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People with a History/CLGH Book Review:
Stephen O. Murray:
Review of Fellows, Farm Boys and O'Hara, Autopornography

Stephen O. Murray

Review of Fellows, Will, Farm Boys: Lives of Gay Men from the Rural Midwest. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996. 316 pp.

Review of Scott O'Hara, Autopornography: A Memoir of Life in the Lust Lane, New York: Harrington Park Press, 1997. 210 pp.

Farm Boys is a fascinating collection of materials from 37 oral histories of growing up on farms in the Midwest by gay men (including the full texts from 26 of the 75 men he interviewed). Fellows provides succinct analysis of the changing economics of agriculture in the region (increasing industrialization of larger and more capital-intensive farms)—changes which few of his interviewees seem to be aware, though some of their natal families have been squeezed out of business and off the land. Fellows arranges the accounts by the year of birth (from 1909 to 1967), and, over the book’s span of time, there seems to be a decrease of the amount of dependence on the unpaid labor of children (i.e., the hours of "chores" seem to have lessened).

Somewhat surprising to me (someone born in 1950, whose grandparents and uncles were farmers, but who grew up in a rural town of 4000) is that the feeling of isolation has declined relatively little across more than half a century. Most rural households had television by the late 1950s, as well as access to newsmagazines that intermittently broke the invisibility of "homosexuals" (from 1959 onward, especially from the 1964 Life photospread onward). But as Children of Horizons (Gilbert Herdt and Andrew Boxer, Boston: Beacon Press, 1995) showed, even urban children born later than the youngest man in Fellows's sample still often feel that they are one of a kind. Mass media represented homosexuality as a "big city phenomenon," and it was not discussed-- not even to be condemned-- in rural churches and families. As Todd Ruther (the youngest man in the collection) explains (specifically for the German-American families that Fellows contends have fostered less invididualism than less familiastic "Yankee" ones), ‘They’re very appearance-oriented, and as long as they don’t actually know it, it’s not real.... When I’ve gone back home I’ve sometimes thought it must be obvious to a lot of people that I'm gay. It really wasn’t, though, because they couldn’t conceive of it; it just wasn’t an option" (pp. 308-9). Another German-American, Martin Scherz (b. 1951), notes: "We’re a family that minds its own business in a very extreme way... that old ‘we don’t talk about that kind of thing’" (p. 160).

The feeling of being different began at the home place. In particular, those with brothers recurrently report that their fathers (and others) regarded a brother (sometimes older, sometimes younger) as being more "real boy." The proto-gay boys often preferred animal husbandry (both the contact with the animals and keeping immaculate breeding records) and gardening to working on tractors, and even those who were content to drive tractors recall being inept and uninterested in mechanics -- the necessary fixing and maintaining of machines. No one in the book was a full-fledged "tractor jockey," while a number were stigmatizingly willing to help their mothers with housework (and/or to join them in fervent involvement in another female domain, church activities). Although some did not much try, most seem to have been eager to be typically masculine farmboys to please their fathers but to have felt they couldn’t succeed. (All see homosexual desire as their nature. They differ in the pace at which they accepted and positively valued such natures.)

One man reports recognizing an erotic component to his differentness as early as age 5 (p. 262), and a number recalled sexual relations with schoolmates and/or relatives, yet most did not have intercourse with males or with females until their early-to-mid twenties. They labeled themselves as gay or homosexual still later. Fewer of the more recent cohorts married in attempts to conform to the procreative imperative. Marriage was a common "therapy" for men from earlier generations. When it failed to change them, many turned to professionals, who mostly cured them of the belief there was a "cure" or any need for one. The view "God made me this way and I accept my nature" was not unknown (Fellows suggests that observation of mutations among farm animals may be applied to human natures.) As among other gay male samples, the younger men in this one came out at an earlier average age than did their elders. "Earlier" in this case means sooner after graduation from high school, not coming out to others while in high school.

Growing up feeling one of a kind was more bearable, some think, where boys could go off by themselves--i.e., away from ridicule. Whether the solace was the open space of a distant field or the protective cover of a woods, many recall going off by themselves. In this I see a self-reliance that is not very different from the cultural expectation of a family avoiding relying on others. Solitude and devoting the hours before and after school to doing chores does not train one in conversation, let alone in quick verbal repartee. Over and over these men report not feeling comfortable in bars. I think they have a rather expansive conception of what constitutes "camping" (or perhaps it is more ubiquitous in Midwestern cities than I think). They definitely do not enjoy it (even those who strike this reader as having been very campy children!) and/or they feel threatened by it, both as confirming gender stereotypes they abhor and as making them feel inferior in verbal artistry to the rapier-tongued urbanites. While hoping to find a sincere partner who shares what they have retained and value of rural values, most feel that they are outsiders within urban gay settings. Not surprisingly, this is especially so for those who stayed on the farm or returned to farming communities. (Some live in cities; quite a few live on hobby farms within commuting distance of cities like Madison or Omaha. About a third of the men are currently in relationships, which is only slightly lower than for urban gay male samples.)

In addition to eliciting revealing accounts from reticent natives of the rural Midwest, Fellows gathered and reproduces photos of many of his subjects, including some who chose to use pseudonyms. Fellows’ analyses of the effects of ethnicity (Germanic in contrast to Yankee), industrialization, and other social changes are astute; as are his conclusions about the costs of heterosexism. The accounts he elicited are often moving and are invariably informative about the life experiences and life worlds of heretofore invisible gay men.

When I agreed also to review Scott O’Hara’s Autopornography, I did not realize how directly related to Farm Boys it is. I doubt that anyone has characterized Scott O’Hara as reticent since he won "The Biggest Dick in San Francisco" contest in 1983 and parlayed it into a ten-year career of and in porno theaters. Nor would anyone characterize him as inarticulate. Nonetheless, is a farm boy--and not just in origin (in an Oregon valley). Like Fellows’ farmboys, he is not comfortable in crowds or with gay bantering. "I didn’t understand why all these gorgeous men had to pack themselves into bars when they could do just as much cruising on the street (this still puzzles me)," he recalls very early (p. 8). He is an outdoorsman, especially when it comes to having sex (which is very often in this memoir), and he has the ego strength forged in rural solitude to break formation and march to his own drummer. Later in life, in publishing Steam (1993-5), he endeavored to provide guidance to other aficionados of gay sex outdoors.

His religion (priapism?) differs from that of his parents (who were Free Methodists and John Birch Society members), but he shares their intolerance for others, their nearly Christian Science rejection of medical professionals (including dentists), and what strikes me as an almost Calvinist sense of predestination (in its simplistic "I’m saved, any beliefs other than mine are wrong, and, incidentally, you’re damned" form). Family resources (accumulated in an earlier generation than his parents’: they never held jobs) have made it unnecessary for him to work for a living. He says that "all that they really wanted me to be was a good Christian and a good husband," but, as he recognizes, he was "well prepared by his offbeat parents for a life at the margins of society" (p. 15)-and for resenting government intrusions.

He was not a "momma’s boy." After years of trying to annoy both of his parents, he eventually came to admire his father, while thinking that "he took those marriage vows a little too seriously. But I guess I shouldn't complain; if they'd divorced when I was a kid, my mom would certainly have gotten custody, and I would have been forced into matricide.... I never felt the slightest friendship or love for her.... I can never remember a time when I felt comfortable around her" (pp. 27, 28, 37).

As soon as he finished high school, he fled (to his sister thirteen years his senior who lived in Chicago with a leatherdyke who introduced Scott to the leather world and whom he would ill-advisedly marry and expensively divorce after his sister’s suicide). He had a lot of sex, most of it unremunerated. In his view he was making up for what earlier sexual deprivation in the countryside. On film he strove to be the Pornstar Who Smiles and is obviously enjoying himself and in his writings he has been an advocate for the pleasures of sex, controversially extending to unprotected anal intercourse after going to what he refers to as "the Long Dark Night of the Libido" in Hawai’i in 1983 (p. 120). It should be noted that he comes with a warning label--an HIV tattoo and explicit statements about being HIV+ and glad not to have to worry about getting infected (p. 201).

The book is not just episodic but choppy. It would have profited by being edited, though the idea of trying to discipline someone so eager to shock is far-fetched. O’Hara provides something of an antidote of mostly pleasant experiences to counterpoise to the maudlin pop psych best-selling biography of someone else who enjoyed the work of getting fucked on screen, Wonder Bread and Ecstasy: The Life and Death of Joey Steffano, Alas, too much of Autopornography is genre film memoir (albeit not from mainstream Hollywood productions and costars) and recounting of sexual episodes that I find less compelling or titllating than O’Hara does. The book is disappointingly short on any sense of the organization (economic or other) of the porn industry or of the rise and demise of Steam and Wilde. Much of it is entertaining. The book provides sex-positive illustrations that you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take (all of) the country out of the boy, a conclusion Farm Boys also suggests.


© The Committee for Lesbian and Gay History [CLGH] is an affiliated organization of the American Historical Association devoted to promoting the study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans* history, and the interaction of scholars working in the field.

Twice a year CLGH publishes a Newsletter which contains extensive reviews of recent books in LGBT studies. This document contains a review from the CLGH Newsletter. Primary citations should be to the Newsletter [and to this site if you wish].

This text is part of  People with a History. People with a History is a www site presenting history relevant to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered people, through primary sources, secondary discussions, and images..

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© Paul Halsall, November 1998

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