Rural places are often maligned and dismissed as backwater, conservative, and discriminatory places. That’s not really new, although it is a boring stereotype that misses a lot of nuance and depth about the actual landscape of rural places. An important thing to remember is that not all rural places are the same, just like not all cities are the same, and the variations that exist between places allow for a lot of potential and possibility. This is one of the reasons why “Read a book that takes place in a rural setting” was a task in the 2020 Read Harder Challenge.
I’m queer, and I’ve lived in rural places my entire life, and I think that it’s especially interesting how most people assume that queer people don’t exist in rural places, period. Or, more interestingly, that they don’t want to live in rural places at all. There’s a lot of beauty and benefits to living more remotely, just as there is discrimination and homophobia, and I appreciate it when books can present a balanced, nuanced take on queer identities and rural settings. I’ve rounded up a list that approach these subjects from all different angles, and wherever possible I tried to include as many diverse voices as possible. However, there is a dearth of queer voices of color on the subject of rural living, and I hope that we get to see more queer authors of color from all backgrounds published going forward.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth
Destined to become a modern classic and adapted into the the critically acclaimed film of the same name, this novel is set in a small town in Montana and stars Cameron Post, an orphan discovering her sexuality in the 1990s. When her parents die in a freak accident and she’s taken in by her conservative aunt, Cameron tries to hide her feelings for another female classmate. But when they’re caught in an intimate moment, Cameron is sent to God’s Promise, a conversion camp. There, she comes face to face with all the ways that scared, homophobic adults fail queer youth, and meets three other campers who become close friends.
Real Queer America: LGBT Stories From Red States by Samantha Allen
Samantha Allen is a trans woman and former Mormon journalist who took a road trip across the U.S. in the summer of 2017, stopping in small towns and conservative communities in so-called red states in order to meet the real queer people who choose to live and work in their communities. Her account of that summer is a deep dive into queer communities and history, and challenges preconceived notions about queer people in rural areas. This is an eye-opening and essential text that is part memoir, part investigative journalism.
Sugar Run by Mesha Maren
Jody was just 17 when she was sentenced to life in prison. Eighteen years later, she finds herself unexpectedly free and determined to make a new life for herself, yet unable to return to her hometown. Instead, she hops on a Greyhound Bus headed south, and meets Miranda, a single mother living in a motel. As they fall in love, they must contend with Jody’s past and their complicated present in rural West Virginia in order to create a future for themselves.
The Prettiest Star by Carter Sickels
When Brian moves back to his small town in Ohio, a lot of people have lots of opinions about him, and his sexuality. His mother, sister, the community all aren’t quite sure what to make of his return after he was rejected years earlier, or of the fact that Brian is slowly dying. This moving novel is told from multiple characters’ perspectives, and that of Brian himself as he records his final days with a camcorder.
Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney Stevens
Billie is a nonconformist in a small town that doesn’t much like the daughter of the local preacher to be anything but a girly-girl. But luckily for Billie, she’s got a great friend group of friends who occasionally get in trouble (setting fire to the youth room was an accident) but always have each other’s backs. But when Billie realizes that she might have crushes on both her best girl friend and best guy friend, and those two might have crushes on each other, things get messy. And Billie realizes that not everyone in her friend group feels the same way about their small town, which leads to some surprising challenges and growth.
On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
In this moving novel, Little Dog is writing a letter to his mother, telling her of his experiences growing up as an immigrant and exploring his sexuality. Much of the story takes place in a rural agricultural area on the east coast, as Little Dog contends with first love, his own sense of identity, and the generational trauma that both he and his mother live with.
Pumpkin by Julie Murphy
Waylon lives in the small town of Clover City and can’t wait to escape to Austin as soon as he can, where he’ll be able to live fully as his true self. But when Waylon decides to audition of a drag queen reality TV show and his audition tape is leaked to the entire school, he’s nominated as prom queen…as a joke. But Waylon decides that the only thing worse than going through with it would be backing down, so he throws his whole self into winning prom queen and showing Clover City that nothing and no one can keep him down.
The Long Way Home by Rachel Spangler
When Raine came out at age 17, she was kicked out of her house. So she ditched her small town and reinvented herself in Chicago, where she happily put down her hometown to anyone who brought it up. But now her life has taken a turn and she has no choice but to return home for the one job she’s able to land. And that’s where she meets Beth, the closeted woman who is well-liked and respected in their town, and loves her community. When the two collide, they both have to face hard truths about their town, community, and themselves.
If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo
Amanda is new to town, living with her dad who doesn’t really know how to connect with her. In a town so small, everyone is curious about the new girl. But Amanda is trans and passing, and after what happened at her old school, she’d rather keep people at a distance. But when Grant walks into Amanda’s life, she has a hard time staying away. Can Grant be trusted with the truth? And will her new town accept her?
The God Box by Alex Sanchez
Paul fits in in his small, conservative town. He goes to church, dates a nice girl named Angie, and volunteers. His life is turned upside down when Manuel transfers to his school and joins his church community because Manuel is open about the fact that he’s gay…and a Christian. For Paul, these two things seem incompatible, and they bring up a lot of feelings that Paul thought he’d successfully buried. But not everyone is so receptive to Manuel’s beliefs and interpretations of the Bible, and when things escalate, Paul realizes he must take a stand.
And if you’d like a couple more perspectives, pick up Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby, which is about two (straight, cis) men avenging the murders of their gay sons, who were a couple, and it deals with a lot of the tensions of being queer in small towns in the South, and is very intersectional. Then look for Woodsqueer by Gretchen Hegler, forthcoming in 2022, which is a memoir about creating a sustainable farm in rural Vermont with her partner.