Homesteading: We Need a Better Term

I’ve often discussed with folx that as a queer person homesteading as an overarching movement feels unsafe for me. And I’ve struggled with the reasons why everything about it feels so unsafe. Sure, I can point to specific moments as I’ve engaged in various aspects of the homesteading community where I’ve been made to feel unwelcome as a lesbian, or microaggressions or outright aggression occur. Those subtle moments where folx who aren’t white cis and het are made to be feel as the other and decidedly unwelcome. In some cases folx will flat out tell us we aren’t welcome. 

The various homesteading groups I’ve been in online have all had various acts of bigotry, and in some cases homophobia. Of course I preface this with the tired phrase, “Not all homesteaders” think in these manners but in my experience, online homesteading forums are not safe spaces for those of us who identify as queer. 

I have been challenged with questions like, “Why identify yourself as a woman? As a lesbian? As whatever isn’t cis, het, or white?” Which I counter with, “Why do you identify yourself the way you do?” The answer is usually about feeling like who you are online. My identity as a woman and a lesbian is important to me as a person, even if in pictures I present as masculine of center. Combine that with my gender neutral first name and I get misgendered often. It has been an interesting exercise to see the differences in how I’m treated when folx think I’m male versus learning that I am female identified.

Other than treatment there are other aspects of homesteading that left me ill at ease. Until recently I wasn’t able to point to what it is about the term “homesteading” that is so unsettling. On its face the concept is great- folx learn to be self reliant, farm their land, preserve their crops, and often, make money off their properties. Often homesteaders are makers and into the DIY aesthetic. They recycle, upcycle, kludge, make do with what they have and in general do more with less than their non-homesteading counterparts.

Homesteading is great. Except when it’s not.

If we look back at the history of homesteading we learn of its colonialist and racist roots. The Homesteading Act of 1862 allowed free men to claim up to 160 acres of land. They had to pay minimal fees toward the deed, and then families were required to build a home and stay on the land for 5 years. An inspection had to occur for the final patent of the homestead to be transferred to the homesteader. Given the far flung nature of these homesteads these were often difficult trials.

Homesteading was looked at as a way for the US to expand farm land and land use by Americans. Unfortunately this meant that Native Americans were driven into reservations or outright murdered. All of the land that was turned into homesteads by the US government was stolen.

Compounding the stolen land issue, many companies (cattle farms, lumber companies, railroads) took advantage of the homesteading act’s poorly written rules and terrible management to accumulate land for themselves. The initial draft of the law included a typo that the home needed to be 12×14… inches. Essentially all these companies needed to do was build the equivalent of a fairy house on their property. Of course they could just cough up $1.25 per acre and buy large swaths of land. So in addition to the colonialist and racist roots, one could argue that a fair dollop of classism was mixed in. After all, few farmers could afford to move to a new plot of land, build a home, stay on it for 5 years while also improving the property. Nor could they afford the $1.25 per acre fee and 6 month stay. But the companies could certainly afford to bribe an inspector. Additions to the laws that were intended to clarify only served to further muddy the understanding.

Despite allowing women, immigrants, and freed African Americans to partake in homesteading the institutionalized racism and misogyny meant that individual inspectors and having neighbors signing off on paperwork, meant that many folx were barred from getting their homesteads despite meeting the requirements. A neighbor could decide to not sign the paperwork, and inspectors could not show up for inspection.

Over the years, only 80 million of the 270 million acres went to farmers, more acres went to farmers in the 50s, 60s, and 70s than in any other period. Until its repeal in the 80s the Homesteading Act was held up as the possibility of the American dream, but one could argue it was little more than a golden carrot on a string for most poor farmers.

I’ve glossed over a great deal of American history here. I know that when I initially learned of the Homesteading Act and Homesteading that they were all held up as great moments in American history, and if you ignore that the government drove Native Americans into reservations, never honored treaties, racism, misogyny, rank corruption, and xenophobia; sure it’s great. 

My argument here isn’t that the concept or that all of the many things we associate with homesteading aren’t great it’s that the term homesteading is rooted in terrible history and the continued use of the term is bigoted and rooted in privilege even if those who use it aren’t. I’ll be seeking a different term for all the things that encompass the care and needs of the Urban Oasis as I move forward. It is not enough to queer the homestead, the homestead needs a radical overhaul.

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