What Queer Community Looks Like Beyond Cities
In small towns, mobility plays an essential role in bringing together LGBTQ people and allies.
When Christina King organized a Pride picnic three years ago, she kept her expectations in check. After all, she was doing it in Galesburg, Illinois, and celebrating Pride usually meant driving an hour to Peoria or three hours to Chicago. If 75 people showed up, King decided the picnic would be a success.
It went much better than she had hoped. “That first year, we had about 150 people,” King recalls. “The pavilion was packed. We were like sardines.” The second year, nearly 300 people attended. And even though the Galesburg Pride picnic was canceled last year, local politicians declared that June would officially be recognized as Pride Month. The picnic had become a tradition.
Nobody’s likely to mistake a place like Galesburg for famously queer-friendly cities like San Francisco, New York, London, or Madrid anytime soon. But this Midwestern town of 30,000 is proof that LGBTQ communities can flourish outside of dense urban zones without merely recreating the urban queer experience. Instead, their approach embraces the values and beliefs of rural and suburban identities.
For decades, the migration of queer and trans people from small towns to the relative freedom and opportunity of cities has been a trope of urban mythology. It’s also one of the dominant narrative arcs of queer pop culture, as told and retold in countless books, movies, and TV shows. Yet as Galesburg and other towns across the world illustrate, big cities aren’t the only spaces where queer communities contribute and thrive.
The truth about rural life for queer people
Logan Casey, a senior policy researcher and advisor at the Movement Advancement Project, estimates that 2.8 to 3.9 million LGBTQ people live in rural parts of the United States, although it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact figure because little public data exist on the subject. Whatever the exact number, the fact remains: while big cities historically boast equitable and inclusive spaces for queer communities, true equity and inclusivity means recognizing the particular needs of people living beyond city limits, too.
“Being queer or trans and living in a rural area is not an oxymoron,” Casey says. “For many LGBTQ people, living in a rural area is just as important a part of their identity as being LGBTQ.”
Nevertheless, rural life comes with its challenges. LGBTQ people are more vulnerable to discrimination in rural places, in part because those places are less likely to have inclusive laws and policies. But according to Casey, the reputation of small-town prejudice isn’t always in line with reality. Public opinion polling shows that a majority of rural people support LGBTQ issues, and the support is even higher among women, young people, and people of color there.
“Because of this misconception about rural areas, non-LGBTQ people who might consider themselves allies may be less likely to speak up,” he says. “That creates a self-reinforcing cycle where everybody thinks that it’s a less supportive environment than it actually is.”
Transportation’s vital role for rural LGBTQ culture
C.T. Conner, a sociologist at the University of Missouri, studies the differences between rural and urban queer culture. In a recent article about the narratives of rural queer life, he collected data from dozens of interviews with LGBTQ people in small towns on how they develop community. Conner concluded that transportation to nearby cities with established queer neighborhoods plays an important role in many of their lives, in part because rural communities tend to be more dispersed. “A lot of people in these rural environments make an effort to travel a lot, or at least as much as they can, to the nearest gay-friendly city,” he says.
This means that transportation access — everything from public transportation to car ownership to carpooling — is a key element in helping people in rural communities take part in queer culture. “Transportation and mobility are extraordinarily important for thinking about equitable and inclusive spaces in rural areas,” Casey says.
Travelling to and from cities also inspires rural LGBTQ people to organize locally. That was the case in Galesburg, where Conner observed the work done by Christina King and others while he taught at nearby Knox College. “Galesburg was the smallest town I’ve ever lived in, but it seemed to have the strongest sense in some regards of a queer community,” he says.
How queer communities are organizing outside of cities
King, a beauty pageant competitor and winner of Miss Trans Illinois, says spending time on the pageant circuit opened her eyes to a “whole treasure trove” of possibilities for an LGBTQ community in her hometown. Traveling didn’t just allow her to experience queer culture in other cities; it inspired her to build a stronger queer community in Galesburg. “As I’m traveling for national pageants, I see things, and I’m like, ‘Wait a second, why can’t we do that? Why the hell do we have to drive hours for a Pride event?’” she says.
That epiphany paired well with King’s community work back home. In 2016, she and her pastor launched a queer-affirming, nondenominational group called Safe Space where people gathered for open-minded conversations about life, sexuality, and religion. The group offered queer people a local place of their own, with the understanding that faith is an important part of life for many in Galesburg.
With the popularity of Safe Space and the Pride picnic, Galesburg’s LGBTQ community was increasingly organized and visible, which led more people — queer and ally alike — to join them and stand up for inclusivity. In 2019, when a trans teenager was bullied for using a high school locker room, they were prepared to rally the town to support her. “A rush of allies flew around this child and said, ‘Abso-freaking-lutely not, you’re not going to talk to a child like this!’” King recalls. “We not only advocated online, but also went to the school board meeting and said, ‘This isn’t going to happen.’”
The power of allies and institutions
Hebden Bridge, an idyllic countryside village in northern England, is another case study in how queer communities can organize and thrive outside of cities. Since the 1970s, the former mill town has welcomed LGBTQ people with open arms — it’s informally known as the “lesbian capital of the UK” — and it’s well known for its inclusive atmosphere.
So when residents discovered a piece of homophobic graffiti in the town center in 2015, it’s no surprise they sprang into action. Local artists transformed the graffiti into art, working together to change the bigoted message into a positive one. Their work ultimately inspired the creation of Happy Valley Pride, a group that hosts an annual, weeklong festival to celebrate queer culture.
“The town absolutely embraced the organization,” says Tim Whitehead, chair of Happy Valley Pride. “By the time we were into our second and third years, every single shop window was decorated for Pride for the whole week.”
Crucially, Happy Valley Pride won financial support from the local government, as well from national groups like Arts Council England. It’s a reminder that in a rural town like Hebden Bridge, the preservation of an inclusive, queer-friendly community depends in part on the support of powerful institutions. All that funding has allowed Happy Valley Pride to not only add more events to their festival, but also to launch education campaigns in local schools. “Financially, it makes a massive difference,” Whitehead says. “We couldn’t run the education program without town funding.”
Building queer spaces in extremely rural areas
For those living way out in “the middle of nowhere,” like farmer Hannah Breckbill, building queer community calls for a different strategy.
Breckbill, who moved a decade ago to Decorah, Iowa (population: 7,700), runs an organic co-op called Humble Hands Harvest with her cousin. Although she says the town was “very inclusive” when she settled down, it was also “very straight,” which left her craving a connection to a queer culture that reflected her agricultural passion.
“My queer community was mostly in cities, and they didn’t quite get the farming thing, or expressed actual fear of rural spaces,” she says. “Balancing those things was a struggle, especially for a few years early on. That’s when a friend told me, ‘Hannah, you should find other queer farmers and build community with them.’”
That suggestion led Breckbill to start the Queer Farmer Convergence, an annual gathering she hosts on her farm. The event drew 35 people in its first year and 55 in its second — no small feat given that Decorah is an hour and a half away from the nearest car rental. Breckbill credits the strong turnout to her “social media-savvy” colleague, who started the Queer Farmer Network Instagram account to spread the word about what they were doing, but she also points to the realities of community-building in a town like Decorah. “In a rural space, you can reach critical mass a lot sooner to do these cool things,” she says. “Critical mass is like three people in a rural space.”
The farming world has taken notice of what Breckbill is accomplishing, too. In recognition of her work with Humble Hands Harvest and the Queer Farmer Convergence, she was awarded the title of “changemaker” by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service earlier this year. She’s also noticed that national farming organizations, such as the National Young Farmers Coalition, are starting to fund efforts to build stronger connections among queer farmers. “I’m not a professional organizer, I’m a farmer,” Breckbill says. “But I think there’s a lot of potential for people to be more connected.”
Ways to support rural LGBTQ communities
According to Logan Casey, nondiscrimination laws are an “incredibly important” protection missing from many rural places, in addition to adequate health care and transportation access. These three essential needs intersect in important ways, such as when a trans person lives in an area where the only local doctor is discriminatory. “When you look at rural transgender people, over a quarter of them are driving 75 miles or more to see medical care providers,” he says. “And that number is even higher for rural transgender people of color.”
Dan Reed, an urban planner in Silver Spring, Maryland, also sees transportation as a key issue for queer people in rural and suburban towns. “For any historically marginalized group, access to transportation and the cost of transportation can either open a lot of doors or shut them,” he said, citing a Harvard study on transportation and upward mobility. “It’s not exclusively a queer problem, but it is something that impacts queer people.”
Transportation access and affordability aren’t easily solved problems, but in concert with a smart infrastructure policy, carpooling is well suited to help. It’s a low-cost form of transportation in places not covered by bus or train routes, so it can be an especially good option for people who live far from public transit. Recurring carpools, where you share rides with the same people again and again, are also opportunities to build relationships and foster community.
“Whether it’s public transportation or some sort of rideshare program or a carpool, people should have access to those services,” King says. “And not just for medical services. It’s also community engagement, being able to meet with people, hang out, and talk.”
The progress made in towns like Galesburg, Hebden Bridge, and Decorah shows us that grassroots organizing takes a lot of time and effort. The more people get involved, the easier it is to create an equitable and inclusive community. If you want to support your local LGBTQ community — whether you live in a city, a suburb, or a small town — you can get started by educating yourself on the issues that matter in your area, joining a Pride event this summer, and publicly supporting your LGBTQ neighbors.