Will the Northern Iowa town of Mason City see its first ever Pride event? Teanna Corcoran and AJ Bradbury will test the boundaries of acceptance in this “River City.”
What distinguishes a small town from the fantasies that you and I have invented for them in our coastal cities? Born and raised in Mason City, playwright Meredith Wilson dubbed it “River City” in his 1957 stage musical The Music Man. It’s a barely fictionalized portrait of Wilson’s childhood home depicting “Iowa-stubborn” citizens. In The Music Man, prejudice, small-mindedness, and gossip litter the community. The mayor’s wife complains of a book lent to her daughter as smut. It is The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: “People lying out in the woods, eating sandwiches, and drinking out of jugs.” (This is her interpretation of the famous line “A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou.”)
As we imagine, Northern Iowa struggles with the acceptance of ideas from the outside. Iowans are mostly a “live and let live” bunch and one sees few outright displays of prejudice and bigotry, but even with the internet, the access to outside philosophies is limited.
Somewhat isolated, Mason City is as close to the top of Iowa as you can get in these northern plains. About two hours from both Minneapolis and Des Moines, Mason City is defined by Wikipedia as “micropolitan.” The population of 27,000 is down from it’s peak in the 1960’s of 30,000 residents. If you come here you will see what has played out economically in the great heart of America over the decades. This is a mostly a minimum wage landscape now, of chain restaurants and sports bars that routinely show nothing but FOX news and sports. There are diverse people, but you may not immediately see it on the surface. I wondered what sort of bravery it took to be gay or transgender and out in the middle of this country.
AJ, 22, is looking for work, understands that his transgender status is a hurdle. Though protected by anti-discrimination laws in theory, his phone isn’t ringing off the hook with job offers in this Northern Iowa town. Perceived as a girl with a “skaterboy” look, AJ has understood who hen is from a very young age. His partner, Teanna, 19, came out in her junior year of high school as a lesbian. She was promptly grounded by her dad but for “not too long, maybe a few days”;her mother was “very accepting, then asked what it was like.” “I think they were caught off guard and were mad I lied to them about my girlfriend.”
There are some parallels to draw here with Meredith Wilson’s semi-fictional River City. Teanna hears each day the comments of people who stop by her cash register at a truckstop market and gas station that sits placidly beside Interstate 35 on the3 border of neighboring Clear Lake. Her boss will comment upon her sexual orientation to her co-workers. As being a lesbian doesn’t immediately visually mark her as gay, the occasional comment is not directed at her. Tianna tells me in a random conversation one has at a cash register, that a stranger told her that there was no such thing as lesbianism and that the woman had obviously had not found a good enough man yet. Tianna told him she was gay. “Oh, yeah?” the guy smirked, and walked out.
For AJ, each day brings numerous awkward conversations as Iowa is a polite place and one is routinely addressed as “sir” or “ma’am.” “It hurts.” AJ tells me. “Most people are either opposed to gender expression completely or try to be accepting in an environment that’s somewhat trans-phobic.”
He is passionate about LGBTQ culture and history. The purpose of MC Pride is to inform: As AJ runs a gauntlet of daily of misunderstanding, his goal is to foster and help people accept the gender fluid individual. AJ expresses, “Yes, I am trans* male that is in the process of transitioning. I use the pronouns he/him/his. I would be considered “F-T-M,” standing for female to male. Trans* male is my gender expression and my sexual orientation is queer.” All this brings up the question, how does Tianna identify now as her partner is transitioning to male? AJ and Tianna identify as queer. Can our River City accept this?
As of this writing, I am happy to report that AJ is employed in a warehouse building and packing pallets preparing them for the loaders to put into trucks. His new employer changed all the bathroom signs to gender nuetral recently.
I walked away from the conversation thinking about how we struggle with identity. There is some basic need within us to identify and label those we meet. Iowa went to Trump and the divide within this country and between each of us has never been greater. It takes courage to do what Teanna and AJ will do the weekend of June 2nd and 3rd. Help my friends raise awareness by giving to the GoFundMe linked here:
– Elle Smith