The Special Challenges of LGBTQ Youth in Rural America

LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Being in the minority is tough in any locale, but LGBTQ youth in rural America face challenges their urban counterparts do not.

They have fewer local role models of adults who are out and successful. They are less likely to have a nearby agency that specializes in their needs. It’s harder to get transportation to get to organizations and events. And, some rural areas of the United States still do not have Internet access, which means that not all rural LGBTQ teens can get information or make friends online.

But contrary to common perception, many rural LGBTQ youth do not want to move to the proverbial big city to come out. They prefer their native locale, and just want to be safe, according to several presenters at the recent Time to THRIVE conference held in Las Vegas by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.

Robert House of the Denver-based Matthew Shepard Foundation led a session about rural teens with non-conforming gender identities. 

House emphasized the value of telling one’s story, to the degree a person is ready. But lawyer Garry Bevel, in another conference session, advised advocates to beware that a young adolescent may not be able to give informed consent about posting personal material on the Internet, which may still be available decades later when the person is building a career.

He also covered the youth-authored blogging on the Matthew’s Place website, on such topics as masculine vs. feminine, coming out, bullying, leadership, and etiquette. Blogger Kadeem McMillon is a 19-year-old black gay community college student in Pennsylvania. Blogger Jacob Stallman, 17 and gay, writes from his small town in Iowa about receiving death threats and becoming his high school’s first male cheerleader.

It has been 15 years since Matthew Shepard died at age 21, after two men in Laramie, Wyo., abducted and brutally assaulted him, then left him to die. Matthew’s 1998 torture led to federal legislation categorizing crimes directed against LGBTQ individuals as hate crime. It also led his parents to form the foundation to fight bigotry.

Participants in Time to THRIVE’s rural workshop shared their experiences. Las Vegas high school teacher Gary Kilmer, who is gay and out, said he grew up in relative safety in rural Iowa, but pointed to the long daily bus ride to and from a rural school as a dangerous zone for many LGBTQ youth.

“It can be a trap on wheels,” he warned, if bored students tease and bully without an adult to intervene. A bus driver won’t always see passenger altercations if his eyes are on the road, and can’t see if the victim is getting hate texts during the ride.

When participant Samantha Master did organizing among “queer black college students” at traditional black colleges in the rural South, Twitter proved to be a good method for students who have phone texting capability, but no Internet access, to network, she said.

Shay(den) Gonzalez of the Safe Spaces Project said he successfully served LGBTQ youth in Appalachia by arranging monthly meetings and rides for teens too young to drive. Eric Jones in Tucson, Ariz., is helping provide periodic meetings for such youth throughout southern Arizona.

Utah, which is largely rural and Mormon, has a high population of LGBTQ homeless youth whose families have rejected them, Marian Edmonds Allen told the conference on Feb. 15.

In early February, she related, one young lesbian slept in the snow outside her high school after she came out to her parents. Edmonds Allen directs Utah’s OUTreach Resource Center, which has cobbled a network of Utah families willing to host short-term placements of rejected teens while the center works on family reunification.


Photo credit D Sharon Pruitt (landscape) and Matt Buck (flag) / Flickr 


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