Notes from a Provincial Queer: Where has Betty Gone?
Rural Identity and the Decline of Queer Rural Space
It was the summer after I had finished school, early evening on a Friday, and I was on the train to Norwich from Stowmarket because I had heard there was a gay pub on the edge of the city called The Castle. From my research on Ask Jeeves (this was the year 2000) it looked like the pub was within easy walking distance of the station. Like a lot of rural queer spaces, it was a little removed from the city centre, slung out on a roundabout leading up to Mousehold Heath, the site of Kett’s Rebellion. I remember hanging outside the pub for a good fifteen minutes until I saw someone walk in before I worked up the courage to go in myself. Inside the pub, the bar was centrally placed with two seated areas around it. It felt more like a social club than a traditional pub with plush curvaceous upholstery and plastic chairs. There were perhaps only a dozen people inside, but then it probably wasn’t even seven in the evening. Still, even though it wasn’t busy, I was thrilled to be in a space with a group of gay people. I bought a pint of bitter tops because that was what my dad used to drink and sat on a stool at the bar. The woman tending the bar started talking about the forthcoming football season and I chipped in as best I could, thinking to myself that it seemed unfair my first conversation in a gay pub had to be about football. Then in walked a middle-aged man, a regular who lived on the outskirts of town. He came and stood by the bar and began chatting to me, asking me about where I was from and what I was going to do at university. I probably looked nervous as hell, assuming rather arrogantly that he was going to hit on me, but after ten minutes he wished me goodnight and went off to pick up some Chinese food. I made myself stay another hour and slowly began to feel a little more comfortable, talking to a couple of other people while NSync’s It’s Gonna Be Me played over the speakers. By eight-thirty I was on the train back to Stowmarket and I felt this wave of excitement that I had been in a gay space and that I had talked to other gay people. I remember the experience helping to give me the confidence to come out when I went away to university.
In my last piece I spoke a little about the problem of overstating the gay metropolitan elite as the centre of gay culture and how this emphasis has come at the expense of devaluing the rural gay space. I suspect if you’d asked a twenty-something gay Tim about The Castle, he would have scorned it, but actually it was an important part of my gay awakening. Twenty years later, it is perhaps easier now for gay rural people to meet via social apps, but with the closure of so many gay and queer venues, in some ways the rural space remains a challenging place for more complex and nuanced social interaction.
Many LGBTQ+ people still fear that a move to the country means being lonely. David, originally from Derbyshire but who now lives in South London, explained that, ‘I wouldn’t want to do it by myself but could imagine doing it with someone else’. Sometimes these fears aren’t without justification with one respondent from the north of the country explaining how a newly single friend felt like leaving after ‘finding only four people on Grindr nearby and none of them suitable’. There exists a fairly accurate perception of gay people in the countryside being slightly older and already settled. Richard, a gardener living and working in Norfolk explained, ‘there’s quite a lot of gay people in my area but they mostly seem to be in couples and seem to be, well there don’t seem to be so many young people who identify LGBT plus, mostly they’re thirty upwards’. The experience of many of the people I have spoken to appears to be that they grew up in the countryside but went to London for a few years to find a partner before moving back to a rural setting where they had always felt more comfortable.
Several talked of being invisible to their queer friends in the city or that they had sometimes felt as though they had, in some way, failed with one respondent from the south-west saying, ‘I don’t always feel seen’. As I previously mentioned, when my partner and I told our gay friends we were leaving London, largely due to the cost of living, we were met by some responses of horror. But perhaps there was a part of me that wasn’t being entirely honest about our reasons for moving. Yes, we could live more cheaply and have more space, but the truth was I also missed not being close to the countryside. I felt stifled by London while feeling the absence of the rural space. And I don’t mean in that way that some of my city friends would need to get out to Margate for a day of hipster-by-the-sea; it felt as though a part of me had been lopped off. I think those early experiences roaming the countryside created emotional resonances with particular places, horizons and people that have remained a part of me. There were other respondents who felt this longing to be in the country: ‘I hate everything urbanisation stands for, so if I had to choose between a gay social life or looking at some rare orchid up a mountain, I would unfailingly choose the latter’. The same respondent, Alex, who now lives in rural Scotland, went on to say that it is easier for gay people to live in isolated areas now because of social apps: ‘you can find whoever and whatever you want’. When an urban gay couple came up to stay with them, ‘they were always on the apps and found someone in the village shop’. Undoubtedly, the internet has helped some rural gay people to connect, although some interviewees stressed that ‘it’s mainly for sexual encounters and not people I want to date’ or mentioned that it was difficult for some older gay men who were not particularly computer savvy. Craig, an NHS worker from Suffolk, explained how he had joined Grindr ‘just to make some friends’ but found that most people were only ‘looking for hook-ups’. Henry, from the south-east, also spoke of this problem: ‘I feel the natural way to meet queer people now is on apps, which often seem mainly for finding sex’. Part of the challenge of living in rural areas as a gay person is that, while social apps have made sexual encounters potentially much easier, they have not necessarily provided the sense of community — and perhaps have even contributed in the demise of rural communal spaces.
The decline of gay and queer space has not been restricted to rural and provincial areas, and there have been plenty of reports on how London has seen the number of its LGBTQ venues more than halve since 2006[i], but the lack of rural queer space is something acutely felt by many of the gay people I’ve spoken to, where the one or two venues that did exist have now gone. Craig said: ‘I used to go to Betty’s (a former club in Ipswich) now and then…well quite a bit when I first came out. Because I’d come out quite late, I felt like I needed to build a social circle… But gay life here, there isn’t much, well there’s nothing now’. His partner, Jon, added: ‘I remember the Fox and Hound out near Manningtree. Middle of nowhere but people would come from miles to go to that place. You’d really look forward to a night out. Go on a Saturday and someone would either drive or you’d get a taxi or whatever, but you’d meet people from all over the place’. The fact that people would drive thirty or forty miles to go to a venue demonstrated that there was a desire to congregate in one place. That is not to say that meeting a sexual partner was not still a motivation for many, but in going to a venue, other forms of social interaction and bonding were possible. For example, Craig and Jon felt the loss of a meeting place where they could have a laugh and be themselves. Craig said, ‘I’d like there to be a couple of gay clubs or bars around here. We go to Gran Canaria on holiday…when we go, we like going to the gay bars and having a drink and feeling comfortable… we talk to other gay people and enjoy the atmosphere. To go out and have a laugh with gay people. People don’t do that here now’. They also spoke of how the vast numbers of gay men in one place in Gran Canaria allowed them to feel comfortable showing public affection because ‘everyone was holding hands’. When I asked them whether they would feel comfortable holding hands walking around Ipswich, Jon shook his head and said, it wasn’t necessarily about the fear of being abused ‘but the fear of being judged’. A gay space allowed them somewhere to go where they did not to have to second guess what people thought about them, and where they could forget about being in the minority for a while. Perhaps being in these communal spaces allows some gay people to more easily let go of any internalized shame. Jon also said they had friends in London who had access to things like gay sports clubs but there was nothing like that for them in Suffolk. For Richard in Norfolk, he said that there were a few gay places in Norwich but in the very rural part of Norfolk where he lived and worked, ‘there are venues that are accepting or owned by gay people but they’re not specifically gay’. I asked the interviewees why they decided to stay in a place when it felt increasingly difficult to meet new gay friends. In Richard’s case, his desire to work on the land — a love he had developed through his farmer Godfather — was the most important part of his working life: ‘As I evolved as a person, I was more comfortable not to fit into a preconceived idea of what gay men did. I fell into a lot of traps that to be successful you had to earn loads of money… but by the time I got here (Norfolk) I was thinking you need to be happy and there are different ways of measuring success’. This relates to my discussions on what we choose to value, and how many gay and straight people feel the pressure to move to the city to earn money because it is overstated as a symbol of success through aspirational values. For Craig, it mattered that his family were close by and that he felt he was ‘more of a homely person’; for Jon it was important to be ‘close to his friends and his job was there’. This is where class and opportunities come into play because neither went to univeristy after leaving school. For some gay people, the act of going to university, fits into a perception of a gay middle-class life that never felt like it was open to them. Craig, who grew up on a farm with little money, explained that the onus was on him to get a job at sixteen to support the family. His confidence was also affected, saying that he wanted to study more, but that higher education seemed like it was ‘for the well-to-do kids’. Twenty years later he has begun a university course in Suffolk. As both he and his partner are now in their late thirties, their whole social network, home and work is located in Suffolk. To move simply to have more gay friends is not a trade-off they are willing to make, but it does seem they lack or miss elements of a gay community because of the loss of local venues such as Betty’s. For those gay people like me, who felt lucky (and it was mostly luck) to get to the city, these moments of physical movement (such as going to Uni) can precipitate our coming out, or allow us to engage in a wider gay community that may not have been as easy, immediate or accessible if we had never left the space in which we grew up. I think this is part of why some of us are keen to latch onto the ‘escape’ narrative and accentuate the positives of a city-life over where we came from. And perhaps this is also why gay people in the countryside are often disregarded or devalued.
Gentrification across the south-east, expressed through exponentially rising rents, in addition to the rise in supermarkets selling alcohol after changes in licensing laws, have made many pubs and bars unviable businesses. But when a town or county only has a handful of gay or queer spaces, their loss can be devastating to the local gay community, while reinforcing assumptions that the countryside is an inherently unappealing or homophobic space. This, in turn, can perpetuate more young LGBTQ people feeling the need to leave for the larger cities. One owner of a gay bar who wanted to remain anonymous, said ‘it was just was too expensive to keep going and I also wanted to do other things with my life’. The loss of queer space also leads to a fracturing of other LGBTQ services. Another owner, Simon, who ran The Wynford Arms in Reading for twenty-three years, said he was keen to have a space ‘run by gay people for gay people’. While in some ways being quite a traditional pub, The Wynford served the community in a number of ways. Simon said, ‘it was always important for The Wynford to provide local groups space for meetings and we held fundraising events for local groups and charities including Thames Valley Positive Support and Reading Pride’. He agreed that social apps had made an impact but pointed out that pubs were facing many pressures because of increased rents, unsupportive breweries and then the changes in licensing laws which allowed supermarkets to sell alcohol cheaply so that: ‘drinking at home became an alternative and with that comes preloading at home so people drink before they come out and so when they come out they spend less’. As a minority we are often relying on a small number of individuals to help maintain gay spaces and I would argue straight forward capitalism serves majority hetero interests more than minority groups. It makes me think whether rural gay and queer venues should have their business and building rates paid for by the council or receive some form of subsidy to ensure they can continue. Gay rural communities aren’t necessarily helped by free market forces, despite providing services that many of us would think of as vitally important to our mental health and wellbeing.
The loss of gay spaces along with an increased use of social apps also raises questions about how gay people treat one another. I’ll hold my hands up and admit that I have sometimes behaved badly online, choosing to ignore or block people without much thought to how it might hurt their feelings. The anonymity I have online has allowed me to be dismissive of even engaging with some gay men because I assume all they are after is a hook up. But had I met one of these men in a bar I regularly patronised, I would have certainly made more of an effort to get along with them or socialise, knowing that we were in a shared space that was important to us. The stakes of behaving badly to someone online do not feel as high as in a community venue from which you might be excluded. There are certainly a sizeable number of gay people on Grindr who have felt able to dismiss groups of people based on their ethnicity, size or age. When I spoke to Henry, he said ‘that online it also makes it easier for us to ghost each other or not engage and build meaningful relationships’. Henry went on to explain how the former gay pub, The Wynford Arms, was particularly important to him because ‘I’m not sure if I’d ever end up talking to older gay guys if the only options had been Grindr and straight bars’. As someone who did not grow up in a large city ‘it also felt a lot less intimidating than a trip to London, so it was psychologically more accessible’. I am not saying that gay or queer spaces were entirely free from prejudice or judgment, or that they weren’t also about places to meet for sex, but there is something different in being physically in a shared space versus sharing pics on social media accounts. Meeting in a bar seems to allow some gay people to broaden their perception of who they might be attracted to, whereas the online world often leads to us atomising our desires to specific kinks and being dismissive of anyone who does not fit. It seems unfair that social apps are the only option for many rural and provincial gay people because these communal spaces no longer exist. I should, however, be careful not to entirely demonize social apps, which have clearly allowed gay people in isolated areas to connect in a way that was not previously possible, and for some people with complex needs or mobility issues they have been a lifeline. Perhaps we just need to focus on ways of making community run venues viable, so that the online world is not our only option.
This shift from meeting in venues to online might play into the stereotype of the rural being an unwelcoming space to LGBTQ+ people, but there have also been many rural places that have a tradition of queer presence, activism and acceptance. fin, someone who identifies as non-binary, queer and as an immigrant, talked to me about the community in North Wales, and their continuing experiment in queer environmentalism and sustainability. When I asked them about their experiences of the rural, they spoke of the radicalism of engaging with the local straight community, especially about the use of the land. ‘The local farmers were letting us plant more trees for wind breakers…and you know all these negotiations have to go on. That negotiating process, that is actually activism on an everyday level. It’s the constant back and forth’. They went on to say that for them being in the countryside was more important for being a queer activist than being visible in the city: ‘There’s loads of work to do here. And part of being intimate with my communities, asking my community to see me as me, and not just see, you know, to totally accept me’. Even at the local school, where trans youth is now recognized, fin explained how ‘lots of parents come up to me and ask me questions because their kids are asking them questions, you know’? ‘That’s the thing that is part of community, where someone knows who to go call to talk to about something’. What emerged was a sense of kinship, even when there were disagreements. Simon, of The Wynford Arms, also made the important point that ‘not everyone is a pub person’ and pubs were only part of the ecology of the gay community, ‘there have always been outdoor walking groups…the Reading Area Gay Group’ and other ways for people to meet. And across the country there are many gay farmers, who have formed their own Facebook group and organize social events and support for one another. LGBTQ+ people living in the countryside are often taking things in to their own hands in creating queer spaces and events. Richard, from Norfolk, explained how he had set up a Rainbow Garden Party on the estate he worked as a gardener. It was attended by 6–700 people from across East Anglia in 2019: ‘This would have been our third year (cancelled due to Covid-19). This year we would have had a mental health and family element to it. We had a speaker coming to talk about surrogacy, a local mum whose son had committed suicide who was coming to talk about the importance of acceptance in the family. We see lots of extended families turn up and local villages. They are not all gay but have brought their grandchildren’. Without compromising confidentiality, Richard told me about a man in his eighties who had come along and came out because his neighbour also happened to be there.
There remain elements of homophobia in parts of the countryside, but for most people I spoke to it was more an issue of visibility. Without physical spaces to go to, it allows the straight community to not be as aware that gay people are living and working around them. Richard explained while ‘God’s Own Country was a very good film, it largely spoke to a gay audience’ and that part of the work needs to focus on visibility with the rural population as a whole. For gay farmers and land workers ‘the assumption is still that we’re straight’. But through his work, he is helping the whole community of North Norfolk to understand the diversity of queer people who live and work in rural areas. And he is hopeful for the future: ‘things are changing…things are improving’.
Follow Tim’s work at www.turnofphrase.co.uk