To gain a personal perspective on the LGBT experience in rural communities, I contacted a friend in rural Iowa.
My friend’s name is Ryan Hayes. He is in his early 20s and was born and raised in Lehigh, IA, a city with a population of 416 in the nonmetropolitan Webster County. Ryan is, currently, attending Buena Vista College, in Storm Lake, IA, where he is double majoring in Psychology and Human Services. He hopes to work for the state’s child protective services department or in a career related to child welfare.
I first met Ryan, while I was working on President Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012. Ryan was one of the volunteers I had recruited to work on the campaign in Webster County. I have come across few individuals as genuine, well-spoken, and motivated as this young man.
I called Ryan, on Sunday, October, 19, 2014, to gain insight into his experience being open about his sexual identity in rural Iowa.
Q: When did you know and fully accept that you were gay?
A: "I have always known I was gay, ever since I was in elementary school. I always gravitated towards being gay, but didn’t fully accept it until high school. In middle school, I told myself I could always try to like girls. So, I’d have girlfriends to show people that I wasn’t gay…"
Q: Did you seek relationships with girls because you wanted to get a better understanding of whether you were gay, or did you seek relationships with girls because of pressure from others?
A: "I tried to like girls because of people around me. I always wanted to show people that I wasn’t gay. I conformed to make other people happy."
Q: Did you feel you could be open about being gay with:
A: "Not right away. I was in my freshman year, when I fully accepted myself being gay. But I didn’t fully come out until 2012. That’s when I first told my family. They were the last people to know. I always knew that they would be accepting of it. They are very accepting now. I just wanted to find the right time."
A: "Yeah, my friends were the first people I told. All of them were very accepting. They understood. Some of them weren’t surprised. Those that were surprised didn’t make it a big deal. During my sophomore year of high school, I told best friend. She’s bi-sexual, and she was very supportive and helped me unravel it to everyone else… I’ve always had straight friends and almost everyone I’ve told has been straight, and they have been very cool with it."
A: "Yeah, the community has been very good about accepting it. I’ve never been ostracized. If anyone has felt any indifference, I don’t know if they have because they’ve never show it."
Q: Did you ever experience any discrimination because of your sexual orientation/identity?
A: "I, honestly, never have. I’ve been in the community forever and know a lot of people. I haven’t really gone through anything. It’s pretty much been a smooth ride."
Q: What if you had come out in some neighboring counties like Pocahontas County or Calhoun County, do you think you could have been as open?
A: "No, I don’t think so. Webster County is pretty progressive, pretty liberal. If you get up there in northwest, where it is more conservative, I think I would have a hard time. I would feel more out of place."
Q: Have you ever felt like an outsider?
A: "Sometimes, when Ben (Ryan’s partner) and I go out. We went out on Valentine’s day for supper. You feel like all eyes are on you and people are judging you and trying to figure out what we’re doing out on Valentine’s Day. In the back of my head, I always feel out of place and wonder what people are thinking. Also, if we go to the movies on a Friday night, without our friends, I get this feeling of anxiety. I mean I shouldn’t care what people think, but I feel that way.
Q: Do you think rural communities are doing enough to be tolerant/supportive of individuals who identify as LGBT?
A: "Honestly, I feel like it’s kind of ignored. I don’t think people really want to talk about it or face the issue. It’s swept under the rug. I don’t know if that’s because there aren’t that many LGBT people in rural communities, but it’s not a big issue, though it should be. I think it has gotten better, recently, because of the national gay movement, which has set the stage for rural communities to accept the issue."
Q: What do you think rural communities could do to better address the interests of the LGBT community?
A: "I think bringing some type of education and awareness to kids in rural communities. One time, we had a speaker come in to our school and talk on LGTB issues. I think it starts with education and awareness."
Ryan closed his interview with this beautifully eloquent statement: "I hope that, 20 years from now, this is an issue we can talk about more openly. It’s an issue that people can be open about and accept, not “tolerate.” I hate the word “tolerate.” I tolerate paying taxes. I don’t think human being should be tolerated. Human beings should be accepted and embraced for who they are."
Ryan’s story provides insight into the experience of individuals in rural America, who identify as LGBT. He has never experienced any direct discrimination in rural communities. He has not migrated to an urban sanctuary, and I don’t think he intends on ever leaving rural Iowa. He has been accepted by his friends, family, and community for what he is--an intelligent, sensible, and compassionate young man, who happens to be gay. I hope that rural communities swiftly move toward building an embracing and accepting environment for those who identify as LGBT.