In Texas, miles are translated to time, and time is translated to highways. You take I-35 from Dallas to Austin, well, that will be about three hours and a half—let’s round up to four due to the constant construction and stopping for kolaches in West, at Slovacek’s or Little Czech Bakery. You take I-20 west from Dallas, get on US-84 at Sweetwater to head to Lubbock—that’ll take you a little over five hours. But it’ll feel like an eternity, highways cutting through plains and dust, wind turbines circling slowly in the distance among the canyons and craggy brush. At least you won’t have to worry about rain.
Infrastructure design can limit the access of certain groups to mobility, both social and physical. When you drive across Texas, you’ll see stripped treads along the highway, the asphalt wavy with heat, cars abandoned along shoulders and overgrown ditches. Those without resources are more likely to try to stretch gas or put off vehicle maintenance—a peril when the closest town is miles away, an hour walk through a hundred degrees, cell reception spotty. Infrastructures allow only certain people to run away.
As a media and communication researcher, I study infrastructures. I have a tendency to distance things in my mind, intellectualizing them in order to break them down in search of common themes and larger meaning. Why am I so obsessed with infrastructures, a concept that seems so dry on the surface that people’s eyes often glaze over when I bring it up? I’m not sure—perhaps I like to question the ground under our feet, the systems we use and ignore every day, the systems that embody and enable connection and disconnection. One thing I’ve learned studying these systems: at their heart, infrastructures are about communication. Everything from proclamations to whispers, daily chats to silence. Highways of signage and billboards and signals and bumper stickers, movement of goods and information from one point to the next.
I have driven alone for countless days on those Texas highways, home and away and back again, past signs that point out where to go. McDonald’s, take the next exit. Ten miles to the next town. Historic marker thataway. The curve of the road itself frames the landscape to show off certain beauties and hide others. I often drive past and wonder what I’m missing—what reality the infrastructure has left out, what communities left disconnected.
Imagine: you are a Dairy Queen in Lubbock, Texas, standing silently right by a crisscross of road and highway. You have eerie teal lights underneath your eaves, your neon faded perhaps but resolute, not flickering. You’re surrounded by a sea of black asphalt, the congealed parking lots of the strip mall behind you and the buffet beside you. Through your wide front window, you see two women sitting in the booth beside the trash can, one looking away as the other talks.
One of the women has half their hair newly shaved, and smells faintly of body odor—they just came from the gym, lifting weights with their back, which they now complain about at lulls in the conversation. “God, my back’s so stiff. My personal best though. Worth it.” Their brown eyes flick upwards toward the other woman when telling a joke, smiling as they look for the laugh. They scrape their red, long-necked spoon at their peanut butter Blizzard, bringing it to their mouth upside down, pressing their tongue into the curve.
The other woman eats more daintily. She picks at the Oreo chunks, doesn’t look up except with a flick of her gaze. Almost apathetic, at least in the bored expression on her slender face, but inwardly blushing.
The first woman brings up the other night.
A spark in the dainty woman’s eyes. “Oh yeah, when we were…” She trails off, then concludes, “…talking,” as if hesitantly answering her own question.
The other nods, though they say, “Yes, enjoying ourselves,” to underscore that the euphemism wasn’t strong enough to represent the truth. They continue with their point.
Because you are the Dairy Queen, you can’t help but listen. The catch in the dainty woman’s voice echoes across the sticky floors, against the windows smeared with kid’s fingerprints, around the stacks of powder blue cups and soft serve dispensers. Talking. A euphemism for something private, something intimate, something sexual. A pang—what about you made the girl hesitate? The store is nearly empty. Only one family, so chaotic at the corner table they would not notice if Russia dropped a nuclear bomb, much less a few veiled whispers.
Queer infrastructures are typically hidden networks of quiet resistance and resolute desperation. Some use the term to describe networks of advocacy and support for LGBTQ+ individuals and communities. Others use the term in a more formalized way, such as the Queer Infrastructure Network, a group in Canada dedicated to supporting LGBTQ+ individuals in the Canadian infrastructure sector, such as in construction jobs. I think the term could be applied even more broadly—to any infrastructure that empowers individuals to go against the norm and find welcoming communities of support.
Forms of queer infrastructure have been used throughout history to help the oppressed find mobility: the Underground Railroad represents an example outside the direct focus on gender and sexuality. An example related specifically to sexual identity involves gay bars, networked into urban areas to provide support and community. Queer infrastructures operate in the shadow of other infrastructure projects—using the available technological systems for purposes of connection and empowerment not originally anticipated.
If all infrastructure is about communication, queer infrastructure is too. Ara Wilson, an associate professor of gender, sexuality, and feminist studies at Duke University, wrote in “The Infrastructure of Intimacy,” how technological systems have shaped the connections of oppressed or marginalized groups. For instance, bathrooms are sites of intimacy, with the related sewage and water systems that enable them. I think of highways, too. The privacy and possibilities afforded by an open road.
The technological systems that shape everyday behavior also shape which relationships are possible, which relationships are needed. Yet, queer infrastructures rise through resistance to the infrastructures put in place by systems of power for restriction and separation. If America’s Interstate Highway System was put in place for defense, people have instead used highways for intimacy and freedom.
Perhaps the best example of queer infrastructure can be found in anyone’s hometown. Scrawled along the cement columns of overpasses and viaducts, graffiti. The cement was not poured to become a canvas, yet the smooth gray surface provides a backdrop for frustrations and declarations. A heart with a plus sign in between initials. Several scrawled curse words. Elaborate illustrations of pseudonyms. The infrastructure, on the surface made for travel, now allows semi-anonymous artists to scream their hidden identities at no one in particular.
So, imagine: you are the Lubbock Dairy Queen, and the women are still talking. One has finished their Blizzard while the other, the dainty one, continues to poke at hers with a spoon. The dainty one wonders how much the other woman likes her. How much taking so long is annoying, or whether they like the lack of urgency, the breath of time together.
Finally, their conversation lulls and they get up to go. Walking toward the door, they giggle about misjudging where the trash can opening is, one of them nearly dumping the scant remains of her drink onto the already sticky tile floor. The dainty woman remembers her own time as a fast-food worker—gathering the trash bag edges carefully to not allow the sliminess to escape. The other woman stops by the door, staring back at the family in the corner—they stare and stare until the dainty woman says, “What’s wrong?”
Her companion presses their lips together, until, at last, a sigh and a quick step through the door. “I was watching that little boy at that other table. He kept trying to gather up everything in his arms—his food and his toy and his drink—and he just couldn’t do it. I wanted to run over there and help him, but I didn’t want to be a creeper.”
Outside, the West Texas dusk sends a haze of pink and orange across the landscape, tinting everything purple. The women’s cars are parked parallel to each other, but with two empty parking spaces in between. Each grew up being told of love, that it is patient and kind and does not boast and is not proud. What they were not told is that love is time and distance, spanned only by courage and affordance. When the woman with the half-shaved head lingers next to the dainty woman’s car, the dainty woman can think only of the battered faces of two women beaten on a public bus for refusing to kiss for the male passengers. You—the Dairy Queen—look on, windows black with the purple asphalt and quieting storefronts beyond.
The women give one another an awkward side hug. They get in their cars and drive away.
Infrastructure studies as a scholarly field first appeared with the work of Susan Leigh Star, who in her 1999 article “The Ethnography of Infrastructure,” described infrastructure as typically invisible, only apparent when breaking down. Recent controversy surrounding infrastructures, spurred by Biden’s Build Back Better agenda’s focus on modernization and maintenance of US infrastructure systems, has renewed popular attention to the concept. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in particular ignited discussion by calling attention to the racist design of some American highways, citing an example well known to infrastructure scholars: the New York overpass built too low for buses to pass underneath, limiting the access of lower-income citizens to fully travel the city. As American infrastructures crumble from years of use and neglect, people debate the long-ignored systems that shape their daily lives, technological designs usually buried by the mundane duties of switching on lights, flushing toilets, turning on faucets, driving to work.
But despite the mundanity, America has always loved its infrastructures—especially its highways. There is a mythic dimension to America’s highways, recalling the victories of World War Two and contended strength of the Eisenhower era, the interconnected open roads symbolizing those oh-so-essential American values of freedom and mobility. Further, without our highways, we wouldn’t have our fast food, which rose with restaurant chains who learned to cater to people on the road and on the move—longing for consistency and speed without leaving their cars. “Tramps like us, baby, we were born to run,” as Bruce Springsteen would say. Part of being American is car culture, Route 66 and rumbling highways.
Yet, throughout history, highways and the open road have also taken on intimate meanings for women needing to get away from their regular lives to share time with one another. For instance, Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok went on road trips together. After one, Hickok wrote Roosevelt, “I’ve been trying today to bring back your face and the feeling of that soft spot just northeast of the corner of your mouth against my lips.” In England between the World Wars, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West also went on a road trip together at the beginning of their relationship. “Yes yes yes I do like you,” Virginia wrote to Vita. “I am afraid to write the stronger word.” And the fictional Carol and Therese in Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt turned to the open road for their intimacy as well. They roared into the Lincoln Tunnel. A wild, inexplicable excitement mounted in Therese as she stared through the windshield.
A true history of American highways must return to the idea of communication, what is said and what is not said. Even with queer infrastructure, hidden networks of resistance, the problem remains that some get more access than others. Of course, there is resistance in silence as well, a certain freedom in being hidden. I don’t know why the women in the Lubbock Dairy Queen felt they had to speak in code, and when no one was around, or why they ended the date with an awkward side hug when they both wanted a kiss—or perhaps I do, and it pains me too much to say. But what I do know is that infrastructures both empower and disempower and that for every infrastructure project there rises a shadow network at odds with its surroundings, resisting the status quo through its silent existence.
In my research, I attempt to call attention to the invisible structures of society and how they shape human behavior. But as a person, I pass through life from one small kind moment to the next, like anybody else. Sometimes I have a hard time connecting with people; I have a hard time determining what’s love and what isn’t; I have a hard time believing in intimacy. There is always time and distance that comes between two people to pull them apart, and the landscape itself—especially in Texas—encourages that separation. However, that Texas landscape of miles upon miles and hours after hours also comes with a certain obscurity and privacy and, therefore, a sense of freedom. On a road trip driving alone, you can try to hit all the notes with Patsy Cline on the radio and no one’s there to judge whether you succeeded.
You have been the Dairy Queen in Lubbock, Texas, and you represent America: red, white, and blue, fried food, and summertime. You sit gleaming next to a highway, a beacon of soft-serve ice cream and cold drinks to weary travelers. You have witnessed millions of stories, hesitations, intimacies. Families bickering at tables, teenagers whispering on their first dates, individuals eating alone, musing as they watch the cars go by. Two women drifting together and then apart.
Later, the dainty woman will not be able to remember large passages of the conversation in the Dairy Queen, it was so mundane. She will remember another date, the other woman saying, “You don’t owe them any explanation.” The two dates will become so mixed in her mind that she cannot think of Dairy Queen without thinking of that statement. From this relationship, she’ll learn that there are things you can run from and things you can’t, and maybe learning that will change her, but probably not. More likely it’ll bring her closer to herself, the self she’d long forgotten in the miles and hours of the Texas highways.
I think of queer infrastructures with these women in mind. These systems are not some dry academic concept to be probed and cataloged, as much as the researcher inside of me would like. Instead, they are as human as the need to hide, a means to find connection in a strange place, to find companionship on a lonely road.
Cass Francis is a born and raised Texan. She holds a PhD from Texas Tech University and an MFA from the University of Central Arkansas. Her poetry and prose has appeared in several literary journals. Find her on Twitter @WriterCFrancis or, for reality, @casshaze.