Women on the Land. Directed by Laurie York. Mendocino, California: Mendocino Coast Films, 2012. 57 minutes.
Lavender Hill: A Love Story. Produced by Austin Bunn. Ithaca, NY: Traveling Fellows Production, 2013. 22 minutes.
Out Here. Directed by Jonah Mossberg. Oakland, CA: Queer Farmer Film Project, 2013. 89 minutes.
Feminist courses in American Studies tend to overlook rural areas as sites for gender and sexuality analysis, but a fifth of Americans live rurally in population groups smaller than 2,500 people. US land remains 95 percent rural open space.1 Women on the Land, Lavender Hill, and Out Here integrate feminism, queerness, and country living with contemporary concerns about the quality of the American food system, consumerism, and environmental crises like peak oil, water shortages, and climate change.
Women on the Land’s core group formed a commune forty years ago in Mendocino County, California, and produced the journal Country Woman. The film captures back-to-the-land, feminist, and lesbian-feminist optimism and excitement while it connects 1970s values with continuing efforts to improve society.2 Focusing on one location with women in long-lasting friendships achieves some narrative arc from activist beginnings through today. In the film, participants address early goals and/or contemporary interests in sustainability. They have built self-sufficiency skills, partly detached from consumer capitalism, raised small livestock, and gardened to produce healthy organic food. For decades they have worked with others in the region to protect against the military-industrial complex’s environment degradation. This community has organized successfully against naval sonar testing, war games, corporate water theft, and nuclear reactor plans. Dialogues with younger women demonstrate that the sense of progressive community in Mendocino has thrived, benefitting from activism across generations since the commune’s dissolution. The film would pair well with readings about feminist organizing in the 1970s-1980s, intentional communities, or more broadly works on sustainability and environmentalism through appropriate technology, owner-built housing, organic growing, and more humane livestock practices.3 It also could be a starting point for environmental and food ethics discussions.
Similarly, Lavender Hill: A Love Story documents a group of up to thirteen gay and lesbian New Yorkers who went back to the land in the early 1970s. As a rare instance when gay men and lesbians formed a long-lasting commune together, Lavender Hill connects gay liberationist and feminist ideas to owner-built housing and gardening in the country with occasional contrasts to their pre-rural lives. Commune members’ nonchalant references to Jewish ethnicity honor part of New York demographics in the context of conflicting values between participants and their parents. Viewers become immersed in the headiness of the times as participants speak freely about how they lived intentionally to experiment with ways of loving and experiencing alternative family bonds that combated isolation. Lavender Hill provided a space to explore gender, drugs, and sexuality even as relationship tensions and individuals’ desires to follow pursuits that pulled them back to city life threatened Lavender Hill’s stability. As one participant said of gay and lesbian communal living: “There was a physicality to it. There was a sensuality to it. And it was unapologetic. And it was euphoric.” The casualness in discussing gender expression for those labelled male at birth and the ease with which surviving participants recall their interests in exploring sex are refreshing and noteworthy, especially given that During this era members were grappling with the AIDS epidemic.
Like the Lavender Hill residents who solved loneliness by building community, Out Here stems from Jonah Mossberg’s sense of isolation as a young queer farmer. For this film he documented rural and urban queer growers at thirty farms, garden programs, or seed libraries nationwide over a five-year period. Mossberg focuses the film on seven.Talking with the residents of each in sequence gives less narrative arc but allows a bit more character development than the previous films. For representation beyond these main narratives, Mossberg includes other interviewees’ thoughts about how to define terms like “queer” and “farmer.” Pulling from the wider sample shows diversity regarding self-identification and how central queer identity or community is to their experience of farming. Also highlighting diversity among the farmers themselves, Out Here includes farmers of color, trans growers, disability issues, and a couple with a child. This documentary captures changing views on LGBT Americans and ties into a slowly increasing body of scholarship about being queer in rural areas.4 It also unites views on queer ecological spirituality with contemporary experiments in sustainable, self-sufficient agricultural ecosystems (permaculture) that include closed loop farming where cover crops and compost preserve soil fertility without requiring additives like commercial fertilizers.
Each documentary capitalizes on sweeping bucolic scenes of rustic barns, sheep, cows, goats, or chickens. Although remaining idyllic, Women on the Land and Out Here also note the economic challenges of farming. Therefore, readings on farm subsidy policies and resources to address rural poverty could also supplement the films.
1 According to the Census Bureau, “Together, urbanized areas, urban clusters, and rural places occupy 5.4 percent of the nation’s land, while urban areas alone cover just 2.6 percent. Rural open space thus covers between 94.6 and 97.4 percent of the land in the United States” (“Census Bureau: 94.6 Percent of US Is Rural Open Space,” Heartlander, July 1, 2003). See also “2010 Census Urban and Rural Classification and Urban Area Criteria,” United States Census Bureau, February 19, 2015.
2 Participants substantiate scholars’ emphasis on the importance of lesbian feminism for creating women’s institutions. See Verta Taylor and Leila J. Rupp, “Women’s Culture and Lesbian Feminist Activism: A Reconsideration of Cultural Feminism,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 19 no. 1 (1993): 32-61; Anne Enke, Finding the Movement: Sexuality, Contested Space, and Feminist Activism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007); Clark A. Pomerleau, Califia Women: Feminist Education against Sexism, Classism, and Racism (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013).
3 The following are among the few published scholarly works about women’s rural communes: Keridwen N. Luis, “The Gender of ‘Energy’: Language, Social Theory, and Cultural Change in Women’s Lands in the United States,” Journal of Homosexuality 62, no. 9 (2015): 1174-1200; Joan S. Rabin and Barbara R. Slater, “Lesbian Communities across the United States: Pockets of Resistance and Resilience,” Journal of Lesbian Studies 9 no. 1/2 (2005): 169-82; Lenore Ralston and Nancy Stoller, “Hallomas: Longevity in a Back-to-the-Land Women's Group in Northern California,” Journal of Lesbian Studies 9 no. 1/2 (2005): 63-72. This genre often includes gender essentialism or virulent frustration with men’s bad behavior. For a massive bibliography of US communal endeavors, see John Goodin, “Communal Studies Bibliography (1993-2012)” at http://academic.luther.edu/~goodinjo/CSAbibliography.htm.
4 See Colin R. Johnson, Just Queer Folks: Gender and Sexuality in Rural America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013); Brock Thompson, The Un-Natural State: Arkansas and the Queer South (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 2010); E. Patrick Johnson, Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South, an Oral History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008); James T. Sears, Rebels, Rubyfruit, and Rhinestones: Queering Space in the Stonewall South (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001); John Howard, Men Like That: A Southern Queer History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).