, like those in this book, life is a constant state of “denying and avoiding their homosexuality” so as not to embarrass themselves and their families. Some of the men who responded were under the assumption that the Gay Farm Boys Project was going to be a networking group or social service for men in rural areas. It wasn’t.
Coming of Age Before the Mid-1960s:
In the introduction to this section, we are told that during the period from the early 1900s to 1960, there was little change in the kind or quality of information about homosexuality that was accessible to these young men who were coming of age.
Then, in the mid-40s, along came the Kinsey Report on male sexual behavior. The information it contained was not so easily ignored. Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms and Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar were also available. After these men read these books they knew they were not alone.
The author tells us that names in this book have been changed where requested, and in the interest of anonymity I will leave them all out. The oldest storyteller was born in 1909 in northwestern Missouri and lived in a log house until he was four years old. These cramped spaces necessitated sharing beds and often in one way or another these men had sex-play with their brothers, not to mention hired hands, neighbors, school chums and, in one case, the son of the black laundress.
As anyone who has lived on a farm (or in a small town) knows, these kids grow up watching animals mate and give birth. Although their parents may never have told them (or warned them) about sex, they all knew about the “birds and the bees.” They have strict religious upbringings, and one man said he felt “guilty” when, as a child, he saw a cow give birth to a calf.
Many of them left the farm to attend college and followed other professions. Many stayed on farms, and most, but not all, of them in this early section got married and had children. The marriages eventually broke up, there were thoughts of suicide and many of the men did not come to terms with their sexuality until they were old; and, I mean old, like at seventy plus years. I noticed a lot of anger (at society and themselves) for all the lost years they could have had. Many were in therapy and later they still had to deal with telling wives and grown children about their sexual choices.
A lot of these men, aside from helping with strenuous farm chores, helped their mothers with caring for the hens and cooking. Some of them were excellent cooks; these families were quite large and any help was appreciated--no matter where it came from. The men would come home from the fields and they were hungry. What these men stress most in their stories is the value system they learned, the ethics of hard work and the love of nature. There is a man who now lives with his lover of fifteen years on a farm near his parents. Everyone gets along just fine.
Some fathers were very strict with their sons and some were more understanding. There was always that word--sissy--floating around in conversations when young boys were doing something that girls were supposed to do. I heard that word more than once, but only from my stern Prussian grandfather who was angry because I didn’t wait to be born on his birthday; I was born the day before, and never heard the end of it and we never got along.
I was born in a very small town of less than 1,500 people. It was not strictly a farming community. It was, and is, located near many small lakeshore communities where the very wealthy live during the summer months. For me, there wasn’t much information except practical experience with whoever was at hand; fortunately, I had a few farm friends and the football captain to experiment with.
I remember reading the Kinsey Report, along with a medical dictionary I pinched from my father’s office. Many of my friends in grade and high school were born and raised on nearby farms and it was easy for me to get on my bike and ride out to spend the day with them. I’m sure every gay man has had fantasies of bedding some wholesome farm boy in the hayloft. For some of us the fantasy came true.
Coming of age Between the Mid 1960s and Mid-1970s:
By the middle 60s, the times, they were a’changin’. The sexual revolution and counterculture movements had begun. In 1964 Life magazine published an articled titled Homosexuality in America and in 1967, CBS television aired a special report called The Homosexual. These articles and programs were important eye-openers not only for young gay men on farms, but for gay men everywhere. I remember reading one and watching the other. The articles and books kept coming. There were made-for-TV movies and farm boys who could get to a library or bookstore in town could find gay-positive novels.
The passions and frustrations, however, were still there, only in this section young men started doing something about it even if they were socially isolated. Some farm boys went to straight bars and learned the lingo from gay friends they met there. There’s a story about “never wearing yellow on Thursdays,” because it identified you as queer. I heard the same thing about red socks and red ties when I was growing up. Some of the sexual language is extremely frank and forthright. Marriages are less frequent.
Frustration about coming out and some anger at not being able to lead their lives the way they felt they should be able to is talked about. Suicides are mentioned and the pain of not being able to live openly is obvious. One man went to his family doctor and told him he was homosexual and ended up being sent to a doctor who practiced aversion therapy. The patient was smart enough to know that this doctor was a fraud and left, but he still suffered bouts of depression for years.
Except for an awareness of who they are and who they have become, there didn’t seem to be much of a change in outlook or understanding from either their families or communities. Many of these men are wary of the gay community and the stereotypical gay man. They don’t understand camping and dishing or radical activism like ACT-UP. Some of them said they would become activists if necessary, but they preferred to stay in the background.
Coming of Age Between the Mid-1970s and 1980s:
This era saw major mass-media attention in print and on television. One of the main events was Anita Bryant’s campaign to repealing a gay rights ordinance in Florida. The were the Stonewall Riots in New York City and several major motion pictures came out with strong gay and lesbian images. Interestingly enough, in the introduction Fellows relates the story of Minnie, who was an old maid in very manly dress. You can just bet you bottom dollar that Minnie was as confused as the young men in these stories. I can witness that by mentioning my own self-sufficient, farmer aunt who came out at 66, found a partner and now lives in Taos, New Mexico with a pack of lesbians.
Many of these men left the farms to make lives for themselves in urban areas while still retaining that sense of belonging on a farm. Will Fellows writes that men who have moved into cities and urban areas have been “informed by a hard-working, persistent passion to be productive and nurturing. There is mention of AIDS and deaths of friends. Some men who now live in cities said they would return home if the were stricken with the disease. They would be back with people who would care for them, no matter what.
Fellows goes on to say that he “sees the Gay Farm Boys Project as “something of a tribute to the lives of boys who come to discover that, however much they have a sense of belonging on the farm, something fundamental in their natures makes misfits of them.” It seems to me that many of these men were more like hybrid ears of corn growing up in their predictable mid-western fields.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is gay and grew up on a farm, anyone that knows someone who is gay that grew up on a farm or anyone who wants a clearer understanding of gay culture. (University of Wisconsin Press, ISBN: 0-299-15080-1).
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