‘Country Queers’: On being LGBTQ+ in rural America

The radio program On The Media talked to Rae Garringer, the creator of the oral history project Country Queers that seeks to challenge the stereotype that the LGBTQ+ community can only find acceptance in urban areas and face unrelenting hostility is rural ones.

All across the country this month, people are celebrating queer and trans pride with parades, cookouts, dances, and family gatherings. And yet the future of the community feels darker than it has in a long time. Threats from Proud Boys and elected officials seem to reinforce the idea that LGBT people cannot survive or thrive in places outside a few coastal cities. But a study from the Movement Advancement Project in 2019 revealed that at least 3 million queer people live in rural America. And many have no interest in fleeing to big cities for protection. This week, Annalee Newitz sits in for Brooke, and talks to Rae Garringer about their oral history project, Country Queers. When Garringer was attending college in the early 2000s, the only queer rural representation they saw was in crime stories. Country Queers features LGBT people who are living in rural parts of the United States, in small towns and remote farms, and they’re often taking great joy in it.

You can listen to the radio program here.

The report of the Movement Advancement Project titled WHERE WE CALL HOME: LGBT PEOPLE IN RURAL AMERICA can be read here.

Popular culture images of LGBT people suggest that most LGBT people live in cities or on the coasts. Yet an estimated three million or more LGBT people call rural America home.  The Movement Advancement Project released a new report, Where We Call Home: LGBT People in Rural America, which examines the structural differences in rural life and their unique impact on LGBT people in rural areas, who are both more vulnerable to discrimination and less able to respond to its harmful effects.

Among other challenges, rural LGBT people are less likely to have explicit nondiscrimination protections, are more likely to live in areas with religious exemption laws that may allow service providers to discriminate, and have fewer alternatives when facing discrimination, as detailed in a new report released today. Although LGBT people in rural areas face many of the same challenges as their neighbors, they experience different consequences, and the many structural challenges of living in rural communities can often amplify LGBT people’s experiences of both acceptance and rejection.

While the rural climate is not good for the LGBTQ+ community, it is encouraging that it is not entirely bleak. Major social changes need to have widespread acceptance if they are to have a lasting impact.


  1. cartomancer says

    I have always found it rather strange that Americans tend to view urban and rural areas as very distinct cultures, rather than just places with different levels of human concentration. I suppose it’s a product of your history and geography -- in most of Europe even the remotest rural areas are only an hour or so drive from a big city, or at least a sizeable town. Having lived in a small village of 800 people, a larger village of about 2000 people, a medium town of 150,000 people and on the outskirts of London, I have not noticed any cultural differences between these places in terms of LGBT+ acceptance.

  2. Holms says

    Rural and urban USA are regarded as culturally distinct because they are culturally distinct. At least, that’s the impression I have gained from here in the antipodes.

  3. jenorafeuer says

    I think a lot of it really comes down to three things:
    -- Network effects: pre-Internet, it could often be difficult for anybody in a small town to realize that they weren’t alone in feeling like they didn’t fit in.
    -- Social pressures: in any location where everybody knows everybody else, being seen as outside the norm can be a lot more fraught, especially if you have nowhere else to go; this makes the above worse.
    -- In the U.S. in particular, both of the above have been weaponized for political purposes by folks who want to sell the dream of the ‘good old days’ in order to convince people to give them authoritarian power.

    Basically, while there are differences between rural and urban culture, most of the problems are because those differences have been actively tied to racism, immigration status, religion, and other major fault-lines in American society for several generations. Other countries have different fault lines.

  4. flex says

    @Holms, #2,

    Rural and urban USA are regarded as culturally distinct because they are culturally distinct.

    As with many other things, that would be a simplification.

    A good starting place may be Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, by David Hackett Fischer, which, in summary, talks about how immigration patterns from different times and locations from the British isles affected the culture in various regions of the US. He includes the Puritans, Cavaliers, Dissenters/Quakers, and Boarderers. Each group brought a different culture and largely settled in different areas. What has happened is that larger cities, as expected, tend to develop a larger tolerance to people of other cultures simply through exposure. But the people in rural New Hampshire have different cultures than the people in rural Arizona. And the people in urban Detroit have a different culture than the people in urban San Diego.

    And, further, Hackett Fischer explicitly acknowledges that his research leaves out other cultures, like those of the French in Louisiana, the Spanish in Florida/Texas/California, the Chinese on the west coast, the immigration from other European countries like Norway or Italy, etc. Or the very distinct culture which developed among African Americans due to the evils of slavery and Jim Crow.

    You might not completely agree with Hackett Fischer, but he makes a pretty good case for at least some of his observations being true.

    In other words, it’s complicated. The rural area I live in contains very liberal farmers and very conservative rich people who made their wealth while living in the suburbs; then built their enclave and brought their hatred, fears, and entitlement into the area.

  5. consciousness razor says

    It’s hardly like “rural” Europe, so try not to imagine that…. Living in rural parts of the US means a different set of rich folks are in power Also keep in mind that local governments (including police, school boards, etc.) tend to have a lot of control — probably more than what you’d find in Europe I think.

    People today, and their parents, their grandparents, their great-grandparents, etc. have been living in much greater isolation from the rest of the world. Remember that cheap and easy communication with practically anybody worldwide is still a fairly new thing. These places are much less developed economically. This kind of inequality has been exacerbated by globalization but to some extent goes all the way back to the industrial revolution. The school systems are worse or are practically nonexistent, and the same can be said of healthcare in general, mental health care and counseling more specifically, other kinds of resources to address to domestic violence and abuse, homeless shelters, food banks, public transportation, and so forth.

    So there is a very strong sense of being alone and stuck in a pretty nasty place, if you don’t already fit in. There are certainly some nice aspects to living in rural areas too, so it’s not all bad, but I can’t think of anything that would be especially relevant to LGBTQ issues.

    If you do need some kind of support from the community, no matter what sort of thing you might be thinking of, it almost certainly would have to come from a religious institution, if it’s going to exist at all. Because those are fucking everywhere, yet they do little or nothing to address real problems people face. Now, do this for everybody in living memory, all around you, much more than an hour’s drive from wherever you are. What would be absolutely mind-boggling is if that didn’t have any noticeable effect on the culture.

  6. consciousness razor says

    A news item from today gives a decent picture of the rural US. It’s nothing like the most remote places in this country, not even within Missouri. (I figure that would be somewhere in the Ozarks, in the southern half of the state and going into Arkansas.) But it ought to give you some idea at least.

    Endless fields, where a gravel road goes over a railroad multiple times in a short stretch, several miles outside of a town called Mendon (pop. 163). There were no barriers to block this “uncontrolled crossing,” which meets at a weird angle, despite being a gravel road that could easily have been rerouted…. There’s only a little sign, not even any lights. (“Why invest in the simplest and most basic infrastructure here?” they say. They’re constantly saying it.)

    The train with over 200 passengers was derailed when it hit a (now obliterated) dump truck. At least a few dead, many more injured. First responders and such from lots of surrounding counties took a while just to get there, and the nearest hospitals are even farther away.

    I bet the people in the train still believed they were in the same society as the one they started in. We just don’t tend to act like that’s the case a lot of the time, so we end up with different ones inside the same country.

  7. says

    Another factor in the American “urban vs. rural” divide is that it’s been driven, literally from Day One, by religious extremists who fled to the New World to get away from the horrible, sinful, heterodox, multi-culti polyglot cities of Europe, and create perfect, uniform, more pure and godly communities far away from anyone holding any different ways or beliefs. This hatred of “cosmopolitan” anything was baked into our political culture very early, and persists to this day, particularly in the form of the Electoral College and hateful fundamentalist Christianity with a “blood & soil” mentality.

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