DES MOINES — Chances are, if you are asked to describe an average LGBT American, certain attributes will come to mind. The stereotype is that members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community are urban dwellers who are well-educated and affluent.
There is a reason this stereotype exists. As the civil rights movement has become more prominent, most LGBT community spokespersons have been highly educated men from larger cities. These are the people the public has seen, and who they’ve listened to. But the experiences of this narrow field of activists are only one piece of the story.
Recent studies have painted a very different and more realistic narrative, showing members of the LGBT community widely dispersed throughout the nation. They are people of all ages, present in every city and town, and grappling with the same problems as their neighbors. In rural areas, gay and transgendered people are struggling to pay their bills, to find adequate housing and to improve and maintain a way of life that they love.
But too often LGBT people in rural communities face additional barriers, such as discrimination, that can result in even greater challenges.
For instance, Williams Institute researchers found in a 2013 study, “New Patterns of Poverty in the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Community,” that about 14 percent of lesbian couples in rural areas are poor. Meanwhile, lesbian couples in urban areas have only a 4.5 percent rate of poverty. In addition, about 10 percent of gay couples in small metropolitan areas experience poverty, compared to only 3.3 percent of gay couples in larger metropolitan areas.
Those were the types of disparities the U.S. Department of Agriculture wanted to hear and help address during a LGBT Rural Summit at Drake University Thursday.
The free event, attended by about 125 people, featured panel discussion and lectures addressing the challenges faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people living in rural Iowa.
The series — Iowa is one of 15 summit locations throughout the nation — was launched by the USDA and the National Center for Lesbian Rights in 2014, before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality.
The summits are designed to function as part listening posts and part informational meetings regarding USDA and local services. They bring together agencies and the public to discuss housing loans, community facility grants, agriculture assistance and anti-bully campaigns, among other services.
The conversations are an extension of internal adjustments at the USDA and part of a much broader commitment by the agency to address long-standing civil rights issues, Sec. Tom Vilsack told attendees.
“We are now a much more functional and better department because we now represent the entirety of America,” he said.
“We are moving in the right direction. And the reason we are is because of people like you.”
The public will need to wait and see what, if anything, is changed at the USDA as a result of the summits. But Donna Red Wing, executive director of statewide LGBT advocacy group One Iowa, a co-sponsor of the Iowa summit, wonders if USDA series sponsorship is a signal that state-based groups should be reaching out more or better coordinating with other national government partners.
“Should we be reaching out to HHS or other agencies to make our needs and our realities known? I think that answer is yes, and I think that we have a window between now and the inauguration next year. I think we need to start making those overtures and see what we can bring back,” she asked.
The immediate goal of these events for organizers USDA and NCLR is public awareness that LGBT people live everywhere, and that they are as diverse as the larger American population. Gay Americans aren’t only urban dwellers, male or Caucasian.
Red Wing hopes this event, which brought together groups of people that may not always communicate, will stay active and networked.
“This event brought home for me the fact that we will not be heard unless we stand up and speak up,” she said.
“I hope we, as an Iowa community — so that’s LGBT, medical, legal and all the representative groups here today — that we as a community and in this flyover state stand up and say, ‘Look at us. This is what we are doing. You need to know that. And this is what we need. You need to respond to that.’”
Of Iowa’s 99 counties, 70 lost population between 2010 and 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. It should come as no surprise that all of these diminishing counties are rural.
That’s the statistic that kept playing in my mind as I listened to event attendees and presenters discuss the barriers they’ve encountered while trying desperately to make a life in small towns and rural counties. And, after spending the better part of a decade reporting on rural trends, I know the sad truth is not all of them will make it.
Whether due to lack of opportunity, need for better services, discrimination or loneliness, a good portion of the LGBT families and individuals now in rural Iowa will eventually move to more urban areas. In addition, there’s a good chance those who are younger will leave the state entirely.
We know this will happen because it is already happening, across multiple demographics. It’s all part of the larger conversation of “saving” rural America. But the more than I’ve learned, the less I think rural needs saving, at least if “saving” is just another way of saying it needs to be preserved as it is now.
Rural areas need new strategies if they are to thrive. Welcoming those who may not fit the stereotypes we hold of farmers, small business owners, tenants and employees would be a good first step.
This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on August 21, 2016. Photo credit: Lynda Waddington/The Gazette