Saturday, August 2, 2008

Intolerance, hate, and the LGBT community in rural America

The New York Times reports today on the murder of a transgender woman, Angie Zapata, in Greeley, Colorado. (Photo of Zapata courtesy of Colorado Anti-Violence Program). Zapata was murdered by a man she had begun dating when the man, Allen Andrade, found that she had male genitalia. According to an affidavit filed by police, Andrade told investigators that he thought he had “killed it.” The Weld County prosecutor has indicated his intent to prosecute the murder as a hate crime, which would add 18 months to Andrade's sentence if he is convicted.

Journalist Dan Frosch characterizes Greeley as a "rural, conservative town about 60 miles north of Denver." In fact, with an estimated 2006 population of 93,957, Greeley meets neither the Census Bureau's definition of "rural" (population 2,500 or less or open country) nor that of the OMB's companion term, "non-metropolitan" (population under 50,000). Nevertheless, because close-mindedness and intolerance tend to be associated with rural communities, I suppose it makes for a more sensational story to label Greeley "rural." Maybe Frosch is trying to convey something cultural with his mention of "rural," though the descriptor "conservative" might have sufficed were that case. Or maybe Frosch is articulating a dichotomy that has only major metropolitan areas on one side, with everything else being "rural."

In any event, the report brings to mind other hate crimes against members of the LGBT community in places popularly thought of as rural, if not technically so: Matthew Shepard near Laramie, Wyoming (population 27,204) and Brandon Teena in Falls City, Nebraska (population 4,671). "Brokeback Mountain" also traded on stereotypes of rural folk as homophobic.

So, is there any truth in these stereotypes? Well, at least two papers presented at the annual meeting of the Rural Sociological Society are exploring that question. Julie C. Keller, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, is studying queer farmers, and Alexis Annes, a graduate student at South Dakota State University, has done a comparative study of gay men in the rural Southwest of France and in the rural U.S. plains. I'm delighted to know that scholars are turning to the topic of LGBT in the country, which has been neglected both in terms of empirical work and theorizing.

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