Though urban areas are often considered huge draws for those in the LGBTQ community — a 2015 Gallup poll found that San Francisco, Portland and Austin all ranked highest in the country for the largest LGBTQ population — little is written about those LGBTQ people who choose to call rural communities home. However, a study released last month by the LGBTQ Movement Advancement Project, The Equality Federation, The National Black Justice Coalition and The National Center for Lesbian Rights finds that of the 62 million Americans who live in rural areas, between 2.9 and 3.8 or 15 to 20 percent of that number identify as LGBTQ and call rural America home.
"General societal stereotypes and pop culture portrayals of LGBT people suggest that LGBT people live solely in urban settings, while stereotypes and portrayals of rural communities rarely, if ever, include LGBT people — except as targets of anti-LGBT violence, or as people yearning to leave their rural home to migrate to 'more accepting' urban areas," says the study.
The study's authors go on to say that those stereotypes falsely create "singular understandings" of how and where one can "be" LGBTQ in the U.S., unfairly excluding those who do not adhere to the urban "expectations" of LGBTQ community.
"In reality, not only do LGBT people live in rural America, but many of them want to and enjoy living in rural America," the study says. "LGBT people in urban and rural areas report similar levels of subjective well-being, health and satisfaction. In discussions with LGBT people living in rural communities, researchers find that for many LGBT people in rural areas, living in a rural area may be just as important to who they are as being LGBT."
This report will break down key findings within this study, along with its recommendations for serving the LGBTQ community that lives outside of the "traditional" LGBTQ spaces.
Rural Life Amplifies Impacts
The study makes clear at the outset that to find a singular example of the "LGBT experience" would be impossible, but it does show that those members of the community who live in rural America and responded to inquiries by the authors described their communities similarly: "built around family and close-knit community; centered around strong social institutions such as churches, schools and local businesses; deeply connected to place and the environment; and based in a sense of efficacy and self-reliance to make change in their own communities."
The LGBTQ community living in rural America also is exposed to specific rural issues like the ongoing economic hardships, addiction and substance abuse issues and fewer options for quality health care due to distance. Those challenges, authors found, amplified the overall experiences — positive or negative — of the LGBTQ people facing them. Below are those challenges summarized:
– Increased Visibility
The study found that lower population calls more attention to anyone "different," and that being open about one part of their identity puts people in the LGBTQ community at risk of having that information spread among people more quickly than in urban areas.
– Ripple Effects
Due to the interconnectedness of rural life, both positive and negative impressions about a person may spread throughout the community more quickly.
"For example, if a person is excluded from their faith community for being gay, they may have a difficult time at work or finding a job, because their church members may also be their coworkers or potential employers," the study said. "This effect may also work in a positive way: if a rural church community or employer takes a supportive stand for local LGBT residents, that support can also ripple outward to other areas of life."
– Fewer Alternatives in the Face of Discrimination
Particularly impacting LGBTQ people of color, if a negative ripple effect is felt, LGBTQ people in rural areas have less recourse due to geographic limitations.
– Less Support Structure
Geographically, it proves challenging for LGBTQ people to find social and legal support or even basic information on LGBTQ-specific issues.
– Family, Faith and Community
The report finds that people living in rural areas create tight bonds and nurture and sustain emotional connections to one another. In positive circumstances, LGBTQ people can find themselves key members of their rural community, though it's also common to find the opposite to be true, resulting in isolation that impacts prospects for wellbeing and success.
– Education and Schools
Though these are "cornerstone institutions" of rural areas, resources and teachers are rarely in adequate supply. That impacts the ability of LGBTQ students to seek help if they encounter hostile school environments.
– Employment and Economic Security
Because there are both high rates of entrepreneurship and poverty across the U.S.'s rural areas, LGBTQ people are exposed to those factors, too. If they live in areas without equal rights protections, that can feel that impact much more than straight and cisgender community members.
– Housing and Homelessness
With the affordability of rural housing comes less of it. Discrimination and potential homelessness becomes a more worrisome factor for those who have fewer housing options.
– Public Places and Businesses
Also known as public accommodations — examples including coffee shops, health care providers and libraries — fewer options means a greater likelihood for potential discrimination and less access.
– Health Care
The likelihood of discrimination is increased in those rural areas that have religious exemption laws. This can make it difficult for LGBTQ people to find quality care suited to their needs in smaller towns and cities.
– The Legal System
Poverty traps can be an issue for those communities that have a "reliance on fines, fees and cash bail" where poverty is high. With fewer legal resources and outside help available, this can be a difficult situation to overcome, particularly for those LGBTQ community members of color.
Vulnerability to Discrimination
On average, the report states that public opinion tends to be less favorable regarding LGBTQ issues, "but it is far more diverse than might be assumed." Still, rural areas are less likely to have non-discrimination policies for the LGBTQ community living there, fewer LGBTQ elected politicians and less of a sociopolitical infrastructure available to advance an understanding of the community. The study pinpointed three ways in which these factors can come together to expose LGBTQ people to more discrimination.
"The lower population of rural areas means there are fewer LGBT people in rural areas overall," the study found. "Therefore, rural populations may be less familiar with LGBT people (and indeed, people in rural areas are less likely than urbanites to have a close friend or family member who is gay, lesbian or transgender)."
however, the study also reports that public opinion in these areas is "complex" and communities should not be written off as opposing LGBTQ equality entirely.
"Certainly, the public opinion landscape may be more challenging in rural areas than outside them, but support for LGBT people exists — and has always existed — within rural America," the study wrote. "Significant policy and legal work still needs to be done to protect LGBT people in rural areas, but public opinion data show that this significant work can be done."
– Policy Landscape
An exacerbated challenge for rural Americans is the lack of non-discrimination policies in their home areas. This translates to a potential risk for all aspects of life like in schooling, health care, in public accommodations and even in peer-to-peer relationships.
"In short, LGBT people in rural areas are disproportionately harmed by the lack of protections and the presence of discriminatory laws," the study reports "The current policy landscape demonstrates the clear and urgent need for federal and state nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people, as well as the potential harm from discriminatory laws such as religious exemptions."
– Political Power
Similar to the policy landscape, regarding political power, LGBTQ people are less likely to be represented and proactively served in their communities.
"LGBT people in rural areas may also face different political challenges than LGBT
people in urban areas, such as needing to focus on more basic public education about LGBT people," the study said. "Given the relative scarcity of resources in rural areas, LGBT people may have different (i.e., not LGBT-specific) priorities altogether. Taken together, these structural challenges mean that LGBT people in rural areas have fewer resources and a strained ability for advocating for the political changes they may need."
Perhaps the single most important takeaway from this MAP study is that LGBTQ Americans who find rural communities home largely enjoy their lives and the tight-knit relationship they can find there. However, those who are LGBTQ in rural America find that general LGBTQ issues faced in more populated areas are exacerbated, just as the positives are emphasized in rural places. To that end, the report's authors conclude the study with clear recommendations for improving the lives of rural LGBTQ Americans.
"LGBT people in rural areas shouldn't have to choose between basic rights and protections and the place they call home. This is why it's critical to pass LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination protections at the federal, state and local level, while also pursuing important advances such as resisting or repealing religious exemption laws that may allow service providers to discriminate, expanding LGBT competency training for service providers and more," the report said.
Continuing to address those challenges as well as structural ones like health care access will improve life overall for that community, as well as the lives of all who live in those communities and provide "meaningful and long-lasting change."