Queer in the Country

In my "Response to Zuska" in comments we've had some interesting discussion of whether gay, lesbian, bi and transgender folk will need to/be able to integrate successfully into rural communities, and I thought it was worth a blog post here as well, for folks who may not have read all the comments. As you all know, I don't think everyone has to re-ruralize - in a recent post at ye olde blogge, I wrote that we should seriously reconsider some cities. and that people who don't feel comfortable in the country may not want to force it. So I don't personally think that everyone does have to move to the country.

On the other hand, I know that I have an astonishing number of readers who are merrily making a go of their farm dream in rural Oklahoma, South Texas, Alabama and Idaho, because I often here from them. We know from demographic studies that 15% of American gay and lesbian people live in the country, and, presumably don't live there because they've never heard of San Francisco.

Some rural places are extremely gay-friendly spots. I have a friend who lives in a small, rural town where she and her husband are the only straight people on their street. The five-college area of Massachusetts has been called "the lesbian capital of the world" and the proportions of gay farmgirls are astonishingly high. Two friends of mine started a gay farmer's social in Ontario, and found themselves with so many participants they outgrew their rented hall. I know of rural queer communities in North Carolina, Montana and (of course) California. A friend is trying to get me to move to Pennsylvania, to an area where she jokes "They say Pennsylvania is Philly on one side, Pittsburgh on the other and Alabama in between, but they never told me that there was a chunk of P-town smack in the middle.

My own observation both growing up in a lesbian family and now living in a part of a state that while still New York, is definitely the red part, is that in many cases people who disapprove of gay folks in principle often find that they make exceptions for gay folks in practice. Of course, sometimes they don't, and even if they do, not everyone can live with people who disapprove of you even in theory. But my own observation growing up in a gay household in a church not fully reconciled to gay people, and in communities that were way less evolved than contemporary ones was that many people are fully capable of holding two contradictory ideas in their heads - that being gay is bad and that Naomi and Sue and their kids down the street are pretty much just like everyone else. If the incentives are strong enough, there's sometimes space in between those two assumptions in which to live.

At the same time, I know people who have really struggled to find a rural place, and found communities unfriendly, folks who have tried to make a go of it and failed, or who grew up in the country and wouldn't be caught dead back there. It can be a tough row to hoe, and a scary one to imagine in a world where we are more isolated, where we are less able to enforce the law, and where we find ourselves tied more tightly to neighbors who may only tolerate us.

One of the comments that struck me most in the previous thread was this - if we have no choice, at some level, some of this is abstract. That is, if we are going to need to do more for ourselves, to be more self-sufficent, some queer households will go back to the country by necessity - events being no respecter of persons. One of the virtues of the present is that we have the luxury of respecting persons, and this shoud be a large part of our primary work. So the question is how and where to establish yourself, and how to navigate the shoals of country life.

So I'd like to hear your stories - if you are gay, lesbian, bi or transitioning and living in the country (or you tried it and it didn't work), what is it like for you? What are the pleasures and the challenges? Where do you live (roughly) and do you recommend it to others? What are the best strategies for integrating into existing communities that you've found?


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My partner and I moved to a rural area in Southern Indiana almost 20 years ago. Homes and land were inexpensive then (didn't last) and we were near enough to Louisville to work there until retirement a few years ago.

The neighbors belong to a few families that have been here forever. They are friendly enough when approached but never initiate any contact. This is as much as we hoped for, not to experience any actual hostility.

When we moved here, the forests in the area had been uncut for more than a generation. All but ours (and an adjacent Nature Conservancy preserve) have been cut over since then and devastated by a hurricane and ice storm, but that is pretty much the story everywhere.

We have a medium sized garden, wood stove and cistern and are pretty well situated. I would anticipate no outreach from the neighbors in a crisis, but not a refusal to help if asked.

The Nature Conservancy is a good neighbor. They are helpful, friendly and responsive. We are deeding the forested property to them when we die to be added to the preserve.

By Hummingbird (not verified) on 20 Jan 2010 #permalink

Hummingbird's experience sounds pretty standard.

One of my greenhouse workers was gay (couldn't afford to keep any workers, a couple years ago); she and her partner sound much like the farm couples you mention, Sharon. City people to start with; learning as they go.

I was actually disappointed in her more than once- when we asked them to a party type event, and they didn't come. I always wished they would, and would have liked to get to know the partner better.

And they could have met some of the more open minded locals at those events too; kind of on neutral ground. Crack a few doors open.

That is something I think gay couples could do as a strategy for finding some more community- look a little more to the other displaced urbanites. Obviously; no guarantees anywhere, but without wanting to offend ANYone; it may be just a little more likely to find easy acceptance with other ex-city folk. A lot of rural folks have just never known an openly gay person- and they can be very awkward about it.

All ex-urbanites share one thing immediately- the difficulty of acceptance by the long-time local residents. I think that's universal.

I'm a gay man. I moved with my then-partner in 2003 to a small logging/paper mill town on the Canadian west coast, accessible only by ferry or plane. We found that, while there is no visible gay community here, there are plenty of dykes and fags around, and nearly everyone in the community is either welcoming or tolerant. (There are, of course, a few exceptions, as there are everywhere.). This tolerance wasn't always so - I've heard horror stories from the 80's - but it's been a pleasant experience.

When that relationship ended a few years ago, I did find it hard to meet anyone new here, since most guys either grew up here and were totally closeted and still afraid (see 80's, above) or moved here as part of a couple. So I had to import someone from the big city (internet dating sites are your friend if you have special interests!). However, he's an ex farm boy, grew up on a farm in Northern BC with no electricity and no running water (!) and we are entirely on the same page when it comes to growing food, adapting in place, and working on getting our community transitioning (we helped start our local transition initiative).

I don't know whether societal degradation in future will change things, but being known in the community as a positive, constructive force can only be helpful, I think.

I don't know the scene here intimately, as I'm not part of it, but I do know that quite a few gay couples live in and around our town. You might think that follows naturally, being in western MA, but I can only speak for one small town and don't know what the other towns are like. Some folks I know about, others I'm not sure of and have never asked because really, I personally don't see why it should matter -- which is to say, it doesn't matter to me what a person's preference is, I just see the person. Anyway, one couple I know goes to the local Episcopal church and are deacons there, so I'd guess that folks in our little rural town are pretty accepting (pop. ~1,700).

By Heather G (not verified) on 20 Jan 2010 #permalink

I'm in Australia. Moved to a small town of around 1500 people 7 years ago when my boyfriend got a job here. We've experienced nothing but friendliness. After a while you realise there are quite a few 'gays in the village'! The neighbours all around us are straight couples with kids and don't seem to have any discomfort around us. We've been involved in lots of community things. We even found a very welcoming church. I think it is partly to do with this particular place though. This has always been a tourist-focussed town with lots of outside visitors, and is within 2 hours of a major city. I think the story could be different in a more remote place.

I'm a bi woman. Moved to a small town (SW Ontario, population 2000) in 2001 at the behest of an acquaintance who said she had a job for me. Acquaintance couldn't get her head around the existence of either lesbians or bisexuality, and everyone else I met was way too religious-right for me to even consider broaching the subject in any way, not to mention that they all seemed to have functional IQs of about 85.

I fled for the nearest city of substantial size, and have been here ever since. I wouldn't go back even if I had the opportunity, because I no longer drive. Never could quite see the point of living 45 minutes' drive from anything essential/worthwhile, but now I'm physically constrained to urbanism.

By Interrobang (not verified) on 20 Jan 2010 #permalink

We've been invited to the Neighborhood Watch meeting in our rural area. We think this may be a good sign. Ain't planning to ever move!

I'm slightly off-topic here, but as a gay man I think the issue of acceptance is one I've run into all my life. The best answer for me has been to be completely honest about who I am. We teach others how to deal with us, in the way we present ourselves. If I slink about, I'm presenting the idea that I'm not worthy of respect.

So much for the idealism. The reality can also be, where a homophobic section of the community feels enpowered by the community at large to wage war on the homos, life is downright dangerous.

I have some fear of the post collapse era. There is a strong possibility of fascists coming to power. Queers don't usually do well under fascists.

As with all facets of the post peak era, there are many fears, and many opportunities to work my faith.

I agree with Kelly. We are aware that we may be among the first scapegoats gone after when it all falls apart--bringing down the wrath of god and all that.

By hummingbird (not verified) on 20 Jan 2010 #permalink

Although there are certainly exceptions, we aren't all bigots here in the rural areas. I'm proud of the fact that one of our small towns, pop ~800, elected an openly gay mayor. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Crews and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melbourne,_Iowa. It wasn't all beer and skittles for him, but no worse than any big city. And I would never in a million years guessed that it would happen in Melbourne or even Marshall county because it's a pretty conservative county. Just goes to show.

BTW, if you are moving to Iowa, don't mistake our Scandinavian reserve and stoicism as hatred. We just keep ourselves to ourselves and it is tough for any newcomers to fit in right away. :)

Ulster County, NY - Especially New Paltz and Rosendale and their environs - is (for the most part) a great rural places to live if you're queer. There are some towns around there that can be a little scary for folks who are "different" but there is a growing gay community and even some gay farmerse up there. As you mentioned, the Northampton/Amherst area (many small towns around there) in MA is great. Sonoma County in CA is great, too, though not cheap. Some places in the Catskills, too. I think there is some fear of white working class rural folks among the college-educated liberal set. A lot of stereotyping. It's true there are some closeminded people and people who haven't been exposed to the ideas and values some of us espouse, but "we" can learn from "them" as much as "they" can learn from "us". I know a number of gay farmers who have great relationships with their neighbors.

By T is for Tomato (not verified) on 21 Jan 2010 #permalink

Also: I grew up in a rural area, had a mostly terrible and isolating experience being young and queer there... moved to the city and spent a while in various cities... and now as an adult want nothing more than to move back to the country! Being young is hard, and for those of us LGBT folk with kids (or who hope to have kids) it's hard to think of sending a child with same-sex parents to a school where they're the only one. I think that's my biggest concern. Homeschooling or living outside of an area where there are more same-sex couples, or moving to one of the rural areas with a gay population, are potential answers. I dont' want my kids to feel like they're the only ones. At the same time, i want them to grow up running around barefoot in the grass and dirt like I did. For me, a rural area that's not too far from a city is what's ideal - I like having access to the culture in those cities and the community resources there.

By T is for Tomato (not verified) on 21 Jan 2010 #permalink

Thank you for writing about this Sharon. This is something that my husband and I are thinking carefully about as we look toward choosing a rural area to settle down in. We want our children (our oldest is bi, our youngest is gay) to feel comfortable bringing their partners and in the future, their families to our home and to the community as well. If the time came when they felt the need to move closer to us or it became desirable/necessary to combine households, we want them to feel they would be safe.

I think I want to re-summarize my previous post. In our townhouse complex, there are conservative christians who are well aware that we are a gay couple. They are quite friendly. They made the effort to get to know us, we made the effort to get to know them.

I think that if we live in a small community, the better your relationships with your neighbours, the more likely they are to protect you from others who may mean you harm. So being out, and being outgoing are maybe more important for us at this point in time, when things are relatively good.

T, I don't know what this is worth, but back when I was a kid of gay parents, I really did think we were the only ones, because well, it was 1979 and we pretty much were ;-). I have to say, it was such a non-issue for my sisters and me. A couple of years ago we read an article about support groups for children of gay parents, and all three of us looked at each other and laughed. It would never, in all those years, have occurred to us to need a support group for that. We never felt strange or isolated at all - and we went to public schools and people knew. We took a little harassment for it, but less than we took for other issues. Not saying it wouldn't be nice to have other kids of gay parents, but good parents are good parents, and that's worth a lot.


Yes, thanks for this post, Sharon. I'm a gay guy in my mid forties who moved last spring to a small, working class town in SE Vermont called Bellows Falls - a couple hours up the CT river valley from Amherst, MA. I found a great and affordable house on an adorable cul du sac in the historic district - met ALL my neighbors on the first day. Everyone has been super friendly, and quick to voice pride in their state's legal position on gay marriage. Even the teenagers smile and talk to my doggie.

I found the place by using google maps to locate all the towns up the river, and then plugging them into WalkScore.com to see how walkable each is (I don't drive). When I zoomed in on Bellows Falls I could see why it got such a high score - it's a tight little grid, unlike most river towns which are sprawled out along one big road. The Vermonter line to NYC and DC stops here too, which is comforting even if I never get on it.

As a non-driver, I'm MUCH happier here than I was for three years in the Hudson Valley - New Paltz and Rosendale, specifically. I grew up in Provincetown and spent most of my life in gay urban ghettos, so I lacked an appreciation for what car dependent, small town life is really like. I had moved out there from NYC with a boyfriend for the summer, but got isolated quick once he left. I spent quite a while researching other places upstate and in western MA, but couldn't seem to find the right combination of small, agricultural, walkable, affordable AND gay friendly.

That said, there are certainly fewer gay guys around here, and most of them are either coupled up or still married to women and having families. I am heartened that Kevin managed to score a farm boy from the big city over the internet! I had been hoping the love of my life was living right down the road from wherever I decided to settled down, but that was obviously one of those stories you tell myself in order to make hard decisions.

Overall, even if my love life suffers, I'm so happy to be settling down in a place I feel has some potential to survive the coming changes. It's all about being part of a community, which for me has always meant the gay community, but I'm finding they're really not that different after all. It's the issues that are different - the food crisis is not the aids crisis - but the organizing is the same. I'm working with some folks on a local 'food hub' and there is a transition town starting up in nearby Putney. Unsurprisingly, I find a disproportionate number of gay folks in these circles.