by Whitney Kenerly

Big cities have visible markers of active lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans (LGBT) communities. Pride parades, LGBT centers and regular political rallies in cities make it possible for minority communities to reach a critical mass for action. The large size of the community has allowed LGBT activism to become more specialized in cities with groups that are able to focus on single issues that affect subcultures within the larger LGBT population.

The visibility of LGBT communities in cities can obscure the reality that many LGBT individuals still live in small towns and rural communities. Many of these people have been left behind in the movement for equality. A campaign launched in partnership between the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the US Department of Agriculture seeks to address the needs of LGBT people living in rural communities.

#RuralPride launched its summit series in Greensboro on Friday. The daylong event in Greensboro attracted about 60 participants from across the state to discuss their particular experiences as LGBT people and allies.

The leadership of USDA for the series comes from efforts made by the Obama administration to identity the needs of the rural LGBT community and plan the necessary next steps to serve and protect the population.

USDA Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights Dr. Joe Leonard said, “The Rural Pride campaign will allow us to focus on the particular needs of the LGBT people who make their homes and their lives in the communities that USDA is proud to serve. We could not be more proud to partner with NCLR on this campaign. It is an opportunity to showcase the diversity of rural America and highlight one of USDA’s fundamental values: We represent and are here to serve all people.”

NC A&T was chosen to host the kick-off summit based on a longstanding relationship with the USDA, but NCLR Policy Director Maya Rupert explained that she had already been considering the Triad as a potential candidate. “We were looking at the area generally because we think it’s an area where the issues of this campaign are brought into sharp focus,” Rupert said.

Summer Pennell, a former teacher from a rural part of the state, came from Chapel Hill to network with other LGBT advocates focusing on small towns. Pennell’s experiences as a teacher working within a school system that lacked protections and resources for LGBT teachers and students inspired her to become involved with a state-wide non-profit called Safe Schools NC, which seeks to create positive environments for both students and educators.

“As a former teacher, there were some issues with my sexuality in my job, and there was a time where I was afraid I would be fired,” Pennell said. “There’s a lack of information and a lack of visible queer allies in those communities.”

The lack of job security and resources for LGBT people in rural communities contributes to their vulnerability.

The issues affecting these populations are complex and multifaceted as LGBT individuals in rural communities face greater challenges with many aspects of life. LGBT people in rural communities are less likely have their families recognized by law, less likely to receive sufficient health care, and more likely to face legal consequences if they are undocumented.

A diverse panel of advocates from different LGBT organizations addressed the need to integrate all of these issues when seeking to improve conditions for LGBT people in rural communities.

Hermelinda Cortes spoke during a panel on intersectionality as a representative for Southerners On New Ground (SONG), an organization that incorporates a wide spectrum of issues faced by rural LGBT populations.

“Our organization is multiracial, multiclass and multi-gendered,” said Cortes. “I can’t afford to do work that’s just talking about marriage.”

Panel representatives from SPARK, a reproductive justice organization and True Colors, a non-profit focusing on social services and housing for LGBT youth, discussed the difficult balance between keeping your mission focused while trying to address issues comprehensively.

Jama Shelton, the panel representative from True Colors said, “It allows people to expand focus and connect on an ideological level.”

Malika Redmond from SPARK said, “It takes some discipline. It does take some desire to be creative.”

“Intersectionality is a method, not an ideology,” said Cortes Rupert said that she wanted the summit to also address the importance for LGBT communities in rural areas to link up with other minority communities in order to maximize clout.

Churches and faith communities were identified as an essential piece to ensuring changes in policy and culture. Faith is an integral part of the identity of many LGBT people in rural communities.

Cortes shared some of the experiences SONG had when trying to engage the Catholic Church. The Church had been hesitant to work with SONG during an immigration campaign in Georgia, but Cortes emphasized the importance in building ties to the faith organization. “The work is very much based on relationships, like everything in the South,” said Cortes.

Despite the challenges inherent to living in rural communities, many LGBT people don’t see moving as an option.

One of the attendees at the summit, who preferred to remain anonymous, said, “Not everybody is going to have the resources to move to a city. Sometimes that family relationship or that sense of community can provide the resilience that a young person needs.”

For a person who has lived in a small town all their life, the built-in support system of friends and family can be a greater service than a big city community center.

“For a lot of people that is where their whole family is, and their whole family has been there all of their lives, and family is more important to them than being in a supposedly gay friendly city,” said Pennell. “Their sense of home is more important to them than their sexual orientation.”

The issues discussed during the Greensboro summit could facilitate the proposal of legislation and federal policy changes specifically aimed at rural LGBT individuals and their families. “As a legal organization dedicated to serving LGBT people throughout North Carolina, we are familiar with the unique needs of LGBT people and families living in rural communities. We are proud to work with this community every day and are excited for this opportunity to centralize the experiences of the rural LGBT community,” said LGBTQ Law Center Lead Attorney Kelly Durden.

The next stop on the Rural Pride summit series will be in Lost River, West Virginia on July 11. Ashlee Davis, the USDA Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, encouraged those at the Greensboro summit to stay in touch and reach out to her with any questions or concerns.

“We’ve got to seize this momentum to make something happen,” said Davis. “We don’t want this conversation to end.” !