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Prairie Home Companions

A homecoming in Red Cloud, Nebraska.
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(Photo: Magoz)

(Photo: Magoz)

Between them, Jay Yost and Wade Leak comprise pretty much the entire openly gay male population of Red Cloud, Nebraska. One homosexual couple doesn’t exactly make the place Provincetown on the prairie, but frankly, it’s one more than I expected to find in this farming town of about a thousand people, deep in the countryside of a state ranked by Gallup polls as America's ninth-most-conservative.

Yost, wiry, fit, and fiftyish, grew up in Red Cloud, which still looks a lot like it did then. A tiny urban island in an ocean of cornfields, it has a “downtown” of a handful of low brick buildings, and a skyline dominated by massive grain silos hulking along the tracks that bring trains rumbling regularly through town.

Yost, one of six children, is the son of a local meatpacking plant owner. As a teenager, he learned how to gut a cow and drive a semi. But he left town to go on to a career in corporate law and finance in New York City. That’s where he met Leak, his partner of 21 years. Leak, who sports a white goatee and a single chunky earring and who himself grew up in a tiny Utah town, is a music industry lawyer. His career highlights include dancing with Britney Spears at her 18th birthday party. (“She’s really misunderstood,” he says.)

By every measure, polls show acceptance of gay people has increased dramatically in the past 20 years, all across the country and in almost every major demographic group.

The two live together in Manhattan, but come often to Red Cloud, where they are on the brink of finishing a 17-year-long restoration of a century-old house where Yost played as a child. They’re also energetic members of the foundation promoting the legacy of the town’s most famous former resident, the novelist Willa Cather—who was herself a covert lesbian.

Leak and Yost aren’t exactly discreet about their sexual orientation. “If there’s some closeted teenager in town, we want to let him know it’s OK, you can be gay and be successful and have a good life,” says Yost. In 2002, two years after 70 percent of Nebraskans voted in a still-standing ban on same-sex marriage, the couple held a public “commitment ceremony” in a church in the state capital. The event made the newspapers and drew protesters from Kansas’ infamous Westboro Baptist Church, brandishing their trademark “God Hates Fags” placards.

But just to make sure that everybody in Red Cloud is absolutely, positively, 100 percent certain of exactly how gay they are, for his recent 50th birthday Leak decided to create and star in a one-man cabaret show about his life. He performed it first in Utah, and was so pleased with the reception that he brought it to Red Cloud. The show featured a “coming-out medley” that included tunes by Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Madonna, and Lady Gaga, and climaxed with Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man.”

“That,” I can’t help but note, “is the gayest song list I have ever heard.”

“That’s kind of the point,” Leak says.

I thought all this would be a bit much for the citizens of Red Cloud. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 96 percent of the locals are white, more than half are older than 50, and they voted for Romney over Obama at a rate of three to one.

But it seems that I’m the one doing the stereotyping—a Los Angeleno projecting my liberal prejudices onto the people of rural Nebraska. By every measure, polls show acceptance of gay people has increased dramatically in the past 20 years, all across the country and in almost every major demographic group. Much of that shift is thanks to simple familiarity: according to the Pew Research Center, an overwhelming majority of Americans now say they personally know someone who is gay or lesbian, which is a strong predictor of accepting the equal standing of gays. Small towns do present some special hurdles: according to Emily Kazyak, a University of Nebraska sociologist who studies the experience of gays and lesbians in small midwestern towns, being out and accepted often requires having a connection to some well-established locals who can tacitly vouch for you. Yost’s family—after some initial reservations—has played that role for the Red Cloud couple.

By all appearances, the town at large has welcomed Leak and Yost with no trouble. The couple took me out for a merry, cocktail-laced dinner at Red Cloud’s finest (and only) steakhouse, where they had to get up every few minutes to slap backs and shake hands with their neighbors, a few of whom were still wearing the day’s overalls.

By now, lots of locals know Yost and Leak from their work with the Cather Foundation, which hosts an annual academic conference and brings in literary-minded tourists to see Cather’s childhood home and other sites. Like Yost, and like many gay children of small-town America, Cather left her country home for a career in New York City. She never brought her lover back home to meet the family, let alone marry her in public. But then, that was a long time ago.

This post originally appeared in the January/February 2014 issueofPacific Standard as "Prairie Home Companions." For more, consider subscribing to our bimonthly print magazine.