by Peter Kusnic
Often in LGBTQ+ stories, the Midwest is depicted as a place to flee rather than somewhere queer life exists constantly, in all its beautiful complexity, regardless of who comes and goes. In fact, for many of us, the region is a destination unto itself rather than a stepping stone to other places, despite its frequent designation as “flyover country” by the coastal set.
On January 21, Cleveland-based Belt Publishing will release Sweet Voices Still: An LGBTQ Anthology from Middle America, a collection of prose and poetry that aims to challenge clichés about LGBTQ+ life in the Midwest and Appalachia and give platform to the diverse range of queer voices that exist here – from bustling downtown Detroit to rural Amish country.
The anthology features a number of Ohioans, including Harmony Cox and Joel Showalter of Columbus and L.S. Quinn, who operates Reading Room CLE, a nonprofit bookstore that offers literary and literacy programs in Cleveland. Among the other Ohio contributors, co-authors Janine Tiffe and Nichole Lohrman-Novak explore the very gay history of the Licking County 4-H Band in their essay, “Queer at the County Fair”, which quotes one band alumnus:
“If we list[ed]all former [4-H Band] presidents, [and then removed those]who had been gay, I would imagine it’d be down to a quarter [of the names].”
The Buckeye Flame spoke with the editors of Sweeter Voices Still, Chicagoans Ryan Schuessler and Kevin Whiteneir – who are partners in life as well as publishing – about the anthology and the importance of counterbalancing assumptions that queer life can only be lived to the fullest in a big city on the coast.
Where did the idea for this anthology come from?
Kevin Whiteneir (KW): Ryan had just published his St. Louis anthology [with Belt Publishing], and we were in our car driving somewhere –
Ryan Schuessler (RS): To visit Kevin’s friend in upstate New York, a couple of summers ago. We stopped in Cleveland to have breakfast with Anne Trubek, Publisher of Belt, and we were talking about the next project idea. The way we had originally conceived of this [was a]road trip book exploring queer history and people and their stories around the Midwest, and that idea sort of transformed into: why not have people write their own stories in an anthology?
KW: We put out a call for submissions and got an immediate response. Over the next few months – from summer to fall – we [heard from]people all over the Midwest and Appalachia.
RS: I think we got about 200 submissions – far more than we would have been able to include.
How did your personal life experiences inform this project?
KW: I am from Chicago, born and raised. I lived in rural Wisconsin while in college. My big formative experience [was]recognizing that flourishing as a queer person wasn’t about being in a city; it was about being with other people who were having queer experiences, and sharing in that with one another. I want to break down this idea that the city is emblematic of queerness and makes queerness possible, when queerness exists everywhere.
RS: I’m from St. Louis and spent my whole life before moving to Chicago in Missouri. I’ve worked as a journalist for national and international publications, and all over the world I’ve been confronted by this concept of ‘flyover country’ that I found very frustrating and troubling. I got pretty sick of the apologetic tone people had learning I was from Missouri. I did not come to Chicago to escape that place; I love that place.
What were your top goals while curating this collection?
RS: Big picture, we wanted to represent different perspectives – not just in terms of urban versus rural and different states and regions. So much of LGBTQ+ media and representation is white-centric, male-centric, cisgender-centric, and youth-centric. That leaves a lot of voices at the margins. We wanted to prioritize indigenous voices, and break out of expected narratives of LGBTQ+ people. We also wanted to feature non-professional writers. So much of literature and publishing is gatekept by subjective standards of what good writing is – as well as clout and connections.
KW: There are technical aspects that are important, of course, but in terms of narrative a lot is excluded according to some ‘good writing’ standards.
What do you hope this anthology will represent to readers?
KW: We wanted to give people a space to speak for themselves. People need to see others whom they can identifiably relate to. But we don’t just want representation. We want to tell our own stories. We want to be behind the storytelling.
RS: As someone from the Midwest, I enjoy the opportunity to give the diversity and breadth of people in this region to be just that – people – and challenge notions that the population here is a monolith. It’s not. My last partner was a woman, and when people hear that, they make all types of assumptions about the arc of life and my coming out experience and the suffering I must’ve had. It’s not accurate at all. So, giving people the chance to represent themselves without having to start out by challenging an assumption is important to me.
Peter Kusnic is a writer and editor based in Cleveland, OH.