Pop culture portrays LGBTQ+ Americans as urban dwellers, but between 15 and 20 percent of them live in rural areas, a greater share than the rural population. A new study delves into why some choose to be ruralites and what life is like for them. Christopher T. Conner, assistant sociology professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, has conducted in-depth interviews with 40 rural LGBTQ+ Americans since 2015 and analyzed various survey data to augment his research.
Many view their sexual identity very differently than their urban counterparts and "question the merits of urban gay life," Conner writes for The Conversation, a site for academics to write journalistically about their research. The stereotype is that LGBTQ+ young adults who grow up in rural areas escape to large cities with thriving "gayborhoods" so they can feel normal and accepted, but research by Conner and others shows that many who flee to the cities ultimately return home. His interview subjects commonly downplayed their sexual or gender identities and focused on other parts of their lives such as sports, music, nature or games. They said they found urban gay culture to be shallow and too focused on sexuality as the defining characteristic of life.
Rural LGBTQ+ Americans are often shown as lonely and less able to live openly, "but my analysis of a 2013 Pew survey of LGBTQ Americans – the latest available comprehensive national survey data on this population – showed that LGBTQ rural residents are actually more likely to be legally married than their urban counterparts: 24.8% compared with 18.6%. This aligns with what I’ve heard in interviews. The rural LGBTQ people I spoke with placed a high value on monogamy – on what many of them consider a 'normal' life," Conner writes. "Those who returned home from urban gayborhoods also told me they found gay city living rarely delivered on its promises of companionship and inclusion. Many said they had experienced rejection while trying to date or develop a social circle. And they had missed the charm of small-town life."
However, Conner notes, rural Black and Latino LGBTQ+ people tend to face more difficulties because, according to a 2019 report, "discrimination based on race and immigration status is compounded by discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression."
Some interview subjects said they'd rather live in rural areas because they would face discrimination no matter where they are, and living in small towns allows them to focus on other parts of their lives they feel are more important. "For some LGBTQ Americans, then, rural life allows them to more fully express themselves. Given the variety of issues facing LGBTQ Americans, from health care access to work problems, the rural world is not an escape from discrimination," Conner writes. "But neither are urban areas."