Boys and Oil: Taylor Brorby on Making Space for Queer Stories on the Great Plains

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Taylor Brorby may have moved away from his hometown of Center, North Dakota, but Center, North Dakota hasn’t left Taylor Brorby. At least not in his work. Brorby’s prose is sowed to the geologic landscapes, sounds, and metaphors from the prairie grasses that animated his upbringing. His new memoir, Boys and Oil: Growing Up Gay in a Fractured Land, invites readers into his explorations of place and identity. The book shares essay-like stories of family, art creation, music performance, writing, wrestling, and of course, boys. Brorby, a teacher and activist, aims to remind us that change is possible, dynamic, and inevitable. Like the Earth, our persons are always changing form, even if we often don’t or can’t notice it. His prologue opens with a notice: “Before it was an ocean of grasses, the prairie was a shallow sea.”

Boys and Oil appears to be one of the few published stories and only memoirs that explores the particularities of a queer upbringing in Brorby’s part of America. Towns like Center and Bismarck serve as significant hubs for many of his accounts, and his book is as much an examination of self as it is an articulation of the structures that shape rural and remote life in America. As he explained to me, “No one said this of Center growing up, but it’s a company town. That town exists because of coal, the coal mine, and a coal-fired power plant. If that mine and plant weren’t there, it would just be farms and ranches. There wouldn’t even be a town—there would be no need for that.”

Today, Brorby lives and teaches in Utah. He spent much of this year touring his new book. We connected over Zoom amid his travels, and I must note, given the scope of our discussion, that our conversation occurred weeks prior to the devastating murders at Club Q in Colorado Springs.

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The Rumpus: Taylor, I grew up in Minnesota, close to where you went to college; there were many moments in Boys and Oil that felt familiar, like I was meeting an old friend.

Taylor Brorby: We survived where we came from! I was just back at St. Olaf [College] in Northfield [Minnesota]. It is such a small town, but when I first moved there it felt like such a cool place. I was an instrumentalist. I’ve always loved classical music, and I would kind of poopoo choral geeks, but you go to St. Olaf and people love music; you’re like, “Choirs can sound like this?” I mean, my God. Incredible.

Rumpus: Yeah, they’ll get you hooked on some Eric Whitacre.

Brorby: Ha! Totally. That’s right. That’s exactly right.

Rumpus: And where are you now?

Brorby: I’m in “why-not” Minot, North Dakota on a mini-book tour in the motherland. I’m nervous. The plague has seemed to accelerate the state’s bend towards fascism. Last night I had a book event on the western edge, in Dickinson. It was good. No trolls. I did have a troll the other week in Duluth and being out so publicly as a gay person in North Dakota is not always the safest move.

Rumpus: You had a troll? What did that look like?

Brorby: I had this event at the University of Minnesota campus in Duluth. I thought I wrote the least controversial memoir ever, and I don’t tend to read from my book. I sort of say, “Here are ideas out of it, and here are things you should know about what’s happening in rural America.” And there was this guy in the front row, a little older, maybe a non-traditional student. I’d made a comment about how risky it is to be queer in rural America or on the Great Plains. He said, “Oh, I don’t agree with your viewpoint on North Dakota. That’s not the North Dakota I know. Queer people don’t have anything to worry about anymore. We’re not targeting them.”

His voice quivered the whole time. And then he pulled out his cell phone. It felt like he was trying to bait me, to pull out his phone to videotape some reaction. After the event, it’s not like he bought a book or wanted to talk. He zipped right out. It wasn’t too bad, but I thought, man, coming out for a memoir? They’re coming out in all stripes—for books that aren’t even trying to be political.

Rumpus: You do have “gay” in the subtitle.

Brorby: Ha! I know. Oh, God.

Rumpus: You mentioned in a conversation with Fenton Johnson that you’d moved publishers. I must admit that I was curious about that experience, too.

Brorby: I really wanted to bring together a book of what it is like to grow up gay in a particular place as a fossil fuel baby. This book was under contract with a different press for four years. It was a press I was honored to be with. But the editor kept saying, “Take the gay thread out.” I thought I had survived, you know, years of being in the closet already. So, I developed two books. One I called “The Gay Book,” and one I called “The North Dakota Book.” Well, those are the same book, as you can imagine. The book was 450 pages, I was told to start over. The book was 220 pages, I was told to start over. I started questioning if I was even a writer. After four years of struggling, I sent the advance back. It was a big risk but thank God for my agent. She took both books to [the publishing imprint] Liveright, and they said, “No, this is one book.”

Rumpus: Wow. What is it like to have a book that’s had form for years now out in the world?

Brorby: I mean, there’s a lot of Champagne in my life these days, which is great. But it’s not a silver lining. I don’t want to paint it that way because those years under contract with another press were so debilitating in many ways. Working with an editor and a press who’s gotten it makes me feel like I’m on the moon.

Rumpus: Regarding the word “gay” in your subtitle; did you read the New York Times story about Northwest High School in Grand Island, Nebraska, and the student newspaper there?

Brorby: I didn’t.

Rumpus: A few students in charge of the paper’s production chose to end the school year with a couple of opinion pieces about LGBTQ identity and gender pronouns in response to an incident that had occurred earlier in the year. Shortly after the pieces ran, administrators and the superintendent shut the newspaper down entirely.

Brorby: Completely?

Rumpus: Completely.

Brorby: My God. Wow. Today, in Dickinson, their newspaper had a full front-page article about the library I just spoke at last night, and tomorrow I’m talking to the North Dakota Library Association about my book and giving a keynote talk. This reporter came in posing, and saying, “I’m going to check out four or five children’s books because my nephews are visiting.” He checked out a book [through Interlibrary Loan] that he had heard was going to be on the library’s bookshelf called Let’s Talk About It. It’s a graphic nonfiction book about healthy approaches to sex and masturbation and things like that. It makes the point that pornography isn’t reflective of reality. It’s very honest with an affirming approach, but we’re talking about a part of the world where this is taboo, so this journalist went in there just to whip up fury, to say, “This controversial teen sex ed book will be on Dickinson Public Library shelves, and like, do we want it?” And I thought, that’s so true about my own book in a different way. It’s not that it’s the first memoir about growing up gay in this region, there are other books, but it is one of the first queer memoirs from the Great Plains and Intermountain West. Little queer babies need to know that they’re not alone where they’re growing up.

Earlier this summer, I got a message from a young guy in Denver who said, “Mr. Brorby, I’m sixteen going on seventeen. Until reading your book, I felt like a freak.” And I thought, Denver? It was so indicative of how isolated we all can feel, no matter if you’re growing up in Great Falls, Montana, or Denver, Colorado. In some of these small communities, just the slightest ripple becomes this huge tsunami to people.

Rumpus: What other kinds of conversations is the book bringing to you?

Brorby: I just heard from a classmate from Center. I thought here it comes, in my class of twenty-two people, here comes the other shoe. She said, “Taylor, I read your book. It’s the fastest I’ve ever read a book. It’s so good. I’ve recommended it to all my friends and family.” So, part of what’s come to me is a realization about how the media portrays rural America as white, straight, and conservative. It might be those things, in certain areas, of course, but what that message from my former classmate revealed to me is that when you live in small towns or rural America, you have to keep so much hidden about what you might believe to fit in. To my knowledge, no one in Center, North Dakota—a town of six hundred—is flying a rainbow flag, and I’m not sure that horrible things would necessarily happen if they did, but people might shun a person if you have any sort of viewpoint that’s nuanced.

I recently got an email from a middle-aged man who said, “Mr. Brorby, when I was growing up, I loved oil painting and wanted to be an oil painter, but because of my size, my dad forced me to be a lineman in football, and I gave up oil painting.” He said, “I’m straight, happily married, two kids.” And so, in that way, there have been resonances with people. And I hope that continues.

Rumpus: I appreciate that you’re willing to put yourself in these spaces, not only to produce the work but then to go out there and tour the work around, to talk about it in public, and to make space for these dialogues to exist.

Brorby: One of my first events for this tour was at the Billings Public Library in Montana. I grew up going to Billings—it’s quite an industrial town, and gritty, especially downtown—and there was a whole row upfront of queer babies. Afterward, when I started signing books, the first woman comes up to me teary and says, “Mr. Brorby, I so wish my brother were alive to read your book. He died in Billings in the eighties from AIDS.” Next is an eighty-something little old woman named Ethel; she waddles up and whispers, “You’re a brave motherfucker, aren’t you?” The next guy comes up, he’d worked in the oil boom, retired white dude, and we’re talking, and he goes, “I knew I needed to come tonight because we have a grandchild who was born a girl and began kindergarten today and started using male pronouns.” And then he teared up and said, “It’s been a real educational journey, and I knew I needed to come to your talk.” And he cries, and I get teary.

So, for me, it’s less about me saying, “Here’s my book. Read it.” It’s almost become like doing community work. The book is allowing me to be part of this work. And I’m trying to be sensitive; people have to live their lives in these spaces. Which is also kind of the spirit of the book. I’m trying to present evidence and stories and let people come to their own conclusions.

Rumpus: Have you witnessed changes or coalition-building-type efforts in the Great Plains over time? Are there catalysts? I’m not only thinking about sexuality, but about how we think about the land and the space we’re occupying.

Brorby: As I learned from my friend Wendell Berry, change comes from a unified front with people in different areas working together. You can’t separate violence to the land from violence to people. Rural America has been sold such a short list of goods—strip it, mine it, frack it, destroy it, refine it, send it elsewhere. As I say in the book, I grew up with men who called Oliver County “God’s country,” but they made their living by destroying that landscape. They wouldn’t like me saying it that way, but that’s exactly what’s happening, and that does something to the psyche of a place over years and generations. And rural Americans, especially, don’t have power. Legislators don’t live where this is happening. It’s why we’re in this moment that we’re in, by which I mean the people who are creating lakes that never freeze in North Dakota, who are fracking Wyoming, those wealthy people, CEOs, who we formally called kings, they don’t live where it’s happening. They still get all the winnings, and we all lose in a structured way.

Free market capitalism is predicated on destruction of the few left living in these spaces. It’s why we’re addicted to alcohol. Why we have an opioid epidemic. People are desperate. Their lives are hard. The work is hard. We haven’t invested in economies that allow, not only humans to thrive, but nature to thrive, and these are so directly linked. And queer people are the canaries in the coal mine. Forty-five percent of queer youth are having suicidal ideation, the highest rate we’ve ever seen. That tells us something about our culture that we’re living in.

History points us toward transformation, but we don’t think well in community. But nature, the nature I grew up on, the prairie reflects diversity. And that nature is healthy when it’s diverse. When fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline, there were multiple entry points, it wasn’t only about Native sovereignty, it wasn’t only about climate change, it wasn’t only about eminent domain, it wasn’t only about farmland—it was about all those things and more. Clean water, you know? It was a unified front saying this impacts all of us.

Rumpus: Are there any Great Plains or LGBTQ writers or publications you want to speak about?

Brorby: High Country News is a favorite publication of mine in the American West. Garden & Gun in the American South is doing interesting narratives about approaches to diversity. Emergence Magazine is great, too. The raging socialist writer Meridel Le Sueur. Carol Bly. Bill Holm. My friend Kali Fajardo-Anstine. Justin Torres. I’m gonna sound like a fossil, but I still read Charles Dickens. He knew how to tell a good story. I still love Wallace Stegner’s sentences. He knows the landscapes that I love. The person that helped me know I could write about my place was a Minnesota writer named Paul Gruchow. He wrote a great book called Journal of a Prairie Year, and an essay collection that changed my life called Grassroots: The Universe of Home. There’s an essay in there called “What We Teach Rural Children.” It was my first time reading from a landscape I knew. I still haven’t recovered. I have to go back to these people; I often go back to people no one reads anymore to be reminded that the prairie matters. I’m trying to remind myself because I’m regularly told the prairie doesn’t matter. Tillie Olsen. She has a novel that begins with a ‘y’ that I can never pronounce [Yonnondio] all about oil and coal and extractive economies, kind of like Faulkner’s county no one can say correctly [Yoknapatawpha]. She wrote incredible stuff.

Rumpus: How do you think about creating bonds between people and finding ways to establish power that doesn’t look like what we might traditionally think of as power?

Brorby: I just keep coming back to the prairie model. It’s a diverse landscape that taught me so much, but I also don’t think I hold the golden key. I grew up in families with great storytellers, and that was cultural cache—could you get me to laugh, or could you get me to tear up? Stories have the power to move the universe an inch. Libraries are really the last bastions of democracy and social services; schools that have a Gay-Straight Alliance or whatever the en vogue term is right now—these things have to percolate into the communities where people live.

And I’ll probably get smacked for this, but I love that the movie Bros exists. That poster? When Brokeback Mountain was released—those posters—if you look at them, they don’t have Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger together; it’s all of them as their straight presenting couples to get people into the theater. Brokeback is a very different movie, but the idea that across the nation, and in the Minot movie theater, there’s a poster with two men grabbing each other’s ass? Dire as we can think this time is, that’s for the good. Money people are acknowledging that America can handle it. Now it’s just cracking that open further.

Rumpus: Did you pay attention to the reactions after Bros’ post-opening weekend box office numbers? Particularly among queer folks?

Brorby: Let me tell you, I’m on this round-the-country tour, and when I’m talking to students… the other week I was in Omaha, Nebraska speaking to students. I said, “Raise your hand if you know who I’m talking about when I say the name Matthew Shepard.” Three hands went up in a room of one hundred and eighty students. Three. So, hearing that sort of backlash, I think there’s a way where we all live in our bubbles and think, “Wow, everyone should be over here as far along as I am on this.” I worry that if we’re too much in the activist mind, all that leads to is burnout and cynicism, and then the powers that be win.

Next year’s the twenty-fifth anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s murder, and no one younger than me in America knows who I’m talking about. Queer people think of it as this seminal moment. But if they can’t remember Matthew Shepard, how do they expect us to understand the nuances of the AIDS epidemic or the riot at Stonewall or much less other history? It’s good to push back against heteronormativity, but I worry sometimes that we’re living at a moment where we also just critique so regularly instead of just saying, “That was fun.” It’s nice to laugh, and a movie like Bros has this subtle approach. Who doesn’t love a romcom? I still love Nora Ephron movies. I mean, my God.

Rumpus: Yes. We need all the stories. If we’re going to gatekeep ourselves in the process of trying to create stories, we’re doing the work of the oppressive systems that wouldn’t care for any of these realities to exist in the first place.

Brorby: I’m so with you. And I’m very committed to my home region. The landscape of American literature in the American West, this part of the world that’s known for hunting, fishing, mountains, and stuff, it needs to be injected with queer narratives. There are ways of seeing them, like in the 1970s movie with Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando, The Missouri Breaks. No one knows this movie anymore, written by Thomas McGuane. It’s one of my favorite movies. An insane western. Marlon Brando is crazy as all get out; he murders a guy, dressed as an old granny in a nineteenth-century bonnet. When I published my book, I sent Mr. McGuane a copy and said, “Mr. McGuane, I’m so thankful that you created the character of Robert E. Lee Clayton because it was nice to know that I wasn’t the only boy wearing dresses on the Great Plains.” That seed was planted, and Tom McGuane is as straight as the day is long. We’ve even forgotten seeing that in our history. That’s an open possibility.

Siloing our thinking and saying this perspective has no value, that’s risky to me. I’m going to places where a lot of people are coming, looking like me, and some of them might be queer, and I need to be validating their experience and where they’re living. A lot is on the line for people in these communities, queer people especially.

 

 

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Author photo by Carroll Foster


Adam Swanson is an editor and writer whose work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine; Khôra; Washington Post; Lambda Literary Review; and elsewhere. He’s received fellowships from Writing by Writers, Lambda Literary, and the Creative Writing Program at Emerson College. Adam is a Pushcart Prize nominee and won the 2022 San Juan Residency by Writing by Writers. After graduating from Western Kentucky University, he obtained a master’s degree in public policy from George Mason University. In 2018, Adam completed George Washington University’s LGBT Health Policy & Practice Graduate Certificate Program, where he won the AIDS Healthcare Foundation student award. He is currently a Master of Fine Arts candidate at Emerson College. More at www.adamswanson.net. More from this author →