(Source: Research Brief: LGBTQ Youth in Small Towns and Rural Areas)

Nearly half of LGBTQ youth in rural areas and small towns said their community was somewhat or very unaccepting of LGBTQ people compared to just over a quarter of those in urban and suburban areas, according to a survey released in November. 

The Trevor Project, suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning young people, surveyed nearly 35,000 LGBTQ youth for the poll. 

It also found that LGBTQ youth in rural areas and small towns had slightly greater odds of experiencing symptoms of depression, considering suicide, and attempting suicide compared to those in urban and suburban areas. 

“These data show that we have significant work to do to ensure all LGBTQ youth in rural areas and small towns have access to supportive communities and affirming spaces,” said Amy Green, vice president of Research at The Trevor Project, in a statement. 

“It’s heartbreaking to see nearly half of these young people report that their communities are not accepting of LGBTQ people. But it also gives me hope that, once again, we see access to LGBTQ-affirming schools help prevent suicide.”

Activists and members of the LGBTQ community interviewed by the Daily Yonder say although they are disappointed by the results, they are not surprised. 

“I think I see more thriving adult queer communities,” LB Prevette from Wilkes County, North Carolina, said. “I thought I was the only gay kid in high school and there’s like, a handful from my graduating class alone now.”

Some youth need space around their family’s expectations of who they “should be” to “figure out who you really are,” Prevette said. 

Prevette, who left her rural community after being attacked at the age of 17, said it’s not that most people aren’t accepting of LGBTQ community members; it’s that the people who are not accepting are the loudest. 

“I think rural communities have to really tighten up what type of language and behaviors you allow,” she said. 

Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) LGBTQ individuals face greater barriers to acceptance, said Lexie James, a 25-year-old member of the Hopi Tribe, who lives on the reservation in northeastern Arizona. 

James first questioned her sexuality around age 12 or 13, she said but wasn’t open about it until a few years later. She said she found people were not accepting of her, including family and friends. It ultimately affected her daily routine: she would change in a separate room away from other females due to stares and questions, she said. 

James, who is a former Miss Native America USA, said her mother was unaccepting of her initially. 

“It was just like a bit of touch and go with my family,” she said. “I’m sure they were trying to understand, but just didn’t or didn’t want to understand. It was very hard getting that support from them. But now I’m 25, and things are a little bit better. I’m more open about it.”

James said there needs to be more education and resources for LGBTQ youth and families in rural communities and on reservations. 

“There still aren’t any support groups hosted by the tribe or community-wide, but I know outside resources will try and come you know, like implement these different curriculums and within the school, but I haven’t seen anything that’s really caught on yet,” she said. 

On the Hopi reservation, there are grandparents raising grandchildren, leading to a generational disconnect, James said. 

“A lot of grandparents aren’t aware of how best to communicate with the youth, you know, maybe becoming more open about their sexuality,” she added. “It’s going to take a lot of education and I think outlets for youth to have safe spaces – organizations or groups or schools… comes to the child to host these safe spaces where kids feel like they can be open and they can be themselves.”

One organization offering support is PFLAG, a national organization for families and allies of the LGBTQ community. It has more than 400 chapters across the country with 200,000 members. 

Melissa Fugate is vice president of the local chapter in Athens, Tennessee. Members meet at a local church every month. 

“We just have meetings where we just talk about our experiences as queer people, and then also as allies,” Fugate said. “We just kind of talk through some things.”

A chapter is a place where family members or those questioning their sexuality can come and seek affirmation, she said. 

“I think it’s a good place for parents who – their kids have come out to them – and they just don’t know where to go from there,” she said. 

Green, with The Trevor Project, said that despite higher levels of discrimination and violence experienced by LGBTQ youth in small towns and rural areas, the resulting disparities in depression and suicide risk compared to those who live in urban and suburban areas are relatively small. 

“This indicates that there are likely protective factors at play here,” Green said. “Future research should explore positive experiences and sources of strength reported by this demographic of youth to determine which factors facilitate well-being even in environments that are less accepting of LGBTQ people.”

The survey was conducted between October and December of 2020. Nearly 35,000 LGBTQ youth were recruited via targeted ads on social media.