Jonah. 28. Windham, CT.

Interviewed at Jonah’s kitchen table in Windham, Connecticut on September 17, 2013.

To listen to an excerpt of the audio click here:  

My name is Jonah, I’m 28, and I live in Windham, Connecticut which is in the quiet corner of CT as we call it, the northeastern corner.  I think when people think about CT they usually associate it with being pretty suburban, you know, really close to New York, a lot of people commute…and that’s true, somewhat, mostly in the, you know, southern, southwestern part of the state, but up here in the northeastern corner we’re pretty much as far away from that as you can get.  So, I feel like we’re not really suburban of anything.  This area is, yeah, like I was saying it’s called the quiet corner, because it’s really pretty quiet around here.  It’s a lot of just small town, small town CT, New England feel.  Um, it’s still really agricultural, um, the biggest town in CT, in terms of area, is the next town over Lebanon, it’s like really really large and it’s highly agricultural.  There’s still a lot of like Ag high schools around here, which I feel like is kind of a dying breed in general.

Well, and then, right, we do, there is kind of like a small urban area, ish, urban-ish area, Willimantic, which you drove through on your way here.   And that’s where I went to high school.  It’s kind of post industrial, there used to be a really big thread mill there, this is like the former thread mill capital of the world.  So there’s kind of the remnants of that.  I’d say there’s a lot of folks that are down and out, it’s kind of like mostly middle class, working class.  There’s a large Latino population, mostly Puerto Rican folks.  So it’s weird, there’s like this urban hub and then like country all around it.  That’s what it’s like here.

I was born in Hartford, CT in the hospital, and I grew up in a little town called Columbia, it’s like 3,000 people.  I went to the same K-8 school, preschool, with some of the same kids, class of, I don’t know, there were like 60 of us or something.  And I grew up, my parents actually, the house that we grew up at, when my folks bought it, we inherited some really old well established blueberry bushes, like a acre of them, or maybe like ¾ of a acre of them.  So, that’s kind of like what I grew up with, was like the blueberries, picking the blueberries, my mom did like a u-pick, side of the road, made pies, added value stuff.  And they stopped, they stopped doing it after awhile, just cause they had, my mom is a nurse and my dad is a lawyer so they had like other jobs, but they kind of gave up on the blueberries after awhile.  So, and my mom always gardened and stuff.  So you know we grew up pretty quiet, I have one older brother, and it was just the two of us, we didn’t have any, I mean we had neighbors, like you could see the next house over, but there were no kids that we really grew up with living around us really close, so it was a lot of just the two of us running around outside.

I identify as…a being who wants to…bring…mindfulness and positivity to others around me, and I identify as queer and genderqueer and trans in the right situations, but less so these days.  Um, I identify as an agrarian, and what else, I don’t know.  I’m culturally Jewish, but not religiously Jewish, I guess.  Yeah, those are some ways that I Identify.

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When did I first know that I was queer?  Oh, I have been, I have known for a really long time.  Um, I mean, I remember being in Kindergarten and like, trying to look up my teacher’s skirt.  That’s an early memory of queerness.  Um, my mom tells me that she knew that there was something different about me like from the moment I was born.  She was like, she had a really fast birth, and she was like “I just looked at you and I knew that you were, there was something different about you, I didn’t know exactly what it was, but there was something.”  Um, so yeah, I mean I have known that I was queer for a really long time.  I didn’t have any like queer gay role models at all growing up around here.  I didn’t know any gay people, I don’t think I really like even saw them on TV or, you know I didn’t, didn’t have a lot of models, or like language around it, but I definitely knew that I was queer.  Since forever.

Um, I came out in high school, I’d say, when like maybe my sophomore year in high school.  And it was, it was definitely hard for my family.  I mean my parents like, they’re pretty liberal and accepting people, but they were, you know, they were not that excited about it.  But now they are so awesome!  Now they are like, totally, they’re like very, very…they get it, they just like really get it.  And oddly enough my brother, who is like a real, he’s like very straight, married, baby on the way, works for the State Department in D.C., like we’re very opposite.  Um, and he actually, after I came out to him as trans when I was in college, he actually didn’t talk to me for an entire year.  Did not speak to me.  And now, he’s like my biggest number one family trans ally, which is so amazing.  He like introduces me to people, he’s like, “this is my brother Jonah!”  you know, and I like, am like “uh that makes me kind of uncomfortable!  I don’t really need that.”  But it’s cool, so I don’t know, coming out, it was like challenging at the time, and now everybody’s come around and are pretty, pretty cool with me.  I think the number one thing is that my family really just wants me to be happy, and they see that I’m really comfortable with myself, and I’m really comfortable with my lifestyle, my life, and they get it.

[Do you think living in a small town made it harder to come out?] Um, I think so, just because like I was saying, I didn’t really have, I didn’t have any community, I didn’t have any, um, anybody to really talk to about it, um, and, yeah, I mean I think it was challenging, and if I’d of lived in a city there’s probably more outlets or something.  I will say there was one thing that did, in CT, that did really save me, which was:  this queer youth conference that happens once a year and it still happens.  Back then…now it’s called “True Colors” but back then it was called “Children from the Shadows”…Bad. Name.  I’m really glad they changed it, but it was like this queer youth conference that I went to.  I think I must have snuck away to it somehow, and I was like, “oh my gosh, there are other queer people around me, wow, this is amazing.”  Um, my first like sexual experience, I can’t believe I’m telling about this, my first like sexual experience, or queer sexual experience, was with two friends, you know, in our, in this area, and I think that’s when I really was like…”Ok. I’m queer.”  And they were like, “mmm, I don’t think I am.”  You know?  And I was like, “Ok.”  We’re all still friends.  Anyways, yeah.

Um, the biggest struggle for queer people?  I don’t know, I mean, I feel like it really depends on what kind of queer person you’re talking to, especially if you were talking to queer people of color, I think that just changes so much, and…I don’t know, maybe gender?  Because that’s like the next frontier, that I feel like people are like “ok, gay marriage, we’re into gay marriage, we accept this, we understand this. “ In Connecticut there’s gay marriage, people are excited about it, but I guess there’s not like as much awareness or understanding around like being genderqueer or trans.  Maybe that’s like a really big struggle for people, or for queer folks.  And then is that struggle the same for people in rural areas?  I feel like I’m a bad person to ask about this because I’m not like up on queer stuff at all, I mean I’m queer but I don’t really know what’s going on with the queer community, so I don’t know.  Um, I don’t know what the answer to that question is.  I’m gonna skip it.

[How do you feel about being queer and country?]  Oh, I love it, I’m so happy to be me.  I don’t know, I mean, how else am I gonna be?  I feel good about it.  I feel like, I feel good about it, and I feel like I want more queer people to be, to live in rural areas if it speaks to them, if it makes sense for them.  I feel like, um, you know queers have congregated in cities for a really long time, and it’s, you know, like sort of become the norm, like oh, if you’re queer and you grew up in the country, you leave the country and you go live in the city, because that’s where it’s safe to be a queer person.  And I don’t buy that anymore, I feel like cities don’t serve me anymore.  I did my time in the Bay Area and I got a lot out of it, and I’m really glad I don’t live there anymore, and I don’t ever want to live in a city again.  Um, I don’t know if you picked up on this too, but like the past two years, I lived in like really rural remote Northern California too, before.  So that’s where I just moved from.  What was the question?  How do you feel about being country and queer?  I feel really good about it.  I feel like I’ve given up some of, like not living in the city I’ve given up my ability to tap into a queer community, or to feel kind of held by queer community, but at the same time I get so much more out of living in the country than I could ever get in a city.  I need fresh air.  I need to hear the crickets outside.  I need to be able to walk out to the garden and pick some parsley to put in my dinner.  I need to go bathe in the river after I am dirty from working on the farm or whatever.   These are all things that I need and want, and I can’t get those in the city.  So, yeah, I feel really good about being queer and being country.

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I moved to the Bay Area actually to have top surgery, like saved forever, and then I was like, I actually didn’t plan to move there.  I was like, “I’m gonna go there, I have some friends who can help me out afterwards,” and then, I just kinda got, I just kinda stayed.  I was actually, at the time, really inspired by a lot of the urban farming and gardening stuff that was going on there, and that’s what I did there.  I just, I worked at a couple nonprofit urban farming and gardening with youth organizations, and I got a lot out of that, but, yeah, that’s why I moved there.

I was in the Bay Area for four years.  Mostly I stayed for this one job that I had.  I worked at this place called the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley.  It was a one acre school garden and cooking program that I loved, I just fell in love with the kids, and I just kept staying, because I kept wanting to see, just be a part of their lives.  So I worked there for like three and a half years.   I knew, even like a year into working there, like my second, or a year and a half or so into living in the Bay Area, that I was ready to, I was like, “I need to get out of here, this is not right, this is not working for me.”  But I stayed.  And I also lived in a queer collective house that I was, I really, like I was very fond of that house and that community.  So those were two things that kind of kept me there.  Um, and I didn’t have to have a car there which I was like, “I really don’t want to have a car, I really don’t want to have a car.  I don’t want to have to drive.  I can ride my bike everywhere.  It’s great.”  The food, I mean California, Bay Area food, I mean I’m really into food, and growing food, and its, there’s, it’s just so abundant in every season there.  There’s always, the foraging is amazing, um, I loved, I did like about the Bay Area that I could see the hills, and I could, or in the East Bay at least, that I could see the hills and I could walk out into the hills and go pick mushrooms, and it was really easy for me to get to nature, so I think that kind of helped tide me over until I just couldn’t take it anymore.

I was having all these health problems.  I was working full time so I was wicked stressed out.  I was getting headaches, chronic headaches.  What else?  I was getting like, warts or something, yeah, and I was just like what is going on?  This is not, oh, and sleep problems!  I has having terrible sleep problems, like having a really hard time falling asleep, racing mind, and I had never really had any of those things before, and I just felt like they were products of my environment.  And I really wanted to kind of slow down.  So, I moved from the Bay Area to really rural northern California.  To the coast of Fort Bragg, Mendocino County.  It was so beautiful, one of the most beautiful places ever, and um, and within just a few months of living there, all of my health problems totally cleared up on their own.  And so it’s not coincidence, it was like a real thing for me that I needed to leave that habitat.

I don’t know if I want to live in this area for the rest of my life.  I could see it because actually, you know, I am at this point where I’m really ready to stop working for other people and to start working for myself, and doing my own farming thing, though I’m not exactly sure what that is gonna be, and who its gonna be with.  I think it would be really hard, and I know that I don’t want to do it by myself.  And, at the same time, this is a really amazing place for a young farmer to be, because of what’s happening in the local food system here.  Like Hudson Valley [NY], Vermont, Western Mass:  all those areas are really saturated with like small scale agriculture which is so awesome.  But, Connecticut’s kind of like a few steps behind that, and there’s a huge demand, so basically you could like be a farmer here and do anything and be successful.  So, it’s really interesting to me that that’s happening here.  I feel like it’s like a sign or something, like ok, maybe I do need to be here and put down some roots here and find a place here.

But, at the same time, uh, I don’t, I, like I was saying, I don’t want to be doing a farming project in isolation, and I don’t…I want to do it in community with other people, but I feel like this, CT is a hard sell.  It’s like hard to get people to want to move here.  So, um, so I don’t know.  I feel like if I wanted to have a queer family here though, living in this area, and have like a non-traditional family scenario, that it would be ok.  I mean it depends I think on like our neighbors. And, I don’t know, there’s some pretty like back woods, for lack of a better word, like redneck type folks around here who are not cool with queer people, definitely.  But I feel like similar to a lot of other places, people kind of keep to themselves, and there’s not necessarily a ton of cross over, so.  And yeah, I wanna have kids, I wanna have like a family with people, somehow, someway.

[How do you find sex/love/relationships as a queer person in the country?] This is a really interesting question because it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time and I think is a real challenge, especially…ok so my last relationship, um, one of the reasons that we ended up breaking up was because of like, was because of this issue.  We were open, polyamorous relationship, and we lived in a really remote place where we barely even had any friends, or like possibilities of having friends around.  And for me it was like, if I wanted to date somebody, somebody else, which was totally fine in that relationship, and something that I was looking for…I had to go to the Bay Area, and so, um.  And I kind of like dabbled in that, and I was like ok, I’m dating someone else, I’ll go to the Bay Area once a month, or whatever, maybe they can come visit, but people hardly ever wanted to come visit me.  When I was like, what?  This is like the most beautiful place, you’re gonna come here, you’re gonna stay in the cabin, you’re gonna get to go to the ocean, and eat from the farm…why WOULDN’T you wanna come here?  You want me to go to the city?  So we can like go to a dance party?  I don’t…you know?  So, I think it’s really challenging.  I think it’s hard.

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I do, something that I noticed through my project though, my film project, is that there’s kind of some pockets of like queer communities in some places, like down in Tennessee, and out on the west coast, up near like, in Southern Oregon.  There’s kind of a few pockets of queer rural folks who have congregated kind of around queer land projects, and then sometimes people like live at them, or stay at them, and then they like stay in that area but at a different place.  And so, that’s kind of an interesting idea to me to, or it’s a phenomenon really, and it’s interesting to me.  And it seems like if you’re in one of those situations, there’s probably a lot more people to date, or like queer people coming through or something.  But if you’re not, and you’re just like me, or you in WV, I don’t know!  How do you find people?  Like internet dating?  But I’m not interested in that at all.

 Um, I mean the thing also is like, I’m here now and if I see somebody who looks queer, I make a point to like take a risk and just talk to them.   To be like…if I’m in the co-op or something, and I see somebody, I’m like, how do I talk to that person?  And it’s like most of the time I don’t do it, but I like think about doing it, or sometimes I do do it, um, and then it gets confusing too, because I feel like gender in the country is really different than gender in the city.  Or something, especially, with women.  Because a lot of times there will be women that I would normally read as queer, but then they’re just like tough ladies, who are straight, and they’re like getting out of their truck…but not interested in me at all.  So I don’t know it’s hard, and it’s confusing.  I don’t know.  If somebody knows, tell me!

I feel like, it’s like, a lot of people who live in the country, will have longer distance relationships; I think that’s a thing that happens.  Like I’m, I’m dating somebody who lives an hour and a half away from here, and it’s like, that’s not that far, but it’s far enough that it’s like, well, more complicated, yeah, you know, so.  But I think that’s something that happens, just like based on geography, it’s like harder to meet somebody in your local area.

So, the film project started, and I called it the Queer Farmer Film Project, so people would know what it’s about.  And I’ve been working on it for four years now.  And I never had made a movie before, but I was like, one day I was like, I am gonna make a movie about queer farmers, and it’s gonna be a documentary, and I’m gonna go around the country and interview people, and talk to people, and see what’s going on, what people have to say about being queer and being in agriculture.  Cause I’ve been doing farming stuff for almost 10 years now, and I have worked in a number of farms where I didn’t feel great about being like an out trans genderqueer person, and then I’ve worked in a number of farms where it was not an issue.  So, and then also I want to live in a rural place, and I want more queer people to live in rural places, or feel like they can do farming.  So I, yeah, that’s kind of how it started.  I was like I’m gonna do this project and see what happens, and see where it takes me.  And so I traveled all over the country, east, west, places in between, south, and interviewed, you know, over 30 farmers, in all different kinds of farming situations, and then made it into a one hour documentary, that’s called Out Here.

Originally I put out a call, just a big email to every person I could think of that would be interested, and then it just kind of, went out from there.  Mostly it was people getting in touch with me, and saying, “Hey!  Come to my farm, or talk to my friend,” or whatever.  So, it was mostly actually people getting in touch with me and then just kind of filtering through them, and getting to the places where I could go when I was doing tours and things like that.

[Do you feel like it is hard to relate to urban queers?]  I think about this a lot, my, like my friend group in, cause I was most recently living 3 hours away from the Bay Area, and having formerly lived there, that was where most of my queer community was.  But the more that I…it was like the longer I lived where I was living in the country, the less that I wanted to go to the city, and the less that I felt connected to my former queer community there, even though…How do I say it?  It’s like…I connect more with straight people who live in the country a lot of times, just because of our, the things that we can talk about or do together, or the ideas we have, or, um, just, yeah, the things that we have in common, are like, Oh, where did you get your firewood from?  Or oh, can, do you have any extra mulch hay?  Or, you know, just things, I don’t know where can I get some winter boots?  You know, just things like that, that I just feel like, um, it doesn’t matter if I’m queer or if they’re straight or whatever, it’s just more that there are these commonalities and uh, a lot of folks, queer folks in urban areas, of course not everybody I’m just like generalizing, but are just like not, they just have like different, their lives are so different, like so indoors, and so contained, and um, I just don’t feel like I have a ton in common with that anymore, even though we have like queerness at the core of our identities.  But other than that…I don’t know, so yeah, in some ways I don’t feel like I can connect with queer people that live in cities, anymore.

a farmstand Jonah painted in VT

a farmstand Jonah painted in VT

I mean, today I felt so happy, I was outside, I was working at the farm that I love, I was weeding something, the wind was gently blowing, the leaves were falling, there was not a cloud in the sky…I was just so happy!  To exist, to have that moment, you know?  I don’t know, when I can have moments like that, that’s nothing but just like pure beauty all around me, I felt really happy to be here in a rural place.  When do I feel most happy, proud to be queer?  Hmmm.  I mean probably when I’m like inspiring some young person.  I feel like when I was, when I was teaching I was out as trans in a public middle school in a urban area, and it was a big deal.  It wasn’t a little deal, it was like a big deal for awhile, and then, and a lot of kids, a lot of teachers, had a LOT of questions, and a lot of problems with it.  But, it kinda just got to this point where I was like accepted by like the student body as Mr. Jonah the gardening teacher, and it was great!  And then like suddenly, it wasn’t an issue, and um, so.  I don’t know, I guess just like…I wish that when I was a middleschooler I had me, or someone like me as a teacher.  I mean there were a few, definitely a few kids that I worked with that were genderqueer that, um, probably like saw themselves in me, or something, or like we kind of like connected on that level.  So even if it, yeah, even if it was like for all the other kids too that were just like, will someday have more acceptance for some queer person in their life because they had like a cool queer teacher in their life that was a weirdo like me, you know?  I guess something like that.

There used to be a gay bar in Willimantic, called the Purple Monkey.  It’s not there anymore.  I mean, my two friends who I have here, who I’m living with now, they’re a queer couple, they’re like my two queer friends, and they’ve been living here just fine.  Um, I don’t know, like I was saying, I don’t really like know a lot about other gays in this part of the world, like growing up here I wasn’t connected, and I don’t yeah, I don’t know, I don’t know how our queer history in this area is passed down.  A lot of it, so, there’s like a university not too far from here:  U Conn, so I think there’s like a lot of queer students that come through, but it’s like very transient, so I don’t know if that counts, or how that plays into things.  I don’t know, but I’m interested in that idea.   Definitely.

The folks that I’m working with right now are totally heroes to me…Brian and Anita at Tobacco Road Farm, who run the farm.  Just like what we were talking about before, they’re so, they’ve been farming, you know for 20 years, they are just really calm and collected, and not, like pretty much refuse to be stressed out even though there’s so much work to be done all the time, but we just like, we giggle, we all just giggle and like laugh together, and I just really appreciate, like we all, we come into work and we just like stand around and talk to each other for like 10 minutes, just like hey how are you, what’s, what’d you do last night.  And you know, it’s like genuine, they really want to know, it’s not just like alright we’ll just get down to work and, um, yeah, they’re a total inspiration to me.  And their just yeah, their commitment to sustainability and they’re bio-dynamic, and they’re really committed to that and those practices, and they’ve kind of converted in the past couple years, over to all no till, so they’re using very little machinery, and it’s just a real human scale.  I just really appreciate them, they’re definitely my farming, farming heroes of all time, all stars.

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[What should I have asked you that I didn’t think of?]  Hmm.  I’m trying to think about what were some of the questions that I was asking people, in my, in my movie stuff that would be helpful to, or that would apply…Um…one thing that I thought people had an interesting answer to, was about like safety, like do you feel like, I would, I was asking people do you feel like farming is a safe for queer people, I don’t know, I mean maybe that could apply too, like are rural areas safe places for queer folks?

[What do you think?] Well, I mean, when I have like a sunburn, and poison ivy, and I’m like, I just got something stuck in my foot, cause I was walking around barefoot and I’m like, is this safe?  I’m not sure!  No, I think, I don’t know I think it really depends on where you live.  Around here I think its safe.  Um, I was surprised, actually by a lot of the places that I visited in the South…people, queer folks actually felt pretty good about where they were living in Tennessee and Alabama and stuff, I was pretty surprised about people’s answers, mostly because of what I was talking about before, is that people were really connected to their community through the commonality of food and farming, not like, they’re like, yeah when the old timers come out here to like help us fix our tractor, or get us, our truck stuck out of the mud, we don’t talk about gender with them, we don’t invite them to our queer dance party, we talk about the tractor that they’re gonna fix, you know, so and who knows, like yeah, other people probably think I’m weird around here, because there aren’t a lot of other people that look like me, or think like me but um I don’t know, I feel like it’s pretty, I feel pretty safe around here.

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