A Thread in Our Cultural Fabric

John Quinlan talks with author Will Fellows about the timeless relevance that helped inspire Brokeback Mountain—the collection of narratives in Fellows’ Farm Boys.

John Quinlan talks with author Will Fellows about the timeless relevance that helped inspire Brokeback Mountain—the collection of narratives in Fellows’ Farm Boys.

John Quinlan: Hi Will. So good to have the chance to visit with you.

Will Fellows: It’s a pleasure, John. I remember that you were in the audience at my first Madison screening of the Farm Boys slideshow in 1996, before the book had even been published.

JQ: You know, one of my favorite things to do when traveling is to browse the gay and lesbian section at community-owned bookstores. Invariably, I’ll find a copy of Farm Boys on the shelves. Why do you think it has that kind of staying power?

WF: Mainly I think it has to do with the power of individuals talking about their lives with insight, candor, intimacy and sincerity. To me, no other literary form is more powerful than autobiographical narrative. I’m strongly drawn to it, as I think many people are.

JQ: You’re a gay man, living the cosmopolitan life in the big city. How does your rural upbringing still influence and ground you?

WF: Bronze and I have lived in Milwaukee for 15 years. It suits us quite well, with many urban advantages but not too big – we like to get around on foot and bicycle much of the time. But Bronze and I will always be dairy-farm boys in our core values and sensibilities. We’re in the city but we’re often reminded that we’re not really of the city.

JQ: While I didn’t grow up on a farm, I did grow up in small towns well-removed from the gay meccas of the state like Madison. I still feel a debt of gratitude for the awareness of the importance of supportive community that instilled in me. So many of us share that experience, and yet feel that we have no choice but to live in large cities. Are things changing?

WF: What I’ve read and heard in the past ten years leads me to conclude that significantly more LGBT people are choosing to live openly in rural and small-town places—sometimes in the communities they grew up in. Urban life doesn’t suit everyone. I’m reminded of the youngest guy in Farm Boys talking about his desire to get out of Omaha and return to the ranch he grew up on: “Where I came from is as important as what I am.”

JQ: When I was the director of OutReach, I made a point of trying to connect with a leader of Pioneers, a social and support group for LGBT people in rural southwestern Wisconsin. And yet I sensed a wariness from him, a sense of mistrust based on the fact that big city gays just didn’t get the day-to-day realities of LGBT people living in rural areas. Finally, the guy just poured forth with all of these emotions and built-up resentments about the judgments that urban gays place on rural gays. “Just because I don’t fly a rainbow flag in the front yard, it doesn’t mean I haven’t worked for years to build relationships with my neighbors that are the foundation of their acceptance of me and my partner. So, I ask you, who’s really hiding here… people like me with the courage to live an honest life out here, or people taking refuge in a gay ghetto somewhere?” Do you think he had a point?

WF: It’s a good point. The fact that it’s tinged with indignation and resentment reflects the extent to which urban values dominate queer and mainstream culture. The importance of “blending in” is greater in non-urban places, where residents tend to manage their individual expression in ways that don’t corrode community cohesiveness. It’s not just rainbow flags – political yard signs, even house colors and landscaping can be problematic. Whether or not one sees this as a good or bad thing depends on what kind of community one wants to be a part of and how one sees the role of the individual in relation to community. The fact is, there are as many legitimate ways to be queer as there are queers. Really, we all need to just live our authentic lives.

JQ: Rumor is that, here in the Madison area, many of the gay men you’ve wrote about in Farm Boys have connected with each other, and created their own sense of supportive community, even gathering for periodic reunions. What about their shared life experiences, and the experience of telling their stories in your book, continues to connect them in this way?

WF: Those fabulous farm boys! It’s great to know that some of them are bonding like this. I’m grateful to them all for telling me their stories way back when. I hope they’ve shared in the pleasure of knowing that the book has made its way into the hands of readers for whom it has been life-changing, even life-saving. Knowing that a play inspired by the book has had productions in New York, St. Paul, and San Francisco. Knowing that their stories were read by Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger as they prepared for their performances in Brokeback Mountain.

I think a big part of what unites these guys are the values and priorities reflected in Minnesota farm boy Lon Mickelsen’s words: “Though there were times when it was rough around the edges, my life on the farm gave me many of the things that I value most today: my appreciation of the importance of relying on others and allowing them to rely on me, of balancing work and play, of keeping a wide-eyed fascination in the world; my love of animals and nature, my work ethic, my desire to grow things. Every now and then, sitting in a twenty-story office building in downtown Minneapolis, I have the urge to hop in my car and drive until I see corn. Some of my urban friends feel panicky out there, but to me the big open spaces are very calming.”