LGBTQ Pride in Rural America


with Julianna Gonen of the National Center for Lesbian Rights


May 31, 2018

While America’s LGBTQ population is highly visible in select metropolitan areas, LGBTQ people and their families live in every single geographic region of the United States, including rural communities. While challenges that contribute to a sense of LGBTQ isolation exist in rural America, many choose to remain, making homes and raising families with pride.

Julianna Gonen, Policy Director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, discusses the organization’s “Rural Pride Campaign” and advocacy efforts to increase access to services for LGBTQ populations outside of urban areas.

Hosted by: Paul Lisnek Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Lisnek: Life in rural America can be isolating based on geography alone, but for those who identify as gay or trans, that isolation can be further compounded by a lack of available community resources. Well, in spite of this, many choose to remain in rural areas. Hi. Welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers. I´m Paul Lisnek. Joining me to discuss efforts to increase the visibility of the LGBTQ community in rural America is Julianna Gonen. She´s policy director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Julianna, so good to see you.

Gonen: Thank you for having me.

Lisnek: You know what, I want to clear something up right up front, because, while the organization is called the National Center for Lesbian Rights, there may be gay men, all sorts of people watching this. Set them straight. You´re there for everybody.

Gonen: Absolutely. We are definitely an organization that advocates on behalf of the entire LGBTQ community. We were founded in San Francisco in the late ´70s, and initially, we had a focus on family issues, particularly those that were disproportionately affecting women -- lesbians -- who were, for example, coming out of marriages and losing custody of their children simply because of their sexual orientation. So, the organization was founded by two lesbian attorneys, and we feel that it´s still important to keep the name so that there is a national LGBTQ organization that elevates the interests of lesbians.

Lisnek: So, when I opened this segment, I talked about living in a rural area and it can feel isolated. I guess maybe it can, but what I really want to talk about is sort of this image -- it´s kind of a reputation -- that living in a rural area has, when the truth is, many people live in rural areas quite proudly.

Gonen: That´s absolutely right. So, we, back in 2014, we started a campaign called RuralPride, and we did that, in part, to bust the myth that you were just eluding to, that everybody who is LGBTQ lives in an urban area, or they would if they could. There´s this notion that that´s where all the gay people flock to, and that there aren´t any LGBTQ people living in rural America. Now, while some people might choose to leave rural communities and go to cities, they don´t all, and they´re staying in the rural communities because they feel that they belong there, they were raised there. I´ve heard people at some of our meetings talk about being a rural person and knowing what it´s like to live rural. And it doesn´t matter if you´re LGBTQ or not, that´s who they are and that´s where they want to stay.

Lisnek: The reality is, from what you´re saying, being queer and rural are not in conflict. I could be a queer farmer. Right?

Gonen: Absolutely. We´ve heard that, that being a queer farmer is not an oxymoron. We know some of them, and they´re proud to be doing what they´re doing.

Lisnek: Let´s talk about aging, because it´s one thing to be perhaps in your younger years, middle years, if you live in a rural community, but does aging present an issue in rural areas?

Gonen: I think it certainly can, probably for anybody, but it can be even more acute for LGBTQ people, because there is more tendency that maybe you don´t have the same family connections that others do. Interestingly, at one of our recent meetings, I was listening to some local legal experts talking about the fact that if you live in a rural community, even if you´re LGBTQ, you´re more likely to own property, which can seem like a good thing, but then, it can also make it more difficult to navigate some of the public benefits that you might need as an aging person. So, something that can be a benefit can also be a challenge.

Lisnek: Julianna, I know part of your getting the information that you need is by having what you guys call RuralPride convenings. Talk to me about those events.

Gonen: Absolutely. So, as I mentioned before, RuralPride is about elevating the experiences of LGBT people living in rural communities, and what we decided is that we needed to go there and actually find out, what are the challenges that our community members who are living in these areas face? Are they similar or different to those who live in more urban areas? And then, we, as advocates, as lawyers, as policy advocates, can then bring that into the work that we´re doing so that we are truly representing the wide spectrum of people who identify as LGBTQ. The rural lifestyle, to some extent, there´s really no difference between LGBTQ people and non-LGBTQ people who are living in rural communities, but there are some differences, as well. And it may depend on the exact demographic. So, for example, young people, they can face particular challenges because of the culture that might not be as accepting as if they were living in an urban space. They might feel isolated. It´s difficult to find other LGBTQ youth, as well as LGBTQ role models in the adults by whom they´re surrounded. But I´ve also ben so struck by the resilience and the braveness of LGBTQ youth these days who are coming out and living their authentic selves in a way that, honestly, when I was that age, I don´t think I could´ve done.

Lisnek: I just want to briefly ask you, I mean, I don´t want to paint everything so rosy. The reality of it is that marriage issues in rural areas, raising kids, two parents´ names on a birth certificate, adopting kids, it can be a challenge.

Gonen: It certainly can. In addition to the myth we talked about at the beginning, that there are no gay people in rural America, there´s also a myth that once we got marriage equality through the Supreme Court decision a few years ago that everything was fine for our community and there are no more legal challenges. The truth is, it really does matter where you live. We still don´t have comprehensive, explicit, for example, protections in the workplace, legally. And rural communities, states that are very rural, are less likely to have those protections, legally. And, for families, sure, we can get married now, that doesn´t necessarily mean that everything´s fine with families. You might have a state that´s reluctant, as you eluded to, to putting two parents´ names on a birth certificate, to allowing to get a divorce. And we know that sometimes judges who probably did not agree with the Supreme Court decision sometimes take it out on our families by issuing adverse decisions when our families come before them for various matters.

Lisnek: It goes on to show, challenges continue. And, Julianna, thank you for your time and expressing all of this information. We´ll watch it as it plays out.

Gonen: Thank you so much for letting me bring it to you.

Lisnek: You got it. Julianna Gonen with the National Center for Lesbian Rights has joined us. And I want to thank you for joining us, as well. For more great conversations with leaders in your community, across our country, all you got to do is go to I´m Paul Lisnek.

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