Luke Gilford and S.G. Goodman Are Plotting a Southern Queer Utopia

Luke Gilford and S.G. Goodman Are Plotting a Southern Queer Utopia

by Tiana Randall

Historic systems throughout the United States have long positioned marginalized people at a disadvantage. The nation’s southwestern region is especially notorious for doing so, finding pride in their prolonged, patriotic traditions that displace people of color and LGBTQ folks.

In Luke Gilford's world, though, bull-riding, curved cowboy hats and worn-out leather boots have been loved for years by the many invisible figures across these southern states, and they’re now being brought to light through his intimate photography.

Gilford grew up in Colorado with a father heavily involved in rodeo, but some of his fondest memories were cut short when he relocated to California. Because of this, he was unable to properly carve out a lane for himself and other queer people, and began longing for what he once connected with.

In an attempt to reclaim ideas of being "othered" in the Southwest, Gilford started capturing cowboys in romantic spaces, drag queens of the West and the larger sentimental qualities of rural America that often get overlooked.

His debut solo exhibition, titled "National Anthem,” is being shown at SN37 Gallery in New York, and reveals this body of work (in book and on display). The 36-year-old photographer and filmmaker’s documentation of southern America is at times tender and humble, where it could be easily viewed within the monolith of violence or homophobia.

For PAPER, Gilford caught up with queer country musician S.G. Goodman, who performed a live set at his “National Anthem” opening reception. Together, they talked about growing up in the South, creating kinship among outsiders within rural America and fostering their own “queer utopia” in these communities.

Luke Gilford: This is the gorgeous, beautiful, moving message that S.G. sent me yesterday: “I'm back in Nashville for the night and will leave for a festival in Kentucky tomorrow. I read your book today. I'm sure you’re overwhelmed with praise and shit at the moment, and I don't need you to reply to this. I just wanted to tell you what the book and last night mean to me. We don't choose the people or places we are born to. For so many of us, the places we were born to have little tolerance for our existence within that space and landscape. I've never wanted to leave the South, but recently it felt like it won't allow me to stay. The brave thing would be to stay and carve out what is meant for me and others like me. Your words and photographs have been a catalyst in that long ride. I'm so appreciative of getting to have this experience and somewhat of a rebirth in my purpose and why I do what I do. Thank you for making that book and having me there to celebrate someone who is shining a light on the places we belong.”

S.G. Goodman: I felt compelled to write that because in our first conversation with each other — with recent events, the overturn of Roe vs. Wade and this massive surge of far-right ideals in our country — it has made me question my desire to be a person who encourages people to stay in places that are increasingly going back to a time when they have been dangerous for people in [marginalized] communities and people of color and pretty much anybody who's not white. That has been on my mind a lot lately with getting older and wanting to put down roots somewhere. It's just an instance of how artists in different forms sharpen us at times when we need it and realign us with the purpose that has always been present in us.

Have you had people or moments in your life that have made you come back to who you are?

Luke Gilford: What you say about these places is so interesting to me because nature itself and rural life is not inherently exclusive. That's something I try to touch on in the book, it's open. There's so much possibility in those spaces and so much wonder that I find in nature, and peace and beauty and inspiration. But rural America as an ideal has for a very long time been a patriarchal, Christian and white domain, and it can be so hostile to anything that is not that. So that is such irony to me and something I really struggle with. What is so beautiful about this community, in particular, is that they are brave and resilient, and stand up to that hatred and carve out these spaces for themselves. In the tradition of the rodeo — it is seen as such as a misogynist, white tradition— and these are all very diverse people of color, queer and trans people coming together to reclaim these spaces and traditions for themselves when they've typically been excluded by this, which is why the body of work is called, "National Anthem.” [The “National Anthem”] is supposed to represent everyone, but it actually excludes these people.

So that's what's beautiful about what you're doing. I'm so moved by the song that you sang, "Which Side Are You On?" It points to this very classic dilemma that we've had in America, where it's constantly about, “Which side are you on? Red or Blue? Metropolitan or rural?” The country seems to be digging its heels into that and that thinking is so dangerous. The real hope and beauty exist in those places that are more gray and are not about just choosing a side, but it's so much more about humanity and being there for one another.

S.G Goodman: We've seen this historically in other countries, when the “National Anthem” and flag are portrayed when more of a far-right idea comes and claims a whole national symbol that's supposed to represent everyone. It's really powerful right now when so many people are having the flag represent our whole country, how we have declared independence and all our ideas are what America is. But recently, when I see it flown, it's making me stop and wonder what those people's beliefs are about it. What your work provokes is someone who is in a group of people who currently and historically in this country have been at a constant flux and struggle with how the country treats them and they so proudly fly that flag. That stood out to me in the work, the title and the sentiment behind the piece as a whole. It's taking back what people are trying to claim for themselves and exclude people from. It's really powerful.

Luke Gilford: If we look back to the basic symbols, it is supposed to represent freedom, independence, love, support and understanding. Those are really beautiful ideals. It felt like a myth to us for so long by being constantly disappointed by this country. It's beautiful to be actually inspired by people in this country doing something brave and, like you said, taking back that power.

S.G. Goodman: We're supposed to be the “Home of the Brave.” When people are looking through your work or thinking about the queer communities and who have come before us, if people really stop to think how brave it is for them to show up and take up space in some of these places that are being told it's not meant for us, that's about as patriotic as you could get. Not every war is fought on a battleground in the way we traditionally perceive it. It's wild how many people have to live up to the ideas of what America is supposed to represent and don't always get the credit for that.

Luke Gilford: I'm curious about this because I was born in Colorado and grew up with my father in the rodeo circuit, but then we moved to California. So part of this project is reconnecting with those roots and reclaiming that because I always have such fond memories of the rodeos, but then we moved away from that and I missed it. I missed rural America, I missed Colorado, I missed so many aspects of Western culture and living in more natural environments. That was a huge part of this project for me: to reconnect with that dream, but you, on the other hand, were really born and raised in the South. Growing up as "other" in rural America, we're taught to live with constant threats of violence and pressure to conform. Many people drift away from that and move to cities, and that's a popular narrative.

S.G. Goodman: When you’re born to a place, you're an insider and therefore your perspective is that of an insider. So you are really accustomed to the nuances of people's beliefs and even the context of why they may be prejudiced against you. It almost creates this strange ability to connect with people and understand, from a firsthand experience, where they're coming from, even if it is something that is against you living your full life. I don't always focus on that because the other complexity about being so close to people who oftentimes disagree with you or would never vote for someone who would advocate for you is that you're also experiencing them holding open the door for you going into the grocery store, being kind and helping you out. You know, my neighbor running over with my alarms go off. I believe that people are inherently good and I'm reminded that in spaces that are politically and socially stacked against me.

I'm a farmer's daughter, I've worked outside and close to the earth all my life. When I'm away from that, for any amount of time, I can feel myself get restless because I explain my childhood to people in this way: We didn't travel unless there was a big rain and my dad didn't have to work that day, so we never got too far from home. We didn't really take family vacations and there was a lot of isolation other than books. So when I began to travel or had the opportunity to, as an adult, I remember being in Europe for the first time and having this strong sense of pride about my home because, in this particular area on the train in the South of France, I thought it looked like Fulton County where I'm from. There's a strong sense of loyalty.

But also I think it's really easy to cast judgment on a place and people when you're removed from that and are removing yourself from experiencing people's kindness. It is a strange experience to have to acknowledge that, but I really feel strongly that people are complex and the way they believe or why is complex, too. Forgiveness and love come from diving into the complexity around it because you're probably gonna have little pieces of common ground. It's hard to do that unless you immerse yourself in that community, and that seems like what you've done to try to better understand your roots, Luke. One thing I hear in your voice — and something that makes me sad about people who leave their homes and the places they're born to — and what I've heard from people who listen to my music is there's a longing there to return and to understand and to be accepted.

Luke Gilford: Especially for queerness. I think queerness in pop culture has become synonymous with cities, club culture and whatnot. So there is this rightful celebration of having escaped from something for a lot of people, but that also can turn into never looking back. And for me, it felt like exile to not extend my curiosity back to where my roots are and to the wider sphere of possibility. I started really craving that balance in life and those rural places that I remember so fondly. That sense of wonder I talked about earlier, beauty and inspiration that I find in nature and in the people that live in rural America and in Western culture.

These are people who are just not actively racist, they're anti-racist. They are welcoming people who are excluded from the mainstream rodeo with open arms and saying, "You belong here, you show up, you are family." There's a very warm, welcoming community in rural America that's super open-minded and not what we expect. Oftentimes these people are very consistent with what you're saying, too: if you're a good person, people are nice to their neighbors. They're sort of like, "Oh yeah, John wears a dress sometimes, whatever. But a good person." Like, "I'll look after his cattle and horses when he is away." They may not get the pronouns right all the time, but they certainly do love and respect their neighbors.

That's also the power of this community and touching back on what you were saying of being there to carve this out and represent because if we all run to cities, there's no one there to put a face to like, "I am queer or trans or Black and living in rural America." Then they personify the other side and become a positive example for others living there. That's how people's minds change. When it's real human beings, it's humanized, not just some political topic.

S.G. Goodman: When we're all connected with the internet and we can't imagine these places that are discriminating against people of different colors or sexuality, a lot of that in my opinion has to do with the reality of isolation and having people living in front of them, their truths and existing. In my hometown growing up, I didn't have any queer examples of people who were having regular jobs in my small community. The only access to that type of representation was on TV. There is a real reason why certain places have trouble understanding certain humans because they don't come in contact with them every day.

I would like to believe it wouldn't take that for people to be able to say, “This is a human being, I should respect them, love them, take care of them, just because they're human.” But at the same time, there is something to this idea when it comes to rural culture. People need to understand the nuance of what isolation creates as far as a person's firsthand experience with something different than them.

I'm sitting in New York City right now where, in Greenwich Village, we had Stonewall riots. I was listening to a podcast about why there was such a large gay presence in that area and one of the reasons is because there was a women's prison where they would arrest women who were queer. So there was this giant pool of queer people in this area and a community formed. One reason why people have always had to form these chosen families was literally to survive. Highlighting this subculture of where people are thriving [in your book] is to be a light on a light for people who are questioning, "Can I survive and actually live my life in these places?" That is something queer people have been really resilient in, forming tight-knit communities of chosen families and banding together in places we're told don't belong to us.

Luke Gilford: Queer people for as long as history exists have been doing that and I think we'll continue to do so. Right now, it feels incredibly relevant as we're seeing what's happening in this country becoming more and more far-right. Also, what's happening with climate change feels very apocalyptic and with COVID the last couple years, so many people have been priced out of cities. They're moving back to their hometowns or just moving out of cities. So a lot of people are starting to ask, “What does it look like for me as a queer person, as an artist, as a creative person, as someone who feels like ‘other’ to live in these other places?” Statistically, there are actually more queer people living outside of cities now than in them, which is wild to think about. These are conversations we need to be having, and I hope this work can inspire others to continue finding and building those relationships because as you said, it's how we survive.

S.G. Goodman: There is an opportunity for there to be a mass exodus of gay people from the cities to go buy a little Southern town. If people all got on the same page about going back to these communities and creating our own, not only could we change the people around there as far as their ideas of us go, but we could change the whole voting structure of places.

Luke Gilford: Queer utopia, let's do it, SG.

Photography: Luke Gilford (Courtesy of SN37)