Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Coming out in rural America.

The LGBT community has definitely made some strides over the last couple of decades.  Domestic partner policies, the proposed expansion of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act to include violence based on actual or perceived sexual preference, portrayals (though not all positive) in television and movies, and the legalization of same sex marriage in a few states all point to a culture that is accepting people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender.  

Unfortunately, violence against people in the LGBT community is still pervasive, and there is evidence that it may be a bigger problem in rural areas than in metropolitan areas.  Despite reports of  violence in places like Manhattan and Detroit, the majority of reports seem to be coming from towns that I have never heard of, like Grant Town, West Virginia and Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.  Although this distinction is by no means proven, it makes sense that liberal metropolitan areas are less likely to see instances of violence then rural communities, where traditionally less tolerant religious conservatives reside.  It may also be that violence against LGBT identified people in rural areas is less likely to be categorized as a hate crime.  

Of course, there are some glaring exceptions to this general rule.  California residents recently passed Prop 13, which proposes a constitutional amendment that would keep marriage strictly between a man and a women, whereas in Iowa same sex couples can legally marry as of April, 2009.  San Francisco, California is home to one of the most famously gay neighborhoods in the country (the Castro), while Iowa is still perceived (by me at least) to be mostly farm country.  

There is some hope on the horizon, however, as the New York Times reported recently that teens are "Coming out in middle school" with more frequency, and fewer stigmas.  Although terms like "faggot" are still pervasive, educators, families, and communities are banding together to support LGBT teens, encourage tolerance, and hopefully decrease violence and verbal abuse directed at teens who don't fit perfectly into heteronormative roles.  The story focuses on a young gay teen from Sand Springs, Oklahoma, a suburb of Tulsa with a population of 17,000.   According to the article the Openarms Youth Project puts on a weekly dance in Tulsa for LGBT identified kids, and over 120 middle schools in the country have formed gay-straight alliance (G.S.A.) groups.  But, the article also points out that "gay kids in the South and in rural areas tend to have a harder time than those on the coasts", though it goes on to say that stereotypes like this are not absolute, and plenty of LGBT teens in progressive cities are still afraid to come out.  

This examination of perceptions of gay people in rural versus urban areas is supported by my own experience.  I went to high school in a town of about 4,000 people.  There were no openly gay kids at my high school, and the terms "gay" and "lesbian" were meant as an insult if they were used at all.  When I moved to Seattle for college I lived in a neighborhood where gender norms were not the norm, where gay and lesbian couples could hold hands and kiss on the street without being targeted, and where the yearly gay pride parade drew huge crowds of supporters and only a few fanatical hecklers.  

The study of rural livelihoods seems to focus on the rural stereotype: white, poor, undereducated, and heterosexual.  It is important to remember, however, that there are individuals in every community that do not fit this stereotype, who may suffer especially negative consequences if they choose to openly identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.  

1 comment:

dean pappas said...

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Dean Pappas