Book Review: “Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States” by Samantha Allen

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Alright, confession time: I finished this book in July.

July.

It’s freakin’ September, people! I have just had so many feelings over this book that I’ve had the hardest time figuring out how to write this review without an inordinate amount of unintelligible gushing. (Mind you, some gushing is definitely in order; this is my first five star review on this blog).

To me, a five star review is extremely personal. I have to care deeply about the characters and themes, and probably have to cry at least once while reading. A five star review should be reserved for books that give me a hangover when I finish and make me feel as though the Earth has shifted on its axis.

When I finished Allen’s book, I certainly felt as though the world was changed — for the better.

I picked up this book expecting a road trip story with some queerness thrown in. And that’s what I got! In spades! And I also got one of the most thoughtful, relevant, and above all hopeful stories that I have read all year. Allen does so much more than take us with her on a journey; in telling her own story of how she struggled toward love and self-acceptance as well as embarking on a quest to find queerness in America’s reddest states, she made me feel real, genuine hope for the future.

It’s difficult to write this review without being overly personal about why it matters so much to me. In some ways, Allen and I are similar: we both despaired over the 2016 US presidential election results and care deeply about LGBT+ issues. In other ways, however, Allen is different from me: she’s a trans woman, and because of this is the target of so much more violence and vitriol than I will likely ever face as a cis woman. In spite of this, Allen has faith in America and its people, especially the ones in states that leftists like me used to write off as lost causes.

Real Queer America is a love letter to the queer communities in small cities and smaller towns in the Midwest and the deep South. Allen travels to Utah, Indiana, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, and Mississippi, revisiting places where she had been unable to find community earlier in her life or else finding new places entirely. Her book is part memoir and part exploration, and all of it is told in compelling, conversational prose. I felt like I was being told a story as I sat on a porch with a glass of iced tea!

The meat of Real Queer America concerns the differences between queer communities in supposed “safe havens” like San Francisco and New York City and queer communities in traditionally conservative states. Allen believes — and she’s done a good job convincing me as well — that city life just isn’t worth the hype. In the face of hostile state legislatures, queer folks in red states are drawn together in activism and even just existence, forming friendships and found families of mutual support. According to Allen’s research (which is abundantly supported with citations at the end of each chapter) these ties and community bonds are actually weaker in big cities and more traditionally liberal states.

Ultimately, I think Real Queer America can best be summarized in this quote:

“And utopias — well, utopias don’t exist. If one did, every LGBT person in the country would move there and queer world-making would end.”

In the face of every legislature and hackneyed Presidential administration, LGBT+ people will continue to fight to create communities where queerness is accepted. Allen has it right: queer world-making is at its most profound in the face of hostility, and we should never take our safe harbors for granted — if we do, they will surely be taken from us.

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