Eastern Standard Time:
This column originally appeared in The Washington Blade.
In Grand Forks the woman at the Avis counter said she was upgrading me to a minivan. "A minivan?" I said. "Do I look like the kind of person who would drive a minivan?" Meaning: Don't I look queer? Don't you have Gay people in North Dakota?
"Many of our customers ask for minivans," she said, cheerfully. "Anyway, that's all I've got right now."
Great. I imagined myself calling my editor. "I've been arrested, Malcolm," I said to myself as I drove east on U.S. 2. "For entering Minnesota in a minivan. 'Vehicular impersonation of a heterosexual in a large farm state' -- ninety days, the cop tells me." In the distance, a canary-yellow crop duster was diving and soaring and turning, diving and soaring and turning.
I had come to write about an opera, of all things -- a production of Aaron Copland's The Tender Land that the University of Minnesota was taking on a seven-farm tour. The Tender Land tells the story of a young woman's decision, on the eve of her graduation from high school, to leave the farm she was raised on and see more of the world; the idea was that the university's opera students would stage it on the porches of farmhouses with just a few props and some simple costumes.
So I was driving the minivan toward a dairy farm outside a town of 1,500 on a beautiful afternoon. I arrived to find that a semicircle risers had been put up on the lawn in front of a picture-perfect farmhouse, and that the opera's director and a few staff people were sprawled across several rows each, debating how to block various scenes. There were introductions all around.
The last person I met was the dairy farmer, Lou. He didn't look at all like the pot-bellied-and-suspendered 55-year-old I'd imagined. In fact, he was compact and quite cute. It wasn't long before he slipped something subtle into the conversation that only a Gay person would have slipped in -- I don't remember what it was, exactly, but I remember my surprise. While the director and the conductor discussed where to put the orchestra, I looked at Lou and he looked at me and I kind of smiled and he kind of smiled and I put two and two together: I was sitting on the front lawn of a queer dairy farmer.
Oh my, as Mark-my-ex would say.
About then an exceptionally handsome blond man appeared, and I guessed he was Lou's lover. Half an hour later, another surprise: Two men who were clearly a couple arrived, one of them carrying a small, fluffy dog. They turned out to be Lou's oldest brother and his lover, home to see opera come to the family farm. Lou's mother and father wandered over from next door; Lou runs the dairy operation, while his father raises crops on 800 acres. Lou's mother, Mary Anne, introduced me to the handsome blond man as her youngest son. Suddenly it seemed like a good idea to ask Lou for a tour of the farm.
"You want the house tour or the barn tour?" he asked, leading me away from risers and smiling almost shyly.
"Both," I said. "If that's okay, I mean."
By the time we got to the 40 Holsteins in the barn Lou and I were asking each other the usual questions: Do your parents know? His do; one of mine doesn't. Your neighbors? He's not sure about his; half of mine are queer themselves. Are you out at work? I am; his cows don't seem to care. Where do you meet potential dates? "I don't," I said, thinking how nice it was to meet someone utterly without attitude; he countered, ambiguously, with "Things happen, sometimes." He tossed one of the Holsteins an extra scoop of rolled corn and then pushed the feed cart back down to the end of the aisle and smiled at me again. "There's been a dairy here since Grandpa bought this farm, in early '41," he said.
"We worry about Lou," his older brother told me later in the kitchen. "I guess he's met a couple of people from Grand Forks, but it doesn't sound like he's been serious about them. He said they talked a lot." The kitchen was full of ceramic chickens and antique cracker tins. I tried to remember how much I'd talked during Lou's tour.
After dinner Lou invited several people back to the house for a nightcap. I couldn't help marveling: In the farthest reaches of rural Minnesota, I'd stumbled on all these perfectly lovely Gay people, and here I was in a room with five of them. Ingrate that I am, I was kind of wishing that four of them would leave.
Something like 1,300 people crowded onto Lou's lawn the next night for The Tender Land. By then I knew that at least two of the singers were Gay, and several of the key staff people, not to mention Copland. And Lou, of course, who that night was braver than all the rest of us put together: By leaving up the postcards on his refrigerator he outed himself to aunts and neighbors and high-school classmates and everyone else who came through his kitchen.
Most people in the audience, though, seemed unaware that they'd have been home watching Married With Children reruns if so many Gay people hadn't worked long and hard on The Tender Land. Opera programs never tell you things like that. I wanted my San Francisco friend Mark to materialize in earrings and eyeliner, with his tall friend Claude in full drag and a crack team of Lesbian Safer Sex Sluts close behind; I wanted them to dart into the audience, handing out pamphlets and saying, "Queers put this on -- have a nice night. Queers put this on -- have a nice night."
Instead, it was an almost mythically American-rural evening, with kids running everywhere and the grown-ups all amazingly friendly. Copland's fine melodies enriched each image -- an American flag Lou's father had put up, a '39 Chevy borrowed for Act I, evening falling on the fields beyond the risers. One lyric struck me as especially poignant: "A man must take a handful of earth/And work it for his own/A handful of earth and a handful of seed/But how can he do it alone?"
From where I was standing I could just barely see Lou, sitting with two straight friends at the top of one of the risers. He was smiling that shy smile I'd already come to recognize. I wondered whether it was really any lonelier here than back home.