Finding and Building Community in Mauston

by | Mar 1, 2024 | 0 comments

  • Kristen Whitson (right) and her wife, Gaia
  • Troy Ullman and Steve Osheim

“My husband and I are having a party—” I didn’t hear anything else the man standing in front of me was saying, because I was so shocked that other gay people existed in rural Mauston, where my wife and I had purchased property the year before. I cut him off: “Wait, your WHO?” “My husband and I,” he continued, “are having a Fourth of July party at our place across the street [my level of disbelief increased] and we have SO MANY roasted chickens, you have to come over and help us eat them.”

We did go to that party, walking down their long driveway with nervousness and anticipation. There were, indeed, a bunch of roasted chickens—along with many people, a Pride flag, a swimming pond with a fountain, commercial-quality fireworks, a DJ, and the nearest neighbors we’d been avoiding for a year.

Moving to Mauston 

Gaia and I bought 11 acres in Mauston in June 2020, which we aptly named the Goddess Gardens. It was, I readily acknowledge, an act borne partially of fear: The pandemic and associated supply chain issues spurred a desire in us to expand the gardening and chicken-raising skills we’d acquired in suburban Madison into personal food security in a rural area. It felt safer to be in charge of our own survival, a prepper mentality I like to believe was on the saner side.

The rest of what I’ll share here is all filtered through that lens of privilege: We are cisgender, able-bodied, white, educated, middle-class people—our only element of marginalization is that we are two women married to each other. Our journey and community-building efforts are undoubtedly made easier by those privileges.

When we bought the property in the throes of an election year, we passed many Trump/Pence 2020 signs on our frequent one-hour drives between Madison and Mauston. The general miasma of fear, insecurity, and isolation that year led us to make the decision to keep to ourselves. We didn’t know how Mauston, the seat of Juneau County, would react to lesbians in their midst—and naively and self-centeredly, we believed ourselves likely to be first, or first out. We’d lean on that oldest of tropes; perhaps neighbors would think we were roommates or even sisters.

Troy, he of the chickens and invitation, blew our hope of staying incognito out of the water. His habit of beginning invitations with “my husband and I” wasn’t limited to us; I’m not sure he’s ever seen the inside of a closet, going back to his club-kid days in the late 80s. Troy has a habit of making connections with everyone in whatever bar he’s in, while his husband Steve—a quieter, steadier presence—strikes up the coherent conversations. Their combined roadshow has brought all of us a greater sense of community, and deeper friendships, than any of us expected.

Able to Build 

Gaia and I built a house on our property in 2022; we keep a few dozen egg-laying chickens, a couple of beehives, a so-so orchard still in its infancy, and a huge garden. We raise and process our own meat chickens, and will start doing the same with feeder pigs in a few years. Steve and Troy do the same at their property, named Camp 54: Chop firewood, raise chickens and guinea hens, grow gardens and trees. We share equipment, homestead duties, help each other at the drop of a hat, and love each other’s pets like our own.

This way of life certainly wouldn’t work for everyone, but it’s not uncommon up here—in fact, our shared abilities to build, grow, chop, butcher, plow, grade, and generally manage the required manual labor seems to smooth any initial awkwardness in conversation. Folks we haven’t met might be taken a little aback by my introduction of my wife, but they forget about that when we start commiserating about the cabbage moths, tent caterpillars, avian flu, and other pests. One of the farmers in Sarah Stellino’s Queering Rural Spaces show said that when you’re farming (or growing things), you kind of forget that you’re queer. Sometimes it feels like the least interesting thing about our life. It’s way more interesting that we successfully harvested 17 pounds of honey last fall!

Likewise, one of many fascinating things about Troy and Steve is the private recreation area they’ve built to share with friends and family. They have a beautiful, naturally filtered swimming pond with a waterfall, decks, and bonfire rings, and a private, fully functioning pub complete with a full bar. It’s the perfect setting for gatherings of our friends and allies, and I’ve never felt as safe as I do floating in that pond on a 90 degree day in August. The entire setup is on private property and is not open to the public, so unexpected visitors are nonexistent.

Out Around Town 

But the time comes to leave the safety of the swimming pond and our fenced-in properties. Troy frequently quotes Harvey Milk when he’s dragging me down to the neighborhood bar: “Come out to your neighbors, to your fellow workers, to the people who work where you eat and shop…Once and for all, break down the myths. Destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake.” That bar, three miles away from our homes, is owned by an extremely supportive straight couple originally from New Jersey.

In June 2022, when a bunch of us pulled up at the bar in the Camp 54 bus, decked out in rainbow gear for the Camp With Pride event, the owners could not have been more thrilled to have us. All the other bar patrons took their cue from the owners and either joined the fun or scooted to the other end of the bar. One of the bar owners took me aside to say forcefully, “You all are very welcome here, and if anyone gives you a hard time, you let me know, and I’ll take care of it.” The New Jersey shone in her eyes like she was spoiling for a fight. We all still visit that bar frequently; Thursday is an informal locals night and we meet more neighbors every week. It’s about as Wisconsin as it gets, to overcome prejudice by getting to know your neighbors over an Old Fashioned and bar dice.

The Juneau County LGBTQ+ community isn’t limited to our two homesteads, not by a long shot. We were astonished to find out that not only were we not the first out lesbians around, but that several folks—mostly gay and lesbian, mostly cisgender—were already well-known and beloved. Richard Kilmer now lives full-time in Wonewoc, and in 2020 was elected to the Juneau County Board of Supervisors. He ran on a sustainable farming and environmental protection platform, issues that went a long way in a county that still supports plenty of large- and small-scale farming operations.

At the local deli, one of the first times we walked in, a man with warm brown eyes and a scruffy goatee offered us a taste of a new pasta salad he was working on. He called himself “the salad queen,” a confirmation to what we’d already guessed about him. Jared tragically passed away last year from complications from a fall on an icy sidewalk; the outpouring of love and support in his memory made it clear that everyone knew exactly who he was and loved him fully.

Our Predecessors 

So far, I’ve painted an accurate but rosy picture of the surprising level of embrace we’ve received up here in Juneau County. But it certainly hasn’t always been this easy. Some of our other new community relations include Cheryl* and Nora* (not their real names), both professionals who worked for local institutions. They’ve been together for 30 years, all of them in Mauston, and the first 20 or so of those years were marked by harassment, vandalism, job threats, discrimination, and pain. They had friends and allies in their jobs and social circles, but the 1980s and 1990s certainly did not see the kind of embrace and acceptance we’re meeting in the community now. I asked them, “Why did you stay here?” and their answer made it feel like it was the most obvious thing in the world: “This was home. Our home is here.”

We know others in Mauston, both single and coupled, who are firmly, permanently, irrevocably in the closet. Given Cheryl and Nora’s experiences with physical harassment and mental and emotional anguish, it’s pretty understandable. Still, to continue to choose to love authentically in the face of that kind of harassment is a continued act of bravery—a determination to create and be home to each other.

A Growing Community 

In what is perhaps the most cliché beginning to a story told by a white lesbian: So there we were at the Brandi Carlile concert in Madison…feeling a tap on our shoulders from the lesbian couple behind us, they said we were cute in our cuddling (we were). We got to talking, we asked where they were from, and they said “We just bought a house in this small town called Mauston.” None of us could believe it.

Alex and Coleen live two miles away from us, and we’ve had the joy of introducing them to the idea that they, too, don’t have to hide—that there is a whole community of us up here. Both Alex and Coleen left toxic situations to create a home together in Mauston, and they also approached new neighbors with a wary sense of caution. They quickly found that they commanded respect from their neighbors with their constant and visible work ethic: Clearing land, chopping firewood, cleaning outbuildings, and so on. By the time their neighbors found out they were engaged to each other, they were already part of the neighborhood beer and bonfire circles.

That theme is one we’ve heard often from friends and allies in Juneau County: They get to know us, appreciate and respect the work we do, and then who we share our lives with doesn’t seem to matter. Sure, it’s a low bar to be glad that our friends and neighbors aren’t mean to us. But given the worst-case scenarios some of us envisioned as we made the move here, it’s a relief to clear that low bar as we build our homes.

Welcome Home 

Of course I wonder, what if we didn’t have white skin, nice tractors, and comfort with firearms? These are folks who are just as likely to say they “don’t see color” as they are to tell us “it doesn’t matter to me who you sleep with,” which is simultaneously comforting and discomfiting, because the population is so white that none of us see people of color here. If Gaia and I were women of color, would we be extended the same grace and hospitality, the same appreciation for our hard work? I would like to hope so, but I don’t know.

What I do know is that we are building a sense of community, support, and belonging for all LGBTQ+ people here. We’re navigating rural spaces, coaxing sustenance from the land and water in different ways, correcting assumptions and stereotypes, and joyfully (if quietly) celebrating the budding friendships and relationships underpinning the foundations of our lives.

Home transcends the physical confines of a building or a property; it is a complex tapestry woven from emotions, memories, and relationships. It can manifest as the comforting shelter of four walls or the warmth of a familiar town. Yet, home is equally about the intangible—a feeling of safety, belonging, and acceptance that accompanies genuine connection. It resides in the shared laughter of chosen family, the understanding glances between friends, and the comfort of being seen and valued. Home, in its essence, is the sum of these elements, a sanctuary that extends beyond the boundaries of brick and mortar to encompass the profound ties that bind us to people, places, and the core of our most authentic selves. 

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