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This Is What It's Like to Be Gay in the British Countryside

There is an inevitable loneliness and frustration in being the only LGBT person for miles around. But these days a move away to the big city isn't the only option.

by Nell Frizzell
05 February 2015, 10:30am

Artwork by Nick Scott

During her childhood, deep in the hills of rural Shropshire, the gay postman from my mother's village hanged himself. This was the 50s, when homosexuality was still illegal; when love had to be hidden behind the sexless screen of a sham marriage and the shame of your heart's desire ended up tied around your throat like a rope.

Little, you may think, has changed. While shows like Cucumber celebrate the world of urban gay culture (although it's taken long enough for a gay television programme to come along again), the lives of young LGBT farmers, herdsman, gamekeepers and shop owners seem as silent as a stillborn lamb. Oh sure, The Archers has one gay couple. And Clare Balding strides around the highways and byways of Britain on Radio 4. But young, sexually-active, ambitious gay people living in the countryside? Not that you'd notice.

And yet, they exist. How could they not? "We have always had lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans members on the website since we launched in 2007," says Heather Brown, from the dating website Muddy Matches. "At the moment, we have almost three times as many gay and bisexual men than we do lesbian or bisexual women. But that matches up with statistics from the Integrated Household Survey, which found that 1.5 percent of men and and 0.7 percent of women identified as gay or bisexual."

All farmers are facing a shitstorm at the moment. Dairy prices have dropped so low that bottled water is now cheaper than milk; the long shadow of foot and mouth still lurks over many beef and mixed farms; fluctuating oil prices, feed prices and currency markets make long-term planning almost impossible. The recession is still biting at the heels of small family farms and it now costs more to shear a sheep (which you must do, by law) than you can earn from the sale of its fleece.

No wonder, then, that so many young people in rural communities are giving up, slipping into the well-worn wheel rut of rural-urban migration and heading for the UK's cities. Add to that the isolation, loneliness and frustration of being the only LGBT person for miles and the move seems almost inevitable.

"I grew up in a little village in Shropshire on the side of a hill, surrounded by fields, with no street lights or tarmac," says Josh, a young gay man I spoke to via email. "There were no 'out' people in my village or my school, probably because of the incredibly negative attitudes of most of the kids in my year. So I had no clue that coming out was a good thing, or that it would make me a happier person. Not only was there no one I could theoretically date but there was also no one I could really talk to about dating or being gay."

Because Josh couldn't drive, that isolation was both physical and emotional. "There aren't many dates you can go on if you don't have a car. The only way I could really 'date' other guys was by going to the nearest city, wandering around the centre, playing demo video games in Virgin Megastores and ordering enormous sugary coffees."

Of course, like porn, shopping, stalking your ex and watching videos of dogs barking "I Love You", all this changed with broadband internet. "The internet allowed us to move to the country," says Adam Willcox, who moved to rural Wales three years ago with his partner Andy Richards to set up a smallholding. Not only does it make tertiary sector work possible in a rural setting, but the combination of broadband and smartphones also meant the introduction of LGBT dating apps to our green and pleasant land.

"We have a friend here who we introduced to Grindr. That was quite eye-opening," laughs Adam. "There's lots of stuff going on. It might not all be on your doorstep, but there are people on there."

Are there lots of people in straight relationships looking on Grindr, I wonder? "We live here day-to-day so I wouldn't want to comment on that," replies Adam. Fair enough. Because forget petrol, milk and whisky – what rural communities really run on is gossip. "In a village, it doesn't take long for everybody to find out who you are, even if you don't know them," says Adam. "But people have been really, really lovely. When we first moved in, our neighbour appeared at the door with loads of veg she'd grown herself, to welcome us to the village."

While homosexuality isn't a purely urban phenomenon, nor is homophobia a purely rural problem. "There's this belief that big cosmopolitan cities have the least prejudice to race and sexuality," says a young gay mother who recently moved back to the Cumbrian village where she was raised. "But both my wife, who has always lived in the city, and I believe this isn't the case. When we were living in Newcastle and working for the government we encountered a lot more homophobia, especially when my wife struggled to get paternity leave for the birth of our first child."

She is now the practice nurse at the local surgery – a position that she believes allows people to get to know her before learning about her sexuality. "Whenever they do see me and my wife, they can see how comfortable and happy we are with each other but more importantly how happy our daughter is. I think that quashes any out-of-date concerns they have. I'm confident that if anyone was to question my lifestyle they would simply be told, 'She's just little old L, the postman's daughter.'"

Moving to the countryside with a partner is a very different kettle of nettles to being young, single and LGBT at the bend of a river or in the lieu of a hill. "Where I grew up I knew my options for dating were really limited," says the illustrator Adam Pryce. "At school I always had girlfriends – I think that's because I love being around women – but I only had my first gay relationship when I moved to Manchester. I'm definitely attracted to people who are creative, who can educate me about the world, their views and how I work as a person. I know for a fact that I wouldn't have met such a person if I had stayed in the countryside."

While Grindr might deliver you casual sex and even meaningful romance, caring for your mind in the country may take a little more cultivation. But there is some help out there. "Our recent national campaign has focused on mental health," says Cath Sykes from National Federation of Young Farmers' Clubs. We've been working with YoungMinds and the Farming Community Network to tackle the issue of rural isolation. We have been encouraging clubs to make local links and arrange talks, so that more members are aware of the services available and where to go for help. We also have a sexual health area at our Annual Convention where 5,000 members, aged 18 and over, have access to information and advice."

It's a start. We can only hope that it's enough. Enough to support the next generation of gay vets, beaters, fruit pickers and farmers. Enough to keep them happy and keep them in the countryside.

Because, while you may be standing in some corner of a furrowed field that is forever lonely, you are not alone. Not really. "Don't ever think that because you're the only LGBT person in your area that you are wrong or will be alone forever," says Josh. "Don't ever feel pressured to come out. But believe me, being honest about who you are and who you like makes you feel better."

@NellFrizzell

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