Forging Their Own Way: Queer Visibility, Identity Politics, and Cultural Change On Minnesota’s Iron Range

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Forging Their Own Way: Queer Visibility, Identity Politics, and Cultural Change On Minnesota’s Iron Range

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This is a study of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people on Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. Minnesota’s important history of LGBT rights activism extends into contemporary times. The Iron Range is notable for many reasons, including strong Nordic influences, geographical remoteness, and historical extractive mining and logging economies. I utilized ethnographic fieldwork, participant observation, and semi-structured life history interviews. In total, I spent thousands of hours of fieldwork and interacted with over 100 people in the Iron Range’s LGBT and ally communities. I conducted 30 formal interviews with participants aged 19-78 years old. This dissertation argues that positive and restrictive regional norms and narratives impact LGBT Rangers’ understandings of self, as well as collective LGBT identities and communities in specific ways that, in turn, construct regionally-specific sociocultural modes of strategically navigating their lives, relational power dynamics, and affiliations with others. I make three important contributions to existing sociological and interdisciplinary scholarship on gender and sexuality, identity and community development, and place. First, challenging scholarship limited by a static understanding of the relationship between heteronormativity, sexuality, and gender, I illuminate how different cultural discourses and blurred regional gender norms create flexible, socially-condoned gender expressions and (mis)readings of these performances. Additionally, Iron Range culture creates the possibility of valued masculinity in both heterosexual and non- heterosexual women and strategic maneuvering within the hegemonic gender order. Second, through my introduction of the glass closet, I provide rich empirical examples demonstrating how the combination of place-based norms and narratives (i.e. strong personal boundaries, heteronormative assumptions, and desire for conflict avoidance), as well as presumed heterosexuality enables strategic and sagacious maneuvering. I illustrate highly nuanced visibility politics and how same-sex desires and behaviors are not recognized (or are misrecognized) due to place-specific factors. Finally, I introduce the disidentified sexual identity culture, complicating discussions about motivations for and possibilities of assimilation within contemporary society. I demonstrate how rural LGBT people strategically and pragmatically balance community-based and sexual identities; actively (symbolically and physically) distance themselves from other LGBT people; and utilize silencing to their advantage.


University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. December 2016. Major: Sociology. Advisors: Kathleen Hull, Rachel Schurman. 1 computer file (PDF); viii, 347 pages.

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