Take the Last Bite

We take a bite out of Chappell Roan through a brief queer history of Midwest music and media influences. Host R.B. Brooks (they/them) highlights queer and trans music artists with ties to the Midwest, how the Midwest is used intentionally in film and streaming series for dramatic effect, and the impact of Midwest stereotypes on racialized and gendered assumptions about the region.

Additional Resources and References: 
  • In a Queer Time and Place by Jack Halberstam
  • Rolling Stone article about Chappel Roan’s Casual release 
  • Teen Vogue culture story about Chappell Roan 
  • Right On, Cuee (Take the Last Bite interview with Black trans hip hop artist Cuee Wright
For questions, comments or feedback about this episode: lastbite@sgdinstitute.org

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Host: R.B. Brooks, they/them, director of strategy and impact for the Midwest Institute for Sexuality and Gender Diversity

Cover art: Adrienne McCormick

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Creators & Guests

R.B. Brooks
Director of Programs, Midwest Institute for Sexuality and Gender Diversity
Justin Drwencke
Executive Director, Midwest Institute for Sexuality and Gender Diversity

What is Take the Last Bite?

Take the Last Bite is a direct counter to the Midwest Nice mentality— highlighting advocacy & activism by queer/trans communities in the Midwest region. Each episode unearths the often disregarded and unacknowledged contributions of queer & trans folks to social change through interviews, casual conversations and reflections on Midwest queer time, space, and place.

For questions, comments and feedback: lastbite@sgdinstitute.org

To support this podcast and the Institute, please visit sgdinstitute.org/giving

Host: R.B. Brooks, they/them, director of programs for the Midwest Institute for Sexuality & Gender Diversity

Cover Art: Adrienne McCormick

Hey hi hello y’all, this is R.B., your Midwest disc jockey, turning up another mixed tape of Midwest queer and trans stories on this episode of Take the Last Bite– a show where take Midwest Nice out on a date and ghost them.

Today’s episode explores The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess from the perspective of the Midwest music & media kingdom. Chappell Roan’s Midwest Princess tour is in full swing this summer, with aerial view videos cropping up across social media depicting huge crowds singing along to popular tracks like “Hot to Go” dressed in elaborate outfits curated expressly for the chosen theme for that leg of the tour, such as Pink Pony Club for Kansas City and Des Moines; Rainbow for Detroit and Milwaukee; and Midwest Princess for Cleveland and Saint Louis – an instagram vision board giving audiences a sense of what to wear included trucker hats, baby pink, and what I can only describe as “soft camouflage.”

Not to be upstaged by her audience, Chappell has gone all out with costume, makeup and props for her shows with outfits she made herself like a recent nod to Lady Liberty where she was rolled onto the stage in a giant apple and popped out holding a fake lantern and a prop cigarette painted full-body in copper green and wearing an assless skirt.

I was surprised to learn Chappell Roan has been on my radar for a few years now when I found her 2018 single School Nights hidden in the depths of my liked songs on Spotify. This earlier work is much more alt/indie ballad than her recent grungey, party pop songs. In School Nights, she conveys a backstory of school crushes pinky-promising to never lie, whereas in a song like Red Wine Supernova from her latest album she’s talking up a vampire-esque suitor saying “I hear you like magic, I’ve got a wand and a rabbit.” But what I think maintains throughout her short but significant discography and the character she’s created as her musical persona, is how Chappell uses her songs to reveal the open-diary of a queer kid born in the Midwest.

Chappell Roan is qualifies for her Midwest Princess crown after being born in Willard, Missouri. Now, I’m FROM Missouri, I spent 21 years of my life in that deee-pressing state, and I still had to pull this one up on a map. So here’s some stats– Willard, Missouri boasts a total population of about 6300 people. The closest major metropolitan area is Springfield aka the Queen City of the Ozarks. Wikipedia lists a whopping seven notable people from Willard Missouri, a majority of which are athletes, one politician, and of course, Chappell Roan.

In magazine interviews, Chappell has shared that her small, Christian hometown environment negatively impacted her mental health. She was drawn to pop stars talking about kissing girls and started writing her own music. Her parents were supportive, and she was picked up by a record label at the still-waiting-for-the-prefrontal-cortex-to-be-fully-baked age of 17 and she missed some key milestones back at her high school like going to prom or walking in graduation. She and her family flew back and forth between LA and Missouri so she could work with her record company, eventually Chappell started taking these trips on her own until she moved to LA altogether.

This newfound freedom combined with a sudden mountain of options for things to do, including her first gay-club experience which was the inspo for her song Pink Pony Club, enabled a lot of exploration in her formative young-adult years. But the boomerang effect experienced by many a small town Midwestie that has ever sauntered off to a big (especially expensive) city like LA, brought Chappell right back to her hometown living with her parents and serving donuts through a drive-thru.

In a Teen Vogue culture article about Chappell’s emergence into the musical spotlight, Chappell shares that her latest album "The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess “is the storyline of a girl who moved from a small conservative town to a city and had an awakening of this world she never knew existed. Which includes queerness, which includes heartbreak, which includes falling in love, which includes the cities and clubs, and it's the world of Chappell Roan.”

In this way, Chappell Roan rises as a character, a symbol of breaking away from the confines of rural, Midwest living – a form of living that is commonly perceived to be backwards, behind the times, agricultural and pastoral, nothing but cornfields, conservatives and cows and Chappel Roan rises as a beacon of exploratory queerness – with her devotion to drag queens, costumes, themed parties, and anthemic musical dramatics becoming one large expression of her queerness, and everyone’s invited.

And so, in this episode, I take the existing character, the persona, the self-proclaimed thrift store pop star of Chappell Roan and put her in conversation with other notable music artists whose ties to the Midwest make their stories and songs irresistible, especially among a queer audience. I also take this idea of the Midwest as a guiding force, almost even a character of its own, and a site of complicated assumptions and self-fulling prophecies in response to those assumptions, to point out how even mentioning the Midwest draws immediate images, ideas, and reactions whether you’ve lived here or not.

I bring together a haphazard mix of music, film, queer theory and history, journalism, and personal experiences to think through how the concept of the Midwest contributes to how media about it is made and how it is consumed, the impact of our stories and the resonance with a larger global audience, and how the racialization of the Midwest as a totally white, conservative region complicates the ways Midwest queer and trans experiences are perceived and understood.

Now, just as a disclaimer– this is not a peer-reviewed podcast, I’m not writing a grad school research paper. Do I think this could be a dissertation later? Sure do. But I’m showing up to the mic today with curiosities, questions, observations about social media, music trends, trans studies, Midwest culture and movement work.

I have had the fortune of being mentored and in space with writer, agitator, and educator Codi Charles and one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from them is to “track patterns.” And when it comes to patterns of Midwest stories being championed as emblems of national and global struggle, that pattern is evident. When it comes to patterns of Midwest queer and trans folks being largely left out of large-scale analyses of LGBTQ+ rights efforts, that pattern is obvious. When it comes to QTIBIPOC narratives being assumed essentially placeless or automatically relegated to locations of sizable BIPOC populations (like the South, Detroit, Atlanta, or on reservations, for example), that pattern is devastating. I also know all these patterns are much deeper than what I’m able to capture in a single recording.

I invite listeners to track their own patterns, compare them to what I’ve mapped out here. This to me seems like a small tug on a tiny thread sticking out of a mangled, knotted mess of big questions and continued efforts to comprehend the role of the Midwest in narrative-building and understanding why the trope of a small town, rural Midwest misfit escaping the land of Oz-arks, plays out so well across so many forms of media and entertainment.

We’re H-O-T-T-O-G-O…. on this episode, of Take the Last Bite


Why can't we be in space with hundreds of other queer and trans folks and having these necessary conversations?

When it comes to dynamics around privilege and oppression, and around identity. Well intentioned isn’t actually good enough.

How far is too far to drive for a drag show? I don’t know, we’re in Duluth right now, I would straight up go to Nebraska, probably,

If you are not vibing, or something’s not right, or also like there’s an irreparable rupture, you have absolutely every right to walk away.

Definitely going to talk about Midwest Nice and if that's as real as it wants to think it is.

Midwest nice is white aggression. That's what it is.


Queer and trans communities have been finding their ways to identity development, sexual awakenings, and consciousness-building through music since time immemorial. Whether it was the icons of the 70s and 80s such as David Bowie, Grace Jones, and Prince donning gender bending aesthetics and makeup; crooning about our true colors shining through with Cyndi Lauper; or operatically singing about being a poor boy from a poor family alongside Queen front-human, Freddie Mercury. Or the emergence of vogue as a recognizable dance form that originated through Harlem ball culture but came to public consciousness through Madonna’s namesake hit song in the 1990s.

I distinctly remember belting out Melissa Etheridge’s 1993 “I’m the Only One” with two beloved friends in the car heading back to our hotel at the end of MBLGTACC 2020 at Western Michigan University – it came on the radio and without any verbal communication, suddenly a synchronized sing-along broke out that would put James Corden’s carpool karaoke to shame.

The early 2000s really set itself apart, bringing forth a boom of legibly queer musical artists such as Lady Gaga and Adam Lambert and building up to a notable surge of gay anthems like Gaga’s Born this Way, Kesha’s We R Who We R, Maklemore and Ryan Lewis’s Same Love featuring the incredible Mary Lambert, Haley Kyoko’s Girls Like Girls, Run the World and Formation from Beyonce, and honestly so so many more absolutely quintessential queer rally songs that define the 2010s.

Country music experienced a noticeable shift throughout the first decade of the 2000s as well, with such breakthroughs as country singer Chely Wright’s complex coming out experience in 2010 and of course Lil Nas X’s incredibly successful Old Town Road, plopping this multi-genre megastar into the musical lexicon, and even drag queen Trixie Mattell has shimmied into this not-always-forthcomingly-queer-accepting music genre.

The 2010s also ushered in a new era of media personalities, as average people (aka non-celebrities) suddenly found the tools to self-publish their own content and post it to the world through YouTube videos, Tumblr posts, and a new platform circa 2016 called TikTok. Social media has honestly changed the music industry, in ways it's likely not fully grappled with yet. No longer is it a steadfast requirement to sign with a record label to reach thousands of fans or distribute songs that go viral.

Social media circa the 2020s has also been a window into living vicariously through the lives of ticket holders to major concert tours, such as the notable (and manufactured) rivalry between Beyonce’s Renaissance Tour and Tay Swift’s Era’s Tour. Even if you didn’t head to one of Beyonce’s shows, you likely watched a sea of singing fans collectively go silent the moment Beyonce sings “look around, everybody on mute” and held your breath in anticipation while watching from your phone as each city of fans stepped up to what became known as “the mute challenge.”

Depending on your music genre preferences, you may have also beared witness to the many different stage-attires of Gerard Way during My Chemical Romance’s Reunion Tour in 2022 – I fondly remember him donning a Hawaiian style button-up and prosthetic makeup bullet hole on his forehead– a surefire nod to Leonardo DeCaprio’s character in the 1996 film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet during MCR’s St. Paul visit – and Sam Smith and Kim Petra’s song and eventual music video release of Unholy was a TikTok sound earworm no one could get out of their head for months and months.

This broad strokes overview of major moments in (primarily mainstream) music history demonstrates an innate ability for queer, trans, gender non-conforming, punk, and other misfit music makers to perpetually find ways to permeate soundwaves with anthems for any queer occasion. I remember just this past year at MBLGTACC 2023 in Lexington, Kentucky when during the evening entertainment drag show, a gaggle of college-aged queers broke out into “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” by Whitney Houston – which felt strangely reminiscent of the moment 11 years prior at MBLGTACC 2012 when it seemed like all at once, news broke about Whitney’s death during conference weekend, and the space suddenly shifted with the onset of collective grieving over the beloved singer. I remember at the beginning of Janet Mock’s keynote during MBLGTACC 2014, she walked onto the stage to the sound of both raucous applause and Beyonce's “Flawless” and the local Kansas City drag artists closing out the conference drag show with coordinated choreography to Kesha and Pitbull’s Timber.

DJs are often responsible for providing the soundtrack of our queer lives and shaping the queer music canon, making master mixes of all the hypest and queerest music tropes for use at nightclubs, drag brunches, college pride proms, house shows, and dance parties lasting the entire Month of June and beyond. And even protest action, especially when queer and trans folks are at the helm (which… we typically are), is accentuated with instances of blaring queer anthems or call-and-response chants to overpower the voices of anti-queer, -trans and other bigoted demonstrators.

While the impact of queer and trans music transcends genre and geographies, there’s a strong pattern to observe in how queer and trans music culture is largely shaped by media, events and musicians with ties to the Midwest. And I would dare say that there’s something particularly poignant and alluring about the musical offerings of the region to national (and even global) queer and trans communities, due to the stereotype of the Midwest as a wholly conservative, white puritanical stretch of cornfields and cows. Midwesterners who fall out of that stereotype (aka a whole fucking lot of us) but are still subjected to its self-fulling properties – meaning there are white conservative anti-trans and queer- ideologies that do run deep in this region – we have a unique postion to tell the stories of this complex, manufactured idea of this place called the Midwest.

The stories Midwesterners tell are often about escapism, seeking out utopias, or someplace else, ideally someplace better than the proverbial “here.” Stories of farmkids moving to big cities. Stories of small town nobodies becoming big hit celebrities.

These stories are appealing because they speak to a universal experience of FOMO (aka fear of missing out) where we are conditioned to believe we have to be a big somebody or make a lot of money or leave a legacy. And we’re also told that doesn’t happen in the Midwest, a place of perceived normalness, and that does its best to weed out anything that’s not normal to preserve that reputation. Therefore, it is almost a rite of passage to be born and raised in the Midwest and to at least once in your lifetime lust after the idea of leaving it.

So when queer and trans folks take on the project of telling Midwest stories of not fitting into the enforced normalness; yearning for another life in a big city; a restlessness and worry about unfulfilled potential – we are apt protagonists of those stories.

There’s an incredible book that I want to cite for the idea of Midwest stories in media as an archetype of the white American imagination– meaning the perception of the Midwest as a solely white, middle-class, virtuous, normal place is a perfect blank canvas for the country (and by extension, the globe) to project its ideas of the ideal or common American onto. In the book Imagining the Heartland: White Supremacy and the American Midwest, several popular media moments are analyzed to support the claim that the Midwest is viewed as – and as a response, acts as – a region of innocent white people, and that when quintessential Midwest characters are portrayed in movies and television, there are recurring themes that emphasize the development, relatability, or precarious situation of that character.

One of the primary examples covered in the book includes horror movies, and a genre-based tactic to emphasize the scariness of a horror villain by setting these stories of cold-blooded killers in Midwest, suburban-coded, quiet neighborhoods full of sweet families and their innocent children. Sound familiar?

This is the premise of horror movies like Nightmare on Elm St., in which Freddy Krueger corrupted teenage dreams in the fictional town of Springwood, Ohio; the Halloween movies, where Michael Myers chased babysitters in the semi-fictional town of Haddonfield, Illinois; or even more modern examples like the plights of Bill Byers and the other Stranger Things kiddos who are trying to protect their made up town of Hawkins, Indiana. The plotlines, character development, dramatic effects, and other conceptual elements of these film and streaming serieses are subliminally charged with racialized and politicized meaning because of the placement of these stories in middle-class Midwest predominantly white environments.

These tropes don’t appear in classic and contemporary horror and thriller films by coincidence. They are borrowed and built upon as the classic films are viewed as industry standards and the trope of placing menacing killers into the innocent neighborhoods of Midwest towns continues to scare the shit out of people. These tropes are so interlocking and intentional, for example, that Robert Englund, the actor who played the infamous Freddy Krueger character, made a cameo in Stranger Things 4 as the primary villain's father.

Of course, there are easily other horror classics that play off the small town, rural, or white-inoccence tropes, but there’s a unique pattern that exists for how Midwestness seems to drive entire plotlines and adds to the sinisterness of the villains.

These visual media examples get a lot of this scare and suspense power out of the idea that dangerous things can’t happen in a town like this – a deceptive euphemism to say these towns are untouched by extensive criminal activity, public displays of violence, or other “unsavory behaviors” – all of which are used to refer to a far-off “other” place where such dangerous events do happen, such as in the racialized big cities or low income housing areas. And then there’s the added element that the victims of these knife-carrying, dream-disrupting, or alien-like killers are children, and of course, primarily white children.

The ultimate stand-in for the face of America's youth, what better casting choice than to position young, suburban Midwest children as being mercilessly hunted down and killed by a mysterious, elusive bad guy on their way home from school or playing Dungeons and Dragons in the basement? How dare these monsters interrupt the serene, uneventful picket-fence facade of small town America?

Queer and trans people in the Midwest have a deep, embodied knowledge of what it feels like to be perceived as monsters interrupting the normal, run-of-the-milll, god-fearing image of small town America. Our lives don’t align with the manufactured image of the Midwest as America’s heartland, therefore we threaten convention, tradition, power, patriarchy, whiteness. As a result, our history is scattered with abysmal acts of violence derived from the conditioned need for small-town America to uphold its reputation and get rid of anything that threatens that image.

In Jack Halberstam’s 2005 book “In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives,” he takes a detailed look at the public characterization of Brandon Teena in the aftermath of his brutal murder on December 31, 1993 in rural Falls City, Nebraska. Ultimately, through documentary films, novels, and mass media depictions of the murders, Halberstam believes the death of Brandon Teena became fodder for a media commentary on rural America supported by the stereotypes of homophobic rural areas. By analyzing popular media influenced by Brandon’s murder, Halberstam makes a solid point that the impact of Brandon’s death was taken up as an urban queer call to action in demanding rights for trans people because it affirmed the held belief that violence against queer and trans people of such magnitude happens quote-out-there– aka far away from the city and beyond the assumed safety of growingly gay urban living.

In his book, Jack says:

[quote] Not only does Brandon represent a martyr lost in the struggle for transgender rights to the brutal perpetrators of rural hetero-masculine violences, Brandon also serves as a marker for a particular set of late-twentieth-century cultural anxieties about place, space, locality, and metropolitanism. Brandon represents other rural lives undone by fear and loathing, and his story also symbolizes an urban fantasy of homophobic violence as essentially midwestern [end quote]

Essentially, the fear of rural living as a restrictive, cishetnormative hellscape is affirmed in the urban gay and lesbian hivemind through the projection of their fears onto Brandon Teena’s death – they are both mortified and unsurprised that something like this would happen in rural Nebraska.

Halberstam tackles a documentary style film called The Brandon Teena Story in his analysis of media about Brandon’s death, and he says that the way Nebraska is discussed in the film, it becomes its own character, and ultimately serves as a caricature of Midwest white rural America.

Of the documentary, Halberstam says: [quote] For queers who flee the confines of the rural Midwest and take comfort in urban anonymity, this video may serve as justification of their worst fears about the violent effects of failing to flee; closer readings of Brandon’s story, however, reveal the desire shared by many midwestern queers for a way of staying rather than leaving [quote]

Halberstam doesn’t necessarily make value statements about these urban queer fears – certainly these are rooted in real and perceived experiences of discrimination, mistreatment, and violence – but he points out important patterns in the media coverage and eventual pop culture adaptations about the story of Brandon’s murder that reveal lessons about the dynamic of urban and rural queerness and assumptions about rural queer living.
By framing the rural town of Falls City, Nebraska as basically a protagonist with internal conflicts, Jack Halberstam asserts that it’s both important and influential that Brandon Teena’s murder was carried out in the rural Midwest and also, that there’s some risks to categorizing Teena’s murder as an inevitable or solely Midwest possibility.

I bring up this excellent text to draw a connection to a) the scarepower of placing horror movie villains in small, quiet middle-class neighborhoods in Ohio, Illinois or Indiana and b) the commonly held fear of urban queers that rural spaces are death traps because of a strongly upheld stereotype that the rural Midwest is both more hostile to queer people and behind the times socially and technologically.

These contradictory assumptions, that the Midwest is both a site of pristine sanctuary and a danger zone of uneducated violent hicks, is a tiny thread that once you start pulling reveals far more contradictions in the fabric of our national leverage of the Midwest as the poster-child of virtue, hard work, and family values. But what lingers after thinking about horror movies and true crime documentaries is a view of the Midwest as a place to escape if you’re any shade of queer.

Are you a friend of Dorothy? Yes, I do mean Dorothy Gale, the wanderlust driven Kansan girl who gets swept up in a tornado and plopped in the land of Oz. Asking this question, “are you a friend of Dorothy?” propagated within gay communities especially in the 50s and 60s as a covert way of determining or communicating one's sexual orientation and is one of many ways the 1939 film “Wizard of Oz” has situated itself in gay culture.

In Imagining the Heartland, and widely considered in other media and research, Dorothy Gale’s adamancy about leaving Kansas, her adventures in Oz, and her eventual return to “no place like home” has been analyzed for themes that connect the plotline of yearning for another place than the boring small town life of farmland in the Midwest to her relatability with a broader audience. Cinematic choices in the Wizard of Oz film emphasize the false dichotomy between rural normalness and metropolitan exuberance by portraying the portions of the film set in Kansas in black-and-white while the time spent in the land of Oz is bright, vibrant and colorful.

Gay communities did not have to try too hard to retrofit the Wizard of Oz as an allegory for the common urge to leave the mundanity of small or even suburban living for the assumed freedom and acceptance of a big, bustling city. Movie star Judy Garland, who was born in Grand Rapids, Minnesota (a small northern town), portrayed this embattled character who lusts after a life where “the dreams you dare to dream really do come true” and spoke right to the heart of queer and trans existence and the common experiences of feeling ostracized, unfulfilled, or out of place.

The Wizard of Oz has largely been adopted as a campy, queer iconic film and imagery from its lore can be found in drag shows, tattoos on elder gays, references in modern queer media. In other words, gay communities have adopted it as our own. And similarly to Halbertam’s assertion that Brandon Teena’s murder taking place in the Midwest plays a significant role in how a larger audience consumed the media coverage trying to tell his story, this concept of place as character applies to Dorothy’s situationship with Kansas and how consumers metabolize Dorothy’s predicament.

Of course she wants to escape this drab, intentionally grayed out, painfully normal place called Kansas. There isn’t even a clear idea of where in Kansas Dorothy’s farm is located, but the humdrum, middle of the country aesthetic of the idea of Kansas, is enough to drive the plotline in which audiences are rooting for Dorothy to step out of this dreary place, and queer audiences especially are able to sympathize with the desire to go to this magical place Dorothy describes, somewhere over the rainbow.

The song Somewhere Over the Rainbow, popularized by Judy Garland’s iteration in the Wizard of Oz and covered numerous times in the decades since, really synthesizes the internal battle Dorothy is experiencing, in which she desires a place without worry, without restrictions, and instead full of color and possibilities. This song captures a relatable earnestness to break out from the averageness of daily life and strive for another existence, somewhere out there that’s different from the boring, normalness one may be experiencing in the there and now. Had this song been produced outside of the context of the film, in which Dorothy delivers this stunning song almost as a plea to leave Kansas, or if Midwest-born starlet Judy Garland wasn’t cast in the role of Dorothy, it would be interesting to see how much staying power and familiarity this song would have circa the 2020s.

Again, merely situating this film in Kansas emphasizes the characters desires and a general (albeit predominantly white) audience is able to make connections because those desires mirror their own. Between horror movies, well-documented trans deaths, and cult blockbuster films, there is a discernible pattern in which the Midwest amplifies, contextualizes, obfuscates, and dictates how audiences will consume and connect to these media. For Midwest queer and trans audiences, we are doubly impacted by the widespread (mis)perceptions of the Midwest region as we can both sympathize with stories, both fictional and true, as well as contribute to a widening understanding of what is possible in the Midwest. By adding our narrative to the larger queer and trans archive, we enter the chat carrying the weight of Midwest assumptions, held beliefs about rural living (because Midwest is often used synonymously with rural, even if we live in micro- or metropolitan areas), and the broadly relatable experience of being queer and trans in the US.

Because of our abilities to enrich conversations and considerations of queer and trans existence, it is no wonder that music, writing, symbolism, and other media conjured in the Midwest has such resonance among queer and trans people worldwide.

In the short story collection “The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer,” singer, actress and writer Janelle Monae collaborates with numerous authors to convey Afrofuturistic stories about communal living, data mining, gender exploration, artificial intelligence and community memory to dream about complex, imperfect futures and the queer and trans folks of color who occupy them. The worlds and interactions depicted in these short stories take place in a wider array of geographical locations, but it’s important to take note of Janelle Monae’s background to understand where her appetite for imagining new, expansive worlds first began.

Born in Kansas City, Kansas and raised by a working class family outside of the city, Janelle Monae has spoken on growing up in a blue-collar class dynamic, saying [quote] “there was a lot of confusion and nonsense where I grew up, so I reacted by creating my own little world… I began to see how music could change lives, and I began to dream about a world where everyday was like anime and Broadway, where music fell from the sky and anything could happen [end quote]

From the curious mind of a young Monae, their incredible talent and imagination has bloomed into a stunning discography of sensual, seductive lyrics and steamy, sapphic music videos, spurred by their experiences growing up in Kansas. She’s even cited Ms. Dorothy Gale herself as a musical influence, and her boldly queer styling is incredibly memorable, such as donning vag-shaped pants in her 2018 “Pynk” music video or sexually suggestive scenes with cigars and butch lesbians in her 2023 video for “Lipstick Lover.” These interrelated influences of being raised in the Midwest and emerging into their queerness are important backstories to the musical and visual artistry Janelle has offered queer and trans communities for years.

But unlike Dorothy Gale, Janelle Monae isn’t a simple white girl on a farm in Kansas. Her story includes the inherent racialization and experiences of systemic racism custom of being a Black person in the US. It’s not lost on me and many other viewers that while Monae’s artwork is a direct and important form of representation for queer and trans folks broadly, and queer and trans folks of color specifically, there are intersecting barriers that keep Janelle from being lauded in quite the same way as mainstream white music artists in similar genres.

Could this be rooted in a double-bind that assumes Black queer people don’t exist in the Midwest? Does Janelle’s story fall too outside of the rural American imagination of a white rural Midwest to be legible and relatable to white queer and trans communities? The patterns documented throughout the books and cultural moments I’ve referenced in this episode definitely support this possibility, and speaks to a current-day need to continue combating anti-Blackness and racism inherent in media industries overall. Because Janelle’s story, shared through her multi-media appearances in music, film, and fictional stories of memory librarians and androids, is part of a rich, underappreciated project of documenting Midwest queer and trans existence.

As I was researching for this episode, I learned that throughout Chappell’s tour, she has coordinated with local drag queens to open her shows and that the same day Tennessee lawmakers passed an effective ban on drag performances in public spaces, she was performing with her drag guests in Nashville. Which really puts in perspective what we stand to lose with the continued passing of anti-queer and - trans policies. Lawmakers in Midwest states like North Dakota, Iowa, and Missouri have voted in favor of bills that inhibit queer and trans existence. At the same time, officials in Midwest states like Minnesota are formulating bills that correlate with an executive order denoting the state as a Trans Refuge, and slowly, state legislators are building up the meaning of that designation with resources and protections.

Midwest queer and trans stories are a strong pulse of shared struggle, a barometer for how the deepest impacts of interlocking oppressions and injustices can play out. We are often hit first, and fastest, because we are a clean slate that holds America’s identity together and if there are any threats to that national identity, anxious forces in the form of white patriarchal cishetnormativity will do whatever it takes to weed out that threat.

Whatever one can imagine happens quote “out there” is already happening right here. We don’t have to imagine scenarios in which folks have to flee their homes, change their ways of living, have their healthcare and education and jobs interrupted – that’s already happening here. We are America’s scapegoat and as long as national powers treat the Midwest as a goldmine of American Dream-ing Midwest queer and trans dreams are occupied with ways to get “out of here” but the “out” can’t always be relocation; restructuring/redesigning/reestablishing needs to be on the table more often; people can’t avoid the midwest, condemn the midwest, and expect it to grow into anything more than the stereotype it already does a damn good job of self-actualizing. Queer and trans folks live here, and we intend to stay.

In the aftermath of Winter Storm Uri, which ravaged unprepared cities in Texas with record-breaking snowfall and low temperatures, I encountered quite a few posts across social media essentially saying this was an inevitable fate for Texans for quote choosing to live in red states. I’ve since seen a similar post and comments that said [quote] “The Red States are Red Hot. Good.” For me, this feels like condemning entire populations of people to the worst impacts of climate change we have yet to see simply because of the politics of their state. And if this pattern of designating those who live in states that have anti-progressive, violent legislation on the books to bear the burden of unprecedented climate events, we’re in trouble.

A similar attitude presented itself around the 2016 MBLGTACC host location, Indiana. Prior to being a tyrant in the White House, former Vice President Mike Pence was delivering evil in the form of signing a Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law as Governor of Indiana. This bill essentially permitted discrimination against LGBTQ people under the guise of religious freedom and was adopted in 2015. Student planners of the conference and volunteer staff of the freshly formed Midwest Institute for Sexuality and Gender Diversity received comments voicing concerns about attending a conference in Indiana in light of this discriminatory bill. While the concerns were well-fielded and rooted in legitimate worries about safety, we never considered relocating the 2016 conference. Because to strip the opportunity away from these student planners to hold intentional space for hundreds of young queer and trans attendees and showcase how queer and trans communities in Indiana were grappling with this political landscape would have added insult to injury. Meaning, to shy away from going where the work is most needed at that moment is not a solidarity practice.

We are capable of being far more creative when it comes to safety planning during our queer gatherings. We have an innate skill at doing so, because our entire lives are predicated on keeping ourselves safe. To avoid going to sites of immense queer struggle to make important connections with the impacted communities in those locations plays into the urban/national fears that assume rural/Midwest living is synonymous with precarity and inevitable violence. These overstated fears risk contributing to under-resourced rural areas and conceding that those who live there will inevitably be met with anti-queer violence, and it will be both mortifying and unsurprising, because that’s what you get for living in the Midwest. Right?

During Take the Last Bite Season Two, I chatted with a friend and colleague who stepped out of a career in higher education and into the world of music. In my interview with Cuee Wright, a Black trans hip hop artist who has doled out catchy queer statement pieces such as “Proud Boi” and has collabed with drag queen powerhouses such as Silky Nutmeg Ganache, I asked Cuee about his emergence into queer and trans existence by way of writing and performing music.

In our chat, Cuee shared [quote] I am from Chicago, but Lawrence [Kansas] made me the musician I am today. And I hold that heavy to my heart.” He went on to talk about how the concept of community, both the localized experience of building a strong support system in Kansas, and also the experience of playing his music for a queer audience, has motivated him to center and prioritize queer and trans people in his music-making. He talked about the process of working with Silky Nutmeg Ganache on the song “Silky” and how she challenged him to share himself with the queer and trans community. Cuee shared [quote] “she was really just like, own yourself. Do it. Put it in the music. People are waiting for you. There’s somebody out there, Cuee, waiting for you. [end quote].

When I think about this exchange with Cuee, which was about two years ago now, I hear from him an experience of going from writing music for a broader hip-hop fandom to distilling his musical storytelling to reach a queer and trans audience while being bolstered and informed by his various experiences being born in Chicago and coming into his queerness and transness in Kansas. For me, the influence of his Midwest upbringings are inseparable from his musical acumen and his storytelling power. And I sense that his growing abilities to engage and connect with a queer and trans audience is strengthened by the influence of Midwest queer and trans existence on the stories he tells, it makes them relatable, urgent, interesting, and supports a rich archive of place-based narrative building.

It makes sense, based on a socially sustained logic, that the Midwest continues to be viewed as a wasteland of unfulfilled potential and broken dreams. That logic is challenged when we observe the throughline of Midwest queer and trans storytelling in music and other media that conveys imaginative, tantalizing, multicultural community-based big ideas that can only be told by those of us who carry the embodied knowledge of being pinned beneath the weight of America’s ideas about the region as well as the complexity of being queer and trans circa 2024.

Chappell Roan carries that embodied knowledge and has a unique, powerful position to provide a resonating, familiar idea to a wide audience of young, primarily queer and trans people who are activated by the stories of this Midwest Princesses rise and fall. I feel confident that the combination of Chappell’s campy, bold tour aesthetic, her fantastical scene-setting through her songs, and her experience of overcoming intangible barriers in both the Midwest and the music industry make her a prime protagonist in the continuing story of queer and trans struggle worldwide.

I similarly think about Cuee’s projects and his personal insight about his musical journey so far in relation to the fantastical, futuristic, complex, not-quite-utopian but oh-so-appealing fictional worlds created through Jannelle Monae’s music and her short story collection. When we take cues from folks like Cuee and Monae (which, for the record I’d like to speak into existence a universe where those folks share the same stage), we can generate ideas and pathways toward shifting our current existences into different ways of being.

We can stay where we are by imagining new worlds, and make the places we long for, the places we already are.


Our inbox is open for all of your insight, feedback, questions, boycotts, memes and other forms of written correspondence. You can contact us at lastbite@sgdinstitute.org. This podcast is made possible by the labor and commitment of the Midwest Institute for Sexuality and Gender Diversity staff. Particular shout out to Justin, Andy and Nick for all of your support with editing, promotion and production. Our amazing and queer as fuck cover art was designed by Adrienne McCormick.