Notes From a Provincial Queer: Coming Out in the Country
What is it like when you are trying to come out in a rural area?
As queer theorist and poet Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick explains in Epistemology of the Closet: ‘there are remarkably few of even the most openly gay people who are not deliberately in the closet with someone personally or economically or institutionally important to them.’[i] She goes on to explain how ‘heterosexist presumption’ leads to continual encounters where we have to make decisions about disclosing our sexuality. As Richard, a gardener from Norfolk, spoke about in my previous piece, he was constantly assumed to be straight because of his job. The invisibility of LGBTQ+ people in rural areas has often meant a greater degree of ‘heterosexist presumption’ in the country than the city, which, in turn, has often made the process of coming out more fraught. This invisibility is supported by research carried out by Dr Catherine Lee, which shows how teachers are less likely to come out in rural schools and more likely to suffer from mental health illness. People of all ages are less likely to come out in an environment where there is a visible lack of role models, support and allies, and for much of the countryside this is, unfortunately, still the case.
A largely positive aspect of rural culture that is often lacking in more urban environments is the interconnectedness of people, but this also means less anonymity. When I came out at eighteen, I only had to tell a couple of my friends before word spread around amongst the rest of my school year and the village. I knew one of my friends was a bit of a gossip and used this to my advantage, so that I did not have to tell everyone. However, the lack of confidentiality means that some gay people are outed without their consent. Craig, from Suffolk, who had married and had a son, split from his wife after several years of being together. He was out to her and to one other person but not his family. His mother, who was a cashier in a supermarket, was at work one day when someone she vaguely knew as a friend of her son came through the checkout and said, ‘I went out with Craig and the other gays to Betty’s[a former gay nightclub in Ipswich] the other night.’ Craig explained that his mum could not believe what she was being told and phoned him to check. Craig admitted that he was gay but they did not talk anymore about it, his mother assuming that it was simply ‘a phase’. A short while later Craig entered into a relationship with a man. A year or two later, another friend went through his mother’s checkout and said, ‘Isn’t it wonderful Craig’s son is really accepting of his new fella?’ Finally Craig’s mum was made to confront her son’s sexuality. They worked through it and now have a good relationship. Craig believed that a lot of his mother’s angst was about the news being spread around: ‘I think my parents were embarrassed. They were embarrassed about what the neighbours were going to say. I think if I’d lived in a bigger area, a city maybe it may have been easier. Here everyone knows everybody’s business. I remember the comments they used to make about the hairdresser. It did make it harder to come out.’ For gay people who remain in the place they grew up, the process of coming out can take longer than for those of us who move away. Craig’s partner, Jon, said, ‘I remember my teenage years and going through turmoil. I heard some derogatory things said about gay people, even from my own parents. I told my parents when I was 25, and I’d been having a relationship with someone for a year and a half in secret.’
The differences for those who stay in their rural community and those who move away are clear from Jeremy’s experience as one of three siblings who came out as gay. Jeremy grew up in a small coastal town, before moving to a village. Jeremy’s older brother had a similar experience to Craig in that he married before separating from his wife, moving away for several years. ‘At that time, it was really difficult because my father worked in the hospital and my brother also worked in the hospital and it was one of these sorts of communities where the word went round really quickly and he was really an outcast from the family. My brother left the hospital, moved away, right away. And we didn’t see anything of him. He was in his early 20s. He moved down to the south for a while.’ Jeremy’s younger brother also moved away, eventually to Australia for several years, before revealing that he was also gay. During all of this, Jeremy was also coming to terms with his sexuality, ‘Can you imagine, I was in the middle of this? I was sitting there thinking, well me too. But I was going out for drinks with my dad. I was probably closer to my father than anyone else. It was really difficult being in the middle. Some people might think it was easier because you’ve got two that have come out and I was the third one. It was complicated at the time because there was nowhere to go, there was no support…I was working in a male environment within BT. So, my emotions were suppressed to my mid or late twenties before I could even start to experiment.’ For LGBTQ+ people who remain in the place that they grew up, delaying coming out may be a reasonable response to circumstances.
While homophobia is sometimes still an issue, it is often the lack of resources and practical support that inhibit people from coming out. The lack of LGBTQ+ space, emotional support networks and services means that there are few places to turn other than online. A lot of young people are using YouTube to reach peers, and the ‘YouTube coming out story’ has become a genre in its own right, with many youngsters from rural areas talking about their experiences. But for some older gay people, who may not be as computer savvy, the same social interaction on the internet is not something as immediately accessible to them. One respondent explained, ‘I just never got into computers.’ They also said that as a single person they are assumed to be straight.
As has often been the case in LGBTQ+ history, change can come out of tragedy. In 1999, Jeremy’s younger brother was killed in the Admiral Duncan bombing in Old Compton Street. Jeremy explained how the tragedy brought greater acceptance to the community where he and his parents lived. ‘When my younger brother was killed it hit the whole community in Felixstowe. My dad had all the support of people in his local bowls club, all round town. Everyone supported them because they knew them and it educated them a little bit. You know, that you can have a gay son.’
There are some signs of hopeful change. As part of my work through Turn of Phrase, we are seeing students across the country speaking about their experiences of coming out and being supported by their peers at school and many of these are in rural or non-metropolitan areas. We are openly discussing what appropriate LGBTQ+ sensitive language is, and we’re seeing better understanding from all sections of the school community. Coming out is rarely an easy process, and there are certainly challenges for some LGBTQ+ people living in rural areas. We need to continue finding ways to reach and involve these communities as a whole — to show there are LGBTQ+ people everywhere.
[i] Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky, Epistemology of the Closet (California 1990) p 67