An everyday story of queer country folk

Karen Pollock looks at how life is anything but idyllic for many rural LGBTQ+ people in the UK.


Over the years there have been a number of mutterings about the steamy side of  The Archers (yes, it really has a steamy side). Most recently, whilst the personification of villainy that is Rob Titchener looked on with disapproval, Adam and Ian the resident gay couple married. This was despite  Adam being tempted, by the bisexual Charlie. For some the kiss between Adam and Charlie was a sound effect too far, worse even than the infamous Elizabeth bed springs episode.

There is much to praise about the portrayal of all three characters on the show. Adam came out and experienced rejection from his step father. Ian, his husband has talked about how his Irish family struggled to accept him. Charlie isn’t the usual media portrayal of a lascivious bisexual ready to leap into bed with anyone, but has genuinely fallen in love with Adam. Given how bisexuality is usually presented as willing to sleep with anyone, his polite rejection of another (female) character as not his type was a pleasant surprise. However this is still Ambridge, homophobia is, apparently, simply an unpleasant personality trait. Be a decent chap, work hard and drink in the Bull and you end up a pillar of the village community, captain of the cricket team and accepted by all but the demonic Rob.

The reality for many LGBTQ+ people who live in rural areas is very different. The University of Leicester Hate Crime Studies centre; LGB&T Crime Reporting: Identifying Barriers and Solutions (2015) report found rural LGBTQ people faced abuse, harassment and isolation. Many older people are targeted and victims of hate crime. The report’s author Stevie Jay Hardy highlighted how isolated many rural LGBTQ+ people are, no friendly pints in the village local for them.

This was not one isolated report, according to the Equality Network Scottish LGBT Equality Report (2015)  24 percent of those living in rural areas said their local area was “bad” or “very bad” for LGBTQ+ people, compared to just 12 percent in urban areas. Nearly half, (47 percent) of those living in rural areas said they felt isolated, compared to 23 percent of those in urban areas.

The reality for many LGBTQ+ people who live in rural areas is very different. The University of Leicester Hate Crime Studies centre; LGB&T Crime Reporting: Identifying Barriers and Solutions (2015) report found rural LGBTQ people faced abuse, harassment and isolation.

There is a perception that LGBTQ+ people belong in the cities, there is even anecdotal evidence of LGBTQ+ young people being told to move away, as if the countryside is not a place they should expect to be accepted. It seems to me to be worrying in the extreme that the Growing Up in North Yorkshire, Report, (2015) found LGBTQ+ youth groups were having to meet in secret to avoid abuse. It also reported that schools were ignoring homophobic and transphobic bullying, and offering the “solution” of moving the victims rather than tackling the bullies.

It is not simply open abuse which causes the isolation of rural LGBTQ+ people. As public transport is cut to the bone, with many small villages having no bus or train service at all anymore, even if you want to access support organisations, it may not be possible unless you have a car (something many older, and younger rural LGBTQ people will not have). Picture the situation of a teenager, travelling 2 hours a day by school transport to their local FE college, where according to the NUS over 60% of LGBTQ+ students face homophobia. Even if you knew where to access support, and few rural community spaces even acknowledge the LGBTQ+ communities exist, you will have to be able, physically, and financially, to travel to your nearest city. That’s not even factoring in that you may have to come up with a “cover story” if your family is not accepting of your gender or sexuality. Is is any wonder that so many of the young people who are homeless in our cities are LGBTQ+ and cite this as a reason for their homelessness?

Growing Up in North Yorkshire, Report, (2015) found LGBTQ+ youth groups were having to meet in secret to avoid abuse. It also reported that schools were ignoring homophobic and transphobic bullying, and offering the “solution” of moving the victims rather than tackling the bullies.

Identifying as LGBTQ+ and living in a rural area leads to isolation, increased risk of suicide, depression, higher risk of being the victim of a hate crime. There is little support, and zero visibility. Where projects do exist they are themselves often isolated, and relying on a few committed individuals.

Mainstream youth organisations often pay lip service to LGBTQ+ provision but hide away any meetings, reinforcing the idea that there  is something wrong with being LGBTQ+. Many professionals like myself will be familiar with the experience of non LGBTQ+ organizations and people offering “support” or “training” which is nothing of the sort. It would take another  blog to explore how diversity is being monitarised by those outside of the LGBTQ+ communities, but it is a phenomena which many are noticing. It matters particularly for LGBTQ+ people in rural areas as it perpetuates the sense of being other, of not belonging.

Older LGBTQ+ people are an invisible community in rural areas. This has particular repercussions when it comes to needing care. The York LGBT group found that older people are returning to the closet when they go into care homes. The assumption from staff is that they are cis and straight. I have personally heard of cases of misgendering, and of partners being referred to as “friends”. Whilst part of this is a reflection of wider ageism in our society, its impact can be huge. Even if you are out in your town or village, even if you face down the abuse, stigma, and harassment, you face having the people who are responsible for your intimate personal care refusing to respect your gender and/or sexual identity at the end of your life.

There is still an expectation that LGBTQ+ people from all demographics will either travel to cities for support, or move entirely. The top down model of service provision disadvantages rural LGBTQ+ people, as resources are centralised. Public transport cuts are an ignored issue, as they don’t fit the narrative of who, and where LGBTQ+ people are.

Again and again isolation is mentioned. In the UK we are used to seeing “the only gay in the village” as a joke. It’s not, it leads to harassment, abuse and even suicide.

There needs to be a new way of meeting people where they are, in the village halls, the market towns, the county shows, the church halls, the pubs, and the WI. Going to the places rural LGBTQ+ people are will lead to real change in people’s lives. With this in mind a new initiative has been set up in the North East; Rural Rainbow has the aims of increasing visibility, campaigning and support for LGBTQ+ people outside of the major conurbations. Set up by LGBTQ+ people with experience of growing up and living in rural areas it hopes to challenge the idea that we don’t or shouldn’t, exist.

Follow Karen on twitter (@CounsellingKaz)

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