Laying It All on the Table: Scaling up Rural Queer History from Small-Town Wisconsin to Transnational Queer Networks

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 11:10 AM
Mile High Ballroom 1A (Colorado Convention Center)
Christopher Hommerding, University of Wisconsin–Madison
With notable exceptions like John Howard, Colin R. Johnson, and Brock Thompson among a handful of others, there are any number of reasons why LGBTQ history has largely been a discipline focused on urban spaces and individuals. One of these reasons surely has to do with the issue of historical scale. Working on the LGBTQ history of rural space likely seems too parochial, too narrow, and simply too small. By contrast, this paper begins small, with a single antique table from a small town in southwestern Wisconsin, and suggests that, appearances aside, studying the rural and small-town LGBTQ past need not be parochial, narrow, or small. The owners of the table in question were two queer men, Robert Neal and Edgar Hellum of Mineral Point, Wisconsin, who began restoring early nineteenth-century stone mining cottages in the 1930s and eventually spearheaded the effort to revitalize their small hometown several decades later. By tracing the provenance and the history of this small, rather non-descript, table, this paper seeks to show how rural LGBTQ history has the potential to blur the boundaries between country, city, and beyond. More specifically, the table is a material marker of the larger queer network of which Neal and Hellum’s rural existence was a part. This network transcended both generations and space, connecting the partners to other queer men in both the urban and rural Midwest as well as to international metropoles like New York and London. By beginning with a single object, then, rooted in rural space and intimately tied to queer individuals, this paper attempts to scale up, as it were, a rural and small-town LGBTQ history that is anything but parochial, narrow, or small.
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