A Beautiful Day in the Gayborhood
Building queer community in a red state
As legislatures in red states across America pass laws that discriminate against and target LGBTQ people, I’ve been watching as my queer friends who have built beautiful lives and communities wrestle with whether they should stay or go. So many of the articles about these bills focus on the pain and trauma of queer life in a red state. What is missing from these stories is the joy of queer life and the beauty of community. All too often, if a story isn’t about death or disaster, it doesn’t get much attention. But queer life and queer joy are an essential and vital part of our communities.
I asked my friend Molly Monk to write about the intentional way she’s building her life in red-state America. Molly is a queer writer and a problem in Cedar Rapids. She has no current projects to plug but thinks that donating to the Iowa Trans Mutual Aid Fund is a great idea.
Like any good Midwestern dyke, I spend a lot of time thinking about my lawnmower. I’m quite fond of this lawnmower — largely because I didn’t pay for it. This lawnmower is living out its Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants fantasy in the Cedar Rapids queer community. Before it was mine, it belonged to my old roommate’s boyfriend. He gave it to me when I bought my house, partially because he’s a sweet and generous person and partially to clear out his garage. Before it was his, it belonged to our friend, Ben. Now it lives in the back of my garage — just a few houses away from Ben.
I was nervous about buying a house and living alone as a queer woman in a red state, but when I saw that there was a house three doors down from Ben and his partner, my anxiety turned into excitement. With Ben on my block, I knew I’d always have someone who would help me out.
Then, a year after I bought my home, my friend Jessalyn bought the house next door.
I first moved to Iowa in 2012. At the time, I was just beginning to break away from my conservative Catholic upbringing and was gently testing out saying I was queer out loud.
Ten years ago, Iowa represented hope. Hope for what the Midwest could be at its best: a place where being my authentic self was not only accepted but affordable. At the time, Minnesota, where my family lived, had a constitutional amendment on the ballot to ban gay marriage. But Iowa had become the third state to legalize it. On my first weekend in the state, I took a bus with my friends to see President Barack Obama speak (more importantly, The National was his opener) in a town a half-hour away. There was hope, there was change.
The next week, I started classes at Simpson College, where I met Jessalyn in a political science seminar. Four years later, I followed her to Cedar Rapids.
Where we live next to each other has become a kind of queer enclave. It’s us, a few other openly queer households, and a coven’s worth of feral cats. We’ve taken to calling our block the Gayborhood. The proximity feels like security — a safety net we wove together by accident and by design. I’ll pop over in my slippers to fix Jessalyn’s plumbing issues (perks of being a gay stereotype), and she’ll ask the group chat if anyone wants in on the takeout she’s ordering. Ben will help me with my yard, and we’ll all take care of each other’s houses and pets when we’re out of town. We take turns hosting costume parties for Taylor Swift album releases and we check in with each other during severe weather.
The Gayborhood is just one part of my very queer life in Cedar Rapids. During the summer, almost all the food I eat comes from lesbian-run farms in Eastern Iowa. My friends and I go to queer trivia at our local gay bar most weeks, and everyone brings a dish for the community potluck. A group of queer women and I take turns hosting watch parties for Formula 1 races each Sunday. My favorite bartenders and baristas are queer. My doctor is queer. The bookstore where I go for books and gossip is run by a gay man. So many of the local bands and musicians I love are queer. My running group is queer. I can’t go a day without seeing my community in this city.
When things are bad, we support each other. When a friend ended his long-term relationship and was worried about where to live next, he moved in with me. Any time I’ve been in the hospital, my friends and neighbors have visited me, stocked my fridge with casseroles and Gatorade, and taken care of my house. We organize protests and show up to marches. We volunteer. We provide mutual aid to each other.
When things are good, we celebrate.
In the summer, I like to get a bit drunk and play croquet. My yard is full of molehills and I refuse to learn the rules, so it’s more a round of trash talk than an actual game. Last year, a neighbor and I did this to celebrate our birthdays. We set up camp on my driveway and had our friends stop by throughout the day to join in the fun for however long they liked. I went to bed with sore cheeks from smiling so hard.
I don’t know if staying is the ultimate act of defiance and joy in the face of people who wish to erase me and my friends and the beautiful life we are building.
On other beautiful evenings, Ben hosts “community table” in his backyard. Everyone brings whatever food they have on hand, and he’ll grill out for the block. We’ll light a fire and sit outside laughing together until the stars are out in the wide Midwestern sky.
Our lives are different from the heterosexual homes that feel more insular, built around husbands, wives, and children. We build our lives with and around an expansive network of friends and loves. You don’t have to be queer to do this (and there are people in my community who aren’t), but being queer makes it easier to imagine a life, a happy life, outside of the traditional nuclear family. Whether their family rejects them or not, most queer people have had to at least confront the possibility that they’d lose support from their loved ones for being who they are. Once you decide to choose being yourself over the traditional expectations of family, a whole new way of living opens itself up to you — one that’s free of gender roles and expectations and full of beautiful possibilities.
A few weeks ago, Jessalyn and I went to see Cabaret at Theatre Cedar Rapids — a local production filled with our friends and neighbors. As we watched the characters sing about ignoring the world around them while the Nazis rose to power in 1930s Berlin, it was hard not to think of the news about Iowa passing laws that discriminate against trans Iowans and think, “Wait, is this fucking play about us?”
I love the little life I’ve built here, and I’m terrified it’s going to fall apart. The increase in anti-LGBTQ legislation and open hate against the queer community, especially trans kids, across America is a threat to my way of life. During the last act of Cabaret, I wanted to scream at the characters to leave Berlin because I know what disasters await them just years away. I don’t know if I’m being naïve or wise for thinking that what’s happening in our state now isn’t an early warning sign telling me and everyone I love to leave while we still can. I don’t know if staying is the ultimate act of defiance and joy in the face of people who wish to erase me and my friends and the beautiful life we are building.
We all talk about leaving. Some people have already left, and more will leave after this legislative session concludes. A hallmark of a home is that it is a place where you feel safe; if you don’t feel safe, it’s not home. For some, leaving the lives they built here is the only option. But I don’t want to leave. I have enough privilege to stay, and I want to use it to help. There are other queer people here who can’t leave, and I want to stay for them, for us. I want to make Iowa be the place I hoped it was when I moved here over a decade ago. In the face of destruction, I want to rebuild.
The Gayborhood, after all, is no stranger to disaster. It doesn’t take much effort to see scars from the derecho, the inland hurricane that destroyed our town in 2020. If you look a little more closely, you can see watermarks on many buildings from the 2008 flood that left our neighborhood submerged in 12 feet of water. The scars from redlining are harder to see at first glance, but they’re still there in persistent stereotypes about the safety of our neighborhood and in the slow investment of dollars for disaster recovery. This neighborhood, built on Sac and Fox land in the 1800s, has seen so much history — flood, drought, hate, and hope, and yet somehow, it’s still here with people who want to help.
Queer communities like mine exist wherever queer people live. A couple towns over from me, my friend Em and her neighbors spend mornings in each other’s kitchens talking about legislation and life, and afternoons riding motorcycles through the Iowa countryside. My friend Alex has a gayborhood in Virginia where their neighbors and friends watch each other’s kids and drop off meals to make sure everyone remembers to eat. Shortly after coming out, my friend Bridget moved home to Nebraska to be a part of a queer community that hosts L Word watch parties, raises money for the Nebraska AIDS Project, and sings together in a queer choir. I have friends with their version of a gayborhood in South Carolina, Kansas, and many other red states. What we have is worth fighting for.
Like this neighborhood, many of us have been through worse before. Acceptance and accessible health care are relatively new (or still unknown) for most of us. Because so many queer people died in the AIDS epidemic, you don’t have to be that old to be a queer elder. Our elders have advice. We have each other.
No matter how many laws politicians try to pass, queer people will continue to exist. No matter how red our state is, we will still find each other. We will find joy.
My lawnmower is going to break down this summer. It’s old and worn and doing the best it can. But I’m not worried. Ben has promised to help me fix it when it does.
Normally, I end each email with a pitch for people to subscribe. But this week, I’d like to encourage you all to donate to Iowa Trans Mutual Aid.