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Growing Up Gay in Rural America

At the English Reading Series, Taylor Brorby shares literature exploring sexual orientation, environmentalism, and small-town life.

Small towns hold a special place in American literature; authors like John Steinbeck, Willa Cather, and Harper Lee have all explored the mystique of the small town in their books. Author Taylor Brorby contributes his unique perspective—as a North Dakotan from a small town, as a gay man, and as an environmentalist—to this body of literature with his nonfiction works.

At the March 3 installment of the English Reading Series, Brorby read from his latest book, Boys and Oil: Growing up gay in a fractured land, and shared some thoughts on the importance of inclusive literature.


The reading followed a chronology, starting at a point long preceding Brorby’s life: the prehistoric period of North America. Reading a passage called “Sea,” Brorby briefly and poetically recapped the environmental change that made way for the modern geographic climate of the United States.

“Then came the great sheets of ice, miles thick, from the north. Boulders were picked up like tennis balls and dropped along the way. The middle of what would become the North American continent was bulldozed and reshaped into a vast, open plain,” Brorby read. This environmental evolution forecasted themes in subsequent passages, such as Brorby’s evolving self-understanding and how he was shaped by his environment.

He then related some of his experiences as a child in his hometown, Center, North Dakota. Center is extremely small and isolated, but Brorby saw both the good and the bad of growing up there. Some of his writing carried a sense of nostalgia for his hometown. “As a child, though, my world didn’t feel small,” he read. “I played baseball and spent my afternoons with Grandpa . . . fishing for bluegills or picking tart chokecherries.”

However, the social environment in Center posed some problems for Brorby, who faced harassment from closed-minded peers and family. He sometimes found solace in music. He read, “In my own muffled world of music, I could pound out the pain I felt pulsing throughout my body.” Still Brorby struggled; his reading culminated with a passage in which his eighth-grade self contemplated suicide because of his sexuality.

In the Q&A following the reading, Brorby explained that it’s a particularly important time to talk about LGBTQ+ topics, especially in books. “There’s a huge push to ban books such as mine around the country,” he said.

He explained that literature can open people’s eyes to the diversity of thought and lifestyle that exists in the rest of the world. He explained that inclusive literature would have been a lifeline for his young, troubled self, struggling to fit in in a small town—and that there are no doubt others who would benefit from the same.


He ended by stressing that books as a medium are particularly important, because books (rather than fast and easy internet content) truly allow readers to gain a more sympathetic idea of others. “Images can reveal a part of a story, but literature is the story. You have to sit with something for several hundred pages,” he said. “We have to learn how to be a little more uncomfortable these days, especially if we’ve had a limited perspective of the world.”

Check out Brorby’s books at his website, and join us at the next installment of the English Reading Series for more insightful readings.