There is a faux truism in the United States that queer folks do not fare well in the countryside. As Elizabeth Catte says, “Rural spaces are often thought of as places absent of things, from people of color to modern amenities to radical politics.” LGBTQ people could easily be added to that list. This sense of absence is continually reinforced by the media, which only talk about rural queerness in the context of high-profile murders or low-life government officials. Like many of the videos in Dan Savage’s It Gets Better project, this oversight suggests that the route to happiness for gay folks leads inexorably away from the countryside. However, even if every queer person wanted to leave rural life behind, many would not have the option, and any movement that is bedrocked on leaving behind whole swaths of the country does not deserve the name “queer liberation.”
In recent years there has been an explosion in rural queer organizing. In 2014 the National Center for Lesbian Rights—working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture—launched the #RuralPride campaign, which has since convened more than fifteen day-long events for queer people in places such as Lost River, West Virginia, and Wayne, Nebraska. Just this month, The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in New York City (one of the most prestigious centers for queer theory in the country) awarded its lifetime achievement award to Amber Hollibaugh, a communist sex radical writer and organizer who draws powerfully on her roots in “trailer park California.”
Outside the world of conferences and academia, grassroots organizing is being done by groups such as Southerners on New Ground, a decades-old social justice organization that “envision[s] a multi-issue southern justice movement . . . in which LGBTQ people—poor and working class, immigrant, people of color, rural—take our rightful place as leaders shaping our region’s legacy and future.” Newer projects, such as Rachel Garringer’s Country Queers oral history archive and the film Forbidden: Undocumented and Queer in Rural America (2016), seek to document the lives of rural queer people in their own words. YouTube is also fast becoming its own archive and networking tool for rural queers, providing a place to discuss everything from coming out in rural Virginia, to returning to the Navajo reservation in Crownpoint, New Mexico, to Arkansas’s rural gay radio broadcasts of the 1990s. Paralleling this development, rural projects aimed at general audiences have begun to include queer content, such as the “LGBT in Appalachia” panels at the 2014 Appalachian Studies Association conference. Such mainstreamed initiatives may ultimately have the greatest success in reaching rural queer people, as recent writings have suggested that queer people who live in the countryside often value local community connection over connections based on sexuality, and thus are less likely to seek out specifically queer resources and networks.
These projects organize outward from the lived experiences of rural queer people. But there is also a growing movement of urban and suburban LGBTQ folks who dream of escaping to—not from—the countryside. These queer rural utopian projects take as their starting point a rejection of urbanism—which may or may not be based on any actual rural experience. They posit “the rural” as a panacea for the perceived problems of modernity, queer or otherwise: lack of community, loneliness, deracination, environmental devastation, personal disenchantment. Many seek to create queer rural oases that reject dominant U.S. social and sexual structures. Like similar religious communities in early America, many of these groups are to some degree millenarian, seeking an idyllic and self-reliant life in preparation for the inevitable and fast-approaching end time.
In their early days, queer rural utopian groups were often gender-essentializing, with lesbians creating wymyn’s land collectives around the country, and gay men flocking to “faggot-only” Radical Faerie gatherings organized by communist luminary Harry Hay. The degree to which trans folks and people of color were welcome in these spaces varied from group to group, as was true in much of the mainstream lesbian and gay movements of the era.
As Catte points out, the countryside is often derided as a place where change comes slowly or not at all, but queer utopianism has evolved rapidly from those 1970s roots. Today, collectives such as Sojourners Land celebrate “Black Queer and Transgender Women,” while a recent issue of the Radical Faerie Digest explored queer utopianism through the perspective of queers with disabilities. Although the popularity of such projects is hard to quantify, a quick search for the word “queer” in the directory of the Fellowship for Intentional Community brings up a whole host of other communes created by or embracing of queers.
Meaningful recognition of rural queer people will present some challenges for LGBTQ organizers. Perhaps top among them is the conundrum of how to work for the rights of people who may rarely (or never) acknowledge their membership in the rainbow tribe. So much of queer organizing in the past few decades has been predicated on ideas of visibility and coming out that it can be hard to think outside of that paradigm. Two of the movement’s biggest recent victories—same-sex marriage and open service in the military—have nothing to offer for those who cannot or will not come out.
But there are creative solutions to these issues, which may in fact be more liberatory in the long run. Instead of just fighting to have our sexual relationships recognized on an equal basis with heterosexual relationships, we could question using sex as a marker for government benefits at all. What if we gave tax breaks to relationships that provided meaningful mutual support, regardless of the kind of relationship— sexual, familial, platonic—in question? Not only would this help queer people who are not out and may be living together as friends, roommates, or even cousins (all common strategies to hide queer relationships), but it would also make space for solidarity with groups working for the rights of multigenerational families, single people, immigrant communities, and working-class people.
Of course, not all rural queer people are closeted or even “discreet” (a term of art on gay dating sites). And I am not suggesting some wholesale movement back into the closet. But any movement working on behalf of the “queer community” writ large is either grappling with the question of how to help those who cannot or will not come out, or abandoning some of our most vulnerable members.