The Gay Ole Countryside

[31 January 2012]

By Michael Abernethy

“Berea’s got to be the gayest place in Kentucky, outside of Louisville and Lexington,” this according to Seth, a young gay man from the town of just over 11,000. While it may be difficult to quantify Seth’s assertion, the fact that this rural town located south of Lexington has one of the state’s largest arts communities lends some credence to the claim. What’s more, census data reveals that there are between 100 to 200 same-sex couples in Berea’s home county, Madison. Given all this, it’s surprising that Seth’s state representative, Lonnie Napier, told Seth that there were no gay people in Berea so there was no need for Napier to be educated about LGBT issues.

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Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America

Mary Gray

(New York University Press; US: Aug 2009)

This experience is relayed in Mary L. Gray’s enlightening book Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Gay Visibility in Rural America (New York University Press, 2009). Dr. Gray tells the stories of numerous LGBT youth growing up in rural Kentucky, but undoubtedly, their experiences are similar to those of young LGBT individuals in any rural location. Not just young people, though. Feelings of isolation, struggling with coming out, fear of rejection - these are things all LGBT people struggle with, but those living in urban areas have far more resources to draw upon and a larger social network that can offer acceptance. As challenging as it can be to grow up gay or lesbian in an area where the next closest homosexual is 50 miles away, it’s often not the sad existence that an urban dweller might assume it to be.

A recent incident illuminated for me what the experience of rural LGBT persons must be. Last month, I bought my partner a beautiful orange shirt for Christmas. While checking out, the saleslady commented, “That’s a beautiful color”, to which I replied, “Yes, my partner loves that shade of orange.” Without missing a beat, she responded, “Well, then, she is going to love this on you.” There was a moment of silence while she had her “Duh” moment, and then she quickly, but politely, changed the subject.

I live in a metropolitan area, and I imagined afterwards that a saleslady in Rural Nowhere probably would have never had that “Duh” moment and realized my true meaning. Then again, I might not have mentioned I had a partner. The uncertainty as to what reaction that piece of information might generate no doubt forces many LGBT persons living in rural areas to stay deeper in the closet than they would prefer.

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Rural Social Work Practice

Nancy Lohmann, Roger A. Lohmann, eds.

(Columbia University Press; US: Oct 2005)

Author Neely Chatman notes that pressure to conform is significant in rural areas: “Sameness in many rural communities is a prescribed way of life, and being different often leads to social, familial, and personal isolation.” The role the church plays in the community often is a leading factor in how safe an LGBT person feels when dealing with his or her sexuality. (“Chapter 12: Gay Men and Lesbians in Rural Areas”. Rural Social Work Practice, 2005). Imagine living in a small, one church town with a charismatic, hell-fire-and-brimstone preacher who has convinced many of your neighbors that the gay agenda is going to force their children into acts of debauchery so unspeakable that we need to bring back public stoning. Not really an environment conducive to standing in the town square and shouting “I’m here, I’m queer, get used to it!”

The ramifications are serious. According to a study of 30,000 students in rural British Columbia, LGBT youth in rural areas are more likely to engage in binge drinking, as well as use drugs such as mushrooms and heroin. Focusing on boys, researchers Saewyc and Poon found that rural gay boys were more likely to be victims of dating violence, and surprisingly, are three times more likely to become teen fathers, perhaps in an effort to deflect suspicions about their sexual orientation (cited in “It’s Not Easy Being Gay in Rural B.C.”, The Vancouver Sun, 17 November 2008).

Most troubling is the finding that rural gay boys are more likely to attempt suicide than urban LGBT youth, who already have a much higher rate of suicide attempts than their straight counterparts. Thus, it’s not surprising that a separate study found that 54 percent of gay men and 38 percent of lesbians in rural areas choose to get out and relocate as soon as possible. (Gottschalk, Lorene Hannelore.“Coping with Stigma: Coming Out and Living as Lesbians and Gay Men in Regional and Rural Areas in the Context of Problems of Rural Confidentiality and Social Exclusion”, Rural Social Work & Community Practice, 2007 December).

In the United States, over 80 percent of same-sex couples live in urban areas, with 12 percent in rural counties and less than ten percent in exurban areas (rural areas located near metropolitan areas). A move to an urban area affords rural LGBT individuals an opportunity to live openly in “gay meccas” and to meet other LGBT people at clubs and in social settings. They are also more likely to find other LGBT persons in church, on the job, and in the stores where they shop. No longer are they the “aberration”, the sole representative of the gay and lesbian community in the neighborhood.

For those who choose to stay in rural areas—or aren’t able to leave—thank god for the internet, which allows LGBT persons to reach out to others who are supportive. Web resources, chat rooms, bulletin boards and even online porn can become a gay or lesbian person’s best support system, as well as provide a sexual outlet for those lonely nights. Unfortunately, because the majority of LGBT people live in urban areas, resources that cater specifically to those in rural areas are scarce.

A quick scan of several major LGBT organizations’ websites (HRC, GLAAD, Lambda Legal) showed that none had information or resources specifically designed to assist or inform people in rural areas, although it’s easy to locate what state laws and actions are. There are, however, blogs with which rural LGBT people can identify, such as Dr. Gray’s website and the Queer Farmer Project blog . Further, websites such as the It Gets Better project can provide emotional support.

On those nights when solo sexual activities just aren’t sufficient, the internet can also help rural LGBT individuals track down potential sex partners. Sure, you may have to drive a way to hook up, but a one hour road trip may be preferable to another few months of celibacy. In some cases, though, there are surprises to be found online, such as learning that Farmer Bob, who is in church every Sunday with his former Harvest Festival Queen wife and five adorable children, has an online profile and likes to get down on his knees in front of other guys out behind the barn. The problems start if Farmer Bob isn’t that discriminating.

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.

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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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