Years ago, in the mid-1990s, I was driving from Santa Cruz to Los Angeles to present at a graduate student conference. I made it through Pacheco Pass, a long, steep, and windy two-lane highway, and eventually hooked up with I-5, the main drag to L.A. And then about an hour and a half later, I heard a POP! My car went dead and stopped. And there I was, stuck on a long stretch of open highway.
Now, I should tell you this: At this point in my early queer life cycle, I was about as out, loud, and proud as you could possibly be. Psychologist Vivienne Cass would have said I was in the “identity pride” stage (and I would have become enraged at the idea that my complete identity could be reduced to a mere “stage”). I had the requisite short haircut, dyed a dark shade of burgundy, and Doc Martens were my footwear of choice. I had ACT-UP buttons on my backpack. And my car had, among other things, a rainbow flag sticker on the bumper. I was out – OUT – in the middle of nowhere. And I was scared. Scared enough to get out of my car and rip the sticker off, tears streaming down my face. And I waited. And waited. It was literally hours before anyone stopped.
Eventually a car pulled up next to my car on the shoulder, and five dark-skinned (probably Mexican) guys jumped out of the car, heading towards me. If I was scared before, I was terrified at this point. OH SHIT! I thought to myself. Are they here to help me, or are they going to rape and attack me? I took my chances and assumed the former – and then afterwards felt horribly racist for pre-judging them, for they turned out to be the nicest, most helpful people. One of them had a cell phone (in the mid-1990s, this was not so common) and called AAA for me, and all five waited with me until they showed up.
The AAA guy drove me to the closest town (which, considering that it took us half an hour to get there, wasn’t very close). And, approaching the town, this is the sign that greeted me:
Oh my God, I thought to myself. I felt like I was about to enter enemy territory – and I better be careful.
To me, “being careful” meant doing whatever I could to conceal my sexual identity. And I think I did so successfully, although I discovered that, in a small town like Coalinga, keeping other people out of your business is no easy task. The next morning, I walked from the motel to the repair shop to get the scoop on my car, and then I walked to the coffee shop down the street. “Oh, you’re the girl who broke down on the 5 last night,” a guy sitting at the counter said when he saw me. So much for flying under the radar. I just couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there.
Last weekend, I was having lunch with two friends of mine, both of whom are transgender, and one of whom lives in a very rural-esque, agricultural town. At some point in the conversation, we started talking about what it’s like to be queer in rural America – and I found myself flashbacking to this experience. I started telling my friends the story I just told you, and as I was talking, I was thinking about the LGBTQ people who live in Coalinga (because, whether they’re visible or not, there are queer people who live there). I felt like I was in the middle of nowhere, and I couldn’t wait to get out. But to people who live there, it’s not nowhere. It’s home. And home might be a very, very unsafe place to be – and a tough place to escape, to boot.
If you look at what the research shows about LGBTQ people who live in rural areas, it’s clear that my fight-or-flight response wasn’t an overreaction. Rural LGBT teenagers, according to one 2012 study, tend to have higher levels of “affective distress” (such as depression and anxiety), compared to their rural heterosexual counterparts. Mothers in rural areas who identify as sexual minorities, another study shows, are more likely than heterosexual mothers to experience discrimination, and they are less likely to disclose their sexual orientation or relationship status to neighbors, teachers, or parents of their children’s classmates. (Interestingly, these mothers were more likely to be biological parents rather than adoptive parents, probably because many rural states prohibit same-sex couples from adopting children.) On the other end of the age spectrum, researchers from the University of Minnesota have found that LGBT older adults who live in rural areas (as opposed to an urban center) are less likely to be out and more likely to be guarded about their sexual identities around family and friends. They also tended to have lower household income levels than those in urban areas, a stressor that often intersects with sexual or gender minority status. For those rural LGBT individuals whose levels of distress lead them to seek out mental health services, the outlook is depressingly bleak – a 2006 study documents, among mental health providers in rural areas, a severe lack of education and awareness about LGBT issues, combined with seriously homophobic attitudes towards their LGBT clients. There are good reasons why San Francisco is full of queer expats from other parts of the country.
Not every LGBTQ person has the resources to get the hell out of Dodge. And frankly, they might not want to – despite the frigidly chilly climate towards LGBTQ people in many rural areas, they may have very good reasons for wanting to stay. Our lunchtime conversation started to veer towards this question: How do you start to create community in these areas, many of which are staunchly conservative and evangelical? And sparks started flying from the idea machine.
We talked about GOTBLISS, a Northern California nonprofit organization that serves LGBTQ people in the rural counties of Yuba, Sutter, and Colusa.
We talked about the San Joaquin Pride Center, now in its second year of operation. Although located in a well-populated city, it serves the rural communities of the Central Valley in California.
We talked about the rising success of small-town Pride celebrations throughout California – and across the United States.
We talked about the Eureka Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a small but highly active order in a very rural, conservative area of California.
And we came up with all sorts of creative, out-of-the-box ideas, ranging from creating a national nonprofit serving rural areas to making a “Queer-mobile” out of a bus or trailer (kind of like a “Bookmobile”) and driving up and down the state, providing support and resources to rural LGBTQ people. Because there are thousands – millions, possibly – of people who are out in the middle of nowhere. But “nowhere” is home, and “out” means remaining closeted in order to survive. Fleeing Dodge isn’t going to change it.