We Are Everywhere: Queering Rural America

False narratives of the absence of queer people in rural places are ever present. Here’s how creatives and activists can tell a truer story.

Finding authentic LGBTQ + imagery can be difficult. Content gaps create barriers for customers who want to tell diverse stories. These issues further contribute to the stereotypes and limitations that complicate the way LGBTQ + people move through the world. They also influence the way people understand queer culture through the media’s lens.

Reclaim Rural Beauty

Often, imagery focuses on Pride parades, overly sexualized concepts, trauma pornthe isolation of queer subjects in a shot composition, and queer-baiting storylines.

Imagery also often lacks equitable racial and cultural representation. It places a strong emphasis on youth, less diverse body typesable-bodiedness, and an even stronger emphasis on economic privilege and metropolitan identity.

A quick search for “rural LGBTQ people” turns up images such as isolated rainbow flags in corn fields, two young women kissing while vacationing at a luxury spa, beautiful picnics in vineyards, older white queer men posing in shiny convertibles, faceless models hiking solitary paths with nice athletic gear. . . you get the picture.

The privilege to travel is a wonderful experience. I love vacationing with my partner and am a huge fan of hiking in the mountains with queer friends.

As a gay woman and former country kid, I can’t help but notice that rural areas are typically only portrayed as “pretty” places through the gaze of tourism.

But what about the people who live there?

We can tell stories of places by selecting photos that fully represent a destination’s residents and visitors. There are so many rural places and people worthy of being seen and called beautiful, too.

Images via Anna Barash, EB Adventure Photography, Eugenio Marongiu / Image Source, i_am_zewsand carlesmiro.

Top view of young gay couple with backpacks walking side by side
Image via Francesco Buttitta / Westend61.

Show Shifts in Queer Populations and Locations

A part of LGBTQ + history that’s come to be known as the Great Gay Migration, saw a wave of LGBTQ + plus folks moving to San Francisco and New York City throughout the 1970s.

Portrayed as queer paradises, these urban areas attracted a large number of LGBTQ + people who were trying to escape their conservative environments.

Today, rural areas are still depicted as spaces of conformity and backward thinking. This further supports the narrative that cities are the sole space to find liberation, acceptance, friendship, and allies.

Many factors play into one’s housing decisions, today. Relocating can be based on various reasons. Moving to a major city is not the norm anymore, and for many, it’s not financially feasible or sustainable.

Associating LGBTQ + representation based on a person’s proximity to a city takes a simplistic view of queer life.

Images via aguscrespophoto, Vachonya, Hassel Stock, Marcel Van der Horstand Cavan Images.

According to a 2021 study by the Equality Federationmore than three million people who identify as LGBTQ + live in the rural United States.

So, why isn’t this reflected better in the media that we consume? When we do see queer rural characters in television and film, why are they portrayed as stereotyped sidekicks or associated with high anxiety and trauma?

To be fair, there’s been a recent increase in rural living and it’s important to note that rural America hasn’t always been the most affirming and safest place for LGBTQ + people.

Still, many queer people enjoy country living. They like living close to their families, enjoying a more relaxed pace, having a close sense of community, and sharing a connection to the land.

Young child in sleeveless dress smiling in the mirror
Image via Rushay.

We Are What We See

Assuming it’s impossible to have a thriving queer identity outside of urban areas is reductive. This way of thinking erases the lives and contributions of rural LGBTQ + people.

When we only produce content that reinforces the misconception that all queer people live in major cities and luxury housing, we’re not telling the whole story.

In recent years, large strides have been made in terms of improving LGBTQ + visibility in television and film. I’ve appreciated the characters in shows such as Netflix’s Sex Education, The Umbrella Academy, Never Have I Ever, Specialand HBO’s Gentleman Jack.

However, the recent release of HBO’s Somebody Somewhere is a breath of fresh queer county air. The show includes gay and trans characters living out and proud in a small Kansas town.

These folks have diverse careers and live in everyday homes. They deal with the rollercoaster of life and their existence is not defined by their relationship to escaping homo-transphobia and violence. I didn’t realize how much I needed to see a story like this until I hit play.

Images via Mikel Taboada / Westend61 and Cavan Images.

Previously, with the exception of shows like Schitt’s Creekrural LGBTQ + characters were shown as extremely closeted, depressed, suicidal, stifled, and were desperately fleeing to big cities, fearing hate and harm.

Storylines such as Russ Langmore from Ozark plays into this trope and continues the long harmful ideology of Bury your Gays in storytelling.

Visual content tells us so much about ourselves and the environments that surround us. Images are teaching tools for how others see queer people and how queer people see themselves.

Today’s technology has provided a way for us to consume media more than ever before. Just open your phone and start scrolling. It’s like saying, “You are what you eat.” Well, we are what we see. . . or don’t see.

Negative or minimized portrayals and media shortcuts are especially influential on LGBTQ + youth. If you’re a queer rural kid, your full identity isn’t validated or celebrated.

Everything you see tells you that the only way to find success and happiness is to move to the city. Then, and only then, will you be embraced, be cool, be good enough, and live in some form of socio-economic paradise.

This isn’t the reality for most LGBTQ + youth or adults.

Images via Annette Shaff, oneinchpunch, StockMediaSeller, Megan Frost Photography, Johnérand Bing Wen.

Man wearing red lipstick and sweater sleeping among a field of daisies
Image via Maskot.

Never Adhere to Stereotypes

Willie Carver, JrKentucky’s Teacher of the Year, has seen first hand how the lack of positive queer rural representation has impacted his students.

An out and proud LGBTQ + Appalachian educator and activist, Willie champions justice, inclusionand equitable visibility and accessibility for historically excluded youth and their communities.

The concept among rural people is that you have to move away for safety and happiness. A lot of my students have experienced secondary or collective trauma as opposed to direct trauma. It’s really important for them to see queer joy.

Variety is the answer. Don’t gloss over poverty. . . Being blue collar doesn’t have to be ugly. You don’t need to put people in a barn to define rural stories. You could easily put someone in a cute downtown space in a small town.

Young people are the future of storytelling and are owning their narrative. They want to see people being exactly who they are without trepidation.

Willie Carver, Jr.

Images via Robert Reed, DisobeyArt, Drazen Zigic, Akira Kaelyn, MDV Edwards, kamir_vpand Lighthunter.

Being conscious of avoiding stereotypes of rural and blue collar folks is key here. As we tell the stories of LGBTQ + communities moving forward, it’s imperative to include people from those subsections of the community, as well.

Low angle view of lesbian couple holding hands
Image via Cavan Images.

Include People In Their Own Homes, On Their Own Terms

By neglecting positive rural queer representation, perpetuating reductive stereotypes, and legitimizing offensive caricatures of working class people, we only continue to define rural identity as something that strips people of dignity. This isn’t true and needs to be repaired.

There’s a surge in rural queer storytelling activism and artivism. Works such as Rachel Garringer’s Country Queers oral history archive and film projects like returning to the Navajo reservation in Crownpoint, New Mexico and Forbidden: Undocumented and Queer in Rural America seek to document the lives of rural queer people in their own words.

Images via CREATISTA, Odua Images, LightField Studios, Marisol Rios Campuzano, SvetlanaSFand cesar ferdandez dominguez.

Let’s show representation that aligns with today’s research. Many rural queer people are thriving because of where they live, not in spite of it.

Let’s create content that shows intersectional LGBTQ + folks making art, hiking in the woods with friends, working in their gardens, hanging out in the heart of their town square, farming with pride, living their best life at local festivals, buying an everyday home, attending concerts with their families, and celebrating Pride with a good ole ‘lesbian potluck with local cuisines, picnics in the hills with delicious farm to table foods, a queer tea dance with a bonfire, or a fun camping adventure.

LGBTQ + rural communities deserve better. They deserve dignity. They deserve more authentic representation because we’re here, we’re queer, and we’re not going anywhere.

Gender fluid man dancing against clear sky on sunny day
Image via Tania Cervián / Westend61.

Cover image via carlesmiro.

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