Monday, April 3, 2017

LGBT in rural America - the need for special programming?

The dominant cultural narrative of LGBT people living in rural parts of the United States is that a person will come out as gay and then move to a progressive urban center. Although true to some extent, this narrative ignores a large population of LGBT people living in agricultural communities. This population faces unique challenges and has unique characteristics that are molded by the circumstances in which they live.

As discussed in this earlier blog post, in 2014 the USDA Office of the Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights, in collaboration with the National Center for Lesbian Rights and The True Colors Fund, began a program to engage with rural LGBT communities. Titled the LGBT Rural Summit Series and the #RuralPride Campaign, the intention of the project was for “federal agencies to share information relating to policies, programs, and services that exist to protect, promote and strengthen LGBT rural communities.”

However, in August 2016 conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh theorized on his radio program that the program is a strategic effort by the Obama Administration to make rural areas less conservative. This led to increased media awareness of the campaign and caused it to garner significant criticism as being unnecessary and a waste of taxpayer money.

Poverty, Employment, and Rural LGBT People 

According to a survey conducted by the Williams Institute, about 10% of same-sex couples live in rural America. These couples are statistically more likely to live in poverty than their urban counterparts. Female same-sex couples fare the worst in rural areas, as their poverty rates jump from 4.5% in a large city to 14.1% in a rural one.

Employment nondiscrimination laws protect LGBT people from suffering adverse employment actions because of their sexual orientation. Typically these are added by amending existing nondiscrimination ordinances, but occasionally they may be drafted as stand-alone ordinances. Some states have passed statewide nondiscrimination laws, while others only have them in specific areas.

According to a study conducted by the Movement Advancement Project, 70% of the geographic area of the United States has no city, county, or state employment protections for LGBT people. This divide is even more striking for people living in rural areas. Of the counties that are all or mostly rural, only two out of 581 counties had LGBT nondiscrimination ordinances. This is less than half of one percent of counties. This is an alarming statistic considering female same-sex couples that live in a state with no employment discrimination law are 9.2% more likely to live in poverty.

Rural LGBT Youth

Although the Summit Series is focused on adults using USDA, the #RuralPride Campaign is more broad in scope and designed for all ages. Just as with LGBT adults, rural youth face unique and heightened challenges. These challenges are also discussed in this earlier blog post.

One study found that 94% of rural LGBT students had heard homophobic language on a regular basis, with 25% having heard school staff members make similar comments. 81% had felt unsafe in the past year because of their sexual orientation or gender expression. 87% had been verbally harassed at school, and 22% had been physically assaulted in the past year because they were LGBT.

Most schools have anti-bullying policies in place meant to address harassment from other students. However, students often do not report harassment that they experience out of fear that it will only make things worse, or that it will not have any effect on the bullying.  In some cases, when students did report their experiences, teachers told them to “man up,” or to not take what students had said so seriously.  School officials may also make students feel unwelcome, especially for students who are ‘visibly’ LGBT, as they may demand that the student conforms to traditional gender roles in how they dress and act.

Students who feel unsafe in school are more likely to be distracted and do poorly in class, and are much less likely to attend class regularly. Eventually, chronic absenteeism can result in status offense charges of truancy or incorrigibility. These factors make it far more likely that someone will have a lower earning capacity later in life, and therefore have a higher chance of living in poverty.


Despite the USDA’s long, checkered past with discrimination(I have discussed here, here, and here), some may view their LGBT efforts as being a step too far, as there have not been any major litigation or reports on pervasive discrimination perpetrated by the USDA against this group. Others may see it as an affirmative step to fix problems before they become litigation, and as being part of a larger effort to reform the USDA. Regardless, a question remains on the necessity and effectiveness of the program.

The stark urban/rural divide for LGBT people clearly demonstrates the need for programming that combats discrimination. The increased poverty levels, lack of employment protections, and harassment of youth make it incredibly difficult for some LGBT people to live in rural America.

The effectiveness of the program is somewhat more difficult to ascertain, as the USDA has not published numbers with regards to how many people have attended the series, or how satisfied the attendees were. Anecdotally, participants interviewed by newspapers spoke positively of the event.

Considering one of the goals was to increase awareness of LGBT farmers, the backlash of the event can be viewed in a positive light, as it meant more people were made aware of it. And attendees were informed about some programs they might not have been aware of before.

Regardless, the LGBT Rural Summit Series and the #RuralPride Campaign appears to have now ended. The United States Secretary of Agriculture has the discretion to set the programming for the USDA, and it is likely that this particular project will not be continued. However, some anti-discrimination programming may be continued. On March 23rd Sonny Perdue, the United States Secretary of Agriculture nominee testified before the United States Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry regarding his four main goals for the USDA. One of these goals was

I will prioritize customer service every day. They expect, and have every right to demand, that we conduct the people’s business efficiently, effectively and with the utmost integrity.
Many minority farmers may hope that "with the utmost integrity" means that efforts to combat discrimination will continue.


dnlauber said...

Thank you for such an insightful post, Kaly. Your post brings up a number of important issues. Specifically, the myth that many LGBT Americans escape the countryside for a better, urban life. This stereotype ignores the fact that many LGBT Americans live in small towns and rural places, either by choice or necessity. ( This leaves rural LGBT Americans somewhat overlooked by the national gay rights movement and underrepresented in the media, making them often ignored as subjects for scholarship and political representation.

Much of the research we read in this course pertaining to LGBT rural Americans focused on gay and lesbian individuals. It appears that there is little research conducted specifically on transgender individuals living in rural America.

Over winter break, I watched the 1999 film "Boys Don't Cry." ( Based on a true story, the film tells the story of Brandon Teena, a trans man who was raped and murdered by two male acquaintances in Humboldt, Nebraska in December 1993, when he was 21. ( Humboldt is a rural town in Nebraska. As of the census of 2000, there were 941 people, 427 households, and 239 families residing in the city. (,_Nebraska). The film was an Oscar award winning hit that generated a lot of attention for its graphic rape scene and its contributions to highlighting issues faced by the LGBT community.

It puzzles me that such little scholarly research has specifically focused on transgender issues in rural America (rather than LGBT broadly), and I believe there is a call for more literature on the unique issues these individuals face.

Anne Badasci said...

I have really enjoyed your posts on this topic, Kaly! While reading this one, I was thinking about the term "grassroots movement," especially as compared to government-mandated or implemented programs. Do you think that, in the wake of the likely closure of the USDA's program, there will be sufficient momentum for rural LGBT communities to rally around? That seems to be a common theme post-election; for example, the fear that Planned Parenthood would face massive defunding provoked lots of otherwise apathetic citizens to donate their time or money. I agree that rural LGBT community members likely feel concerned about potential ramifications of outspoken behavior in places that can be politically stagnant or even regressive, and I think the way you framed that in terms of the narrative of "moving away to urban centers" is interesting. I think it would be really cool to see an LGBT supportive movement really take hold in these communities, even with the lack of government intervention, and focused more on addressing the needs of the community members searching for a change without having to uproot and move to feel accepted. I look forward to continuing to keep in touch with this issue in the future!