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Unique Challenges of Queer Folks of Color in Rural Areas Outlined in New Report

When Roselyn Macias, 46, a transgender Latina, was a farmworker in Watsonville, not far from the coast in central California, she would be routinely insulted by her cisgender coworkers. “They would say that I looked like a racing horse,” she recalls. “It made me feel really bad, but I started to advocate for myself. I said to the crew leader, ‘Hey, this isn’t right, do you want to get in trouble for this?’ He changed things, let me talk to the crew about gender and sexuality, and they became a little bit nicer and more responsive after that.”

But Macias had no advocates. “I did it all myself,” she says. Now, as the LGBTQ program community worker at California Rural Legal Assistance in Santa Cruz, she makes sure that often-isolated rural LGBTQ folks, especially trans and of-color ones like herself, have the legal, social, and emotional backing that she lacked in her farmworker days. When she learned recently that a trans-sensitive provider at the local Planned Parenthood was leaving, she listened to trans women who asked her, “Where will I get my blood tests and hormones now?”

She and her supervisor did a needs assessment of trans women of color in three local counties and found that they were often mistreated in health care settings. “They’d be told, ‘You don’t need hormones, you’re a man,'” she says. “So we pushed for trainings with medical staff at different centers, and that opened doors for new places for trans folks to go,” such as Natividad medical center in Salinas. “We taught them to hang up rainbow flags or LGBT pictures” so that LGBTQ clients knew they were in a safe and affirming place, “and to try to be sensitive by using clients’ preferred names and pronouns. They’re off to a good start!”

But the travails Macias faced that led her into advocacy are emblematic of what’s often faced by LGBTQ people of color (POC) in rural settings in the U.S., according to Where We Call Home: LGBT People of Color in Rural America, a new report from the Movement Advancement Project (MAP) in partnership with [Equality Federation](]], the [National Black Justice Coalition [, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Among the main findings of the report, which was culled from previous polling and data points, are the following:

  • POC make up 42% of the national LGBT population, compared to 36% of the overall U.S. population. And LGBT POC generally live in the same rural areas as other POC; the U.S. South is home to nine in 10 black people who live in rural or small-town areas, and black same-sex couples are also concentrated in the South.

  • LGBT POC in rural states are especially vulnerable to discrimination, as overall, rural states are significantly less likely than majority urban states to have key nondiscrimination laws and more likely to have harmful, discriminatory laws. And among rural states, those with worse LGBT legal climates also have higher populations of POC, putting them at higher risk of discrimination.

  • LGBT POC experience similar or higher rates of both poverty and unemployment compared to both non-LGBT POC and white people.

  • Smaller populations in rural areas mean that any “difference” is more noticeable, so for LGBT POC, increased visibility may mean further vulnerability.

  • When rural LGBT POC face discrimination, they may have fewer alternatives for culturally competent health care and service providers, or to find a job. For example, many senior care providers in rural areas are religiously affiliated — and increasing so-called “religious freedom” laws give people the right to discriminate on religious or “moral” grounds even when they’re providing taxpayer-funded services.

  • LGBT POC have fewer support structures and resources that accept them both as POC and LGBT — and the relative social and geographic isolation of rural areas can compound this. Rural LGBT programs may not fully address POC, and programs or groups for POC may not fully accept or address LGBTQ folks.

Unlike certain reports, such as the landmark 2011 Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, the new MAP report did not actually poll or interview a wide cohort of rural LGBTQ people of color, but instead drew from and collated available polling and data points, including statistics on same-sex couples from the 2010 census, to draw its conclusions. “We’re trying to take this wealth of [pre-existing] knowledge to bring more attention to these experiences,” says Logan Casey, Ph.D., a policy researcher at MAP who is the report’s lead author.

“We have these broader national narratives about who does and doesn’t live in rural America,” says Casey, who is white, noting that the stereotypical image is of conservative, Trump-supporting, working- or middle-class, heterosexual, white people. “But over 10 million POC, including LGBT people, live in rural areas, often because their family has lived there for generations and they feel a connection to the land. Yet they often also experience, or live in fear of, discrimination.”

The report is part of a broader MAP report about LGBTQ rural people in general, with a future report focusing on such folks in the South, specifically. Casey says that he hopes the report gets more people to “invest in rural communities and the work that LGBTQ POC are already doing there,” even though the report contains no such list of groups. He pointed, however, to a few, including [Campaign for Southern Equality []], an LGBTQ-specific rights group based in Asheville, North Carolina, and Southerners on New Ground (SONG), which describes itself as “a regional Queer Liberation organization made up of Black people, people of color, immigrants, undocumented people, people with disabilities, working class and rural and small town, LGBTQ people in the South.”

David Johns, the executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, a national advocacy group for LGBTQ black folks that partnered on the report and is involved in the #RuralPride movement, said that the point of the report was for there to be “more conversations about, and attention paid to, the diversity of LGBTQ black people and POCs in rural communities. There is much attention paid to the metropolitan experiences of gay white men, but we still don’t spend enough time talking about the lives of queer people in rural states.” And that’s especially so as the Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments on October 8 to then rule whether LGBT people can be legally discriminated against on the job, at health centers, and elsewhere.

Some of the people Johns pointed to as doing important work for the rights of LGBTQ POC in rural areas are North Carolina’s Bishop Tonyia Rawls, executive director of the Freedom Center for Social Justice; Carmarion Anderson, until recently the executive director of the Dallas-based group Black Transwomen, Inc. and a member of NBJC’s transgender advisory council; and Tallahassee, Florida’s Sharon Lettman-Hicks, the NBJC’s CEO and former head, who has worked to bring LGBTQ cultural competence to historically black institutions such as colleges, churches, and health centers throughout the South.

As for Roselyn Macias, she’s busy taking care of her heavily Latinx and immigrant LGBTQ community in rural California. “There’s a lot of people with no education who don’t know their rights,” she says, “and coming from the fields that I used to work, I’ve seen a lot of the discrimination that we go through. Even indigenous people from Central America who don’t know how to read and write, we can fight and talk for them. I would try to protect them from the crew leaders [when she was a farmworker], and now I do that for a living.”

Would she rather move to a city where LGBTQ POC communities are larger and often more united and well-resourced? “I was once asked that, and I said yes,” she replies. “But now I’d rather stay where I am and keep doing this work for others.”

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