Detail of a flier announcing calls for submissions. (Image provided)

Clint Whitten and Amy Price Azano, Ph.D, from the Center for Rural Education at Virginia Tech are calling for abstract proposals for their upcoming book, Rural & (Out)Rooted: Exploring the Intersection of Rural Education and Queer Identities.

The pair are looking for submissions from a broad array of people, including scholars and researchers, school administrators and faculty, as well as families and students.

“We’re attempting to queer the [academic] space,” said Azano, professor of adolescent literacy and rural education and founding director of the Center for Rural Education at Virginia Tech. “[We] want to make sure that we had a place for personal narrative for people who wanted to share their story.”

Abstract proposals may include experiences of joy in queer identity, scholarly manuscripts, programs and program critiques, personal narratives, and art.

Whitten and Azano also expressed particular interest in submissions from rural queer people such as transgender, two-spirited, neurodivergent, and people of color.

“We can’t talk about rural queerness without talking about all of the intersections that go along with that,” Whitten said.

The deadline to submit an abstract is November 1, 2023. (See the flier for more detailed information about submission requirements.)

Intersection of Rural Education and Queer Identity

Whitten and Azano came to this conversation with both an academic and personal connection.

Whitten was just in his second year of teaching middle school English, writing, and theater in Blacksburg, Virginia, when he came out as queer.

“Part of the book is aimed at closing the ‘erasure gap’ for queer rural people,” Whitten said.

Growing up, Whitten recalled that depictions of queerness only occurred in urban settings on shows like Project Runway or Desperate Housewives. There were never celebratory moments that made him think that rural and queer identities can exist together, he said.

“If we lift up these narratives [about queer rural people], whether they’re research or poems, we’re helping people see that these identities, they’re not separate,” Azano said. “They actually can very happily exist together.”

Whitten and Azano’s work builds on Mary Gray’s 2009 book called Out in the Country. Gray’s book was the first ethnographic study that took a deep look at queer rural youth, Azano said. 

Out in the Country was presented to a primarily academic audience, the pair said. And since, there has not been a text on the subject for rural policy makers and educators. 

For their own project, Whitten and Azano hope to also reach beyond an academic audience.

“We know that the ivory tower of academia has not always been the most welcoming space for historically marginalized populations,” Whitten said. “I think it’s really important for this book that we think about that and [make] sure those structures are in a state of flux.”

The pair hopes that this approach will place personal stories in the context of academic research to help anyone working within the rural education system to operationalize some of the work needed to support queer communities, teachers, families, educators, and students.

Public schools can play a uniquely important role in supporting queer youth in rural communities, the pair said.

“They can signal to that entire community that they’re going to create room and space and love for all of the kids who walk through the door,” Azano said.

While urban and suburban areas are more likely to have community organizations that function as support groups for youth, rural schools often serve as the only primary hub for youth in a rural community.

Creating visibility can create safety, Whitten said.

There is a common assumption made that rural spaces are inherently filled with cisgender, heteronormative people, Whitten explained. And when queerness isn’t visible, it’s harder to see yourself as part of that rural community. It doesn’t matter if you have an accepting family or school, if queerness is invisible, queer youth can feel invisible. 

“If we start working and going into spaces assuming that there are queer people in them, then we can make the space not only safer, but we don’t have to make people feel like they have to out themselves to feel supported,” he said.

The call for abstracts comes at a time when queer and transgender rights are being debated in federal, state, and local politics across the country.

“I hope that the book makes clear that there are thriving queer communities in rural spaces. These are your neighbors. This is your cousin” Azano said. “I think it’s harder to demonize, it’s harder to politicize and lean into the rhetoric when it’s not about an unknown.”

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