Being Queer in Idaho, by Tom Spanbauer

Editor Matty Byloos, Editor's Choice, October 28th, 2013

...but I had no sense of what 'queer' was...

tom spanbauer on nailed magazine
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Just about every piece I’ve ever written has something to do with Idaho. If not directly, then indirectly through the examination of my life and my family and how I was brought up. After all, it all happened in Idaho: way out of town, Pocatello, on a one hundred and sixty acre farm. My overly zealous Catholic mother, my distant dry-drunk father, an older sister who dressed me up as a girl until I went to grade school, the Mormon community I was bussed through every day to get to the St. Joseph’s School.

There I stood on the side of the road, my hair neatly parted in my Catholic School uniform, holding onto my books and red binder. I was the mark for every bully in Bannock County.

I think too, the sense of otherness and isolation that’s in my work has its roots in Idaho as well. I’ve always been trying to figure out how other people act and why they act that way so I can know too. Of course, it has so much to do with being gay. But “gay” wasn’t even a something when I was growing up in the 1950’s. I knew you weren’t supposed to wear green on Thursdays because that made you a “queer,” but I had no sense of what “queer” was. I knew it was a man who had sex with men but that was a concept totally foreign to me. During adolescence, boys wanted to have sex with me but I was so Catholic, I thought that anything sexual was a mortal sin. So in many ways, I had to learn to reprogram myself really in order to even be touched.

What does this have to do with Idaho?

I was isolated in a family that hated sex, in a community that thought I was the Roman Whore (on the roof of my parent’s house was fashioned a three-foot tall statue of the Virgin Mary with a spotlight on it), faraway from any source that could have shed some light on my predicament.

When I was a freshman in college, I went to a psychiatrist and told him I thought I was homosexual. He told me I couldn’t be homosexual because homosexuals had their sex organs in their mouths. When I reached out to the scientific community of Idaho, could I have gotten better information if I had been living in a less isolated, more sophisticated time and place?

At least there weren’t any meth labs yet.

Part of my Idaho-ness is being born into a family of German dirt farmers. Work was as much of a religion as religion. I can remember once being invited to Lizbeth MacButch’s birthday party. It was during the summer, and for some unknown reason my parents let me go to this party in the middle of an Idaho work day. When I got to Liz’s house in the Cedars sub-division, I found kids my age hanging out around a swimming pool. I couldn’t believe that people I went to school with could be so entitled as to lounge around a chlorinated pool slathered in tanning oil. At my home, I baled hay all summer and swam in the canal, always fearful that my dad would catch me goofing off.

Then there’s the issue of racism. The LA Times, when they reviewed Faraway Places, accused me of trying to be a southern writer because I talked about racism. Really, you can’t talk about Idaho and not talk about racism.

My parent’s farm bordered the Fort Hall Indian reservation. Twenty-two years I was raised along side of Native Americans but never really “saw” them. They were always jammed in old cars and labeled as “drunks.” My mother used to lock the car doors when we traveled through Fort Hall when we visited my grand parents in Blackfoot. It was only after I returned to Idaho after my two-year stint in Kenya with the Peace Corps that I began to notice the native peoples surrounding me.

And the Mexican migrant workers. My family housed ten or twelve people in a two-room house next to the feedlot. Despite being Catholic, my mother and father looked down on these people as dirty and ignorant. We were not allowed to associate with any of the migrant workers. But these were the only people around me. Of course, as it turns out, some of my best friends were young Mexican girls and boys.

Given all the weirdness of being raised in rural Idaho in the 50’s, though, I’ve got to say that walking the mile home after changing the water (irrigating) on a summer evening — that long solitary walk at sunset down the dusty roads through the sugar beet fields, the alfalfa fields, the barley and wheat fields, was something close to a miracle. Really the connection I felt to the sky and to the earth and to the water created in me a feeling of being connected to an abiding deep mystery.

Idaho: such an enigma. But isn’t that what home is?

The dreaded place where your heart sings.

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author tom spanbauerTom Spanbauer grew up on a farm twelve miles outside Pocatello, Idaho. He attended St. Joseph’s Catholic School and Highland High School. In 1969, he received his BA in English Literature from Idaho State University. Tom served two years in the Peace Corps in Kenya, East Africa. He returned to Idaho until 1978, when he decided he needed to get out of that state. He moved to New Hampshire, then Vermont, then Key West, Florida. In 1988, Tom studied at Columbia University while waiting tables at Café Un Deux Trois and Odeon, and being a super of five buildings on East Fifth Street. In 1988, he received his MFA from Columbia in Fiction. In 1991, Tom settled in Portland, Oregon where he teaches Dangerous Writing in the basement of his house. Forty (more or less forty—-he’s lost count) of his students have published novels and/or memoirs. His novels include Faraway Places, The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon, In The City of Shy Hunters, and Now Is the Hour.

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Matty Byloos

Matty Byloos is Co-Publisher and a Contributing Editor for NAILED. He was born 7 days after his older twin brother, Kevin Byloos. He is the author of 2 books, including the novel in stories, ROPE ('14 SDP), and the collection of short stories, Don't Smell the Floss ('09 Write Bloody Books).