Brent Schanding, Bourbon County
What does the word queer mean to you? How do you identify?
For me, “queer” is anything different, alternative, out of the norm. It’s a counterculture — a way of life that’s on the fringe of what’s socially acceptable. As a person who’s always felt on the periphery, queer is an identity I’ve long embraced since I came out as a raucous Gen-X teenager in the 90s. I actually told my mom I was gay when I was 16, just after I’d been arrested for shoplifting. I had been running an underground retail operation out of my locker at school where I’d sell stolen clothes and accessories to my classmates. It was a pretty sophisticated business operation — I even took checks, haha!
On our long drive home from jail, I blurted out to my mother that I was gay. I reasoned she would have to deal with the larger issue of my sexuality instead of focusing on my punishment. I still got punished.
Also, I should note that I no longer shoplift, but I’m still very mischievous and have the brain of a hustling entrepreneur.
Where are you originally from and explain how was it growing up/living in Kentucky?
I grew up on a tobacco/horse/cattle farm in rural Bourbon County, about 30+ miles northeast of Lexington. I spent many of my summers barefoot, looking for flint rocks in fields, climbing trees, swimming in ponds and breaking green beans with my mammaw at the picnic table in her front yard.
We were very poor — probably below the poverty line at the time — but my brother and I didn’t know it because our mammaw largely insulated us from the social ills that often come with being at the bottom of the socioeconomic totem pole.
She used to tell us, “Just because you’re poor, doesn’t mean you have to be dirty.” She would scrub me in the bathtub and ferociously wash my head to the point that I’m now convinced most of my hair loss is because of her abrasive grooming techniques.
Growing up, my family went to church every Sunday; mom played piano and my mammaw prepared the bread and wine (actually it was Welch’s grape juice because the congregation was some conservative offshoot of Southern Baptists). One of my favorite childhood memories is hanging out with my mom and mammaw after church as they bussed the communion trays. My brother and I would “shoot” the remaining cups of grape juice and pretend like we were drunk at a bar!
Growing up in rural Kentucky, I often felt very isolated from civilization. We lived pretty far away from everything and if a family member was going into town, I was running to jump in the car to tag along. My FOMO was real.
I was the first kid on the school bus in the morning and the last kid off the bus in the afternoon, and the ride usually took well more than an hour.
Often I’d stand in the small space that separated my bus driver’s seat from the rest of the passengers and braid my bus driver’s hair while she drove us down bumpy country roads. Her name was Peggy George and she was more like a mentor/therapist/spiritual guru for an 8-year-old queer kid than a bus driver.
We had very adult conversations and she was probably the first person to see me for who I truly was without passing judgment.
What would you say to any person struggling to come into their own identity?
We all feel like imposters sometimes. The struggle to find a sense of belonging is universal. But I’d encourage people to focus on defining their core values. Set ambitious goals and do whatever it takes to crush them. Try to live a life of joy and happiness. Each night, examine your day and ask yourself if it was a day you’d be willing to live again based on the choices you made.
If not, you have the power to make different choices. Too often, we let others dictate our identities based on who we think they want us to be. If people see you as a failure, you’ll likely live up to those expectations unless you stay focused on your own success. We must live intentionally and not allow others to create the narrative of our life. As a queer youth, I learned early to dismiss the haters in the hallways who felt I should act or dress a certain way.
When kids called me “fag,” “queer” or “homo” I understood that it was actually a reflection of their own identity as insecure assholes. It had nothing to do with my identity as an empowered punk queer who refused to take shit from anyone.
How does your own identity run how you carry yourself? Or does it?
I think people are layered and complex, so I have several identities: I’m a skeptic, I’m an introvert, I’m an analyzer, I’m a planner, I’m a dreamer, I’m a creator, and I’m a stressed-out anxious mess sometimes … My sexual identity is also a part of who I am. And while being queer definitely influences my politics and worldview, it doesn’t wholly define me as a person. My identity is constantly evolving as I process new experiences and react to them. Though pockmarked and troubled, I wouldn’t trade my past for anything because those experiences have all shaped my current identity. And despite lots of mistakes, I’m pretty OK and still very proud of who I am today. And I feel comfort in knowing that I can always change the me I will be in the future.
What issues do you see in the queer community?
I’m not a spokesperson for the queer community, but I believe our issues largely mirror those in greater society: Poverty, addiction, violence, discrimination, security, to name a few. The queer community is a microcosm of the larger community, so to me, it’s not “our issues” vs. “their issues” — it’s simply “issues.” As humans, we must all work together to resolve our problems for the betterment of humanity.
What do you think would solve those issues?
Empathy, patience, understanding, communication and maybe a little bit of cannabis.
Do you feel excluded from the “mainstream” queer community? Why or why not?
Yes, but often that’s because I have problems with allowing myself to feel vulnerable. I’ve also never wanted to fit in with the “mainstream.” I’ve always been pretty independent.
I’m not going to adapt or assimilate to join mainstream society if it means compromising who I am or any of my core values. No one should. This means I’m often outside the “inner circles” — but that’s a very comfortable place for me to be these days.
Where do you feel “at your best” (safe, happy, fabulous, comfortable, etc)
As a journalist, I often feel safe in newsrooms, surrounded by other freethinkers who are questioning the “whos, whats and whys” of our society in an effort to make sense of the crazy times we live in. I jive with idealists. I love hanging out in coffee shops with artists, philosophers, intellectuals and those who are interested in talking about ways to change the world. I also love being surrounded by nature and plants — being alone in a botanical gardens can definitely help reset my batteries. I also feel comfortable in chaos and unfamiliar settings. I love traveling to new, foreign places where I don’t speak the language because it’s very humbling. The more I learn about different people, places and cultures, the better I am at responding and adapting to adversity.
Who influenced the life you live now?
Also, I’ve always been motivated by critics and doubters. When someone doubts I can do something, it makes me more determined to do it. Proving haters wrong is like flipping them a hard middle finger — and sometimes being able to succeed and do that feels really good!