Queer in the Country: is it time to reconsider how straight the countryside seems?

Originally published on Medium, 22 July 2020.

For a long time I felt the best way to live a gay life was to move to the city because that is where I saw other gay people, gay venues, and gay culture. In the books I read, and the films I watched, there was a recurring narrative of an ‘escape’ to the city. Didier Eribon and Eduard Louis offered two of the most compelling of these kinds of stories, but at the end of Eribon’s excellent memoir, Returning to Reims, he also pointed out that, ‘there are also places where gay people meet in small towns and in the country’ and that there are rural places where ‘forms of sociability and relationality that, even if less numerous, less concentrated, and less visible, are no less real’.

The idea that the countryside is not a place for LGBTQIA+ people seems to persist, partly because we see such a vibrant culture in major metropolitan areas, but also because of the way in which we engage with our history, and what is made visible. The history of the countryside has largely been projected through a heterosexual lens, and also as a monoculture, which has helped to perpetuate an image of it being unwelcoming to diversity. But perhaps now is the time, with Covid-19 encouraging a renewed discussion on the benefits of a rural life, for LGBTQIA+ people to explore queer rural communities.

When I was growing up in Suffolk, England, in the 1990s, the only context I had for being gay, were my rural experiences of desire — the boys I would secretly develop a crush on. It was an isolating and lonely experience, worsened by Thatcher’s discriminatory Section 28 law which enforced silence on gay issues in school and allowed homophobia to enjoy the benefits of state support. Occasionally, on the television, I would see people like Freddie Mercury or Boy George but there was no gay rural lodestar; there were no role models, historical or current, around which I could locate my identity.

Many of the LGBTQIA+ people I have spoken to as part of my work into rural queerness have expressed similar experiences of feeling like the only gay in the village. Adria Pittock, who is now Chair of Suffolk Pride, explained how not having any role models, alongside homophobia, made her repress her feelings for many years, so that it was not until she was in her forties that she was able to come out. She had grown up in the New Forest and had always lived in rural areas, where ‘it was impossible to be gay.’ She went to school in the 1970s and 80s and she remembered the ‘worst thing you could be at school was a lezza…there were no role models, and any talk in school about it was negative. Even at college in the New Forest and then at agricultural college nobody was gay…That’s why it took me such a long time to come out.’ Adria then explained that ‘I do know now, looking back, that I was attracted to girls in my teens’. Craig, from Suffolk, said that while he knew he was gay, the bullying encouraged him to repress those feelings, date and marry a woman, before coming out in his mid twenties.

It is apparent that the lack of visibility in rural areas can have long-term effects on gay people who live in those areas, and how safe they feel to come out or to meet other people. There have, of course, been improvements in the last thirty years, largely because of people like Adria speaking their own histories, alongside rural services such as Outreach Youth. But in helping to promote more visibility, there is also a need to dig into longer rural histories and show how there has been a long history of queer people living and working in the countryside.

This is easier said than done. History is always a problematic area when it comes to uncovering queer identities. There are anachronisms and potential ethical issues in trying to place an identity on someone retrospectively who would probably not have used the same terms and language we now use. Nevertheless, that does not mean we should avoid digging into the archives and highlighting cases where there is a clear interest for a queer audience. We don’t necessarily have to label something as queer for it to resonate with us. The real issue is in finding the material. From a queer perspective, one of the problems with many archives is that the cataloguing bias of previous generations has meant that LGBTQIA+ histories have often been disregarded or buried.

However, there are a number of fascinating projects under way (some of which I am working with) and some things we can all do to help to raise awareness. In Suffolk, the archive, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the University of Suffolk and local LGBTQIA+ organisations, set up Pride in Suffolk’s Past, an investigative project into the archives with the aim of uncovering queer rural histories. Mandy Rawlins, Suffolk Archives, Community and Learning Officer, explained that the archive had not been representing the queer community, and that there was a greater need to engage with not just the history, but also with how they archive Suffolk LGBTQIA+ experiences moving forward.

The project recruited twelve volunteers who have begun digging into the archives. It turns out the archives contain many stories of LGBTQIA+ people making lives for themselves in rural areas, and that some of these stories go back into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Nina Layard, from Ipswich, was a pioneering archaeologist and first woman to enter the antiquarian society, who lived with her partner Mary. Mary and Nina’s diaries are in the archive. In 2021, there will be an exhibition based on the various discoveries. In Reading, the Museum of English Rural Life is working alongside SupportU’s Broken Futures initiative, examining the life stories of individuals who were prosecuted under pre-1967 legislation.

This research gathering is an important step in queering rural history, but the next step is to bring the work together in different ways to create dialogue and a historical presence that can be shared with a wider audience. This work has been made harder by austerity and cuts to local services, which has seen archives and libraries stripped of resources and staff. But many local archives are looking for volunteers and support.

As queer people with a stake in our own history, now is a great time for us to engage with local queer history projects, and is often the way, as a minority we have to fight for a claim to our past. What has been so invigorating about many of these projects is how they have brought together LGBTQIA+ people from different generations and backgrounds, helping us to empathize and think about how life has evolved for us. Through such interactions we develop a richer narrative of rural experiences for LGBTQIA+ people, like me, who have our roots away from large cities, showing all of us that being queer doesn’t by default mean being urban.

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