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Queer utopias, real and imagined
The modern #cottagecore queer TikTok trend stems from a decades-old movement where queer women attempted to escape heteronormative patriarchy by building rural communes. But what does it mean when these once-physical spaces move online?
By McKenzie Schwark | Paid subscribers can listen to a version of this piece read by McKenzie on our podcast.
When I came out, before I knew anything about acrylic nails, Fletcher’s ex-girlfriend’s new girlfriend, or U-Hauls, I already knew about the longing. There is an endless amount of longing in lesbian lore. It seems lesbians are wont to long. That’s why they keep making four-hour-long movies where two women pine for each other somewhere by the sea, and no one goes down on anyone until maybe the last fifteen minutes.
Love isn’t all we long for, though. There also seems to be a distinct lesbian longing to go back to the land. Before coming out, I picked up a copy of Wild Mares: My Lesbian Back-To-The-Land Life by Dianna Hunter, a memoir that chronicles Hunter’s experience growing up as a feminist lesbian in Minot — the same town in North Dakota where I spent most of my childhood Thanksgivings — and recounts her experiences living on various farms and communes run by fellow queer people.
The farms and communes across which Hunter roamed were part of the “womyn’s land movement”, a movement made up largely of queer women who established rural feminist utopias as “places to escape the patriarchy”. At the time, life for single women was difficult — it was common to be denied credit cards, bank loans, and purchases like cars and houses — and queer women had to keep their sexuality hush-hush. Some felt alienated by both the growing women’s rights and gay rights movements, which they perceived as either homophobic or misogynistic.
So they set about creating their own space. At its peak, the movement had established about 150 communities across the United States, and their goals were ambitious. As Hunter describes:
They [women’s land collectives] focused mostly on political reasons for living with women on the land, reasons like empowering ourselves; healing from the physical and psychological injuries inflicted on us by patriarchy; living in ways that didn’t harm the environment; bonding with sisters; saying no to the war machine; and experimenting with romance and sex without ownership, male dominance, or routine female submission.
Women in these communities lived largely off the land, growing their own food, milking their own cows, and fixing their own pipes. The communities were important spaces in which lesbian women were able to link up, both romantically and platonically, into networks that scarcely existed before. Many functioned as cooperatives, and the absence of the male gaze meant that “women often comfortably lounged around the premises in various states of undress”. Things weren’t perfect — harsh winter winds chafed community members dry and the women occasionally broke each other’s hearts — but these places were safe.
As I read Wild Mares, I found myself daydreaming of this kind of life. Did these lesbian dairy farmers have it all figured out? My friends and I had always joked about pooling our savings to buy a little property and a couple of cows, in hopes of finding some kind of better life, one where we didn’t spend most of our time hunched over our laptops, agonizing over the exclamation points in emails that didn’t matter, just to make enough money to rent apartments with ant problems that our landlords blamed us for, and to escape on weekends to bars and concerts where there was always a chance of a mass murderer turning up with a gun. It was impossible not to dream of something different. Plus, we already looked the part. Heavy lace-up boots, beanies, blunt-cut bangs, bandanas tied like ascots, flannels tucked into high-waisted jeans overlaid with denim jackets — if I’d scrolled through the photos of women in these collectives on Instagram instead of seeing them in the pages of Wild Mares, I could’ve easily mistaken them for my generational kin.
But even if we decided to give it all up for a life on the land, the opportunities to do so would be slim. Nowadays, many of these rural communities, like the Huntington Open Women’s Land (HOWL) in Vermont and Alapine in Alabama, are dying out — their members are ageing, being taken from the land by knee and hip replacements, and no one is coming to replace them. The reasons for this are myriad. Starting a decade or so ago, HOWL began to accept anyone who identifies as a woman, but other spaces have remained trans-exclusive, putting off younger members from joining. With today’s economic pressures, fewer people can afford to give it all up for a life of manual labour on the land (which is one of the reasons these communities were primarily founded by middle-class white women in the first place). It’s also become somewhat easier to move through the world as a queer, femme-presenting person, making this kind of dramatic sequestering from society less necessary and less appealing.
It turned out, though, that I didn’t have to look much further than my phone screen to go back to the land. During the onset of the pandemic in 2020, you couldn’t be even slightly queer-coded on TikTok without being absolutely flooded with content labelled “cottagecore”. For months, my “For You” page was awash with queer, feminine people living in perfect little woodland cottages.
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There are millions of videos and views under hashtags like #cottagecorequeer, #cottagecorelesbian, and #offgridgays. They showcase mostly white, mostly femme-presenting people lying in the grass together, sipping tea, baking cakes, and caring for animals. The motifs are dreamy: delicate floral patterns, rosy cheeks, instrumental music playing in the background. It’s a very different image than the at-times rugged reality Hunter describes in Wild Mares, but it seemed like living through a global pandemic while trapped in a capitalistic hellscape had young people, especially young queer people, dreaming of an entirely different kind of life. A select few made that dream a reality, whisking their wives off to greener pastures, while the rest of us curated a fantasy world online.
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Today’s cottagecore relies more heavily on aesthetic than action. Whereas the lesbian separatists took their fantasies of utopia and tried to make them real, cottagecore lesbians mostly let their fantasies play out online. This online world-building is both a nod to the lesbian separatist movement and indicative of a new generation of queer people. In a Youtube video titled Why is Cottagecore so Gay? user Rowan Ellis says, “For queer and sapphic women, [cottagecore] allows them to imagine a space without homophobia, fear and judgement, that doesn’t feel like a banishment but instead a specifically curated paradise.”
We need this curated paradise because, in many ways, things still suck. While society is more progressive than it was during the heydays of the womyn’s land movement, queer rights are newly under unprecedented attack. Throughout 2022, legislators filed over 200 anti-LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer and/or questioning) bills in the United States. Many of those bills specifically targeted young trans people. Alabama, Florida, and Texas have all introduced legislation that criminalizes gender-affirming care for young people. “Don’t Say Gay” bills have been proposed in more than a dozen states, and the precedent set by the overturning of Roe v. Wade may eventually threaten the right to same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court is currently poised to side with a Colorado-based web designer who is suing in advance of opening her business for the right to refuse to create websites for gay weddings. All of this has been enough that an independent UN human rights expert recently warned that the rights of LGBTQ people are being “deliberately undermined by some state governments in the United States”.
Along with rural communities, other traditionally lesbian spaces are quickly disappearing. In 2021, only about 21 lesbian bars remained in the United States, a steep decline from the over 200 lesbian bars that existed by the 1980s. Some reasons for this are positive, like the potential for queer people to connect through dating apps. But others are more insidious, like gentrification, transphobia, racism, and persistent gender wage gaps. (In The Feminist City, geographer Leslie Kern quotes a DJ interviewed on the disappearance of lesbian spaces in Toronto: “It’s just a fact that two women together are going to have less income, disposable income, to drop at a club, to keep it open. And that’s white women we’re talking about, that’s not even people of colour.”)
Places that still exist are under increased threat. Hate crimes against gay people continue to rise, and communal spaces like gay bars and drag shows are targets for homophobic hate crimes. On November 20th, 2022, five people were killed at Club Q in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The night before the club was set to host a drag brunch for a trans day of remembrance, a man with an assault rifle opened fire on its patrons.
“This is our only safe space here in the Springs,” a patron told a local reporter outside the club on Sunday morning. “What are we gonna do now? Where are we gonna go?”
Where are we gonna go? The cost of living in cities, which have been historically more welcoming to queer people, is astronomically high. Many parts of the world are increasingly unsafe. Rural utopias are mostly out, for the aforementioned reasons of inaccessibility and infeasibility. The forces of oppression feel impenetrable, except maybe in our online fantasies where we can live out our days picking flowers in gauzy dresses while our beautiful partners are somewhere in the forest chopping wood to put on a pot of tea.
Fantasies play an important role in letting us dream of the world we want, and shaping the way we move to create it. But merely passively absorbing those fantasies can anesthetize us, in the same way that dipping out from society to form our own rural utopias can prevent us from agitating for wider change. (In 2019, a resident of the women’s Alpine community told The New York Times, “I don’t want to fight anymore. I’m over going to marches and all that. My solution was to walk away from the patriarchy and not be in those situations, because you’re just banging your head. Why keep doing that?”). We can’t live in TikTok, and we can’t settle for the largely white femme fantasies that TikTok presents us with, the same way we can’t assume that moving en masse back to the land is realistic or possible for much of our community.
We should, however, still be advocating for ourselves, and for the land. Climate change and queer liberation are deeply intertwined. Adverse weather events — heatwaves, hurricanes, cold snaps, floods — disproportionately impact vulnerable communities, particularly the unhoused. In the US, studies have shown that between 20 to 45 percent of houseless youth identify as LGBTQ, at least two to four times higher than the estimated percentage of all youth who identify as LGBTQ. Among young adults, LGBTQ people have nearly twice the risk of being houseless than their straight-identifying counterparts. Beyond these statistics, the patriarchal structures that underpin our capitalist, extractivist economies are the very same that pass bills to control our bodies and restrict how we move through the world.
As the spaces we’ve carved out for ourselves die out or become unsafe, I like to believe it is at least partly because we refuse to be corralled away from society. If we aren’t safe in our most sacred of spaces, then the fight becomes making everywhere safe and accessible, making every place one where young queer people can live out the lives they’ve imagined. We need to keep fighting with the same ambition as Hunter and her associates: death to the patriarchy, no to environmental wreckage, and goodbye to the war machine. Only we need to do it in a space greater than a 50-acre farm, and a six-inch phone screen.
McKenzie Schwark is a writer living in Chicago whose work focuses on reproductive health, chronic illness, and health as a feminist issue. For more, visit mckenzieschwark.com or find her at @schwarkattack.