Book Review: ‘Small Town Gay: Growing Up Different in the South’

By Joshua Brown

Logan Lee’s travel-journal-turned-memoir recounts the author’s formative years as a queer Kentuckian. Lee’s authorial voice reads smooth and warm, like an afternoon visit from a good friend. This personal tone serves his twofold goal for the book: offering a “guidebook” for young people on similar journeys of discovery, and to “serve as a resource” for their loved ones who may not understand.

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A chronicle of stories from childhood to present, Small Town Gay revels in the details of life in the fictitious town of Mercer, KY — and the joy of Lee’s work really is in these details. From pranks endured at the hands of big sister Leanne, through grade-school friends and early-adult lovers, Small Town Gay creates an intimate time-warp of memories. We follow Lee’s growth through his own eyes, as the subject acting out these memories and the voice describing them constantly approach convergence. 

Throughout the book’s 20-odd-year span, we greet and pass by a battalion of women: family members, teachers, friends, girlfriends, mentors. The male figures of Lee’s memory are his father and fellow queer men. Straight men are largely represented as forbidden fruit (the “eye candy” at an eighth-grade dance) or antagonists (the throng of horny Toms and Brians in the middle school cafeteria, the “popular boys” at the talent show). These gender dynamics — codified by ideas of compulsory heterosexuality — set the stage for several emotional queer breakthroughs toward the novel’s end.

As a fairly young queer — with close to a decade between me and my own coming-out — I’m far enough away to forget some of the emotional agony of living that lie-by-omission, but close enough that Lee’s clammy hands and half-hearted bisexuality feels very close to home. The topic of coming out is the narrative spine of the book. Though each discrete moment has a definite topic of its own, Small Town Gay is full of smaller comings-out that undergird the climactic parental confessions (often considered The coming out). Lee is called a faggot by boys at lunch, a trauma that drives him to cross the gender-segregated middle school cafeteria and sit with his female friends. Lee’s “last girlfriend” Chloe Evans very obviously wanted to kiss during a movie, but he gives very little ground and the moment dies. A nice girl asks Lee to dance; he agrees, but wonders if people “could tell that [he] was gay and faking it.” These small comings-out illustrate the role of sexuality in American culture — taboo, yet intrinsic to so many interactions heterosexuals might take for granted. 

All in all, Logan Lee’s Small Town Gay is a touching and enjoyable read. With accessible prose and relentless positivity, Lee’s work is well positioned to illuminate the experience of queer Kentuckians far and wide. 

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