Out in the middle of nowhere


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.

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6 Comments

Filed under coming out, homophobia, LGBT families, LGBTQ youth, mental health, psychological research, religion, San Francisco, transphobia, Uncategorized, violence

6 responses to “Out in the middle of nowhere

  1. Lorri Doig

    My Mom and Dad retired to Yarnell, Arizona (yep, the one that pretty well burned up recently) in the mid 70s. It was a town of about 500, mostly retired, people. There were one or two churches, a motel, a couple of restaurants, antique/junk stores, a volunteer library, general store/post office, and a hairdresser. Blink and you would miss it. I know that the hairdresser and the guy who owned the antique shop were gay and out. I never heard of anyone having a problem with that. The people I know who are homophobic idiots all seem to live in the suburbs of large cities.

    • It’s so hard to generalize, because some suburban towns are more welcoming than others, and some rural communities are welcoming while others are hostile. I think part of the challenge is that, in both rural and suburban areas, if there isn’t someone who’s out, or something that’s a visible sign of LGBTQ support, it can feel very risky to take that step to be the first one to be out and open. In urban areas, it’s not only easier to tap into an LGBTQ community, but it’s also easier to stay relatively anonymous if one chooses to do so. It’s also easier to ignore people who are homophobic – in less populated areas, it might not be in your best interest to burn bridges with people.

  2. Michelle

    My wife and I currently live in a large, LGBT friendly metropolitan city. It has one of the largest Gay Pride celebrations in the Midwest (2nd only to Chicago and growing annually). While we feel safe here, there are times when flaunting our relationship by holding hands or introducing one another as “my wife” clearly isn’t in our best interest. On the other hand, in October, we’re moving to my wife’s hometown, an unincorporated village in nowhere Ohio, population about 450 (and that might be counting some dogs).

    Everyone knows everyone’s business in “nowhere”. We’ll be the 4th out lesbian couple in town. There is at least one known lesbian “daughter” and a gay son that were born and raised there too. People may not approve of our “lifestyle” but, in all the time we’ve spent there over the last half dozen years, no one has ever batted an eye at us or said anything remotely homophobic that was directed toward us. We’ve been welcomed into many homes and we’ve been treated well. We help people in need out and they’ve helped us out. That’s what people do “way out there”, as it’s often referred to. The county LGBT Alliance even has a booth at the county fair every year and, in speaking with them each year, they’ve reported no issues and a warm reception by locals.

    Small town America isn’t as backward and homophobic as we’ve all been led to believe. LGBT people exist everywhere and families that accept them exist everywhere. No place is perfect, of course, but the more of us that are out there and not afraid to show it, the faster hearts and minds are opened and acceptance comes. We just have to keep fighting the good fight.

    • Michelle – it’s those experiences that you describe that need to get on the radar screens of researchers. All of the research I’ve come across documents the invisibility and fear that many LGBT people in rural areas experience. However, the counter-narrative you shared is the other part of the story that researchers should be hearing, and it could offer some insights as to why acceptance occurs under some circumstances, but not others.
      The phrase you wrote at the end of your post – “the more of us that are out there and not afraid to show it” – that is such a critical factor. Being out is risky, for sure, but it is the first necessary step towards acceptance.

  3. Pingback: The weapons of hate | The Active Voice

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