In Hillbilly Queer, J.R. Jamison joins his dad on a road trip to Missouri for a high school reunion. J.R.’s dad is a conservative who voted for Trump in 2016; J.R. is gay, married, and out. In this Statesider conversation, Pam Mandel and J.R. talk about navigating that divide, what it’s like to be an outsider in places like Missouri and Indiana, and the hard work of finding common ground between family members.
First things first. I have been to Indiana and Missouri. I found them…difficult.
I know people have mixed thoughts about my book. That’s part of creating art, right? Some people hate it. Some people love it. Some people are somewhere in between.
So it’s absolutely clear: Fuck Trump, I don’t like Donald Trump at all. But I love my dad. For me, it was more of a journey of understanding my father and where he came from (which is Missouri) and understanding his motivations.
I believe the best conversations around understanding or trying to find a common ground, if that’s even possible, is with your family. You have to know it’s a safe space for you to have those conversations. I had a safe space to explore my questions, through the lens of my father and going back to his hometown with him.
Missouri and Indiana. Both are problematic. Indiana is home; I was born and raised here. I always thought I would leave. I had the opportunity to leave. I’ve traveled, spent time living in China in the early 2000s, but Indiana has always brought me back. The politics here are messy. The politics of Missouri are messy. But I feel if I were to leave that would be exactly what some people want. I can do more by staying here. I don’t want to use the word “convincing,” but having people in these places who know me…they experience my life as a normal everyday person. It’s through those interactions that I can see people changing their viewpoints.
[LGBTQIA people] are normal people like everyone else, right? We want to find a loving partner, a career, to enjoy life. If I were to leave, who would miss out on understanding this? How could politics ever change?
It’s not for everyone to stay, but I feel like my work is to be where I am.
You’ve embraced the difficulties of Indiana and Missouri. When I go to a place like that as a tourist, I am a Left Coast Jewish girl from a sealed blue bubble. And I am confronted with attitudes that feel…alienating. You write about seeing Trump signs everywhere. I noticed this a lot when I was in Missouri, plus the “Jesus fish” everywhere. They’re on the hardware store and the bakery and I was like, do I need to be a Christian to buy a Danish?
You embrace the obstacles as agents of change. I’m curious about your thoughts on how an outsider should interact when they bump up against these things.
I’m familiar with that and the unwelcomeness of that, especially because Indiana is pretty Christian-centric. Mike Pence was our Governor, became Vice President, and he is an absolute nightmare. A state like Indiana struggles with attracting businesses and attracting people to come here for tourism dollars. It does relate to our politics and our culture.
But the state of Indiana is more purple than people imagine. As someone who grew up here. I’ve had to navigate these conversations my entire life. I’m used to literally being stuck in the middle, right? The middle of the country and the middle of policy, right? Most people are somewhere in the middle. Most Hoosiers (which is what we call ourselves here in Indiana) are open to understanding and learning. But when they do present themselves you do find they lead with conservative and Christian.
To be clear, I found everybody very hospitable. And I remember talking to one woman who, after I told her where I was from, said, “I want you to know, we’re not all like you think we are.” That interaction stuck with me, She was making assumptions about what I thought about her as a resident of Indiana. She wasn’t entirely wrong.
Folks going from coast to coast fly over us, and we think people view us as these hicks who live out in the middle of nowhere. Who are uncultured and have no interaction with the outside world. That’s not true. It is the stigma that we carry around with us because of where we’re from. I find myself saying that to my colleagues in other parts of the country. “I’m in Indiana but it’s not as bad as you would think. I’m not like other people that you may know from Indiana.”
There’s a lot of apologizing; that’s part of Midwest culture. Midwest nice, where we can’t ever directly say something bad about anyone.
Bless your heart. Right?
We apologize for things that we don’t necessarily need to apologize for. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. When people think about this part of the country, they view us as a very red state, as redneck and backward, not a place you would want to visit. Some places are like that, but not everywhere. I think that this part of the country is misunderstood.
Your book felt like a reconciliation tour, but you also carried around negative stereotypes. You did not look away. You were more, “Yeah. People are like that and it’s complicated.”
Growing up gay I was bullied terribly. Those past hurts never leave. They’re always there to remind us, to bring you back to those moments when you are terrorized as a child. I always equated that with geography. I write about in the book that I knew I was gay at a very early age, but geography and politics didn’t allow me to admit that. I had a deep fear of what would happen if I were the true me. Even though all the kids knew, you know, they picked on me, they knew I was gay.
Coming out is a powerful statement, it’s not allowing anyone else to own your story. You’re telling people, this is who I am. So laugh at me if you will but this is my life and the joke’s on you.
Over time, people (in my life) have changed perspectives but there’s still that kid in the back of my head. As I went on this trip and navigated old conversations, I was concerned about my safety. I was concerned about what people think about me, I made assumptions about what people believed, and sometimes I was right.
But oftentimes, I was wrong. I wanted to unpack that, to not shy away from what I think about people or assumptions that I made. But I also wanted to show that nuance; our lives are lived in the gray. It’s not so black and white or red and blue, even though, you know, Trump and politics have a thread throughout the book. It was about the human condition and understanding that we all are stories and mixed-up lives.
I was navigating Indiana and Missouri but also understanding what and who made me. Who I am and why I look at the world the way I do.
A few years back I took a trip to the Mississippi Delta and knocked around by myself for 10 days. I had the most awesome time. Some of the best travel I’ve done in years. I cannot shut up about the Mississippi Delta and how everybody has to go. But this friend of mine who is trans responded, “That sounds great. Would I be safe?” I don’t know the answer.
Yeah. Same here in Indiana. We’re not as red as you imagine. If you look at us on the surface, sure, we’re very conservative. Here in Muncie, there’s a trans woman who is very out-and-proud in our community. A well-known figure, people rally around her. At the same time, if she were to travel 20 minutes away to a smaller community, she could be killed. I don’t know if that’s specific to Indiana or to the Mississippi Delta. I think that’s the whole country.
Look at California. People always think California is like this liberal oasis, but if I’m traveling east out of L.A. it’s pretty conservative. I think that story of safety is an issue across the country.
We can look at Indiana as a place that’s really red, but the truth is that’s all over the country. Safety depends on who you are and how you identify. If you can pass or not pass. It sucks.
And I don’t even know that that’s a US issue. I think that’s global, right? I mean, there are parts of the world where you can be executed for being who you are. That may not be the case in the US. In the US, it’s more of a slow burn that we do to our people and that’s so damaging in the long run.
I’m hoping somebody in the rural part of the country can pick up my book and see themselves reflected in my story. I want to give them hope they can have a happy life where they are. That there may be possibilities to create conversations and connections. I worry about rural kids a lot.
I want to write stories about rural culture and the intersection with weirdness because I feel like that is often overlooked. There’s not enough from those of us who are queer and living in really red parts of the country. I hope some kid out there can pick up my story and read it and it gives them hope to keep living for another day.
That’s a beautiful sentiment certainly. And also — you’ve probably heard this — I found you very forgiving. I don’t feel particularly forgiving. You seem willing to advance a courtesy toward people who are not coming from the same place of good intent.
I would not give those people a pass. It does get complicated. It’s again, it’s living in the gray.
I’m not a left or right coaster because I’m stuck in the middle of the country, but I would consider myself fairly liberal. I was not keeping my eye on the rise of the Trump presidency. I was so hopeful about Obama, his message. Gay marriage became legal and then it was like we were hit with a ton of bricks, right?
Oh yeah, we did not believe that this could happen. We were so naive.
When I look at people like those who marched in Charlottesville, and people who are into the whole QAnon conspiracy…that’s a whole different realm. But I look at people like my dad who I know do not buy into that. Somehow he’d bought into this whole Trump idea of bringing back jobs and strengthening the economy, but not into the other stuff. So I think, “What can I do to sit down to better understand you and try to build a bridge between the two of us, because otherwise, will I lose you forever to these people who are ready and willing to recruit you into conspiracy messaging?”
I was terrified to put the book out. I did not want people to think I was sympathizing with Trump, with racists. I was hoping to show that people were buying into the conspiracies that could be pulled back. I was willing to extend myself to bring my dad to common ground.
You have this personal relationship with your father and you both care for each other deeply. I can see the willingness to look at your differences and move past that. You have this deep personal connection driving you to breach this divide. You’re attempting to heal this damage and look past it. But what would you say to people like me who aren’t coming from that?
When I’m traveling alone, there is that fear that exists. Am I going to be killed? Am I going to be beaten? What will be the outcome for showing up as myself?
I had the privilege of traveling with my father. There are times where I travel the country by myself and I’m careful about how I present myself. Do I ever hide who I am? No. People may make assumptions based on their interactions with me, but I definitely would recognize that I also have more privilege than our trans brothers and sisters or people of color, right?
I’m talking my way around not having a direct answer because you’re absolutely right.
How are you post-election? Are you feeling any more optimistic? Given your location, given your experience with your dad, how are you feeling about where we’re heading as a country?
I’m feeling optimistic. My dad was pro-Trump until the pandemic. He voted for Biden. He says, “I think he’s doing a good job, but I also still love Trump.”
The conversations have continued with my father beyond the trip in the book. We have common ground on certain issues. There are things that we will never see eye-to-eye on, but when I look at my family, there’s hope.
Cake or pie and where?
That is a hard, hard choice. Honestly, though, I’m a cinnamon roll person. Give me that sweet, flaky, buttery deliciousness any day of the week…but, please, no icing. And the best cinnamon roll this side of the Mississippi is served up hot and fresh at Queer Chocolatier in Muncie, Indiana.
J.R. JAMISON is the author of Hillbilly Queer: A Memoir and a founder of The Facing Project, a national organization that creates a more understanding and empathetic world through stories that inspire action. He also co-hosts The Facing Project Radio Show on NPR. His work has been featured in The Guardian, Harlem World Magazine, The Huffington Post, and in numerous literary journals. He lives in Indiana with his husband, Cory, and their dog, J.J.