Journalist Samantha Allen. Courtesy photo.
The Profile

The journalist telling the complicated, hopeful truth about LGBTQ life in red states

April 26, 2019
Journalist Samantha Allen. Courtesy photo.

Samantha Allen, America’s premier chronicler of LGBTQ life in red states, chooses to meet me at Hamburger Mary’s in West Hollywood—a gay themed burger chain committed to queering Americana. Known for its drag bingo nights, it serves the aesthetic of ‘50s diner culture with a mascara-soaked wink.

The reason is less than symbolic. She’s very hungry. Allen, a national reporter for The Daily Beast, was in town for a panel at the Los Angeles Festival of Books. The following morning she was headed to Georgia to tell students at Emory College about her travels from the Mormon heartland of Provo, Utah, to thriving queer enclaves in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, and Johnson City, Tennessee.

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Her book, Real Queer America, published in March, details a six-week road trip Allen took with a friend to profile LGBTQ lives away from the coasts. Allen says the project was inspired by the trend that swept journalism after Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the 2016 election of “going to Ohio and profiling Trump voters ad nauseum.”  

“I wanted to do the opposite—at least in the LGBTQ space—which was go to middle America and interview the people who are going to one day stop Trumpism, not the people who brought it into existence,” Allen says as she flips through the menu, which features on its cover a bosomy cartoon drag queen accepting an award on a red carpet as she holds a giant hamburger.

Allen explains that the experience of writing Real Queer America showed her just how much of the LGBTQ community remains invisible in mainstream reporting. The highest concentration of queer and transgender people in the United States is not in New York or California but in the Southeast. Data collected in 2017 by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles shows that 35 percent of LGBTQ Americans live in the south.

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They certainly don’t make up a third of coverage. When Allen visited WonderLust, the only gay bar in Jackson, Mississippi, locals still spoke of the time that a Washington Post reporter visited, in 2016, in hushed and reverent tones. “That’s how infrequently national newsrooms get out to these places,” Allen says. Much of that coverage, and sometimes even her own work, focuses on legislative threats. In recent weeks, she has reported on a proposed bill in Tennessee that would force the state’s Attorney General to defend school districts that pass discriminatory policies targeting transgender students and the failed attempt to ban anti-gay conversion therapy in Utah.

This kind of coverage is critical in a divided political era, Allen says. But reductive reporting of queer communities in red states often pits people of faith against LGBTQ people, even though these groups frequently overlap.

The percentage of LGBTQ churchgoers is significantly lower than the overall population, yet a 2015 Gallup poll found that more than half of queer and transgender individuals (59 percent) claim religious affiliation. Thirteen percent of LGBTQ respondents were evangelical, the second-largest religious group represented in the survey.

“This broad, diverse community—when it gets reported on by media—often has to be fit into these very constraining boxes,” Allen claims. “When our reporting is so focused on legislation, we position anti-LGBTQ groups on one side and then LGBTQ rights groups on the other side. When you get away from that and get into more textured, granular reporting of LGBTQ life, it gets more complicated.”

What we miss, she says, are the quiet advances that so-called “flyover country” has made in the past few decades. Although Florida, which went for Donald Trump in 2016, has yet to ban conversion therapy at the statewide level, it leads the nation in passing local ordinances prohibiting “pray the gay away” treatments. To date, 20 cities and counties in Florida have outlawed programs that claim to change one’s sexual orientation. Ohio, another Trump state, comes in second on the list, with six. In 2015, Cincinnati became the first city in the US to pass a law prohibiting conversion therapy.

Allen writes in Real Queer America that the dominant narrative of the 20th century “was a gay boy in the country buying a one-way bus ticket to the Big Apple.” But the America of today confounds that narrative. The state of New York didn’t ban conversion therapy until this January. Of the six governors who have signed laws outlawing the practice, all six were Republicans.

While visiting Bloomington, Indiana, Allen spoke with Rachael Jones, an insurance agent who—until recently—served as the proprietor of a local café. When the coffeehouse opened, in 2008, its existence was a matter of necessity: Jones couldn’t find a job in central Indiana, a fact she attributed to her identity as an out transgender woman. She took a loan from a friend to start the café because she felt that she didn’t have any other options.

Before the café closed, in 2015, it had developed into a mainstay among students at nearby Indiana University, who would bring their books to study between classes. It even inspired a play about Jones’s life. Having watched her community change so much so quickly, she asked Allen to take note: “Life is so much better for me now,” she said. “People need to know that.”

On a deeper level, Allen says that readers “miss not just the existence of LGBTQ communities in red states, but the vibrancy, the support, and the solidarity that they’ve built in these places that are still stereotyped as hostile or inhospitable.” She adds, “We miss almost everything.”

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Correction: A previous version of this story cited a study from the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles as saying that 35 percent of LGBTQ Americans live in Alabama and Georgia. The study said, in fact, that that figure applied to the south in general.

Nico Lang is an award-winning reporter, essayist, and editor. His work has been featured in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Esquire and others. Follow him on Twitter @nico_lang.