Long Reads on Community, Isolation, and Tolerance

For the weekend, two of the best articles I’ve read in awhile—about a teen killer from rural Indiana, and the isolated subcultures of GLBTQ life in in Boystown.

Two moving articles, of (very broadly) local interest and (very broadly) related subjects.

First, Scott Anderson’s New York Times Magazine cover story on Greg Ousley, an Indiana teen who killed his parents when he was 14 years old, was tried as an adult, and remains in prison at the age of 33. It’s a remarkable piece, in part because of the complex banality of the perpetrator. Ousley is portrayed as neither mentally ill nor psychopathic, so it doesn’t fit easily into the categories we usually define for young killers. This, for instance:

On the one hand, maybe that evening was a sign of better times to come. But weighted against this was a concern so perverse that only an adolescent mind might come up with it: already having a reputation among his friends as a liar, he was sure that if he didn’t do this now, no one would ever believe him about anything again. At about 11:30, he rose from the couch and made for the gun cabinet.

One thing that comes up in Anderson’s piece has particular interest to me—Ousley’s parents are both Appalachian migrants, and their isolation, even by the standards of rural Indiana, is dramatic:

Yet even at a young age, he was aware of the profoundly circumscribed orbit in which his family moved. Sociologists have long noted a tendency among many of the Appalachian transplants to the Midwest to remain separate from the larger community.

I don’t know as much about rural Appalachian transplants, but that was certainly the experience of Appalachians in Chicago, reinforced by a cultural bias (and fear) very similar to that found in the racial conflicts that followed the Great Migration.

It’s that admittedly tenuous connection that reminded me of “Pariahs Amid the Rainbow,” a Reader piece by my new Chicago colleague Elly Fishman, about trans teens (and very young adults) in Boystown. It’s about how a tolerant destination neighborhood for GLBTQ Chicagoans has its own isolated subcultures, and the ad-hoc communities they create in order to get by:

Donahoe also has day and night families. The nighttime kin are the Mattel family, organized according to the model of a “ballroom house"—a kind of underground fraternity that mentors black and Latino gay men through classes and voguing competitions. Each ballroom house is run by at least one “mother” who looks after any number of “children.” The Mattel family has three main mothers, all of whom are black transgender prostitutes. “I don’t know all my Mattel family,’ says Donahoe, “but we all have a stamp—it’s a tattoo.” The tattoo consists of a hexagon about the size of a dollar coin, with the word Mattel at its center. Donahoe’s is on her lower back. “I have upper rank in the family,” Donahoe adds. “I’m the only daughter of Mimi Mattel.”

Previously, Fishman did an in-depth look at the ballroom scene for the Reader:

Like the Finnie Balls, today’s ballroom competitions are partly a response to the fact that poor, black, gay kids have few places where they can mix with Chicago’s broader gay community. Recent violence and protests in Boys Town suggest that that community is as racially and economically segregated as the rest of the city. But with segregation comes congregation, and balls are where gay black kids can find one another.

Tangential, I know, but they’re both excellent explorations of the corrosive effects of isolation, and the coping mechanisms people form as protection from it.

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