The Gay Ole Countryside

by Michael Abernethy

31 January 2012

Image from the cover of Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Gay Visibility in Rural America (New York University Press, 2009) 

A Symbiotic Relationship

The spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases is a problem for many rural gay men or those on the down-low, due to the propensity for anonymous hook-ups. Traditional methods of education about STDs don’t work as effectively in rural areas, according to Schnarrs, Rosenberger, Satinsky, Brinegar,  Stowers, Dodge, and Reece. These researchers concluded that a web-based method of education was needed: “interventions to decrease sexual risk-taking should take into account that the vast majority of men in rural areas are using the Internet to locate sexual partners… interventions created for virtual spaces may be more sustainable with rural communities than traditional approaches to HIV/STI prevention.” (“Sexual Compulsivity, the Internet, and Sexual Behaviors among Men in a Rural Area of the United States”, AIDS Patient Care & STDs, 2010 September.) Researchers in China have observed that young gay men in rural areas are contracting HIV and then moving to the city, where they spread the disease among a larger gay population. You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t make him leave his diseases there. (Wong, Huang, He, Smith, Ding, Fu, and Young D, AIDS Care, 2008 February.)

This is not to suggest that being LGBT and living outside an urban area condemns one to a life of secrets and hiding one’s true self. Many LGBT individuals in the country are out and proud, and while they do experience more disapproving looks than their city counterparts, they live happy and fulfilling lives. Fortunately, the presence of LGBT people in the media—on TV, in films, and as the subject of popular songs—has increased the acceptance of gays and lesbians in non-urban areas.

Several documentaries have focused on the lives of these LGBT individuals, including a doc that is in production at Queer Farmer and the 2004 T. Joe Murray film Farm Family: In Search of Gay Life in Rural America. However, Farm Family only deals with gay men, although data supports that there are more lesbians living in rural areas than gay men.

cover art

Farm Family

Director: Tom Murray

US DVD: 1 Jan 2004

Not surprisingly, the growing acceptance of LGBT people is most noticeable in young people. More young LGBT individuals in rural areas are come out, although there are still more risks for LGBT youth in rural areas than urban. Illustrating how things in rural areas have changed, Gray tells of a temporary union of church and gay youth in Coal County, Kentucky (and the name alone tells you what kind of area we’re talking about—think modern-day Coal Miner’s Daughter—and I say that lovingly, as a Kentuckian). Realizing there was little for local teens to do beyond cruising the town square and cow-tipping, the local Methodist church opened a skate park that featured live music.

One band booked to play was Jarvis Avenue, a “self-described queercore punk band”. As told in Out in the Country, 16-year-old band member Amanda, dressed all in black with torn black mesh running up both arms, the booking created a symbiotic relationship: “The church minister booking the shows does know we draw the punk kids they really want coming to church rather than out sniffing glue or splitting oxy or something. So, I don’t know if they care that we’re queer. They’re just looking to use us to draw kids and we just want a place to play.”

Earlier I mentioned that I live in Kentucky, and my bio below will inform you that I teach at a university. Our student body contains a large population that is accepting and is comfortable with all sexual orientations, as well as a good representation of out LGBT students (and a surprising number who fall into the ‘T’ category) and a few students who are clearly LGBT but just beginning to feel comfortable with expressing that aspect of themselves, although I can imagine that many of those who live at home are still putting up a strong. straight front there. Most interesting to watch are the straight students who are finding themselves in classrooms with openly LGBT classmates for the first time. Not only that, but openly gay and lesbian teachers. As more kids in rural areas come out and more parents learn acceptance, this student population will inevitably decrease in size.

One former student told me of her life in Borden, Indiana, a little squat of a town with a population of around 800. She and her partner lived openly, along with their son. Both mothers were active in the Parent-Teacher Organization, and both attended their son’s baseball games. Because she and her partner have immersed themselves into community activities, most people in town have come to know and accept them, as well as realize that you don’t have to be straight to scream your head off at your kid’s games and beam with pride when he hits a double.

For someone like me, who has spent his life living in or outside of major cities, life in the country is something foreign to me, illuminated only by visits to my grandparents in a small town in rural North Carolina. City folk enjoy certain privileges not available to the rural dweller, such as shopping gay-owned businesses and having a large enough pool of dating options that you don’t have to settle for the one lame-ass in town who’s developed a crush on you, so it is not unusual for such city folk to look at rural LGBT dwellers with curiosity. However, life for rural LGBT people is changing, and the people who chose to stay in the country are fighting a war for acceptance in areas where resistance is highest. Truly, they have taken the battle to the people.

Our Cheers, Queers Champion for 2011 goes to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose address to the United Nations on LGBT rights will undoubtedly join her speech “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” as one of the best speeches on civil rights in 100 years.

And the Here’s Mud in Your Eye Award for 2011 goes to a small group of unknown haters and the Republican candidates who endorse their hate. During one of the recent Republican debates, a self-identified gay soldier serving in Iraq asked candidate Mitt Romney a question. The audience booed the soldier, and none of the candidates on stage chastised the audience or thanked the soldier for his service, which they most certainly would have done had the soldier been straight and asking about a different issue. For some, hate trumps even patriotism.

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