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USC Professor Rethinks Suburban Life in New Book

USC Dornsife's Karen Tongson is the author of the new book <em>Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries</em>.
USC Dornsife's Karen Tongson is the author of the new book Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries.

USC professor Karen Tongson likes to point out that “queer life happens everywhere.”

Even in the suburbs.

In the course of researching her new book, Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (New York University Press), Tongson found that the suburbs are attracting gay couples and immigrants who are making a mark on the region’s cookie-cutter image.

“It tells us about where America is now,” Tongson said. “While the housing crisis signaled the end of the suburban dream, subdivisions are being customized and developing a life of their own in ways very unexpected from the purpose these spaces were originally meant to serve: to create havens for white, middle-class, heterosexual nuclear families.”

Tongson, associate professor of English and gender studies in USC Dornsife, delves deep into the mythology and stereotypes of surburbia with a focus on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) lifestyles.

“The common perception throughout most of the 20th century was that [LGBTQ people] needed to move to a big city for [their] well-being. Cities would offer a more fulfilling, ‘safer’ cosmopolitan lifestyle for sexual minorities.”

She noted that not all LGBTQ people grow up in urban environments.

“Nor do they always have the option — or desire — to move to a thriving metropolis in order to live the lives they want to lead,” Tongson said. “I wanted to explore what it means to become gay in the suburbs. To find creative ways of coming to terms with an environment that may not always be amenable to the way you look, interact, behave. And yet I also wanted to imagine this relationship to the suburbs as something that isn’t necessarily adversarial.”

In one chapter, Tongson focuses on the Inland Empire, the area just east of Orange and Los Angeles counties, and covers the boom and bust history of the area that started with its founding and continues today.

“There’s something stubborn about the Inland Empire; it always regenerates,” Tongson said.

Tongson, who grew up in Riverside, remembers it as a city where it required effort to find alternative scenes and culture — a location with few jobs and fewer services. It was a difficult region for someone who was different, and yet it offered surprising resources and possibilities for community, she said.

Young men and women, Tongson noted, couldn’t wait to escape the suburbs to live in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco. Until they found their way to these gay meccas, they would find refuge in places like Studio K at Knott’s Berry Farm, which attracted gay crowds in the middle of conservative Orange County.

Today the less expensive suburbs are attracting a diverse group of people from different ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds and sexual orientations.

“This is really about rethinking the suburbs,” Tongson said. “Formerly it was thought the suburbs couldn’t possibly nurture LGBTQ people, their lives and their creative aspirations. People think that only now do the suburbs have the potential to be rich with culture and possibility, yet my book makes an effort to show that these creative interventions were happening all along in a place where it wasn’t supposed to happen.”