[My name is] Courtney Skeeba, or Courtney Jane Skeeba, either way. I am forty years old, and I live in Lecompton, Kansas. It’s a small town in Kansas just outside of Lawrence, a population of about 612 people. And, I mean, it’s just – we kind of roll up our carpets at 8 o’clock, and you know, fairly conservative and very rural Kansas, if you’re familiar with that sort of stereotype. It’s there [laughs]. It’s very – flat. Lots of open space. Trees are interspersed in the eastern part of Kansas, which is nice. There are some hills, but they’re very short. They’re not, like, mountains. They almost don’t qualify as hills.
Rachel: So this question – how do you identify – it doesn’t just mean sexual orientation or gender or any of that. It means any way that you – how do you identify in any ways?]
Courtney: It’s a question I’ve been asked many times, and the only answer I have that’s a good one is I identify as Courtney Skeeba. That’s who I am. I don’t know – I… I’ve gone through many political events in my life, so – it’s morphed over time and I’ve just come to the realization at this age that I don’t identify as anyone else, or as any particular group. I am me.
I grew up in the Midwest. In Missouri, St. Joe. My childhood was average. We lived in town. I did have some experiences – some close friends of ours had a farm, and always really enjoyed more rural experiences growing up. I moved here in 1989 with my dad – my parents split – and we lived out forty-five minutes from town. And there was nothing there. And I quite enjoyed that peacefulness, and spent a lot of time when I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, doing more rural things. I had – we had goats, a couple of goats, at that time. And I just took more of an interest in being out in places that were less populated, and knew that’s where I wanted to end up eventually. So – I guess that’s what led me here. And doing what I’m doing. As far as experiences, it’s as varied as anyone’s.
R: When did you first know you were queer?
C: When I was fifteen.
R: What do you remember? What did you know, how did you figure it out, or whatever?
C: Well, my best friend and I became more than friends [laughs]. I…it took a long time to accept or really identify as being queer or homosexual, or lesbian, or whatever. It took several years to be like, okay, yeah, that’s really my attraction template. So – I didn’t want to pin myself down at first, but just seems right.
R: So before that do you remember anything?
C: I was so young, you know? I mean, fourteen, fifteen is so young. I mean, you – does anyone at that time really know? Because you’re just at that age where you’re kind of experimenting with sexuality at all. So, before that – it just didn’t really occur as being something, like, on the radar. Just like – just walkin’ down the road, and this is what’s happening, so I’m going to go with that.
R: So by that point you’re living just with your dad, or did you have siblings, or?
C: I do have a brother who is eight years older than me. So by the time I was ten, my brother had moved out. So it was more like being an only child. And we never got along, so we never hung out and did family things like that, ’cause it was just – bad [laughs]. So I have a sibling, but it’s more like being an only child. Which is kinda weird I guess.
R: And so, what was your coming out experience like, or when did that happen, or how’d it go?
C: [laughs, then sighs] That was kind of rough, actually. To be quite candid, my girlfriend – best friend – we were having sex in the driveway and got caught by her folks, and – so that was really kind of a difficult situation for everyone at the time. It was 1989, ’90, so the mindset – at least in my family, her family, and at the time the climate wasn’t really open to – it’s not – going to high school today, it seems so easy compared to growing up and coming out when I did. To say hey, I am queer, or I like girls, or I like boys, or whatever. I mean, it’s more open. There is still bias, but it’s not like then. We had to – we stayed in the closet. Friends we ran around with at the time didn’t know. And our families weren’t really open to what was going on, thinking that we were making our lives way more difficult, and that we were just gonna have a horrible life experience. Which, looking back, I understand how my parents felt then. But at the time, it made me angry. So… I can look back and see that and go, yeah, well, you know. Things were different. But being thick-headed and strong-willed, I just – I couldn’t be something I wasn’t. I couldn’t be a person – I couldn’t go along that path and conform to what society says is normal. Because I would have rather, you know, committed suicide than not be true to myself. And that’s always the way that I’ve felt. So, take it or leave it. This is the way that it is.
R: So, how did – so her family found out. How did your family – how’d your dad find out?
C: Oh, the phone call. You know. It wasn’t – it wasn’t – yeah. The proverbial poop hit the fan. And things change, and things changed at that point in time. There was a lot of family discussions. What are you doing, oh my God. Yeah, it – yeah. And then my dad called my mom, and we all had to have, like, a big pow-wow, and it was really uncomfortable, and weird. You know, and going, it’s just – it’s just a phase. And having to cop to that forever. Like, I’ll grow out of it. Just to get out of the situation, which is – that’s just how my family was. They didn’t want to talk about stuff like that, ’cause they grew up in very conservative households about sexuality and modesty and things like that. So I guess it just rolled over, and I’ve always been like, nyah, in your face.
R: Do you think that growin’ up in the country, in a small town, made it harder to come out…made it harder to not be able to come out – you think it would have been easier if you’d been in the city?
C: Not in the city that I grew up in. Because…Saint Joseph, Missouri has got the mentality of fifty years ago, in terms of gay pride or whatever you want to define it as. You know, it’s very looked down upon there. And Saint Joe’s is like twice the size of Lawrence. You know, Kansas City is a lot more open. Lawrence, obviously is very open now, but I don’t think it would have made any difference at the time. Because it was still very – like… Ellen wasn’t even on TV. So, you know, that was like a big thing. Like, Ellen came out, oh my God! And that spawned all different kinds of television programs down the road, which can be very influential to societal norms, and – oh my God, queer people! I might get infected! I don’t think it woulda changed my experience and how my parents found out.
R: So, are there spaces – that you’re out in some places and some places that you’re not?
C: Not anymore, no.
R: So at some point did you sort of try to be out some – you know, when did that shift? where like, in high school you were in the closet – at what point in your life did you – could you make the shift?
C: In college. Once I was out on my own, for real – I moved out of the house before I graduated high school, because things were difficult. And not based on me being, you know, dating women. It was more complicated than that. I just couldn’t live with my dad anymore and I couldn’t live with my mom, because I wasn’t gonna live in that environment. And I was involved in a relationship and I wasn’t gonna leave that at that time. So I moved out of the house and moved in with my girlfriend who was a year older, and she was already in college. And we were still really closeted then, and I went away to college. I went to Cleveland. The art institute there, on a scholarship. And we were still in the closet then. But that relationship dissolved and I couldn’t handle just being there, on my own. And things were expensive and I couldn’t afford it so I came back. Once I started back at KU, I got involved with doing the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, and would volunteer there and work over the summer, like for a month, and I started – I changed my view, because I saw a larger community of people who were similar to me. And so I felt safer, and stronger, and I found groups through college that helped to empower me and who I was. So I was able to just be like, well, this is who I am. And I’m gonna walk this road and see where it goes. And I can’t be false anymore, because living two lives isn’t true. So…
I did glassblowing…started doing glassblowing in Cleveland. And I came back here and I got a job working in a shop downtown and went to KU. They had – their glassblowing program had shut down, so I changed my focus to metalsmithing. And got a degree at KU in metalsmithing and jewelry design. But have had a life-long passion for glassblowing.
R: So, what do you think – this is kind of a big question. What do you think is the biggest issue or challenge or struggle for queer people in the U.S. today? And then what do you think it is for rural queer people. And do you think we’ve got the same things we need, or there’s really big differences based on whether you’re queer here versus in New York or somewhere like that?
C: That is a big question. I think that the political climate right now is – the biggest challenge is just getting equality across the board for – especially for folks that are married. We – we can’t, Denise and I, my partner – my wife, we actually got legally married in Iowa because it’s not legal here. And so we drove – we went last year after the decision came down and it was legalized in Iowa. We drove up there and got married in a court of law there, so that we could have more rights here, Federally. And I think just – people need to get on board. I think that’s the biggest challenge, to not define – everybody just needs to define their lives as their own lives, and not worry about what everybody else is doing. So just having an equal political field for everyone to have the same rights is the biggest hurdle that we have to jump over. I think that it’s gonna happen, sooner rather than later. I’m very hopeful that that will come down the pike, because it’s huge, the tax breaks that we got federally. Because I farm, and my income is lower than Denise’s, the tax breaks were huge. And we have a child, and, like – $10,000 difference, we get back from the government. Huge. For us. So that should be available to everybody. And we have this stupid thing where we have to go through – in the state, because we’re not legally married here, we have to submit our taxes separately, and we don’t get the same breaks. And I think that that needs to – not be the case [laughs]. And it’s hard. There are a lot of cases out right now, one in Kansas as well, and – you know…it’s a personal choice, but whether or not you actually legally get married and want to file your taxes together. It works out for us – you know. Some people it doesn’t. But you should have the option.
I think it’s much easier for people that live in Iowa to do that, and to be recognized, and in New York, and in places where it is legal. It’s a – it’s a totally different ball game here as far as rights go and I think that it filters into the mind set and the culture, of still setting queer families or queer relationships apart. It creates that disparity between straight people and gay people. Just to use terms that are commonly available. And if the government endorses it in your state, that there is that disparity, it’s – it’s hard to get over that. Just in a smaller community.
R: So one of my questions is about family…having a queer family in a small town or rural place. What’s hard? What’s great? What’s it like? How does your community treat your family?
C: Lawrence is good. There’s an openness in Lawrence that I don’t find to be the case in smaller communities in the area. It’s harder to integrate into the community being out and having a child and a wife and being happy about it. We had some – Merrick is homeschooled now. We had him in the public school system. He was in Lawrence for a year, but it wasn’t working with having to drive, ’cause we had to get him there, so we heard great things about the school here, and we know a lot of people in the community, and we’ve been here for a long time. So we gave it a try, and it didn’t really go so well. And-
R: Like how?
C: Well, Merrick is a unique child in and of himself. He’s very – I see a lot of myself in him, in the sense that he lives his own truth. And so, it’s not always the easiest in any situation for him to integrate. He usually gets there, but having – in a community where people – it feels like people are nice to you and have interactions with you, and then seeing what they talk about around the dinner table through their children, is really ugly sometimes. And it was really hard on him emotionally, because he’s very sensitive. And it angered me a lot. He got bullied and picked on by the other children, and the teachers really weren’t very helpful in combatting that. In the second grade, he was in a situation on the playground where he was tackled by two kids and one of them held him down and the other one like, put lipstick on him, or lip gloss or somethin’. Because he has a rat tail. Like I said, he’s a brave young man. He lives his own truth. And I support him. And – so they would make fun of him for his rat tail, and they pinned him down and did that, and put lip gloss on him, and you know, made fun of him, like now you’re a girl and blah blah blah. And he came home, and he was really upset, and explained what happened, so I went to the school -And – nothing was done about it. No – it wasn’t addressed, it wasn’t taken care of. And in the parent-teacher conference that we had, they were like, what do you expect? It’s only gonna get worse.
R: That was their – that’s what they said? Wow.
C: The teacher said that. And he got bullied on the playground a lot, and he got mad one day and got pulled in the office and him and another boy – the boy – he bent over to pick up a ball and hand it back to him, and the kid kicked him in the head. And he got mad, and like pushed the kid over. And so they got taken to the office, and I didn’t hear about it except for an email from his teacher that he was gonna get in-school suspension or suspension if it happened again. And it was an email that the principal sent to the teacher, that the teacher then forwarded to me. There was no, like, discussion about it. But the other kid, in this particular email, it wasn’t his fault. That Merrick was the instigator. And sure, maybe I’m reading a little too much into it. Maybe I’m prejudiced in the opposite way about – because I had had negative experiences – [but] that was when we were like: We’re finishing the school year and we’re done. We’re not going back there. Because I’m not going to put him in an emotionally abusive situation because of who I am, you know? He shouldn’t have to deal with other peoples’ prejudices because of what other people see as a life choice or whatever. I mean, we’re in a happy family, you know? I love my wife, my wife loves me, we love our son, and we are a happy unit. And that’s more than I can say for about a lot of people that I see, that are in conventional relationships or whatever. I don’t – I just – I can’t even find a conventional – I guess I like organic stuff better [laughs]. Conventional, straight, heterosexual I guess would be the most scientific way to describe it – the relationship.
And it sucks. It just – it’s horrible, sometimes, that feeling. Especially – it’s one thing if someone is biased towards me, or treats me poorly. But they have no right to treat my son like that. And that makes me very angry. And to the point of wanting to be violent, because it makes me that mad. And I’m not intrinsically a violent person, but it’s just like, you want to slap sense into them or something, ’cause it doesn’t compute, to me.
R: Did you ever feel like there was like a tension between being gay and being a country person, between being queer and being country, or wanting to farm and being gay – like how do you feel about that combination of parts of your life?
C: I didn’t find a conflict. I do find sometimes I feel uncomfortable because we do have to go to different places to get pigs or goats or chickens, and you – you just call someone up that lives in rural Kansas, and you drive to the middle of nowhere, and you don’t know what you’re walking into. And sometimes it feels very uncomfortable, for me. Uually, it doesn’t go poorly, you know? I mean, they – you’re a customer just like anyone else. But sometimes you just don’t know. I’ve had some of the most wonderful experiences with folks, and – but feeling uncomfortable walking in, and knowing that I need to put that aside, because that’s me, and that’s my baggage coming in. I’ve had bad experiences too, but who doesn’t in a situation like that? You feel like sometimes when you walk away, you can hear them whispering. But, eh, I got what I came for, and it was all fine. I’m able to negotiate when I need to. Sometimes I feel like it’s more prejudiced that I’m female talkin’ to an old farm guy, than it is that I’m standing there with my wife and my son. So, that is also [me] being somewhat bristly about that interaction. And not knowing what it is, [or] being able to put my finger on it. But sometimes I feel like, you know, guys are just like, yeah, well, we can take advantage of these young women here – whatever. More than, oh, they’re queer. You know?
R: Right! Right. So I think we – you sort of talked about this with the school, but like, how do you feel like people in this area interact with you guys, or treat you guys, knowing that you’re a couple?
C: We had trepidations when we moved out here. Again, baggage coming in. And we thought we would come home and there would be like a cross burning out in the pasture or something, when we first moved here. We’ve been here…thirteen years, so – We lived in Lawrence – before we came here. So we were – we were kinda – we were very quiet people, just interacting with the community, and we know some really great people, and they’re awesome. There’s some people that you’re just not sure about. The guy that owns the property next to us is old-school farmer from way back, and he’s always been really great. We’ll take care of his horses, and he throws hay over for our goats, and he loves the goats and everything. The most that I’ve ever really heard from him is, he’s like, “Yeah, you know, people, they talk, but I tell ’em, those girls – there’s nothing wrong with them. I don’t know what you’re talking about. They’re great people.” So, I had an in there, and I think that we’ve overcome a lot of prejudices just being good people, and it’s changing the mind set, just by being who you are and being genuine. And people will overlook whatever. I don’t think that it – it should play any part in defining who people are before you know them. So, I find that to be something that I always go into meeting someone on the street or something. Feeling, like, oh, they’re gonna have to – I’m going to have to prove myself a worthy human being before they’re like, okay that I am living in a family with a woman and a child. We’ve been told by Merrick’s god-family, who we’re very close with, that we’re just changing Kansas one family at a time. And it’s true. We just live our lives, and it comes back to us eventually.
R: Do you want to talk about your farm at all? Like, what’s it called, what do you produce, what do you grow?
C: We are Homestead Ranch. We raise goats, primarily. We have done a lot of different things over the years. We were in the market with rabbits for a time, but the – they – to sell at market, they have to be state-inspected, according to the Department of Agriculture. And rabbits are unique in the sense that they have to be processed in a – stand-alone facility. Nothing else, no pigs, no chickens, no turkeys, no – can be processed there. And the only one in the state of Kansas that was state-inspected was in Arkansas City, which is seven hours round-trip. They closed, so although we can process rabbits here on the farm up to a certain number a year, 250. It was hard for people – even though Lawrence is fifteen minutes away, to come out and get it. So we have one rabbit right now. We’ve got four chickens. We had more chickens – we had like 200 chickens. We had like 200 rabbits at one time too. We had 200 chickens at one time, but the raccoons are really bad, so we only keep these four little chickens that Merrick trains – to keep eggs for us, and they’re just little bantams. And we have to keep them penned up, because the raccoons will eat them and it’s really heart-wrenching to wake up in the morning and go out in the pasture and have sixty headless chickens. It was all-out war then, against the raccoons.
But, it got real expensive feeding chickens to raccoons, so we don’t – we just keep enough for us, and the goat – we just, we moved out here and all we wanted to do was raise enough stuff for us. We got this one goat, and we were milkin’ this one goat, and we had so much milk from one goat for the two of us, ’cause it was before Merrick was born, that we couldn’t drink it all. And I made it into cheese, and I made it into ice cream, and I made it into yogurt, and pudding, and everything dairy. And we got so sick of just eating milk products [laughs]. I know that sounds horrible! But what are we having for dinner? Cheese and eggs. Cheese and – what’s for dessert? Ice cream.
And I – we worked so hard to get the milk that I couldn’t just dump it out. So I researched and came up with goat milk soap, and started turning it into a shelf-stable product. Because we would freeze it, but it was never as good as fresh. So we started making soap – I did – and then I was working with a beekeeper. He went to Africa for six weeks. Six weeks, and we filled in for him at market. So we started bringing our own stuff. And then we shared the stall with him for a while, and the popularity of our soap started to grow. I branched out into different products, and developing a product line. People come and get milk from us, and cheese and things too now. But I have to keep the eight goats to keep me in enough milk to provide for our customers, and to make enough soap, which is crazy.
Then we bought twenty acres, and I always had a garden and would take extra product to market and sell it. And now we’re growing produce more for market, and putting – we put a lot of food away so we don’t have to go to the grocery store or buy – although I planted wheat this year, so I’m hoping to not have to buy flour, because we had been locally sourcing that as much as possible. I also planted a bunch of corn to make into cornmeal, and also we can feed goats corn. We also have a couple pigs, and we can feed them corn. I also planted some oats so we could do oat flour, and also they’re hull-less oats, so you can just take them after you thresh them and actually just cook ’em and eat ’em. You don’t have to roll them like oatmeal, and do like oat groats that way. So trying to become more sustainable and not having to depend on commercial food sources as much as possible. I still haven’t figured out to make sugar [laughs]. Um, but – I mean, I use honey a lot. Obviously, I still keep with – with the beekeeper, and stuff like that. But sometimes you just need sugar. And coffee, I can’t grow coffee here.
R: Right? I know. That’s such a shame.
C: Although I have tried to develop a plan to create a micro-climate in which coffee might grow. And tea.
C: Uh, a high tunnel. Using a high tunnel. Of course, it would be a costly endeavor, and it wouldn’t be something I could do on a large scale. But I don’t need it to be on a large scale. Because I don’t think big in terms of providing, you know, Douglass County with locally grown coffee. I think of, look what I’ve got. Right? Sustainable to me is – we make enough money to supplement and buy feed for the goats, and to buy the things that we need to survive. Denise works as a nurse, so some of our other expenses, like a mortgage and utilities are covered by that. But the farm itself gives us extra money now. And pays for itself. So that’s great.
R: Yeah. What kind of produce are you growin’ for sellin’?
C: A lot of root – we’re doing beets and potatoes, tomatoes, onions, strawberries, peppers, cauliflower, broccoli, squash, beans, green beans, shelling beans – but the shelling beans, I’ll dry those and keep those for us. Um…cucumbers, okra, chard, turnips. Lettuce. A little bit of everything. What we like to eat. What stores well.
‘Cause that’s my first thought. Because – and it took a long time, when we first starting out. We would sell as much as we could to pay for everything. And we would find that we would have to go to the grocery store to buy food for us, and I’m like, that is the stupidest thing I have ever done. So now it’s like: mine…extra. You know? I use whatever I can for me before I give it out. Or we do process goats and obviously pigs, and so I pull the – all of our food out before I sell. And people get mad! People get mad. They’re like, don’t you have any bacon?
That’s my pay! I got some bacon, but come out and shovel that stall first [laughs]. It took us a long time to realize that that is money, and that is sustainability at the core. Because money is arbitrary. We need it to survive at this point, but if something were to happen, could we sustain life? Yes. We can now. Although we wouldn’t have sugar [laughs].
R: [laughs] Or coffee.
C: Yeah. There’s that. But…Oh yeah. We’ve been pickin’ the black raspberries lately too. They are growing wild – in our woods. And they’re so overgrown, I picked twenty pounds in the last week. And not even close to, like, picking them out. I – we sold some at market, but I made a bunch of black raspberry jam, put them in stuff too, so…Forgot about those. How could I forget?
R: [laughs] ‘Cause you’re too tired from all the things you have going on?
R: How did you learn all the farming stuff?
C: Workin’ with other people, reading books, and just jumping in. Feet first. Because that’s really the only – you can listen to other people all day long, and you can work with other people, but just doin’ it is the best teacher. Starting slow, and building up over time. There were moments in our history where it’s like, we have just bitten off way more than we can chew. 200 rabbits was crazy. We were sellin’ the crap out of rabbit there for awhile, and so – it made sense, and then the bottom kind of fell out. We hadn’t eaten – we haven’t eaten rabbit for awhile. We got a little tired of that too, but – I do have the one rabbit, and I’m working on getting a mate for that rabbit, so that we can do that again. It’s easier to clean – to dress a rabbit than it is a chicken, in my opinion. I like rabbit fur better – too. Because I tan the hides. I try not to waste anything.
R: When do you feel the most proud to be queer? And when do you feel the most proud to be like – country or farming or whatever, and is it ever at the same time or is it all separate?
C: I’m proud to be who I am all the time, every day, because it’s been a journey, and I’ve seen good and bad and really ugly and I made it through. And so I’m proud of that. You know, I don’t think that I separate those experiences because it is my experience as one thing. So…I mean, we’re out there, and we’re proud to be who we are at the farmer’s market. We do that weekly, and you know, whenever anybody talks to me about it or wants to know, I’m proud of that. Because it’s hard work. It is hard work. So, I don’t know. Every day, all the time.
R: Good answer [laughs]. How about, when are you the happiest in your life? What makes you the happiest?
C: Hmm… Knowing I’ve accomplished something. I’ve done something. Right now…I had not been blowing glass for a long time, and that’s something that really feeds my soul. I went down this farming path, and I didn’t have time, and I was working a full time job – I worked for the post office for ten years, and Denise went to nursing school after Merrick went to school, which is why he was in public school – and we flipped-flopped, because working for the post office sucked and farming was full time on top of that. And so, I forget what I was even talking about.
R: Happiest – when you are the happiest.
C: Happiest. So – oh yeah, yeah, yeah. So I was invited to blow glass with some guys that – I guess I paid it forward some years ago, when I started teaching somebody to blow glass. He’s got his own shop, and he invited me over, and now he wants me to be part of the shop, and that makes me really happy too. So, all these things came together all at once. So right now I feel like [explosion noise] up here, you know, ’cause not only am I accomplishing farming and keeping on top of it, which I’m having a little bit of balance issues right now – ’cause I’m [stretching noise] I’m back in that. I’ve been pretty high as far as moments in my life, because I’ve been really low too. I would have to say that right now I’m really happy to be doing everything that I always ever wanted to do. It only took forty years.
R: So you obviously – you’re married, got a kid – but how, you know, did you ever have a time – how did you find other queer people? How did you find people to date, how did you find people to – just friends? How do you find, community, if you’re lookin’ for that, if you’re lookin’ for queer community in a rural place? Like, how do people do that?
C: Go to the town. Go to town. Lawrence, like I said – Lawrence has a community. And in college, just working – you know, getting involved in queer groups through school and just, through that. Kansas City, there’s a community in an area, and there’s bars, you know, and did that scene for a while too. And – I think that just in small, more rural places, that we find each other. It’s like a sort of weird magnetism. The – it just happens. You meet one person, or a couple people, that have your same viewpoint, and they have friends, and so it just – it spreads out from there. And never being quiet, you know. And working – like, the Merch – it’s the local natural grocer’s, it’s a co-op and so there’s a lot of diversity of background there too. Denise worked at the Merch, she was a front-end manager there for a long time, and then worked at the credit union. I mean, you just know everybody. And so, it just kind of happened I guess. You put yourself out there, and – in the community, and find places that you would gravitate towards. Well you know, if you gravitate there, lo and behold people like you will go there too! So, it just happens.
I wouldn’t go to, like, Perry, which is bigger than Lecompton by a couple hundred people, and expect that to happen, but you know – you go to larger communities that are more free-thinking. And just put yourself out there. Find the communities – ’cause Lawrence does have a lot of groups available too, not just through KU.
R: So, something I’m just really curious about, obviously, is history, right? Queer history, and how we find it or don’t find it. Like, do you know of other queer people who lived here before you guys? Do you know of older – older queer couples that have been here, or living rurally in Kansas? Or, you know, is there queer history that’s local that’s passed down and how? Or is it just totally silent and you have no idea.
C: No. I don’t know – I know of some folks that have been here before, only by mention, but not as a history, or a story, or a founding, or anything like that. Maybe we’re setting a precedent. I don’t know.
R: What do you know about people who were here before? Like little – just little mentions, or?
C: Yeah. Like: “Oh yeah, those, you know, them. You know. They were – I think they were like together.” And then it’s like [whispering noises]. You know? It’s just not talked about, because in smaller communities, it’s not comfortable. And when it is mentioned by someone that has been in the area for a really long time, it’s just a side note and it’s more like saying, “Oh yeah, well, so and so over there, I think they were gay. And blah blah blah blah.” You know. Or –
R: Like change the subject.
C: Yeah. Let’s move on.
R: Yeah [laughs]
C: “You know those queer people?” But not wanting to admit that that’s – because, I mean, we’re out, and there’s no question about it, but they would still deny it. There’s this, weird, like denial. “I think that they’re together.” They would say that when I’m standing there, and I’ll give my wife a kiss on the cheek, just to be like, in your face a little bit. But – even then, you know, let’s hold hands. But they would still be like, “I think that they’re together. Oh my God! Scandal!”
No, as far as that goes – it’s more like through families. We have some friends that are like, yeah, my gay aunt, but she lives somewhere else. Not specifically here. Those stories of strangers – like, the Northern Exposure idea – I don’t know if you were a Northern Exposure fan ever – but the cafe there, in – and it’s a really small rural town in Alaska. And there’s quite a lot of characters. But it comes out later in that storyline, that the cafe that was the bar, Roslyn’s, was founded by a gay couple. Well, lesbian couple, two women or whatever. But – I mean, there’s nothing like that here. You know, there’s no founding – like, “oh yeah, they were, there were these queers that built the town hall.” Yeah, no. No!
R: I wonder if there is a town hall somewhere with that story. I hope to find it if so [laughs]
C: Maybe in Iowa.
R: You think? [laughs] Um, so did you – did you ever, or do you ever feel pressured to move to a city, to a big city?
C: No. I couldn’t live in the city anymore.
R: Did you ever – did at some point did you feel pressured to move to the city?
C: I felt pressure to move away from the city. Because – I mean, when I was really young – well not really young, but in college – and like I said, I had lived way out in the middle of nowhere, Kansas. Nowhere.
R: With your dad, growin’ up.
C: Yeah. I felt pressure then, ’cause it was so far – it was forty-five minutes into town to go to school, and that’s a long ride if you forget something. I felt pressure then, to move to town, because I wanted to be closer to things. But as I got older – and I did go to Cleveland, which is a large metropolis, and hated it. Because it’s just so different than here. And even different than Kansas City. An urban development and lifestyle – I’ve always just wanted to be away from the noise, and just to have a quiet place. A sanctuary away from all of that. So, no – neither me nor my wife feel like we could ever live in town again, ’cause it’s just, ugh! There’s some conveniences – like the other night, we were so tired from market and from running around, we were like, I wish that we could just order Chinese and they would deliver. But no, we have to drive into town and get it if that’s what we want. We might as well just cook then. Which is better for us, but sometimes that convenience would be nice. But it’s not worth living there all the time, just for occasional delivery.
R: Do you feel like you can relate to gay people, queer people from big cities…or does it feel like you have something in common with queer people just because you’re queer, or is it like people who live in cities and your life are so different that it’s just like, hard to really…
C: It depends on the people, and what they’re into. I think it’s hard to relate to urban people if they’re black, white, purple, straight, queer, whatever, because we have to milk the goats twice a day, every day, when they’re in milk, and we’re tied to that. I’ve been at parties or gatherings of people, and we’re like, oh, we’ve got to go and milk the goats, and the people are like, you always say you have to go and milk the goats! Like, oh, it’s an excuse, but it’s really real!
But people that are into that really understand, or are like, oh yeah, okay. But folks that really have no concept of where food comes from, don’t have that. They think it’s an excuse for real. And so that is hard to relate. And – I’ve met both. So… I tend to gravitate towards people who understand where I’m coming from more. I don’t distinguish – like I don’t feel like I need to be in a queer community. I just need to be in a community of people that are like-minded. I don’t – I just don’t define people by their sexual preference. At all. I just want people to understand or relate.
R: So who do you feel like your community is here, and where is your community?
C: I would say that most of the people that we hang out with live in Lawrence or near Lawrence. They’re not – a lot of the people that we hang out with don’t live in town. Some do, some don’t. They’re kind of scattered around. It’s always a drive to some unknown place. Well, not unknown, but… We’re just – we’re very open to experience and so… I’ve been just – you think what I’m doing is cool, and I think what you’re doing is cool, so let’s hang out. And – so those people are scattered, so – most of them go to Lawrence, not Topeka [laughs]. ‘Cause Topeka has a different mindset than Lawrence.
R: Like – like what? How?
C: It’s more conservative. It’s just more… I don’t know. I can’t really put a finger on it. But I would say it’s more of a conservative mind set. And people – like the people who live in Perry, they don’t ever want to go Lawrence. Like the general – overall, if you polled the people in [Perry], they’re K State fans, not KU fans and they go to Topeka, and they hate Lawrence. Whereas people that live in Lawrence hate Topeka, and they’re KU fans, or folks that live in the community around Lawrence go to Lawrence, and they don’t want to go to Topeka, ’cause Topeka sucks [laughs], or whatever. So, it’s just – where you are and what the community is, I guess. Like-minded people gravitate towards one another.
R: So, how did you and Denise meet? And when? What’s that story? What’s y’alls’ story?
C: [sighs] Well… we’ve been together almost eighteen years, and I met Denise when she was twenty-five and I was twenty-two. She moved from Arizona with her girlfriend to open a piercing studio, because she was like the office manager down there, and her girlfriend was a piercer in the studio. So they came up here because they’d both been around here before, and they opened a shop downtown, and of course hearing about it through the community and living in Lawrence, you gotta go down and check out the piercing studio. We met that way. I went in to grill them and be pesky, being a metalsmith, about jewelry and just being wily. And her and her girlfriend were not in the best of ways at that time, and there was a falling out that happened and – a bunch of my – the group of friends that I was running around with started running around with her, and like hanging out at the shop all the time, and I really wasn’t into it, and blah blah blah.
I didn’t really – I wasn’t on that same wavelength or something with, that they were running around with Barbara and Steph, and Denise was just angry all the time. So I would go in and hang out with her, and talk to her, and, uh…we became friends, and we were just hanging out, and we were just friends. I was running around and being crazy. Doing – running around doing – I was in college, and I was just all over the place. And, uh, like we were just friends. And [laughs] to be honest, it’s funny, because of – we – a friend, a very close friend of mine and I invited Denise to play croquet one day, and…we were playing croquet and it turned into like a full-contact croquet, and I ended up tackling Denise ’cause she was like, headed to win the match or whatever. And so I tackled her, and literally swept her off her feet – And I don’t know if it was the collision that did it, or something – I don’t know. So I called her later on the phone and I was like, “You know, I like you.” And she’s like, “I like you too!” And I’m like, “No, I like you like you.” And then she was like “Okay, um, well, um, sure. Okay. But I don’t know.” And so, she’s like, “I like you like you too, I think.” And the rest is just history. So it just – yeah. I tackled her, literally. I’ve never been one to be subtle.
R: [laughs] That’s awesome. When did you guys get married?
C: Legally, last year. On the ninth of July. We had a ceremony in 2001, where it was, like a wedding, but not legal. And – but it was the whole family, and extended family and friends. Big hoopla event. And that was five years – we did that five years after we had been together. So… 1996. Met her in 1996. November. Was when we hooked up.
R: Do you think you’ll homeschool Merrick the whole way? What do you think that’s gonna look like longer term?
C: Depends on him. And what he feels like he needs socially. He doesn’t have any desire to go back to a public school setting. One, he is a night owl. He likes to stay up late and he doesn’t like to get up early. And even if he does go to bed early, we’ve always been very open with rules of that nature, because our philosophy as parents is that you know, you kind of have your own thing. You know, why should we force you to go bed at 8 o’clock because we want you to go to bed at 8 o’clock. And he never was that kid. He was the kid that would sleep till noon, so rather than having the evening, we’d just have the morning. But Denise is a sleeper too. You know, he’d sleep – and he does, he sleeps till noon. And that’s fine. I just make my schedule around him. And I can get a bunch of stuff done in the morning and let him sleep. And then we can do school, and I can get the rest of the things I need done. So, I think one of the reasons he was always having trouble at school, is one, he would get bored, and he’s a non-conformist, so he doesn’t like to sit still, and like get in line, and have to do silly worksheets, and he didn’t like gettin’ up early. And so it made him a bear to deal with. And I know, ’cause I’ve gotten him up early and he’s been a bear to deal with.
So, I think those things were working against him, being in that setting. So, if he feels like he needs more structure, or if he feels like he needs more of a social setting, and feels like he wants to go back, we could do that. At this point, we do virtual school, so, we get our materials through the Lawrence public school system, so he’s part of the Lawrence virtual school. And all of our materials come in boxes, and so it’s – the curriculum is set out, and you – all the lesson plans are given to me. We of course tailor what we want to happen within the constraints of that. But – he does state testing, and he does have a standard that he is graded on, which sometimes is a hassle for us, but it would make it an easier transition if he were to want to go back to school. He’s starting the fifth grade, and while – he’s actually like a quarter of the way through the fifth grade material, and he started on fifth grade in fourth grade. Because he worked through it. Because he doesn’t have to wait on anybody, and he’s a very smart guy. He’s way – he reads – he’s read all of the Percy Jackson books like a year and a half ago. And he’s read all the Septimus Heaps – I don’t know if you’re familiar, but they’re – like middle school age reading level, and he – once he got the penchant for reading, it was just [explosion noise]. And they wouldn’t let him do that in public school. It was real, “well, you have to go to the second grade section.” Even though it’s boring picture books. Which he enjoys picture books, but he has a head for a larger plot. So, I don’t know. It just depends on him, and I’m along for the ride. You know, maybe I drive the bus a little, but…I steer.
R: Who do you feel like your heroes are?… Do you have any?
C: I don’t know that I really have any.
R: Or people that you just have admired, or learned a lot from. Maybe hero is a stressful word for people.
C: No – I mean, I don’t think it’s stressful……..I’ve had a lot of mentors. Like personal people in my life that I’ve learned a lot of information from and that I respect a lot. But I can’t say like an overall, like, famous person, or something –
R: I think what I’m going for is who are the people who you really admired, that you’ve learned a lot from, that have been significant. I think hero is maybe too big of a word and I should change my question.
C: Yeah, no, I mean – there have been a lot of people that have helped us along the road. And I respect them a lot. The gal that got us into goats, Wendy, I have a fondness in my heart for her, because she helped us get started and was always there for us when we had any questions, and taught me how to disbud kids, and how to castrate bucklings, and when I had any questions she was always there. Just people like that, that I’ve been able to ask questions and they’ve been able to answer them for me. When we’ve had difficult times, I have been astonished by the kindness of strangers, and the generosity of folks that I didn’t even know.
Three years ago, suddenly Denise’s mom died. She was sixty-one. She had a heart attack in California. And we actually – that year sucked. It was 2011, we went to seven funerals. Her mother, my mother, both the same age, six months apart. Just – they were alive one day and they were dead the next. Both her maternal and paternal grandmothers, and then some really close friends of ours died that year. But, it changed my viewpoint of people a lot. And, like how I thought about life in general. Because it was crazy, not wanting to pick up the phone. Like, “Okay, who’s dead?” That kind of thing. And so, in those situations, and in that hard time, just folks that have come to our aid. His [Merrick’s] god-family, Karen Goldberg, who’s the poet laureate of Kansas, but we’ve known them a long, long time, and her husband Ken Laspin, have always been two people that have really been there for us and I respect. We helped them raise their kids, and you know, they’re helping us raise ours too. And that’s cool. And just, flying to California and having to deal with Denise’s mom dying and the folks that she worked with, jumping in and paying for everything, putting us up in a hotel, and giving us a car to drive, and not even knowing them at all, you know, I really respect those people. The kind of people, and the generosity, it makes me want to be like that, just open and hopeful to an extent. You know, you have to protect yourself, but just like, wow. When I come across that in life, that is really inspiring. So, I guess that would be the closest I would have to a hero, or a mentor, or something that I would want to live up to. I’ve been very fortunate in being able to meet a lot of really great people like that.
R: I have one more question for you, and then I ask if you have questions I should be asking people. Is there anything you would say to other rural or small town queer people? Like, if somebody’s struggling, or maybe it’s just – they’re not struggling…but just would you want to say anything? Because, I think part of the thing is, it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of us, but I think there are. You know? We’re just really spread out doing our own thing. Farming…hiding out, whatever [laughs]
C: Well, right. And that’s the thing. We hang out with people on occasion, but we all are so busy and tied down that maybe we don’t get together a lot. But when we do get together, there’s no, like, passage of time. It’s just like, yeah, yeah, da da da, you catch up on what you’re doing or whatever. But I think the hardest thing is just to – it is – it’s an isolated life in general. Just because you’re far from town, and it takes a while to get anywhere. To just realize that it’s not that people are being lazy and don’t want to see you, or whatever, if you feel like you need more of a community, you can go out and find it. If you are farming and want to produce for yourself, to go slow. You know, do your research, work with people. Find people that are doing what you’re doing, and work with them, or talk to them. Find people that are open to that, and just go slow. And read a lot. And try it, a little bit at a time. With animals, specifically. I mean, ’cause you can get really overinvested really quickly, because there’s a lot on the line. But with animals, you know, I mean, you’re responsible for their life too. And if you go too quickly, and you’re inexperienced, it can be at a detriment to the little critters, so… Just go slow, and build. So that you can – you know, don’t get in debt if you can help it. And if you do get in debt, work to pay the debt off as fast as possible. That kind of thing. Just find people that can help you. And…get into a cooperative. I know a lot of people work together and pool equipment. Don’t be narrow-minded, don’t think that you have to be in a community of queers because it’s totally different, you know, it’s a community of country people that have knowledge and expertise in all different kinds of things. And just be open-minded. I just walk down the road, and whoever wants to come along is more than welcome. You know. Just remember that. Just to be open to the experience, because it is a wild ride sometimes [laughs].
R: So, what – what are things I didn’t ask you that you would be curious about knowing about other people?
C: Hmm. I don’t know. I guess it would be totally different living not in Kansas, and that is a curious thing to me. It’s hard, because we started here, and land is cheap here – cheaper – and just the cost of living rurally in Kansas is a lot less than, like, New York, where just to get started it seems crazy expensive to buy land. You know, I’ve – just the difference between a – a different sort of culture, even. You know, ’cause here it is isolated, and people are spread over a great distance, where in other places maybe it’s not like that. I don’t know. And maybe there is more of an openness. That is a curious thing to me, like what other peoples’ experiences are in different places. But we can’t move ’cause we started here, and we’re kinda stuck here [laughs], you know? I mean we’ve got a good thing going. And it would be – to move somewhere else, it would be hard. Because we’d have to start from scratch. We’d have to get rid of all the animals we have ’cause we couldn’t move them that great of a distance without great stress. And building up a customer base again. It’s just like, pffth, I started this when I was like twenty-five. You know? That’s a long time. I’d be too old to even do stuff then. Like fifteen years of [pause] yeah, wow. It took me that long just to buy a tractor [laughs]. You know? So, I guess those would be the questions, but I don’t know that you could really answer them. But you’re in West Virginia? And you live rurally, or do you live in –
R: Oh, yeah. It’s like an hour outside of a town that’s got about 3000 people. The closest town is like a half hour and it’s got 200 people, but I think that includes me.
C: [laughs] Sure.
R: ‘Cause there’s like, maybe fifteen houses in the town.
R: So that’s where my address is, but -…I feel like the east coast rural is usually closer together than out here, you know? Even if you’re rural, people live closer. But I do think West Virginia, because of the mountains… it takes forever – to get anywhere.
C: ’cause you can’t go straight.
R: Right. It could be ten miles, and it could be –
C: As the crow flies.
R: – and it could take twenty-five minutes.
C: Yeah. If you could get on a horse and ride over the hill – you could be there.
R: [Totally, totally. So it – it is very rural even though it’s the east coast.]
C: Do you farm?
R: I have…so I grew up on a sheep farm. And I… want to farm, but I – I rent. And I have –
R: Meat, wool, yeah.
C: Well, ’cause there’s hair sheep.
R: Yeah. Wool breeds, for sure. And then I was gone for about ten years. So I’ve only been back two and half years. I had this obsession with having a goat dairy for a while, and at the moment I’m like – I can’t even have [one] goat because I have a full-time job and I commute so far. I work in the public schools, and I just can’t add in milking a goat in the morning when I have to hike out in the winter. It’s just like, I can’t do it on my own right now. So anyway –]
C: I understand that.
R: Yeah. But – I have ducks, and I have a big garden, and I have some bees – and I have a friend who she’s in her sixties, and she’s been breeding alpine goats for like, forty years –
R: – and she’s a [American Dairy Goat Association] judge and goes to shows. So I actually-
C: Oh, fun!
R: planned the whole trip around trying to get home to milk her goats, because she’s going to be out of town –
C: Totally. And it’s hard to go anywhere, because you have to find the right people that will milk the goats because they want to do it. We’re always like, courting new people. Because it is important to – to – to go away. For a little bit of time.
R: Right! Yeah.
C: I don’t think we’ll be able to do a big family vacation this year just because, we invested money in the land, and so we’re a little short on vacation funds. But I did take some extra funds and I re-did the RV, just because Denise’s mom was a truck driver. Over the road. And she drove for the entertainment industry, and – that was hers. And she lived in there. And it took us that long to be able to, like, emotionally not – so I remodeled the inside ’cause she never wanted us to touch it – she thought it was worth more money original. And I’m like, so not.
So I re-did the inside, and built a double bed and bunk in the back, and made it more for our family, and we’re gonna move it out to the twenty acres and have like a staycation, because it’s only fifteen minutes away. So I can get up in the morning and come and milk the goats – and feed everybody, and then go back. But, I mean – we have a couple people that are totally competent. We are very lucky to have some folks that are into goats. But I feel ya.
Yeah, we really were hot and heavy into the goats, and now – we just kind of really got started when I was about twenty-eight. And I got a job at the post office because Denise got pregnant. We got Denise pregnant. And she – we decided that she was not gonna work and she was gonna stay home and take care of the baby, because it seemed crazy to pay someone else so that we could have full-time jobs, so that one of us could pay for childcare. And if we want a baby, why are we paying someone else to raise it, philosophy. So she stayed home but she realized that she really was not, like, the farm girl. I mean, she works hard and – but she would just rather bring home money other ways. She’s not a self-motivator, and I’m not really good at delegating, so it didn’t work out very well! [laughs] And, I mean, not to mention she was overwhelmed with having a baby too, and we had goats and chickens and rabbits and it was just too much for her. I was working full-time and I would work long hours, and I would come home and work full-time again. And it was rough. So it just works better know. I’m able to do a lot more stuff, so that’s cool. Goats are a commitment. Animals in general are a commitment. I’m surprised that you would leave your garden at this time of year, ’cause it’s –
R: Well, so – I don’t know how it’s going, but I hope it’s going okay! But I have my neighbors, who I’m renting from… So I live on the same driveway I grew up on. I was living in one neighbor’s house that I could see my stepdad’s farm, like the sheep would be outside in the morning.
C: See, I never would want sheep.
R: You wouldn’t? I love them because I grew up with them, but I –
C: They don’t have the personality of the goat.
R: They don’t! I know, I know. That’s what I like about the goats.
C: They’re just kinda –
R: Yeah, some of them are tame. But you have to bottle-feed an orphan for them to be [tame] – because they’re so scared of you otherwise…
C: Goats can be that way too. You have to hand-raise ’em. The same way, ’cause they will be the same. But of course, their personality – out there – is more, even when they are like that, they’re just crazier than sheep.
R: Yeah. Totally.
C: There’s – I think they’re smarter too, not to be rude.
R: I do too. They are, I think they are.
C: I haven’t met a sheep that can figure out how to work a two-stage lock, and every goat knows how. When they’re born.
R: [laughs] Yeah. Yep. And they’re social, like herd dynamics are so interesting. I don’t see that happening with the sheep. Maybe it’s more subtle, but I don’t think it’s as complicated.
C: Oh, we’re all gonna go over there now. Whereas goats will sit – we have a dynamic, and if some, if we sell one or one passed away or something like that, I mean, everything changes and everything is messed up for a while until they, like, re-establish – There’s a hierarchy.
C: Yeah. No, I enjoy goats a lot.
R: Yeah. Well, thank you. I’m going to stop [recording]. Is it close to milking time?
Interviewed at Courtney’s kitchen table on her farm, Homestead Ranch, in Lecompton, Kansas on June 30, 2014.
Thanks to our volunteer Kayden Moore for the transcription! Here’s a bit more about Kayden:
Kayden sometimes lives in the city but is a country boy at heart. He likes being on his bike, learning about sustainable food systems, getting tattooed, working for social change, and baking pies.