Just before Christmas my friend Rachel sent me a recent column by screenwriter Dustin Lance Black about his experience filming in Holland, Michigan (my hometown) and being invited to speak at Hope College (my alma mater). As I wrote here in October, Black was extended and invitation to speak at the college and then the invitation was withdrawn by the administration. Later arrangements were made for Black to speak at an off-campus venue.
Black’s column, reflecting on his experience in Holland and at Hope is clearly written in a well-meaning spirit of reconciliation in a situation where hurt feelings abounded. It is also written from the personal perspective of an outsider who visited Holland for a short period of time to do a specific project and became tangled up in one chapter of the ongoing saga that is West Michigan’s religious, social and political conservatism. More specifically, he walked into a situation colored indelibly by Hope College’s struggle to decide where it stands in relation to the Reformed Church in America, a denomination currently divided (as most mainline Christian denominations are) in regards to their official stance and everyday practice concerning sexual orientation.
Unfortunately, I think Black, with the myopia of a visitor — misses the mark when it comes to understanding the particular context for — and history of — his own slice of experience in West Michigan and with Hope College. He characterizes Holland (a metropolitan area of roughly 95,000) as a “small Midwestern town” and describes his encounters with the local populace as if his presence was somehow a catalyst for the city and college to wrestle with issues of sexual orientation that they had heretofore complacently ignored. “I don’t think the town was homophobic,” he writes, “I think they had simply never discussed gay rights openly before, and here I was, an interloper, threatening to thrust this hot-button issue into their community.”
Well . . . yes and no. Clearly, I have my moments of profound antagonism toward the conservatism of place and people that characterizes the West Michigan region. There are reasons I felt it necessary to become a self-identified feminist, reasons that I decided to move elsewhere for graduate school, and reasons I will think long and hard before supporting my alma mater financially or otherwise. There have been times when I experienced the majority culture of West Michigan like a physical weight on my chest, an asthma attack waiting to happen.
Yet on the other hand, I think it’s important — and I speak here as a feminist, as someone who’s bisexual and in a same-sex relationship, and as a Midwesterner — to resist the easy dichotomy of “Midwest” versus “coast,” and “small town” versus “urban” that become stand-ins for talking about political and social conservatism and liberalism. West Michigan was where I became the person I am today partly in spite of yet just as much because of the people around me: West Michigan’s politics and majority culture are conservative, but that conservatism does not thrive in a vacuum free of liberal, leftist pushback. West Michigan conservatism is perennially contested by those who disagree with the premises of a conservative Church and Republican party politics. (Consider, for example, that my senior project in the Women’s Studies program at Hope was a multi-year group research project on a predominantly lesbian, feminist organization and community that thrived in West Michigan during the 1970s and early 1980s.) I would argue that Black served less as a catalyst for new awakening and more as the latest spark to reignite the antagonism between these two indigenous forces: dominant culture and counter-culture.
Those outsider-sparks can serve as personal awakenings, sure: it was a similar series of events in 1998 that were my own adult initiation into the world of feminist and LGBT politics — but I think the important thing to remember is that even if the immediate impetus for such community reflection comes from outside, myriad resources with which to challenge the conservative status quo are rooted deep in local, Midwestern soil.
I grew up a crazy-ass liberal in what (as Black points out) is the most Republican-leaning county in Michigan — yet I found a tenacious network of like-minded folks within that community who have helped me to grow, often to thrive, and always to explore a world beyond the boundaries of fear-driven, narrow-minded conservatism. And many of those people hail from (and continue to live in more or less uneasy relationship with) the very groups of folks that Black imagines to be so well-meaning yet clueless about queer politics. Among the folks who helped me grow into the woman I am today are Holland natives, Hope College faculty and staff, and deeply religious folks whose Christianity informs their political liberalism.
And those folks deserve to reside in the “small Midwestern town” of our collective imagination just as much as (if not more than) those who resort to fear and exclusion.