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Identity

How Trump Will Change the Lives of Rural America's LGBTQ Youth

Experts fear his administration will only widen an already problematic divide between urban and rural America.

by Jon Shadel
Nov 12 2016, 2:20pm

Photo by Anthony Majanlahti

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In the early hours of Wednesday morning, newscasters peered across a map of how the United States' voted: its coastline fringed with blue, with much of the rest a bright pool of red. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump shocked pollsters—and the rest of the world—by outperforming in rustbelt states and driving turnout among working class white voters. It felt like two very different nations were vying for control of the republic.

But that map couldn't possibly tell the entire story. Today, the demographic lines between conservative and liberal voters no longer neatly fall within red and blue borders. As The Atlantic reported after the 2012 election, this division now breaks down within states—between denser, increasingly diverse cities and surrounding rural countryside. In fact, it's been said that Republicans have abandoned the prospect of winning over our nation's cities. Mapping the county-by-county results of the 2016 election shows that Clinton swept major metro areas while Trump won most everywhere else, underscoring sharp differences between urban and rural voters.

Unsurprisingly, many complex factors—such as the dynamics of a post-industrial economy and the breakneck rate of social and cultural change over the past few decades—certainly influence this polarity. But don't mistake this as a mere difference in worldview. These political trends highlight the vast differences between urban and rural lived experience in America. And despite the populist tenor of this election season, what's become clear as this week's dust has settled is that the needs of rural minorities have been largely ignored by the news media and political establishment, as the media focused on angst among straight, cisgender working class whites.

Those voters have spoken, and they have installed politicians in our nation's capital who they believe will best cater to their needs. But for gender and sexual minorities who live in rural America, the Trump administration presents a unique set of challenges and threats to their freedoms and way of life.

Rural LGBTQ Americans can often feel like an invisible population, and there's a clear urban-rural disparity today within the US queer liberation movement. Particularly, LGBTQ rural youth often find themselves isolated with few role models and without a community of supportive peers—at greater risk of stigmatization and discrimination.

Limited research about queer rural youth makes it difficult to draw clear-cut conclusions, but one study, published this January in the journal Families in Society, seeks to identify the kinds of support they need.

For the study, researchers interviewed 34 LGBTQ youth, who report receiving little support from their community—saying the reason might be a lack of resources, not biases within the community itself. Many interviewees cite a sense of isolation, reporting that they were the only queer person they knew in their community.

"In my research and talking with rural LGBTQ youth, the biggest challenges they face are access to other LGBTQ youth and supportive resources," said the study's author, Megan Paceley, an assistant professor of social welfare at the University of Kansas.

Pacely concluded that rural youth need greater support in several key areas, both on the individual and community level. Seeing "other similarly identified youth and resources aimed to support their sexual or gender identity can reduce the impact of stigma and discrimination," she said. "These resources are often absent from small towns for a number of reasons."

This doesn't mean rural areas guarantee a hostile environment for LGBTQ people, or that urban areas necessarily ensure a greater degree of support. But it reinforces the notion that the center of the contemporary queer experience is undeniably urban, and privilege of a certain kind comes with living in a community that's often more tolerant, affirming and supportive.

"In urban areas there are typically better support networks, professional organizations, social services and other safety nets to help these young people succeed," said Ellen Kahn, director of the Human Rights Campaign's Children, Youth & Families Program. She emphasizes that queer youth face many of the same challenges—critical need for support from guardians and friends—regardless of where they live. "There is 'strength in numbers' for any minority group, so in rural and less populated areas, those youth who are 'out' as LGBTQ may not have a sense of community."

Certainly the Internet has changed the nature of queer lives across all demographics; that's no different for rural queer Americans. Online resources and virtual community building can decrease the sense of isolation rural youth experience. But Kahn says that those living in the dozens of states without basic non-discrimination protections may not feel safe to come out, instead moving away from such areas in order to live more openly.

Even with widespread opposition to discriminatory legislation, Tuesday's unfortunate plot twist in American politics may cement this disparity.

Today, as President-Elect Trump begins planning his transition with Obama's White House staff, and as protests erupt across the nation, queer America has legitimate reasons to worry. Depending on the policies of the incoming administration, the urban-rural gap for LGBTQ youth may emerge as a primary area of concern.

In North Carolina, where the bathroom-regulating House Bill 2 legally discriminates against transgender people, the director of one community center has concerns for what the next four years could hold.

"I am especially terrified that the example of Governor Pence we've seen in Indiana is what we'll see federally—defunding sexual health education, HIV/STI education, family planning, and so on—in order to funnel money into items like 'reparative therapy,' which is known to do severe harm to young people," said James Miller, the executive director of the LGBT Center of Raleigh. "In a conservative administration, federal and state dollars to do youth development work may not exist, so we must plan ahead to see what private and individual funding we can find to ensure our programming stays in place."

Take North Carolina, a state where many representative urban-rural dynamics play out. The large, relatively cosmopolitan city of Charlotte has, according to Gallup survey data, a sizable queer community, at 3.8 percent of the city's population, making it a center for LGBTQ life in the state. Other urban centers, such as the Raleigh metro area, are home to many of the state's community centers, legal support organizations and other resources. But the state's rural areas have far fewer resources and less diverse (read: tolerant) communities.

"In looking at the urban centers of the South, I have no worries about access to care or services," Miller said, "but it really will be the rural youth that are hit the hardest if the worst comes to pass." In other words, policies from a Trump-Pence administration might not only significantly reverse LGBTQ rights, but also exacerbate America's urban-rural divide.

Yet despite the torrent of negative headlines surrounding the election, Miller does see a glimmer of hope in his work. "I think that when we look at the next generation, we're looking at a group of young adults that are far smarter and more resilient than anyone gives them credit for," he said. "And while the rhetoric we've seen this election cycle has given them much to think about, in most cases it has only helped to cauterize their passion for queer leadership. It is one facet of our center that constantly gives me hope for the future."

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