Taylor Brorby opens up about growing up gay in ND in memoir 'Boys and Oil'

Author also speaking out against ND Legislature book-banning bill proposals as "the country's worst ideas"

North Dakota native Taylor Brorby is author of "Boys and Oil: Growing up Gay in a Fractured Land”
Carroll Foster / contributed

FARGO — Taylor Brorby spent the first half of his life living in North Dakota and the second half feeling on the outside looking in on his home state.

“North Dakota is the bedrock of my imagination. The wellspring of my creativity,” he says from his home Salt Lake City, Utah. “I never wanted to leave, but North Dakota doesn’t provide opportunities for creative people to thrive.”

The writer returns to North Dakota this week to read from and discuss his memoir, “Boys and Oil: Growing up Gay in a Fractured Land,” Tuesday night at Zandbroz in Fargo.

The connection between the “boys” and “oil” of the title is a reference to his family’s ties to fossil fuel. Men on his father’s side worked in the coal strip mines and now his cousins work in the Bakken Formation.

Raised to love the land and now an environmentalist, the 35-year-old is bothered by the negative aspects of the fossil fuel business.


“I’m a gay boy who grew up in the shadow of fossil fuel extraction,” he says. “The extraction economy has put people in such a pickle. People are desperate for jobs, but if you’re different and think differently, you’re a target.”

He knows about being a target. Growing up in small Center, N.D., Brorby knew he was different from other young boys and not always interested in things they were.

Things got better when the family moved to Bismarck as he entered Bismarck High School in 2003. He found people with similar interests, but still felt like an outsider. He remembers his first fall there and how the one openly gay student faced a petition that would have forced him to dress for gym class in the girl’s locker room. The petition was dismissed, but it still left a mark on Brorby, who hid away in the school library.

“Even if I didn’t know I was gay, we saw what happened,” he says.

While attending St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, he came out to friends and his sister. The summer after graduating from college, he was outed to his parents by an aunt and his family life changed dramatically.

“I sensed maybe this would not go well.” he says. “That really blew up my family.”

Now he only stays in touch with his sister, a cousin and a different aunt.

He started thinking about writing a book years ago, but when he first showed it to a publisher he was urged to “take the gay thread out.”


“If I take the gay thread out, what kind of book do I have?” he says.

Boys and Oil.jpg
Taylor Brorby's memoir, "Boys and Oil: Growing up Gay in a Fractured Land”.

He found an agent who happened to be gay and then a publisher, Liveright Publishing, which released “Boys and Oil” in June to positive reviews.

In a review in the New York Times, author Jung Yun — herself a Fargo native — concluded, “Brorby has written not only a truly great memoir, but also a frighteningly relevant one that speaks to the many battles we still have left to fight.”

“This book is in service to other people, to help people feel less alone,” Brorby says. “I’ve been told my book has kept people alive. That’s the power of literature and storytelling.”

He recounts positive feedback he’s received, like from a gay man who didn’t come out until he was in his 70s.

He says the book has not only resonated with readers who are gay or who have LGBTQ friends and family, but also with straight people who felt pushed into a life and norms they didn’t necessarily want.

He also heard from people intrigued by hearing a North Dakota voice, including someone from Brooklyn who never even thought about visiting the Peace Garden State, but now was intrigued.

The House had passed a broader version of the bill, but the Senate panel overhauled the bill with amendments, making it specific to minors and public libraries' children's collections.

That said, he may not see his book being recommended by the North Dakota Department of Tourism, especially after he called Medora, a cowboy-themed tourist destination 30 miles from the Montana border, “the gayest town in the West.”


“I hope they see a boost in tourism,” he says with a laugh. “Medora is so campy. It’s literally called the Burning Hill Amphitheater. It’s so kitschy, over the top and flamboyant.”

Still, he hasn’t seen a backlash against his book.

“The other shoe hasn’t dropped yet,” he says. “People who read understand complexity. It doesn’t mean everyone loves my book, but there’s been no blow-up because it’s the story of my life.”

He has a novel at his editor’s office now and has another in the works. Most recently he’s been writing and speaking out against restrictive bills proposed by the North Dakota Legislature that would prohibit libraries from holding material deemed inappropriate by some due to a sexual nature. One proposal includes the threat of jail for librarians that don’t abide with these proposed laws. Brorby signed a protest letter, along with North Dakota native authors like Byron Dorgan, Louise Erdrich, Chuck Klosterman and Clay Jenkinson among others that was published in The Forum and other newspapers around the state.

Authors including former Sen. Byron Dorgan, Taylor Brorby, Louise Erdrich, Clay S. Jenkinson, Chuck Klosterman and others urge the North Dakota Legislature to kill bills related to freedom of speech.

In February he also wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times called “The Truth about North Dakota’s Attack on Books.”

“It’s not the Venus de Milo these laws are going to come for first,” he writes. “It’s books with L.G.B.T.Q. stories or books by L.G.B.T.Q. authors — the kind of books that have provided so many queer young people with a lifeline when they needed it most.”

Brorby knows his writings may not change legislators' minds, but hopes his efforts still have an impact.

“I hope it makes the North Dakota Legislature feel ashamed,” he says. “It’s a testing ground for the country’s worst ideas, the imprisonment of libraries. It’s a direct threat to people like me. This is the time to have courage and be brave.”


Saying that “the North Dakota legislature is run by people who peaked in high school… bullies,” Brorby says if the proposed bills go through, the effects will be damaging to young LGBTQ kids, particularly trans kids, a group that faces high suicide rates.

“This will aid trans youth in killing themselves,” he says.

Still, he’s not ready to turn his back on his home state.

“North Dakota can be better. I think it should be better,” he says. “It’s a place I love deeply”

If you go

What: Taylor Brorby

When: 6:30 pm., Tuesday

Where: Zandbroz Variety, Fargo


Info: This event is free and open to the public

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