People with a History/CLGH Book Review:
Stephen O. Murray:
Review of Fellows, Farm Boys and O'Hara, Autopornography
Stephen O. Murray
Review of Fellows, Will, Farm Boys: Lives of Gay Men from the Rural Midwest.
Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996. 316 pp.
Review of Scott O'Hara, Autopornography: A Memoir of Life in the Lust Lane, New
York: Harrington Park Press, 1997. 210 pp.
Farm Boys is a fascinating collection of materials from 37 oral histories of
growing up on farms in the Midwest by gay men (including the full texts from 26 of the 75
men he interviewed). Fellows provides succinct analysis of the changing economics of
agriculture in the region (increasing industrialization of larger and more
capital-intensive farms)changes which few of his interviewees seem to be aware,
though some of their natal families have been squeezed out of business and off the land.
Fellows arranges the accounts by the year of birth (from 1909 to 1967), and, over the
books span of time, there seems to be a decrease of the amount of dependence on the
unpaid labor of children (i.e., the hours of "chores" seem to have lessened).
Somewhat surprising to me (someone born in 1950, whose grandparents and uncles were
farmers, but who grew up in a rural town of 4000) is that the feeling of isolation has
declined relatively little across more than half a century. Most rural households had
television by the late 1950s, as well as access to newsmagazines that intermittently broke
the invisibility of "homosexuals" (from 1959 onward, especially from the 1964 Life photospread onward). But as Children of Horizons (Gilbert Herdt and Andrew Boxer,
Boston: Beacon Press, 1995) showed, even urban children born later than the youngest man
in Fellows's sample still often feel that they are one of a kind. Mass media represented
homosexuality as a "big city phenomenon," and it was not discussed-- not even to
be condemned-- in rural churches and families. As Todd Ruther (the youngest man in the
collection) explains (specifically for the German-American families that Fellows contends
have fostered less invididualism than less familiastic "Yankee" ones),
Theyre very appearance-oriented, and as long as they dont actually know
it, its not real.... When Ive gone back home Ive sometimes thought it
must be obvious to a lot of people that I'm gay. It really wasnt, though, because
they couldnt conceive of it; it just wasnt an option" (pp. 308-9).
Another German-American, Martin Scherz (b. 1951), notes: "Were a family that
minds its own business in a very extreme way... that old we dont talk about
that kind of thing" (p. 160).
The feeling of being different began at the home place. In particular, those with
brothers recurrently report that their fathers (and others) regarded a brother (sometimes
older, sometimes younger) as being more "real boy." The proto-gay boys often
preferred animal husbandry (both the contact with the animals and keeping immaculate
breeding records) and gardening to working on tractors, and even those who were content to
drive tractors recall being inept and uninterested in mechanics -- the necessary fixing
and maintaining of machines. No one in the book was a full-fledged "tractor
jockey," while a number were stigmatizingly willing to help their mothers with
housework (and/or to join them in fervent involvement in another female domain, church
activities). Although some did not much try, most seem to have been eager to be typically
masculine farmboys to please their fathers but to have felt they couldnt succeed.
(All see homosexual desire as their nature. They differ in the pace at which they accepted
and positively valued such natures.)
One man reports recognizing an erotic component to his differentness as early as age 5
(p. 262), and a number recalled sexual relations with schoolmates and/or relatives, yet
most did not have intercourse with males or with females until their early-to-mid
twenties. They labeled themselves as gay or homosexual still later. Fewer of the more
recent cohorts married in attempts to conform to the procreative imperative. Marriage was
a common "therapy" for men from earlier generations. When it failed to change
them, many turned to professionals, who mostly cured them of the belief there was a
"cure" or any need for one. The view "God made me this way and I accept my
nature" was not unknown (Fellows suggests that observation of mutations among farm
animals may be applied to human natures.) As among other gay male samples, the younger men
in this one came out at an earlier average age than did their elders. "Earlier"
in this case means sooner after graduation from high school, not coming out to others
while in high school.
Growing up feeling one of a kind was more bearable, some think, where boys could go off
by themselves--i.e., away from ridicule. Whether the solace was the open space of a
distant field or the protective cover of a woods, many recall going off by themselves. In
this I see a self-reliance that is not very different from the cultural expectation of a
family avoiding relying on others. Solitude and devoting the hours before and after school
to doing chores does not train one in conversation, let alone in quick verbal repartee.
Over and over these men report not feeling comfortable in bars. I think they have a rather
expansive conception of what constitutes "camping" (or perhaps it is more
ubiquitous in Midwestern cities than I think). They definitely do not enjoy it (even those
who strike this reader as having been very campy children!) and/or they feel threatened by
it, both as confirming gender stereotypes they abhor and as making them feel inferior in
verbal artistry to the rapier-tongued urbanites. While hoping to find a sincere partner
who shares what they have retained and value of rural values, most feel that they are
outsiders within urban gay settings. Not surprisingly, this is especially so for those who
stayed on the farm or returned to farming communities. (Some live in cities; quite a few
live on hobby farms within commuting distance of cities like Madison or Omaha. About a
third of the men are currently in relationships, which is only slightly lower than for
urban gay male samples.)
In addition to eliciting revealing accounts from reticent natives of the rural Midwest,
Fellows gathered and reproduces photos of many of his subjects, including some who chose
to use pseudonyms. Fellows analyses of the effects of ethnicity (Germanic in
contrast to Yankee), industrialization, and other social changes are astute; as are his
conclusions about the costs of heterosexism. The accounts he elicited are often moving and
are invariably informative about the life experiences and life worlds of heretofore
invisible gay men.
When I agreed also to review Scott OHaras Autopornography, I did not
realize how directly related to Farm Boys it is. I doubt that anyone has
characterized Scott OHara as reticent since he won "The Biggest Dick in San
Francisco" contest in 1983 and parlayed it into a ten-year career of and in porno
theaters. Nor would anyone characterize him as inarticulate. Nonetheless, is a farm
boy--and not just in origin (in an Oregon valley). Like Fellows farmboys, he is not
comfortable in crowds or with gay bantering. "I didnt understand why all these
gorgeous men had to pack themselves into bars when they could do just as much cruising on
the street (this still puzzles me)," he recalls very early (p. 8). He is an
outdoorsman, especially when it comes to having sex (which is very often in this memoir),
and he has the ego strength forged in rural solitude to break formation and march to his
own drummer. Later in life, in publishing Steam (1993-5), he endeavored to provide
guidance to other aficionados of gay sex outdoors.
His religion (priapism?) differs from that of his parents (who were Free Methodists and
John Birch Society members), but he shares their intolerance for others, their nearly
Christian Science rejection of medical professionals (including dentists), and what
strikes me as an almost Calvinist sense of predestination (in its simplistic
"Im saved, any beliefs other than mine are wrong, and, incidentally,
youre damned" form). Family resources (accumulated in an earlier generation
than his parents: they never held jobs) have made it unnecessary for him to work for
a living. He says that "all that they really wanted me to be was a good Christian and
a good husband," but, as he recognizes, he was "well prepared by his offbeat
parents for a life at the margins of society" (p. 15)-and for resenting government
He was not a "mommas boy." After years of trying to annoy both of his
parents, he eventually came to admire his father, while thinking that "he took those
marriage vows a little too seriously. But I guess I shouldn't complain; if they'd divorced
when I was a kid, my mom would certainly have gotten custody, and I would have been forced
into matricide.... I never felt the slightest friendship or love for her.... I can never
remember a time when I felt comfortable around her" (pp. 27, 28, 37).
As soon as he finished high school, he fled (to his sister thirteen years his senior
who lived in Chicago with a leatherdyke who introduced Scott to the leather world and whom
he would ill-advisedly marry and expensively divorce after his sisters suicide). He
had a lot of sex, most of it unremunerated. In his view he was making up for what earlier
sexual deprivation in the countryside. On film he strove to be the Pornstar Who Smiles and
is obviously enjoying himself and in his writings he has been an advocate for the
pleasures of sex, controversially extending to unprotected anal intercourse after going to
what he refers to as "the Long Dark Night of the Libido" in Hawaii in 1983
(p. 120). It should be noted that he comes with a warning label--an HIV tattoo and
explicit statements about being HIV+ and glad not to have to worry about getting infected
The book is not just episodic but choppy. It would have profited by being edited,
though the idea of trying to discipline someone so eager to shock is far-fetched.
OHara provides something of an antidote of mostly pleasant experiences to
counterpoise to the maudlin pop psych best-selling biography of someone else who enjoyed
the work of getting fucked on screen, Wonder Bread and Ecstasy: The Life and Death of
Joey Steffano, Alas, too much of Autopornography is genre film memoir (albeit
not from mainstream Hollywood productions and costars) and recounting of sexual episodes
that I find less compelling or titllating than OHara does. The book is
disappointingly short on any sense of the organization (economic or other) of the porn
industry or of the rise and demise of Steam and Wilde. Much of it is
entertaining. The book provides sex-positive illustrations that you can take the boy out
of the country, but you cant take (all of) the country out of the boy, a conclusion Farm
Boys also suggests.
© The Committee for Lesbian and Gay History [CLGH] is an affiliated organization of the American Historical Association devoted to
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© Paul Halsall, November 1998