Thursday, April 30, 2009

Rural (in) tolerance for difference and same-sex marriage

The New York Times has run several commentaries and quasi-feature stories about the Iowa Supreme Court's recent decision to legalize same-sex marriage. You can read some of them here and here. The news story about the court's ruling is here.

One feature this past week-end by Monica Davey appeared under the headline, "Same-Sex Ruling Belies the Staid Image of Iowa." I think it is the only one of the recent NYT stories to explicitly reference Iowa's character as a rural state, or at least the state's associations with rurality. Rurality is often associated with intolerance of difference, and I have previously speculated here about the extent to which a place's rural character (defined culturally, perhaps, more than ecologically or numerically) may cause its residents to be intolerant of those who are LGBT. (I have also written about rural intolerance for difference in the context of the nonmetropolitan South, in relation to the burgeoning Latina/o population there). Davey's suggestion, however, is that Iowa's rurality in fact cuts in favor of greater tolerance because of rural folks' greater respect for individuality and privacy. She writes:
This reluctance to interlope in the lives of one’s neighbors — “a very Iowa attitude,” in the words of one local political scientist, derived in part from the state’s rural heritage — may help explain how Iowa finds itself in this moment. Add to that individualistic sensibility the state’s current political alignment and its little-known, pioneering legal past on once similarly volatile questions, like segregation and the role of women, and suddenly it seems far less surprising to outsiders that this could happen here in the seemingly endless, rolling acres of cornfields.
But this rural association with privacy and tolerance for individuality is, I think, more typically linked to New England (and perhaps the West) than to other regions with significant rural populations, such as the Midwest. Indeed, rural sociologists such as Sonya Salamon have linked the Midwest, in particular, to social conformity and homogeneity fostered by the "high density of acquaintanceship" in small towns. Such conformity and homogeneity typically lead to an intolerance of difference,which would make the Iowa court's decision more remarkable than recent events on the same-sex marriage front in New England.

Perhaps rural differences (real or perceived) across regions are why recent legislative decisions in Vermont and New Hampshire to legalize same-sex marriage seem to have been met with less media surprise and commentary than that generated by the Iowa court decision.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't have a well-developed theoretical take on this, but as someone who grew up almost literally a stone's throw north of Iowa, I have to say I wasn't really surprised by the Iowa court's decision, nor do I find it inconsistent with the rural culture that I grew up with. The phrase "don't ask, don't tell" occurred to me in describing the mindset, and it was the very same phrase used by a friend who still lives in northern Iowa.