Growing up, I was a classic baby dyke who wore only ‘boy’ clothes, cut my hair into a mullet (my mom wanted me to have long hair; I wanted it short—the mullet was our compromise), and joined Little League instead of the local dance studio. But my family, all of whom were born and raised in the same small town where I grew up, called me a “tomboy”. To think I would grow up to be gay was out of the question, either because nobody wanted to think such a ‘terrible’ thing about me or because it didn’t seem like it was possible in our rural town. But there I was: their little tomboy who did indeed grow up to be an out and proud lesbian.
I grew up in a small town (population 3,000) in Central Pennsylvania, surrounded by farmland and other much smaller towns. My hometown is so small that it has as many bars as there are churches—and little else. It was a once-booming coal town that became all but decimated once a Walmart rolled in, promising jobs to the locals. Most everyone there identifies as Christian. Most everyone is white. Most everyone is straight. Or presumed straight, I should say.
No matter where you live, it isn’t always easy being queer. But when you’re living in rural America, it’s even harder. Most of my LGBTQ+ friends that I went to high school with all got the hell out of town almost immediately after graduation. The ignorance and homophobia choked us, slowly draining our will to live. But we were young and free to do what we wished, so most of us escaped. Most. Not all. I escaped that town a month after my high-school graduation, itching to escape the blatant homophobia, but some of my friends chose to stay, either out of fear of the unknown, a desire to be close to family, because they truly loved it there, or not understanding that life outside our insular bubble could be different and better.
What’s a lesbian who loves the rural life but hates being called a dyke at the grocery store to do? Does she push herself into the closet, never to come out, introducing her lover to everyone as her ‘roommate’? Or is she a trail-blazer, insisting that everyone respect who she is, lesbianism included? I chatted with a couple of my friends in my hometown who, for their own reasons, chose to stay in our rural town, homophobia be damned.
Cheryl* is a 38-year-old lesbian who has been engaged to the same woman for 15 years. She’s an emergency room nurse in a neighboring town.
Jessica* is a 25-year-old mom of four who was married to a man until a couple of years ago when she realized she wasn’t bisexual like she’d originally thought. She’s a raging lesbian and wanted to be her authentic self.
Both Cheryl and Jessica agreed to be interviewed for this piece because they wanted to 1) dispel any notions that rural folks are all homophobic idiots, and 2) share their experiences as rural queers, perspectives that are often silenced over the din of the more vocal urban queer voices.
GO Mag: Let me just ask the obvious: Are you completely out of the closet?
Cheryl: Yes. To family, friends, coworkers. That wasn’t always the case, but I found the older I get, the fewer f*cks I give. If someone wants to badmouth me either to my face or behind my back (which is honestly what happens most often and I always hear about it later), then so be it. That’s a reflection of their character, not mine. But I say this as someone who is gainfully employed with a partner. I may be singing a different tune if I was job searching or single and didn’t have the constant support of my partner.
Jessica: I am out to the people who matter: my closest friends and family. I am not out at work, and I’d like to keep it that way. Most of them just think my ex-husband and I divorced because we fell out of love. My kids don’t know yet either; they’re all pretty young, and I figure I’ll tell them when I get a serious female partner, whenever that may be.
GO: Do you find it challenging to find other lesbians or queer people in the area?
C: I’d say there aren’t too many of us. But those of us who are gay, well, we tend to flock together. So while my group of gay and lesbian friends is small, it does exist and I’m comfortable with that. Can’t say I find any new gay people flocking to town though, ha!
J: Yes, definitely. It seems like most of the gays and lesbians I grew up with moved out of the area as soon as they could. I feel like I’m one of only a handful of lesbians here, and that makes trying to date a challenge. I tried Tinder once and laughed cuz what else could I do—the only other lesbians in the area seemed to be at least a decade older than me.
GO: Do you ever fear for your safety because of your queerness in this town?
C: No. Sometimes at bars, a man will have a few too many and talk about what I ‘need’ to convert me away from being a lesbian, and it usually involves him and a bed. (Laughs). Fortunately, I’ve got enough life experience to know they’re just full of bravado. I’ve never felt in danger here.
J: No, not really. What I’m more afraid of is people rejecting me for being a lesbian. Not physical safety more just…more I fear for my emotional safety here. Sometimes I feel very, very alone as a single mom to four kids.
GO: What is life like for you as a lesbian in a small town?
C: I feel like my perspective of small-town life has very little to do with my lesbianism and everything to do with the small town way of life. My neighbors and I all know and care for each other. I can’t go to the grocery store without bumping into an old friend, and I like it that way. I like knowing the community I live in and I like the comfort that comes with that. I’ve visited big cities before and hate them all. I have no idea how anyone can live in that much noise and with that many people surrounding them.
J: I wish I didn’t live in a small town, but I’m stuck here because I have small kids and an ex to co-parent with. Plus my family is here. Small town life for me makes me feel small and unseen. I like that there’s a community here that seems to truly care about my kids and me. But I also feel suffocated by it. I can’t turn around without bumping into someone I know and then we have to have small talk and just… I hope to leave here. Someday.
GO: What are some of the challenges you face as a lesbian living in a rural area?
C: I guess the gossip gets to me sometimes, at least it did when I was younger. There’s less of that now that people know I’m a lesbian and basically are over it at this point.
J: I feel alone a lot, like I’m the only one. I feel nervous about the rumor mill and how quickly it travels. I don’t like that I’m not completely ‘out’, either. I think that’s why the rumor mill makes me nervous. The secret doesn’t feel good.
GO: What advice do you have for a young queer kid growing up in rural American who may not have a lot of (or any) support?
C: Find your people. It doesn’t matter if they’re gay or straight, but find the people who love you for who you are and don’t make you feel shitty about it. Know that you can leave when you graduate high school if that’s what you want. And you should also know that you can make a life for yourself wherever you want. As cliche as it sounds, it really does get better. Promise.
J: I hardly feel qualified to be giving advice. But what I would say is: listen to your gut. Don’t go out and marry someone of the opposite sex just because that is what you think you should do, or what you know other people want you to do. Follow your heart and be true to yourself.
Living in rural America comes with its challenges as a queer person. It can be isolating when you feel like you’re the “only” one (and sometimes you are!). But there are ways to combat the loneliness and prejudice you may face. Find your community and embrace them, no matter how big or small it may be. Don’t give of yourself—your time or presence—to people who don’t accept you just as you are. Rural folks tend to like where they live because it feels safe; nothing much changes, and most everyone around them is just like them, so a lot of their homophobia stems from lack of exposure to us queers. Sometimes all it takes is a little education that the LGBTQ+ community is just like everyone else (but a little more fabulous!) We want to belong, we want to feel safe, and we want love and support.