Notes from the urban/rural underground: Yes, there are queer people here

Remember this summer, when Rush Limbaugh made his weird comment about ‘lesbian farmers’ and the liberal internet erupted with hilarity because it was just the funniest thing ever? Lesbian farmers became a meme, and people threatened a lesbian farming takeover, and everyone just had a grand old time? No? Well, this summer, Rush Limbaugh attacked a Department of Agriculture farm grant programme on the grounds that the government was giving money to ‘lesbian farmers,’ by which he meant farmers who are lesbians, not people who farm lesbians.

A lot of people seemed to think this was hilarious because, I mean, lesbian farmers? There are no queer people in the rural US. Queer people live in the Castro or the Village! So sure his comment was bigoted and ridiculous, but I mean, really. It was laughable and fun to joke about because it’s not like it actually hurt anyone, and it just kind of highlighted his ignorance.

Well, let me tell you something: Queer people exist in the rural US, and some of those people are also farmers. Those same queer people are living as married couples, raising children, building families. It turns out that rural queers are actually a lot like urban queers, except more isolated. And making a joke out of the idea of lesbian farmers is an example of that isolation. What better a way to make people feel like they don’t exist and don’t matter than to turn their lived experiences into a joke?

Living in a rural community can be tremendously, frustratingly isolating. This kind of behaviour is why so many rural queers get frustrated, and why youth in particular think they are alone and will never find their people and their community until they move to an urban area. It perpetuates myths about queerness and identity that are deeply, seriously troubling, and speaks to the contemptuous way urban people view rural society — backwards, conservative, outdated, boring, culturally void, obviously straight. People who feel isolated and poorly understood, it should be noted, are at greater risk of experiencing mental health problems, and can be more prone to suicide attempts — when you feel like you’re alone and there’s no end to the structural oppression that surrounds you, there’s a part of you that just doesn’t want to deal anymore. When urban people make jokes about rural LGBQT people, they are contributing to that.

10 percent of same gender couples are rural. And that’s just couples. It doesn’t get into single people, those who don’t necessarily identify in couples, and people in other kinds of arrangements. The majority of queer people in the US may live in urban or suburban areas, but one in ten is nothing to turn your nose up at. Moreover, these people are more likely to be raising kids than their urban counterparts. Rural queers also tend to be poorer and are more likely to be people of colour, which is a reminder that rural life is often accompanied by poverty and intersectional experiences of oppression. Some are squeezed out of their communities elsewhere and forced into rural areas where they can afford to live, while others are raised in intergenerational poverty that’s really hard to escape when you’re in an economically depressed area without a lot of opportunities. Rural communities aren’t this way because they’re rural, but because of structural inequalities that marginalise rural communities. Because job opportunities and industry have fled rural America and disappeared in the heart of urban cores.

Some of these people are youth who are there without choice, and are looking forward to leaving (often because of the culture of urban superiority which creates intense pressure to ‘leave and make something of yourself’). Others are adults who have been forced to rural regions by circumstances, or who haven’t been able to leave. Some people are living there voluntarily! The rural queer community is incredibly diverse, from retired lesbians looking for a calmer way of life after decades of high-powered executive jobs to Black farmers who have been working the land for generations and are also queer. It’s hard to identify and express yourself in a world where people tell you that you don’t exist, though.

Queer youth often struggle in rural areas — they feel isolated, and depending on where they live, they may be more at risk of harassment, bullying, and violence in schools. This is often taken as yet more evidence that rural communities are hopelessly backward, which just further feeds the erasure of queer people who are living in rural America. There’s no discussion of the fact that by telling queer people they aren’t present in rural areas, urban communities feed an invisibility and a lack of representation. It’s harder for people to advocate for youth when the adult queer community is invisible. You did that, urban people laughing at the notion of lesbian farmers. You did that.

There’s this assumption I see with young rural queers in particular that their homes are a way station, a stop on the way to somewhere better (the city). That ‘it gets better’ if they’re willing to sit through a few years of school and escape. There’s no interest there in engaging with the fact that queer people exist in rural areas, that some of them want to be there, and that they could really use the support of urban people in building and protecting their communities.

Instead, people laugh about Rush Limbaugh’s ignorance and bigotry, not seeming to realise that they’re showing a bit of ignorance and bigotry of their own.

Image: Moo, dj0ser, Flickr