The Ones We Left Behind: On Being An Ally To Small Town Queers

Going Down (South) is a regular column about y’all being a gender neutral pronoun, how red states are actually more of a purplish color, boiled peanuts, and the trials and tribulations of being a rural homo — with an emphasis on the tribbing.

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Header by Rosa Middleton


During one of my embarrassingly frequent “southern lesbian” google search binges, I ran across an essay by Audri, a gay teen hailing from Mississippi:

I want to stay in Mississippi for college. There’s gay flight in Mississippi because everyone thinks it’s so horrible so they leave. And nothing ever changes when all the gay people leave. And conservative people will never be used to a butch lesbian holding another girl’s hand, or two guys holding hands if they don’t see it.

That was in August. For two months, Audri’s words haunted me. Several weeks ago, they were pushed to the forefront when I returned to my hometown in Georgia.

You see, I was one of those flighty gays who left.

via intrepidation on flickr

For me, leaving was remarkably easy. Because I am educationally privileged, university was my ticket out of Dodge. Scholarships and grants not only funded my tuition, but my exodus. Additionally, getting out was simple because I’d never been truly attached to that tiny town I once mistakenly called “home.” I had few relatives and even fewer friends living there; neither of my parents were even natives of the state. I never had to painstakingly uproot myself. My heart and soul were never planted there to begin with.

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Of course you want to visit the place that shaped the girl you’re in love with, watch all her stories spring up around you, and you get to walk right through them. You just don’t realize how you have to undo yourself to walk down the streets.

- Michelle Tea, Valencia

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I returned to northern Georgia, if only briefly. And maybe it was what Audri said, or maybe it was the fact that my mama is the only person capable of coaxing my twangy accent out of hiding, or how the word “gay” is only used as a slur in my hometown. Or maybe it was some combination of the three. But I realized something important: Telling queer people to leave their conservative hometowns for the sake of being treated with common decency is not good enough. Maybe you’re like me. Maybe you’re on a constant search for the place that’ll make your heart perform backflips. Maybe your hometown isn’t your real home. That’s great.

…But maybe it is. And that’s great, too.

Rural communities are all about staying power; their residents tend to greet familiar faces with warm smiles and tight embraces, while throwing caution and raised brows to newcomers. It’s not unusual for a family to reside in a house for generations, or reference the long-gone as if they were just sitting at the kitchen table the day beforehand. The connection to the land itself is often as intense as those between residents. Sometimes, you spend so many years breathing the atmosphere of a place that you find yourself exhausted and winded when you spend time outside of that comfortable bubble known as “home.” If you were to ever leave, you would break so many hearts, including your own.  This is the essential conflict of being queer in a small, conservative town: Should you chose to live openly and unapologetically, you might be rejected by the very people and things you’ve spent 14, 2o, or even 47 years loving. You might even come to resent the place for the same reason you love it: It never changes.

For a while, the internet was my home. I began coming out when I was on the cusp of starting high school, at the age of 14. For the next four years, the web was both teacher and therapist; it dulled the silence of isolation and fear and reassured me that I was not alone. It also told me that there were lesbians out there who looked more like me and less like the local EMT lady who’d never been married. We were diverse and plentiful. I existed; we existed.

Yet every gay resource I encountered — from The L Word  to blogs to those seedy old MSN chat rooms with more straight men than lesbians — indicated that I should get the hell out of my intolerant hometown, population: 8,000 homophobes. The message was subliminal but clear: Leave. Move to a bigger city. There’s a big, lesbian world awaiting you on the other side with open, intricately tattoo’d arms. 

If you’re reading this and are currently in love with a tiny place that hasn’t loved you back yet, I want you to know that this is okay. You are not small-minded, unworldly, or masochistic for dismissing the silly myth surrounding the mutual exclusivity of gay life and city life. I want you to also know that, contrary to everything I’ve said so far, it is possible to inspire change and build community in your own neck of the woods. You’re already doing it by holding your ground. The world needs people like you; the world needs Audris. I want you to know that this flighty gay is here for you. I’m not speaking as a saint here, but a Southerner; someone who knows her way around a three-redlight town. I may no longer breathe the same rural air that you do, but my lungs remember it. LGBT solidarity is not locational. It transcends those borders. And if anyone ever tells you to move to a bigger place because it’s easier, bless their hearts and tell ‘em they’re doing allyism wrong.

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Many queer community conceptions of place equate rural towns with dearth and death. In my own experience, there is some deeply difficult truth to this. However, the flipside of that equation is that cities are believed to home the only resourceful and relevant populations of queer communities, and rural queers are expected to make exodus to the great glittering cities to seek validity and assimilate, regardless of where their grandparents are buried, or what particular shade of light or stink of marsh mud their heart leaps to.

- TT Jax

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Realistically Speaking

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First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.
-
Mahatma Gandhi

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A common saying heard during my childhood was, “A true lady never talks religion or politics.” Yet much of progressive activism hinges upon doing just that. Whether your goal is coming out to a new person or starting a queer-straight alliance at your high school, you’re gonna have to eventually speak up. And in doing so, you might feel a little bit insane, particularly if you’re the first of your kind. You may even question your own cause. While I was told to never talk about religion or politics, I later realized that this only applied to belief systems which deviated from those of the majority. Your opposition’s reaction will be two-fold: First, they will ignore you in the hope that you will go away. Someone may tell you that, “We don’t have a gay problem here.” Once your critics realize that you aren’t going anywhere, they will react in terror. You may be painted as a radical. Your sexuality may be equated with promiscuity and immorality, which may make your school’s administration even more reluctant to approve such an endeavor.

I say these things first not to be a total Debbie Downer, but because this may be the biggest uphill battle of your life. Knowing how your homophobic and transphobic opposition will attempt to wear you down is equally as critical as knowing what you’re fighting for.

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Do Yr Research

via John Althouse Cohen

Before you seek out an adviser or speak to your principal, have a game plan. Know what you stand for. Be able to talk about why you’re so darned deadset on doing this seemingly impossible thing, and be able to thumb off your rights if necessary.

While The Education of Shelby Knox reminds us that Queer-Straight Alliances in high schools can be ruled unconstitutional if they violate a district’s abstinence-only (read: sex[less] education) policy, the federal government also protects QSAs from discrimination:

QSAs are often formed as non-curricular clubs, which are student clubs that are not directly related to a school’s curriculum. In contrast, curricular clubs relate directly to subjects taught in school. The federal Equal Access Act applies to non-curricular clubs. Under the Equal Access Act, if a public high school allows any non-curricular student group access to school resources, then it must provide all other non-curricular student groups–including QSAs–equal access to the school’s resources. If the school treats some non-curricular clubs differently than others, then it risks losing its federal funding.

What this basically means is: If your school has a chess club or a chapter of Fellowship of Christian Athletes, it’s legally obligated to recognize your organization, too.

Educating others is just as important as keeping yourself clued in. In small towns, word of mouth travels faster than 4G internet. As someone taking a stand, this is something that can work in your favor. Some of your peers might begin taking those first curious and tentative steps toward allyship or coming out, and it’s good to have resource packets on hand for them, as well. GSA Network has a lot of really solid resources available for printout. LGBT Teaching Aids’ comprehensive queer vocabulary list includes All Of The Terms, from pronouns to acronyms. It’s a great primer when working to create safe spaces. When building an info packet, I recommend compiling a nice mix of concrete resources and fun stuff, like personal essays by LGBT folks or even a Get Baked post because no one — not even your haters — can turn down comfort food like peanut butter cookies and homemade blueberry ice cream.

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Safety Nets

When fostering community in reluctant spaces, it’s important to remember to take care of yourself first and foremost. Good leaders understand the merits of self-care. Are you fortunate enough to from an accepting household? If not, do you have a place to go if the shit were to hit the fan? Being actively out of the closet while also having a secure roof over your head is definitely a privilege. Before you do community, you’ve got to do you.

If you have all of those things in place, make sure that the members of your organization have those same safety nets in place. If a member requests anonymity and discretion, respect this. Trust their decisions, and they’ll trust you in turn.

If you or the people you know are still experiencing discrimination in any form, there are places to turn, from your nearest ACLU affiliate to GSAN’s legal resources, and HRC’s hate crime department.

This is not about bombarding you with a slew of phone numbers and links. It’s about keeping you and yours safe. It’s important to acknowledge that fucked-up things can and do happen to rural queers, and they’re more inclined to go unreported simply because smalltown community leaders reek of bigotry; you say nothing because you’re “used to it.”

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Make It Personal

If you have the ability to be out at home, you’ve got to make that shit so personal that it burns. Where there’s disinterest in headlines and percentages, there’s bound to be an obsession with the anecdotal; stories about one’s day, often paired with colorful language, are staples of working class conversation. The mundane both comforts and inspires thought. Just like you’ve never really seen gay people outside of the local EMT lady who’s never been married, neither have the people surrounding you. You can yell statistics on LGBT teen suicide until the cows come home, but these will never evoke the same amounts of empathy that living openly does. Numbers, even when attached to critical statistics, are cold and sterile. Your behavior and the way you love will always speak louder than words.

Avatar of fonseca

Sarah Fonseca diplomatically lives, works, and plays in rural south Georgia. A Lambda Literary fellow, her essays and articles have appeared in The Q Review, Lavender Review, Thought Catalog, Autostraddle and Choice USA's ChoiceWords.

fonseca has written 45 articles for us.

84 Comments

  1. Thumb up 2

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    I wanted to get the hell out of the Detroit area long before I figured out that I was queer – and the city’s economic conditions right now are such that everyone with the means to do so is trying to leave, regardless of politics, identity, etc. But it bothers me that Michigan has become more conservative in my absence, though (as I think it’s part of a larger pattern of all the young, liberal people in that area leaving). If people want to stay in a particular place, it’s true that there shouldn’t be this pressure that they should just leave. For one, having people there who are gay and want to stay combats the notion some conservatives have that pushing for LGBT equality across the land is “pushing liberal urban values” on them – if there are people who were born and raised there who want the same things.

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      It breaks my heart, what has happened to MI in the past few years. I’m from rural northern MI and it’s definitely not just Detroit. The vast majority of my queer friends (and most of my progressive straight friends) have fled the state in the last 5 years or so.

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      As a 17 year old living outside of the Detroit area, I am so eager to leave and move to a progressive, liberal town. I love MI, but I’m getting out as soon as I can. I don’t even have an LGBT community where I’m at and that’s something I am dying to find.

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        I’m not sure how far outside of Detroit you are, but there are a lot of resources. One of them is a student leadership group that meets at Affirmations one Friday a month. It’s the GSA Alliance of Southeast Michigan. There’s also a corresponding FB group, where you can get information on local LGBT and ally youth events.
        I have been working as the adult coordinator, and it’s a really badass group.
        There’s a lot of great people doing hard work to make MI more LGBT friendly, but it’s an uphill battle (and fucking exhausting).

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      I am from smalltown conservative MI and moved to the Detroit area (Ferndale). I don’t know… I’ve been living here years and feel like the city is a breath of fresh air, but maybe that only stands as a testament to how horrible things were for me before…

      But to me, there seems to be a lot going on for queers here.

  2. Thumb up 16

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    My friends and I were just talking about this last night. I’m from a small farming town and want to end up in a (hopefully more progressive than my hometown was) small town, preferably with land large enough for a pot-bellied pig, goats and chickens. Yet, every grrrl and boi that I’ve dated wants nothing to do with small towns, always assuming they would never be accepted anywhere outside of big safe-haven cities.

    There’s a privilege to living in a city that a lot of queers don’t recognize. Just the words we use to describe people show this. Someone is “cosmopolitan” if they’re smart, educated and worldly, but “provincial” if they’re more traditional or even boring. I have friends in cities learning to make their own cheeses, can and preserve, grow their own food and even slaughter their own meat, yet the thought of moving to a smaller town in the country scares them because of the exact stereotypes you explained above.

    Like you, I Google (or OKCupid) farmer lesbians and am always looking for other queers that love rural communities as much as I do. I’m glad to see some rural love represented here.

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      But in all seriousness…. Every forward thinking person should visit Vermont at least once in their life. It has some of the most beautiful landscape I’ve ever seen. The people are so unbelievably friendly it just makes me feel fuzzy inside. People are very supportive of the Arts there and fine craftsmanship mirrors the beauty of the land. You have wonderfully quant New England towns (check out Middlebury!), very rural communities (The Northeast Kingdom!), lakeside college towns (Burlington is my FAVORITE city), and ski towns (Stowe is awesome!). Vermont is somewhat of a Mecca for Farmers Market Enthusiasts, and there is a great community of microbreweries and small distilleries. It is a place built on community and small businesses and I’ve seen towns refuse a Starbucks/Target/Home Depot in favor of their local coffee shop/department store/hardware store. Weston’s Playhouse brings in broadway actors during the summer to out on fresh and exciting shows. SERIOUSLY, everyone needs to experience the beauty and wonder of the Green Mountain State. In summary, Vermont has: Lakes, mountains, fresh food, beautiful plentiful land, coffee, beer, liberals, lesbians, theatre, arts and crafts, music, and the most welcoming, GENUINE people I have ever met.

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        kade did i sleeptype and write this last night? i mean, we share a name, i am suspicious.

        vermont is the best, it is my next door neighbor and i strongly recommend it as a place for feeling more comfortable with your queerness but still standing next to, say, a farm.

        also, while you guys are in vermont, please come next door to MY neck of the woods, the adirondacks! we really need to stimulate our economy, and we’ve got the fucking gorgeous high peaks to hike in, lake placid for olympic nostalgia, lake george for everything you could possibly do on water (as well as hundreds of other lakes) and you should come to my current locale in north creek, ny and go skiing at gore mountain. or come hang out at my grandma’s house with me.

        but seriously please come stimulate our economy. i know you are all good stimulators ;)

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          I mean, you might have hopped Vermont and New Hampshire and come over to be me for a bit in order to write this. It’s totally possible!

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          I grew up in the Adirondacks in the NY North Country and it remains a completely undiscovered treasure. You can take a fucking FERRY to Vermont after taking a train ride through the mountainside like you’re going to Hogwarts.

          But my Dad always said that the North Country’s biggest export is its children – because there are no jobs for us to go back to after college. I’d love to live in the area again, I’d love to see a queer community start on the NY side of Lake Champlain, but I need to pay my billz too.

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      I hear you, QB. Although I grew up and spent most of my life in towns and cities, I now live in a remote village – not even a small town – that is the home of my heart, and I can’t imagine ever leaving here. Certainly not for a town or city, which would drive me round the bend in a matter of days. My partner lives in a city over 24 hours travel away, and can’t bear to live away from the facilities of the city: she feels trapped in the quiet of the countryside. It’s difficult.

  3. Thumb up 13

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    as someone who made a grand exodus from their small town roots and has had to drag their ass back home in the wake of unemployment and no finances, this article speaks to me on one billion levels. fonseca, i love you so.

    i am fiercely loyal to the people and place that is my home, and i love these mountains more than anything. it’s just hard to be away from your other community for so long, the community that keeps you healthy and happy and valid and sustains you when family cannot. i literally want to jump for joy at the rare sighting of an old butch pulling her pick-up truck into the gas station.

    if anyone wants to talk to someone else who is isolated in a land of rural straight people and Romney signs, we should chat.

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      I got the hell out of that same small town. I think the slight difference is that I wasn’t raised there, I only lived there from age 12-18 so although I do feel attached to it (my parent still live there, it’s where I went to high school, it’s one of the most beautiful places on the face of the planet) I don’t feel attached in the same way as someone who maybe was born and raised there. I have often pondered my small-town flight (I did not yet identify as queer or even have the language to do so when I left) and wondered about this idea of the mecca of big cities for queers, weirdos, and artists and all sorts of other “misfits.” If you’re interested in further reading, Mary L. Gray’s book “Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Invisibility in Rural America” is an awesome book. It specifically discusses “gay flight” and has lots of other interesting things to say as well, there’s something for everyone.

      Also Kate, <33

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    I met someone at an LGBT college conference who believed that the right wing intentionally created LGBT cities (LA, SanFran, New York, etc) so that all the queers would flock there and then would fall off the face of the Earth once global warming raised the ocean levels and drowned the cities….

    But on a serious note, I absolutely love this! I come from a small tourist town in Northern Michigan and left as soon as I could. But I definitely miss all.the unique quircks and small town life. I want to go back and do some serious LGBT organizing, but I didnt identify as queer when I was there and am unsure if there isba substantial population to organize with.

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      Yes! My feelings exactly. I’m also from Northern Michigan. I would love to return one day (if only for a while) to do some LGBT community organizing, but it definitely comes with risks.

      I organized the Day of Silence my last year of high school, when still I identified as an ally, and the community backlash that came with that was enough to keep me closeted until I got out of there.

      I think it would be hard to get it up and going, but I think we would both be surprised by the community we could find up north.

    • Thumb up 4

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      Every queer I know from Michigan doesn’t live there anymore. I’m from southwest Michigan. Being gay wasn’t even on my radar as an adolescent because the community there is so deeply homophobic. I just thought I was put together wrong. I’d love to go back to my high school and tell all the undercover queers that they are fantastic. But the administration would muzzle me quicker then “you do you” panties will sell out.

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        I know some queers still doing their thing in southwest Michigan, many surprisingly out and proud in the face of all the Dutch Reform surrounding them. Some are itching to leave but some seem pretty content in lil old Barry County.

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        Yeah, I went to college in southwest Michigan and I got out of there as fast as I could. I didn’t have the strength or courage to come out until I left. I even had a girlfriend for 4.5 years and we stayed thoroughly in the closet that whole time….

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        I’m from SW Michigan and I made my exodus to Ann Arbor as quickly as humanly possible (also before I really knew I was queer). It’s much better here, but still not great since Michigan as a whole sucks. I also know a fair amount of queers who are still rockin’ in SW Michigan, though. Most of them left our hometown (pop. 4,500) in favor of “city life” in Kzoo or GR.

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      Hey girl hey. :) I too struggle with wanting to go back and fuck shit up and thoroughly enjoying my liberal city paradise that is Denver. Maybe someday we can make our own little town. My parents own land in Benzie County… queer homesteading anyone?

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        Oh my goodness. That’s the best idea ever.

        Seriously, all the MI expats! I’m from the Flint area, but spent a lot of time in Benzie and Manistee counties while growing up and miss it dreadfully. Like a lot of previous posters, I wasn’t entirely sure of my sexuality when I left, but I had plenty of other reasons for fleeing the state….and have always felt gnawingly guilty about not going back.

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    My original plan when coming out was to stay a teacher in the small church-dominated farming community my mother grew up in and subsequently fled with the idea that I could CHANGE LIVES and BE THE EXAMPLE and HELP THE FUTURE GAYS. I slowly had to come to the realization that I was not the ‘right’ person to do that, if there even IS a ‘right’ person to accomplish those ridiculous goals I had set for myself.

    But TRUTH, can’t make it only better in the cities. That would suck.

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        I’ve found that just being out of the closet has made me a much better ally. I’ve gotten emails from closeted youth from my hometown who know that my life is the gayest thing since the triangular sandwich cut. It’s two-fold. Being accessible is one part of it. The other part is stepping in and offering support if you catch wind of anyone being harassed or being treated less than the wonderful human being that they are. I come from one of those places where I still know everyone/everything that’s going on, even though I’m miles away.

  6. Thumb up 14

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    THIS ARTICLE. I grew up in a community where my dad never once walked down Main Street to get the mail for his office without saying hi to at least 3 people by name. I came out while I was in a city for college, then moved back recently to save money, because ain’t no rent like NO RENT. But I soon felt stifled. Their constant eyes on my increasingly MoC presentation, my constant eyes searching for anyone who might be “like me.” I find myself going a little harder on the butch details just to force visibility on people who I assume have never had to confront difference in their hometown. Even though I know I’m not the only one, and maybe I should give some of my parents’ coworkers the benefit of the doubt on tolerance, I still can’t drown out the voice saying “You don’t belong here.” I want to be comfortable at home, and hold my girlfriend’s hand when she comes to visit–but I’m just not there yet. Thanks for going beyond simply acknowledging the reality of small town queers and providing concrete advice on how to change your survival mode from “flight” to FIGHT.

    And yet, in the midst of all that perceived unbelonging, my town surprised me. I took the family dog to the local vet last week, and was shocked to see an HRC equality sticker on the FRONT DOOR of the office, as well as on two cars in the parking lot! Maybe one way to bridge the gap between small town straights and gays is with animals, because really. Dogs.

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    I live in a rural area (granted, in Maryland no rural area is very far from a city and so is likely different from similar areas in other states) that sent MD’s only Tea Partier to Congress and “F*ck Obama” bumper stickers are required on every pick up truck bumper. I grew up in a rural area, went to college in a small town and love where I live now. I can attest to this, “Your behavior and the way you love will always speak louder than words.” I’m sure that I’m the first trans woman most people in my area have ever seen. My wife and I may be some of the few lesbians that they’ve ever seen (at least so far as they know). First people gave us dirty looks – and we just went about our lives. Then they gave us curious looks – and we just went about our lives. Finally they simply smiled at us and we all just went about our lives.

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    What an important article–the rural / urban cultural divide is one that is so often ignored–and it’s so often assumed that any queer person living in a rural area is out of their mind! I come from an island on the west coast, very rural but quite leftish , but I’ve had some really interesting experiences in my ex’s fishing village on the east coast: a surprising level of acceptance, actually. I think it’s really important to challenge the idea that all rural folks/places are homo/transphobic.

    If you want to read about a rural queer who loves her tiny hometown enough to start a museum chronicling its history, you should read Emma Donghue’s book Landing: http://caseythecanadianlesbrarian.wordpress.com/2012/10/14/landing-landing-an-ecstatic-quiver-at-touchdown-a-review-of-emma-donoghues-novel-landing/
    Her (classy urban) girlfriend’s journey trying to understand why she loves this itsy bitsy Ontario town so much is so great.

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    I’m not from a small town, i’m from st. louis. but it is right in the middle of the midwest, with all the things that come with that.
    long before i realized i was gay, i was aching to get out of there because i just felt suffocated by the fact that almost everyone around me wanted to stay, that traveling was looked upon strangely. i was a kid obsessed with the idea of moving to NYC and having an adventurous, urban life.

    and i do love it here in New York. and now i work in a field that would be difficult to sustain anywhere else, but having spent time in cities and towns all over, i have to say, there is something very appealing about the true community feel of the queer community in a small town. and i do think that someday i will end up in a smaller place.
    the news keeps telling us that acceptance of gays is growing, and maybe soon we will be at that point where being gay doesn’t mean you need to leave your small town/midwestern city if that is the place that you are happy.

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    Reading the comments made me realise that while I’m not exactly from a rural community myself, there is a similar small-town mentality about “queer people are not our people” when it comes to being from different *countries*. Definitely the “you should stay and BE AN EXAMPLE!” thing that political parties from Western countries (*ahem*Australian Greens*ahem*) try to use as a way of restricting immigration, even though the situation for LGBTQ people overseas isn’t really as safe as they’d imagine. And the comment about how just being visible attracts a lot of “thank you for existing” style feedback.

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    THIS… this speaks so deeply to my experience and resonates so strongly to the core of my being. I’m from a small farming town in southern oklahoma, really small, like 1,200 people small. We are a no stoplight town. I have lived in that town since I was four years old. I have since moved away for college and again for grad school, but that place is and always will be home. The connection to memories that I have to that place, and the people is really indescribable. I haven’t fully come out yet, partially because I’m terrified that I’ll have to lose that place. I recognize that my hometown really doesn’t seem all that phenomenal if I don’t feel I can be open and truly who I am there, but this article gives me hope and courage that I can, and that it is possible! So, thanks for that!

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    y’all…

    if you are a southern queer living in the south and feeling isolated and sniffling a little cause you just read this article and it is your life, you should check out SONG (southerners on new ground), the organization i work for. my work with SONG has allowed me to stay in south carolina and survive and thrive. i would love to talk to anyone across the south who is feeling the isolation of living in a place where all the other gay people left…for real hit me up.

    xoxxo
    j

    also if you are ever in charleston hit me up so i can invite you to the queer dance party at my house…

    also—Kate from the mountains…we are going gay camping this weekend in NC do you wanna come???

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    Coming from a 2 stop light town, I can not tell you deeply this resonates with me. I understand the flight, I am the flight.

    I’m always drawn back, because like it or not, it’s home. Suddenly too visible, I battle against shrinking back into my old facade. Who I was, is a part of who I am, but is more reflective of who they want/expect/remember me to be, then who I want to be or am today. The looks and whispers, perceived malignant, layer until the complexity of it all is too much, and it’s just not worth it, and sweatpants are the best option.

    On my childhood couch, in my childhood house, along my childhood street, I think. Come to terms, again, with the fact I am no longer my childhood me. Golden child turned black sheep.

    Then I get dressed, make plans with friends, meet on Main Street (which, like a gauntlet, you have to traverse in order to enter or leave and yes, is the only street with shops/restaurants/bars). I rock my ALH without a hat, meet the stares with a smile, answer the questions with confidence and truth. I don’t lie, because there is no need. In this game called life, I’m winning even if it isn’t in the way the “theys” would have chosen for me.

    Soon the looks seem more curious and less mean. Sighing, I expand back into myself and strut down all those damn streets. Taking comfort in the thought, that my childhood self would have benefited from a glimpse of authentic me.

    and each time, it gets easier

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    this. oh my god this. there are no words to express how much i wish i had read this 13 years ago as i struggled with being outted in a small town from vt (the nearest traffic light was at least five towns over & my k-12 school had less than 300 active students on a good year).
    while i often feel like i didn’t get out fast enough, i wish i had the courage, the resources and the knowledge that you wrote about. maybe in the end i still would have left at 16 without the ability to ever look back, i would have loved to view it as a choice instead of the only option i saw available.

    thank you from the bottom of my being for writing this.

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    fonseca, I love everything you write so much. It’s all so relevant to my life.

    Although I actually also fled from the small conservative town I grew up in and now live in one of the few parishes that went blue in the 2008 election.

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    My hometown has about 1000 people…and I can never quite figure out how gay okay they are. On the one hand, half of my friends
    from the region are queer. On the other hand, people made mine and my BFF’s lives miserable with their rumours about us being lesbians through high school.

    Loved this article.

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    I’ve thought about staying in my rural community and fighting the good fight, but its just not possible right now. No one would hire me if I was out so I would have to own my own business and that is a huge financial risk. Maybe I can take that risk years from now, but not right now.

    So right now I’m planning my escape. And it’s their damn loss. Gay flight is just a part of what I call “intelligence flight” from rural areas, and state governments are finally realizing it is a problem. These agencies are offering all types of subsidies and incentives to get people to stay in rural areas, and no one is stating the real reason young intelligent people are leaving: they want to be surrounded by other young intelligent people.

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    This actually applies really well to tiny private school communities. It’s full of people you’ve known pretty much since birth, everyone knows each other, and everyone is homophobic. Thank you for this.

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    Can I just preface this by saying that this post is going in my list of top 10 Autostraddle articles of all time?

    I think there’s a misconception that ‘small town’ equals conservative and homophobic. I grew up in the country (literally not even a town, just a village in northern Michigan, which, there’s quite a few of us on Autostraddle!) and I never really felt a negative atmosphere. Maybe I am lucky. Of course, I never had the experience of growing up gay, since I didn’t realize my queerness until well after I’d left. But I came out to all of my high school friends a couple of years ago and nobody blinked an eye.
    I’ve experienced more homophobia living in the second largest city in Michigan than I ever have in the rural community I grew up in.

    Also- funny story, my Grandma runs a motel just down the road from the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. Every year before and after the festival all her rooms fill up with the Lesbians. She talks about them like they are some kind of exotic species (never with any malice, though).

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    This article does a perfect job of saying what I’ve been mulling in my head since school started this year. I came from a small southern town. I flew away to Austin, but the culture I left behind is nagging at me. I think I have to go back, too.
    Maybe we have to leave so that we can come back more informed and be able to say Yes there are rugby teams and QSAs and accepting people and you can find them because they are out there. Maybe leaving is so you come back with the stories the people you left behind need to hear to get through until they can leave.

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    I’m from Alabama (and go to UA in Tuscaloosa). I’m an American studies major, and two of the courses I’ll be taking in that department next semester are Intro to Southern Studies and Queer Culture. I think this is definitely an interesting perspective on our region.

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      I feel like Southern Studies is such an interesting topic. I wish I had that course!

      And this is unrelated but I played at your school’s rugby tourney a couple weekends ago!

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    “In small towns, word of mouth travels faster than 4G internet.” Spot on. I’m from a rural area, and would have never returned was it not for money. I returned every summer while at university to save money, and in 3 months at home, it’s like everything I experienced at school reversed itself and I was back in the same place I was before. The pull my hometown had on me was so strong, but the closet did me in every time. My summers were miserable, spent alone, and never making any friends. Because of word of mouth, the paranoia is extreme when you’re in the closet.

    I am often resentful of people from large cities, who don’t have to be at odds with the ‘pull’ they feel from ‘home.’ Their home is huge, their potential for support is huge. They can easily find another home in their city. There is a community there. But because I had to save money, it was always the worry – choose freedom, self-expression or get myself through school and be miserable in the closet every summer?

    I don’t want to leave the slow-pace, driving 5 minutes to get to the store, breathing the fresh air, seeing the beautiful fields untouched. It’s just so unfair. I want to be home. But home isn’t home to me. I have to leave in order to have a life and it’s just so damn unfair.

    Straight people can relocate anywhere they want without having to worry about being rejected by the town/city they choose. They can live in the same city as their parents or high school friends. They can KEEP the life they’ve built for themselves, and their support system. They are able to grow. I don’t have that luxury and it makes me so jealous. It’s something I think about A LOT. So thank you for this article.

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    I have so much admiration for those who deal with this! I lived for a while in Virginia with my grandparents and went to highschool there and it involved the worst hazing of my life. I mean there was a great moment where a set of diabetic twins who modeled for juvenile diabetes foundations cornered me in a toilet stall and told me that being gay was ‘social suicide, didn’t I know that?!’

    I felt relieved and lucky to leave that town (nevermind the beauteously nostalgic environment and my family) but I always wondered about the other kids in that school and situation.

    If you all are staying in those small places and holding strong remember there’s always the autostraddle correspondence thing!

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    It is like you knew that I just moved back home to Mississippi and that all of this has been on my mind lately. I tried to move away but my entire family is here and my roots are too deep. As soon as I returned, our church started debating whether or not same sex marriage should be included in the definition of Christian marriage. Since I am not completely out of the closet, I have been arguing like a straight ally instead of who I truly am. I believe that I could change more opinions if everyone just knew that I was gay because the people who are firmly “one man, one woman” are the same people who have basically played a part in helping to raise me. One man told my mom at a church meeting the other day that we can’t ordain gays as ministers because they will molest our children. There is on rational way he could think that if he knew an openly queer person. Even though I believe being out would be helpful, I still can’t bring myself to be completely honest. I hate that I have to worry about how some people would react and that I can’t tell my grandmother who is very supportive of equal rights just because I have a pact with myself (more of an excuse really) not to tell any more family members until I first talk to my dad. I also worry about it awkwardly in a disaster when my girlfriend gets a chance to visit. I just have so many conflicting feelings relevant to this article.

    Also Roll Tide to Alex in T-town. (My gf also goes to school there)

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    Thank you for this article.

    I love my MN small town with it’s only-two stoplights. I love having family nearby and a job I can walk to and the house I’ve fixed up over the years. But every now and then, when I realize that “my” community is the gay (male) couple who own the hair salon, me and a handful of bisexual teenagers who will all someday move away, I get a little lonely. I don’t know if I could ever leave, though. Like you say… there’s something in the air that keeps me here.

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    Well, if it fits, this is going to be a looooong post. I didn’t mean to write so much, but when you have other things you should be doing… unrelated words just flow. :)
    It is not really about leaving an homophobic town. But it does include similar feelings about being away and discovering oneself and wanting to get away again.

    So here it goes… if you do read it.

    I’m not only from a small town, but also from a small island: Puerto Rico. My whole life I dreamed of living in a big city like NYC or San Francisco. I guess I watched too much TV when I was little. I fell in love with the Golden Gate Bridge after watching Full House as a little girl, and living in its city would be the ultimate dream come true.

    When I was 7, I spent my 2 months of summer vacation here in Rochester, NY. One of my aunts, my cousins, my sister and I came to visit family here. At some point during the trip I heard my aunt talking on the phone with my father, telling him that I could stay here, and go to school, and learn English.
    There’s this thought in Puerto Rican families mind: there’s always a better life and better opportunities in the US. For my family, I was always “very intelligent”, and my aunt thought the US would be good for me.
    I got very excited about the idea. My parents asked me if I wanted to; and I said yes. But… well, sadly, that didn’t happen. Of course, who would just give up their 7 year old daughter?
    But that meant I went back home with the same dream, but now it was bigger and stronger.

    I always tell people I have not needed my parent since I was 7 years old… based on that conversation I heard back then, and just being away for so long while so young.

    Anyways, after I got my bachelor degree in PR and after living in “the city” (San Juan) for 5 years, I had to go back to live with my broke parents… couldn’t find a job and was bored and frustrated as hell. My uncle asked me to go with my aunt to visit him in a small town in Texas, and he thought I could get a job there, but it ended up not working out. Hurricane Ike was coming and we drove away before it destroyed everything down there, including the place I was supposed to get a job at. I had to go back to Puerto Rico, which felt even worse (even though I now I’m glad that I didn’t stay in a “small town in Texas”).

    The thing is; I though college was going to be my ticket out of PR, but my parents couldn’t afford to even have me living with them back again, let along pay for grad school, not even in PR.

    It got really bad, and I got very depressed. Things weren’t good in my house at all; my sister was also going through a rough time, which kind of brought an argument between my mom and me. I left angry and went to visit my friends in “the city” with enough gas to get there and maybe make it back home. I didn’t even have money for lunch or dinner or anything else… I spent the whole afternoon and night over there and got home at around 5am the next day. I got to my room, and didn’t make it out of there until 4 days later. I didn’t eat anything that whole time, and would only go to the bathroom if my parents were not in the house or at night while they were sleeping. I knew they were worried, so the whole time I was hoping they would just send me to some institution where I could just forget about everything for a moment and be away from everyone, but they couldn’t even afford that. They knew I just wanted to go away and not be there anymore… so my aunts offered to house me here, in Rochester, NY.

    It wasn’t NYC or SF, but it was away from home… and that was enough for me.

    I got here a few days before Thanksgiving of 2008 and finally found a job on February of 2009. It wasn’t in my “field” or related what I went to school for. But it was good money and I thought I’d just take it until I found something that I liked. I was more than excited to get my car and my own place. I kept growing in the company and making more money. It got me trapped.
    On May 2011, I got an offer to travel with the company to Colombia for 6 months, which I accepted. It was the first time I was away from EVERYONE (No family, no friends, no people that “knew” me)… No one knew me down there… and it was liberating. I “fell in love” with a woman and accepted myself as a lesbian. I came out to my 2 coworkers (which became my friends) in the trip and from there on, I never hid it from anyone. It felt great to be by my own and happy with myself and ready to take on this new life. Six months passed and I had to come back to Rochester, where family was around and expected me to act like so. I’m not happy with that… I want to be away… I want to be on my own… I don’t want to have to physically report to anyone… I want to be free.

    Rochester, NY is a very accepting city… it has a great gay community, but I have not clicked with it. It, again, feels like a place I want to leave, a place that is holding me back… I want a bigger city, and finally total liberty. I want to be me, by myself.

    I just lost my job 2 weeks ago, after a second trip to Colombia that brought the same amazing feelings and also after 4 years working outside of my field.
    I’m writing this right now as I’m waiting for my first unemployment check… I should be looking for jobs, but I’m scared that I’m not good enough and that I’m too “rusty” or that I have even forgotten everything I learned back in school, so I procrastinate. I’m overwhelmed by the possibilities, but I don’t know how to approach it. This time I’m hoping I will finally make it to San Francisco, but it is hard as hell and I’m not sure where I will end up and how I’m going to do this. I just know that I want to get away from this city where people still know the old me… and be completely free.

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      We’re in two completely different places, but your story is so similar to mine. I’ve been dreaming of the big city since I was 12 and still not there yet. I can’t wait to be free too.

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    I’m from Mississippi too! Born and raised in Jackson, which is probably the most progressive city in the state as far as LGBTQ rights are concerned. Which really only means that at any given point there are slightly less people who believe that you are going to burn in hell. I’m not gonna lie, I want to get the fuck out of here ASAP so I can have room to grow and meet people like me but at the same time, Jackson is a HUGE part of who I am and I’m afraid of going somewhere else and painting over that part of me. But I guess that’s life. Its hard out here for a pimp…I mean queer.

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    Reading these stories made me feel so many feels. I feel for all of you, every single one of your experiences, and some of them made me cry. Gosh, I just wish life could be easier for all of us, I wish that being a lesbian, or queer, or different didn’t mean we had to give up our hometowns, our families, our communities, and our old selves because it’s either that or a life in the closet filled with misery. I wish there was something that could be done to change things, and faster, within our lifetimes.

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    So I wish I had found this article (and this website and this community) about three years ago, but as it is it struck a huge chord (we’re talking 1000-pipe organ swell here.)
    I was raised in a small South Carolina town who hasn’t so much as had a Democratic dogcatcher since the party switch. It was sort of (kind of not really) acceptable to be gay, as in you could go to the one Unitarian church in town, or maybe some of the more progressive Episcopalian ones, and people would talk about you behind your back, and the guys might make comments about the way you dressed, but usually not to your face. God forbid you be lesbian, or even bi, though. I have no idea why (I suspect it has something to do with lesbianism rejecting the old-boys network that ran my town, because lesbians by definition can’t be expected to depend on guys for support, and *gasp* independent females, and so the male power structure comes crashing down, but that’s my WGSS class talking.)
    Anyway, I didn’t realize I was queer until I got to college, when I met actual real live lesbians and bi girls and wait, I can like girls and that’s ok?
    I fled, though, because my town was small and stifling even before I realized I was queer, but I do feel guilty for wanting to get the hell outta dodge. I could do a lot, I think, or at least something, and someone has to change the atmosphere of that place. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be openly queer there, and I’m simultaneously proud of and afraid for the two friends I’ve talked to who are still at home and slowly coming out.

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