Here and Queer in Rural America

LGBTQ+ people are here and queer in rural America, and they’re reshaping “country” values into something vibrantly disruptive.

lgbtq rural
​”Nebraska,” 2017. (Joshua Schmitz, Spacecase Artist)

What is it like to “live queer” in the contemporary rural United States?

For Mateo, a 23-year old nonbinary queer person from Buffalo, Wyoming—a town with a population of just 4,500—it’s just like living anywhere else, just with fewer people and less to do.

Xander, a 21-year old trans man from Rocksprings, Wyoming—with a population of 20,000—would likely agree. Both describe a lot of aimless driving in their childhoods: around town, on the highway, just a constant state of travel that went nowhere. While dominant framings may cast rural America as a risky place for queer-identifying youth, both Xander and Mateo had a tight-knit group of supportive lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and/or queer-identifying (LGBTQ+) and ally friends and adults.

For us, two millennial women, it was uncommon for queer people to be “out and proud” in rural America in the 1990s and early 2000s. Rachel is from Norfolk, Nebraska—population of 24,000—and Jennifer is from Valley Center, California—with a population of 11,000. Our awareness of queerness as rural-residing youth was burgeoning, but limited to depictions in popular media, such as Will and Grace. And, more importantly, what we stumbled upon in internet chat rooms.

The advent of the internet opened up a new world of easy access to knowledge and social connections previously unimagined. For many people, the internet fosters opportunities to rethink one’s self and place in society. And thanks to the internet, LGBTQ+ activism and visibility have grown exponentially in the past decade.

Mateo describes a formative moment in high school, huddled around a computer on campus: Mateo and their friends were watching a Sam Smith music video. (Sam Smith first came out as gay in 2014). Mateo describes coming out as gay in that moment, declaring their attraction to Sam Smith: He was hot. Yet, the moment was a bit anti-climactic; no one really cared that Mateo found Sam Smith sexy. The group of young teens from Buffalo, Wyoming, had already accepted Mateo.

The internet, and the burgeoning visibility of queer people online, may be one major reason Xander’s and Mateo’s experiences of openness in rural America was so vastly different from ours. So why do popular framings of rurality continue to cast rural America in a cisgender, heteronormative light?

lgbtq rural
Why do popular framings of rurality continue to cast rural America in a cisgender, heteronormative light? (mathiaswasik / Flickr)

A Queerly Complicated History of Rurality

American rural regions have an undeniably complicated history, bringing to mind images of white cowboys, Indigenous tribes, amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesties. The so-called “American frontier” does not evoke strong queer imagery—likely because of the limited representations of rural queerness in popular culture.

The most widely known is the short story and adapted film Brokeback Mountain. The story depicts the budding sexual relationship between two men working together in fictionalized Brokeback Mountain, Wyoming. The story does capture one reality of American frontier ranch life: Worker shortages sometimes fostered greater tolerance and work opportunities for queer men, yet it still represents a constrained and narrow view. For one, it casts LGBTQ+ rural existence as closeted and secret.

While being “out” may have been uncommon in the late 20th century, it was not unheard of. For example, the establishment of the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA) in the 1980s openly welcomed LGBTQ+ participants and spectators in their events. Going back even further, Indigenous and Native peoples of North America have intricate histories of gender and sexual expansiveness that precedes current LGBTQ+ terminology known as Two-Spirit people and identities. These diverse histories of rurality are important to enhancing broader queer cultural understandings. Queer people have always lived and thrived in rural America.

That is not to say that queer people in rural America have not historically faced discrimination. IGRA members were often banned from participating in many mainstream rodeo events. Hate-fueled anti-LGBTQ+ violence in rural regions has also been publicly spotlighted in the cases of the murders of trans man Brandon Teena in Humboldt, Nebraska in 1993, and gay college student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998. Rural areas are also often “white-washed” to the point of symbolic erasure of rural LGBTQ+ people of color. It is important not to forget the annihilation of indigenous peoples, and that white cisheteropatriarchy was a tool of colonization.

Queering It up in the Countryside and Beyond

Mainstream framings often equate being LGBTQ+ with being urban, but queer people have always existed, worked and lived in areas of the country considered “rural,” or regions with comparatively lower population densities. The number of queer people living in the rural United States is growing, with approximately 15–20 percent of LGBTQ+ people calling rural America home.

So why have queerness and rurality largely been cast as incompatible? To some, LGBTQ+ people likely eschew country living because of its associations with conservative politics and anti-LGBTQ+ religious ideologies. Being queer in the country is a topic that certainly warrants more acknowledgement and validation; rural LGBTQ+ populations are growing, poised to cast increasing influence over their communities.

The idealized American value of “rugged individualism” is actively being challenged by diverse queer rural Americans through vibrant community-building. LGBTQ+ activism, notably among youth, has begun to thrive in rural communities. They’re working to disrupt the narrative that rural America is not queer. Mary Gray’s (2009) Out in the Country beautifully documents queer youth’s navigation of their gender, sexuality, and rural identities. Structurally, rural queer people are also pushing for legislative protections, and their activism has been instrumental in helping to pass the 2009 landmark statute Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This activism is making rural America a safer, and as Xander would say, an uneventful place, for LGBTQ+ youth to grow up.

Exposing Rural Health Inequalities

While contemporary queer people who live in rural America are aware of its rich diversity, we need to elevate the LGBTQ+ rural experience into mainstream awareness and compassion. Health inequalities are increasingly rampant in underresourced rural regions, which can disproportionately harm LGBTQ+ people who already face heightened health vulnerabilities.

If we are to better serve the needs of our rural communities, we need to understand and foster its rich diversity and potential for resistance and resilience.

Up next:

About and

Rachel M. Schmitz, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University. Her research interests include gender and sexuality, the family, LGBTQ+ youth and young adults, and qualitative methods. Her current work emphasizes the voices of multiple marginalized LGBTQ+ young people living in rural regions and their understandings of health.
Jennifer Tabler, Ph.D., is a health scholar and assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wyoming.