For decades, the majority of people studying, recording, and even living queer lives believed that “rural queer life” was virtually nonexistent.
“We take for granted that rural areas and small towns are inhospitable to queer life, and always have been,” said Dr. Colin Johnson, a professor of Gender Studies and History at Indiana University, Bloomington. “And so the assumption is that queer history begins at the city gates.”
This theory is disproved daily by millions of people’s lived experiences and a rapidly growing body of documented historical evidence. A report by the LGBT Movement Advancement Project (MAP) estimates that between 3-5% of rural adults, and around 10% of rural youth, identify as LGBT, totaling approximately 3.8 million people.
In other words, the total percentage of rural queer Americans mirrors the percentage of rural Americans overall: around 15-20% of queer Americans live in rural areas, while around 19% of total Americans live rurally.
But the false narrative persists. In the public imagination, queer life is concentrated exclusively in urban centers like San Francisco, New York, Atlanta, and Chicago. And the logical conclusion that follows is that queer people either don’t exist in rural America or flee to the cities and never look back.
Setting the Record Straight
Dr. Johnson’s primary field of studies is the history of same-sex sexual behavior and gender nonconformity in rural areas and small towns in the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. One of the arguments he makes in his book Just Queer Folks: Gender and Sexuality in Rural America is that the contemporary notion of sexual normalcy— Heterosexuality—was developed by medical professionals at the end of the 19th century. This understanding of sexuality, which treated homosexuality as a psychiatric illness, was then normalized in the public sphere, and spread across the country.
“There were efforts that unfolded over the course of the 20th century to really try to bring rural areas and small towns under the sway of a kind of national consensus of what middle-class American life should be,” Johnson said. “And those efforts were very, very successful.”
As a result, according to Johnson, “other ways of being that had been very familiar to people living in smaller communities, and different ways of thinking about difference in their midst were essentially overwritten and displaced.” This process, which culminated in the 1950s, buried centuries of rural queer history of communities around the United States.
The perception of queerness as an urban phenomenon was then inadvertently reinforced by the early pioneers of LGBT studies, many of whom had moved from small towns and rural places in order to be a part of the urban-based Gay Liberation movements of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.
Their personal experiences became the basis for their scholarly work, which created an urban bias in the academic literature and helped support the perception that rurality and queerness are incompatible.
Another factor, Johnson said, was that the Stonewall riots and the Gay Liberation movement helped create a distinctly urban queer political identity that became the most visible model of queer life. The result was that gender and sexual nonconformity that fell outside of this model were often not labeled or understood as queer.
For example, when Johnson interviewed elderly rural people for his research, they often told him that there were no LGBT people in their communities. But when he asked questions that sidestepped the archetype of urban gay liberation, memories and recollections came pouring out.
“It required a radical reconceptualization of the people they knew when they were younger,” he said. “People living with their best friends their entire lives, these arrangements that were familiar in small areas, they didn’t look like the self-conscious, politically actualized gay and lesbian identity that many people were familiar with. But they were intimate, same-sex relationships that everybody seemed to recognize even if they didn’t have the terminology to describe it.”
More Visibility Across Disciplines
Johnson is a gay man who grew up in a predominantly agricultural community in west central Illinois. When he began studying gender and sexuality in college in the 1990s, he was troubled by the fact that he didn’t see his experience or his community reflected.
Since then, a new generation of scholars has begun to uncover rural queer histories, filling in the gaps in the academic literature. Peter Boag’s work about cross-dressers during the era of westward expansion and Emily Skidmore’s book about trans men who were fully assimilated into their diverse communities in the 1800s are just two examples of this recent work.
But academics aren’t the only ones pushing to make rural queer lives more visible. Rae Garringer has been gathering oral histories of rural queer people around the country since 2013 as part of the Country Queers multimedia project.
The goals of the project are to “preserve rural queer histories through documenting our contemporary presence and historical existence, push back against the narrative that queer people can only thrive in major metropolitan spaces, and connect country queers to one another across geographical distance in an attempt to help fight the isolation we often experience, and to build rural queer community.”
Garringer grew up on a farm in southern West Virginia, and didn’t meet any out queer people until they went away to college. After graduation they moved to Austin, but eventually returned to West Virginia in 2011, after being away for nearly a decade. “I felt really happy to be home and really frustrated that it felt like I had been lied to by omission,” they said. “Of course there were queer people here, and there always had been, but there still was no real accessible storytelling about rural queer experiences.”
This inspired Garringer to begin collecting oral histories, and eventually create the Country Queers podcast. Over the last eight years, they have conducted the project primarily in their free time, with the help of a couple of grants and limited crowdsourced funding. But a recent award from the Southern Power Fund will allow Garringer to focus on the Country Queers project full-time.
“I don’t think of this as journalism,” they said. “For me it’s really about rural queer people telling our stories, for us and by us. I really believe in the importance of marginalized communities regaining power over our own narrative.”
They also plan on expanding the project by training more rural queer and trans people in audio production and oral history gathering in order to strengthen the storytelling power of their communities. “After spending some time in journalistic and academic folklore spaces, I’m really interested in projects that position people who are living an experience daily as an expert of that reality, as opposed to people who are studying that community or reporting on them,” Garringer said.
This focus on oral histories and community storytelling mirrors the methods used by the pioneers of queer studies and LGBT history in the 1960s and 70s. Queer publications have also played an important role in connecting and educating queer communities since the 1950s. Publications such as ONE, The Mattachine Review, and Ladder, circulated widely, challenging the highly discriminatory attitudes of the era. Although the publications were based in urban areas, many of their subscribers were rural.
KT Taylor, who grew up in Emmet, Idaho, is keeping this tradition alive through a new pen-pal zine for rural queers, titled Not Alone, Never Was. Taylor came up with the idea during the first months of quarantine, a time when they were feeling “a deep and sudden sense of disconnection from the queer community” that they had found in Minneapolis, they wrote in a Q&A for the Daily Yonder Pathfinders newsletter.
“During this time, I couldn’t help but think back to the isolation and loneliness I felt living in Idaho as a queer youth. This feeling felt so familiar, and I knew if I was experiencing it in a city, then my siblings in rural spaces were no doubt feeling it double.”
Drawing inspiration from the history of zines as tools for connection and education among oppressed communities, Taylor created an open survey where rural queer people could write letters to each other. These letters, paired with original artwork, became the basis for the zine.
Taylor’s experience moving away to college and studying rural queerness from a distance has been therapeutic and has allowed them to better understand their identity as a rural queer person. “I now know deep within my being that my existence as a queer person is just as much a part of rural community life as anyone or anything else,” they wrote.
These efforts to make both contemporary and historical rural queer life more visible are critical for queer people living in rural communities around the country.
“One key thing you will notice if you do research into queer rural wellbeing, is that most queer rural people feel such a deep sense of isolation and loneliness” Taylor wrote. “Part of what contributes to that loneliness is a lack of queer representation in the immediate world around them, but another part of that isolation comes from a perceived lack of history, a lack of ancestors. Working on making rural queer history visible helps communicate to queer rural people that they’re not alone, they never have been, and that they can do this.”
Dr. Johnson agrees. “It is important for us to have as accurate an understanding of the historical past as we can,” he said. “But it is certainly very, very important that people not feel marginalized, diminished, or written out of their own histories because nobody is bothering to write them in.”
But he also believes that studying rural queer history has important political implications. According to Johnson, failing to recognize rural queer history and its place in broader queer history would mean discounting the millions of LGBTQ people that live places other than major cities, and reinforcing hostile political narratives that deny queer people the right to belong.
No Easy Answers
The LGBT MAP report highlights the additional challenges that rural queer people can face, particularly in regard to navigating health care, the legal system, and discriminatory local and state policies.
But while Dr. Johnson acknowledged that these problems certainly exist, he said that focusing solely on measurements like legal protections can oversimplify the issue. According to Johnson, these benchmarks don’t automatically prove that urban life is less precarious for queer people.
For example, he said, queer people in California benefit from some of the most thorough civil rights protections in the country. But these protections have not prevented incredibly high rates of queer homelessness, which have more to do with housing prices and economic inequality than hate-crime or non-discrimination provisions.
And some of the primary challenges of queer life in a small town are also part of what make those lives possible. Everyone knowing everyone else’s business can put constraints on people’s behavior, and the relationships they can form, he explained.
“But when everybody knows everybody, and everyone is dependent on everybody else in one way or another, either financial reasons or social reasons or familial ties, it makes it really hard to just dispose of people,” Johnson said. He still believes that legal protections for queer people are important and necessary in every community and acknowledged that there is more opposition to those protections in conservative rural areas.
But increasingly visible networks of rural queer people and their allies can bring the necessary changes as they build political power in their small communities. Garringer’s oral histories, Taylor’s penpal zine, and Johnson’s research each strengthen these community networks by connecting rural queer people both to their pasts and to one another.