The Gay Ole Countryside

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

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.

"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.

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

Author: Mary Gray

Publisher: New York University Press

Publication date: 2009-08

Image: 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.

Book: Rural Social Work Practice

Author: Nancy Lohmann, Roger A. Lohmann, eds.

Publisher: Columbia University Press

Publication date: 2005-10

Image: 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.

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