How do LGBT+ people experience the digital divide(s)? (Repost)

This blog post originally appeared on The Good Things Foundation blog on 25th February 2021.

By Tom McGrath

How do LGBT+ people experience digital inclusion/digital exclusion? Who do we exclude by going online? Who do we include? What are the differences between LGBT+ people online and those who identify as heterosexual and those whose gender identity matches that which they were assigned at birth (cisgender)?

We’re coming to the end of LGBT+ History Month and I wanted to take this opportunity to pose these questions about how we understand LGBT+ life online and how to support LGBT+ people who aren’t online. 

The digital divides that LGBT+ people experience are relatively under-researched, partly due to insufficient data collection – an issue which the Government has highlighted in the past. As a result, it is not possible to provide clear answers within the space of this blog.

There are some indications that LGBT+ people might be more likely to use the internet than others, although there appears to be a dearth of research, particularly in the UK. For instance, a 2013 paper published by the LGBT Tech Partnership in the US suggests that 80% of LGBT+ people make use of social media, compared with just 58% of the general public. And reports by Stonewall note that young LGBT+ people “regularly go online to seek help and support.” The internet has the potential to provide LGBT+ people with access to communities and comfort that they would otherwise be excluded from, particularly if they are not ‘out’ to their family and friends offline. Indeed, this is how I’ve experienced the internet as a bi person, and I’ve recognised the value of the internet as a tool for social inclusion amongst LGBT+ people. 

In many ways, people might assume that the experiences of digitally excluded LGBT+ people will be the same as for the general public, with over 9 million people in the UK being unable to use the internet independently, according to Lloyds. Issues of low digital skills, poverty, and confidence are certain to occur amongst LGBT+ people just as they are for people who are straight, or people who are cisgender. But we also know that young LGBT+ people experience higher levels of homelessness and poverty than heterosexual, cisgender people. Naturally, this has a significant effect on digital inclusion, particularly during Covid-19 when many public facilities – like libraries or community centres – are closed due to lockdown. And the wider impacts of the digital divide on LGBT+ people appear to be under-researched. Searching for studies about internet use by sexuality yields frustrating results, often diminishing our experiences to dating apps, rather than incorporating a broader understanding of online safety and digital inclusion. 

There are clear challenges that the LGBT+ community face online which many straight and/or cisgender individuals – particularly men – do not face. Perhaps most notably, LGBT+ people are frequent targets for abuse, trolling, and discrimination online, and the new innovations of the pandemic have altered how these forms of online abuse occur. For instance, Ben Hunte from the BBC recently reported on how a group of students celebrating Black and LGBT+ culture were subjected to racist and homophobic attacks via Zoom. These challenges pose additional needs in terms of online safety training which need to be incorporated into digital skills support.

We also need to be cautious about implying that all LGBT+ people’s experiences online are uniform – rather than one ‘digital divide,’ it may be appropriate to say that the community experiences multiple ‘divides,’ even amongst the LGBT+ community themselves. For instance, I have been lucky enough to not encounter much online abuse for my sexuality, but many trans and non-binary people experience these issues on a regular basis – even from other ‘LGB’ people. And as highlighted above, Black, Asian, and minority ethnic LGBT+ people are subject to racism as well as discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation, with Stonewall reportingthat a majority (51%) of Black, Asian, and minority ethnic LGBT+ people face discrimination within the LGBT+ community.

Thankfully, more work is being done to explore LGBT+ people’s experiences. For instance, a new project, led by Dr Kira Allmann at Oxford University and Tim Allsop, an actor, writer, and director, looks at queer rural experiences with a focus on how “connection and disconnection.” And our aim at Good Things Foundation is for a world where everyone benefits from digital. Everyone needs to be able to use the internet and technology safely to truly take advantage of these benefits, whether it’s meeting like-minded people online or developing more basic digital skills. Future research and policy-making into LGBT+ people’s experiences online need to go beyond just online dating and we hope to support more work on this in the future.

QUEER RURAL CONNECTIONS: QUEER HISTORY AND BELONGING IN THE COUNTRYSIDE (Repost)

This blog post originally appeared on the Museum of English Rural Life blog on 25th February 2021.

This summer, The MERL will host the Queer Rural Connections live promenade show and documentary film, which will share the stories and experiences of queer rural people. Below, Timothy Allsop, writer, actor, and director, tells us about the ideas behind the project, what he hopes it will achieve, and the challenges he has faced so far.

By Timothy Allsop

I remember going to museums such as the Museum of East Anglian Life as a child in the 1980s and 90s, and although I could understand that the farming equipment and photos were part of my grandparents’ experiences of working on the land, I never saw anything that talked about being gay in the countryside. With Section 28 coming into effect, a law prohibiting any kind of queer education, this is not a surprise. But even when I think about Suffolk more generally at this time, it never felt like a gay place to me.

When I was a teenager, it seemed like moving to the city was the natural thing to do as a gay man, because the city was where I saw all the gay bars and communities. It was where what little of gay history I knew about seemed to happen. Whether it was Oscar Wilde, the history of Soho, Bloomsbury or the myriad of gay venues that existed in the later 90s and early noughties, the city was the place to be.

The idea that the countryside is not a place for queer people seems to persist, partly because we see such a vibrant culture in major metropolitan areas, but also because the history of the countryside has largely been projected through a heterosexual lens.

QUEER RURAL CONNECTIONS

But in helping to promote more visibility of queer people in the countryside, I have begun work on a project called Queer Rural Connections, which will bring together interviews with LGBTQIA+ people living and working in the countryside. The project will tell their stories in a live show and film, alongside projects that are working to uncover queer rural histories.

As part of this project, I have teamed up with The MERL, The Museum of East Anglian Life, Dr Kira Allmann at the University of Oxford and several other partners. We will give audiences the chance to hear lots of different queer rural experiences and give a queer audience a chance to explore these museums from a different perspective.

For me, the historical aspect of the project is central, because it makes us question our assumptions that the rural space has always been a straight space. It also allows us rural queers to feel more rooted in our rural surroundings – to feel as though we can belong.

Yet, the process of revealing queer history comes with a set of challenges. There are anachronisms and ethical issues in trying to talk about the identities of historical figures retrospectively who would not have used the same terms and language we now use.

Still, that does not mean we should avoid 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 problem really lies in trying to uncover these stories. One of the issues with many archives is that the cataloguing bias of previous generations has meant that LGBTQIA+ histories may have been disregarded or lost.

UNCOVERING QUEER RURAL HISTORIES

However, as part of my interviews, I have discovered there are a number of captivating projects taking place across the UK. The Suffolk Archives, 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 with the aim of uncovering queer rural histories.

The project recruited twelve volunteers to uncover many stories of LGBTQIA+ people making lives for themselves in rural areas. Some of these stories go back into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For example, Nina Layard from Ipswich, a pioneering archaeologist and one of the first women to enter the Society of Antiquaries, who lived with her partner Mary.

As with a lot of history, there is also the problem that we don’t have anywhere near all the information that we would like. This has presented me with some ethical considerations as I bring some of these historical characters to life. There are some moments we can root firmly in source material, but as a dramatist there is also a degree of imagination that comes into play. In dramatizing scenes from Nina and Mary’s life, I am making a feature of the historical gaps – playing around with the assumptions we might make about characters and then offering alternative possibilities.

Another project I am working with is Broken Futures, which SupportU, a Reading-based LGBTQ support service, is running with The MERL. It records the lives of men who were prosecuted under pre-1967 legislation. Many of these stories are by their nature upsetting because of the persecution of the time.

In watching Channel 4’s It’s A Sin recently, it is undeniable that much of LGBTQIA+ history is traumatic and triggering. We have to grapple with the pain, but this is also an important part of encouraging us all to question the dominant narratives in our history and the way we engage with them.

‘THE PROJECT AIMS TO CHALLENGE THE IDEA THAT BEING QUEER MEANS BEING URBAN.’

The way we think about our history also reveals how we think about the present. That is why I am integrating historical stories alongside contemporary testimony and more recent history. There are many positive rural queer stories and examples of queer people who have successfully made (and who continue to make) a life for themselves in rural areas.

One example of this is Richard, who spoke about his experiences of being a gay farmer in Farmer’s Weekly in 2017. Richard went on to establish the Rainbow Garden Party in North Norfolk, which was attended by over 3000 people.

This summer, both The MERL and the Museum of East Anglian Life will host a promenade show alongside the documentary film, which will shine a light on these queer rural stories and histories, and touch on issues such as coming out or the decline in queer spaces. We will be using a mix of exhibition and outdoor spaces to allow a COVID-safe experience, while allowing audiences to interact with live actors.

The project aims to challenge the idea that being queer means being urban. Of course, this project is for the queer community, but I also think it is for the rural community more generally. Many of the issues of rural neglect, including the cut in public services, the loss of pubs and the shift away from working on the land have implications for all of us who live and work in rural places.


Queer Rural Connections is kindly supported by Arts Council England and TORCH as part of the Humanities Cultural Programme. You can follow all of the latest news about these projects on Twitter.

Timothy Allsop is an actor, writer and director who trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and read History at Balliol College, Oxford. His published work includes Open (Nick Hern Books), The Smog and The Grist Anthology of New Writing. He is the winner of The Michael Bryant Verse Speaking Award and has performed at the National Theatre and Globe. His TV and film appearances include Detectorists (BBC) and The Mummy. Read more of Tim’s work at Medium.

The Countryside Through a Queer Lens

Originally published on Medium, 12 February 2021.

How queer rural experiences can allow us to see what rural life is like for many communities…

n American friend recently questioned whether there was anywhere that could reasonably be described as rural in the UK. The remark, tongue-in-cheek, had been made in response to a conversation about Suffolk (where I had grown up) and my plans to make a film there and in other parts of the UK about queer rural experiences. To my friend, ‘rural’ conjured up images of their home and the vast swathes of the American West, the Rockies, the Appalachia, the Plains… and so on.

When they thought of the UK and certainly the south, the dominant image of The Countryside was a vision of Merrie England. It’s that image of rural idyll we see when our well-to-do characters go off to their country houses in shows like Bridgeton or Merchant-Ivory films. It’s the imprint on the National Trust tin of fudge. It’s the countryside of endless summers, orchards, and ploughmen turning the soil of large expansive fields. It is the setting of Swallows and Amazons, cricket, and Constable’s paintings.

As Raymond Williams shows in The Country and the City, this “Merrie England” version of the countryside as a place of pastoral innocence compared to the city’s corruption is a historical lie which we like to coin anew with each generation — most often as a way to make money but more worryingly as a way to play up to jingoistic ideas of Brexit and Great Britannia. Let us not forget that most of those large private houses now run by the National Trust were built on the exploits of colonialism.

There have been writers who have offered a more realistic or nuanced view of rural parts of the UK. Ronald Blythe’s work is perhaps some of the best known. His survey charted the hard conditions endured by many agricultural workers, and both he and his successor, Craig Taylor, in Return to Akenfield have gone some way to depicting the tough and lasting changes to rural life. W G Sebald, too, in The Rings of Saturn was not afraid to show how ‘rundown’ places like Lowestoft had become.

In all these accounts of rural Suffolk, there was a recognizable world in which I felt an elusive sense of belonging, but at the same time, their vision was overwhelmingly straight. I could see something of the natural world of which they wrote, but they did not speak about the queer rural experience.

That is one of the reasons I wanted to set out on recording a queer history and experience of the rural UK, but in doing so, what I have found are stories that begin to offer a more nuanced depiction of the countryside for all of us — particularly in relation to class, poverty and forgotten places. I spoke with many people who felt as though they had little choice to leave the rural places where they grew up because there were not LGBTQIA+ services near them, or there were fewer job opportunities, or there were fewer queer venues, and those that were around required someone driving for miles. One person who did not drive explained the irregular transport links to the local town made their social life difficult. Rural, in these terms, becomes something we end up characterizing as a place of lack — we end up emphasizing it in negative terms against the city, which is the place of ‘more’. The truth is that many of these problems can as equally apply to many coastal and smaller market towns, and not just the village.

Yet, even though these are very real problems of rural places, it is also an oversimplification of what the rural UK is like. I have spoken with LGBTQIA+ people who have lived and worked within twenty miles of where they were born who either chose or could not leave and have made a life for themselves. I spoke with Ali, who fed up with driving for miles to the nearest queer venue in the next county, set up an LGBTQIA bar and club in Ipswich, which drew 170 people on its opening night. I have seen projects where queer and straight farmers have worked together and have talked with Trans people who have been visible role models by going into rural schools or chatting with parents. These are people who are emotionally rooted in their communities and have worked tirelessly to make them better not just for the LGBTQIA+ community but for all the local people.

This is not to deny how difficult life can be for LGBTQIA+ people in rural areas and as part of my conversations, I have also heard of local Trans services being cut because of a lack of funding and queer spaces closing down. The lack of public services can make LGBTQIA+ people feel acutely isolated but really these aren’t only queer issues, they are about the way rural communities have been neglected as a whole.

With Covid, many of us have sought solace in escaping to the countryside, descending on places like Cornwall and the east coast. But when we go there, we go on our own terms, visiting briefly without properly understanding the local economies and then returning to our towns and cities, which we tend to value more because they seem to have more to offer, or they fit with our ideas about what success means.

The trouble is that it becomes a self-fulling prophecy. We are happy to slap Downton Abbey on a tin of biscuits and sell them for ten quid but are we willing to invest in proper transport links, new jobs, local libraries, pubs (queer or otherwise) that might offer more opportunities for those of us living and working in rural areas? If we really want to understand the ways in which the countryside has been neglected, highlighting queer experiences can be a useful place to start.

Turning Away From the Relentless Pursuit of ‘I’ and ‘Me’

Originally published on Medium, 26 January 2021.

While Matthew Todd was generally correct in Straightjacket in highlighting that a lot of gay men’s issues with control and perfectionism arise from the trauma and shame of growing up gay in a straight world, his book did not feel like a full answer. Yes, we may seek to overachieve, be prettier, fitter, stronger and so on because we are still suffering from the shame we were and are made to feel from our position as a minority growing up in a culture that was not made for us. However, our control and perfectionism might also be sustained because of the stories on which we choose to focus. I would argue that our emphasis on urbanised gay male life, and measuring our success against our careers, status and money, has meant that we have occluded many gay experiences that reveal there are many of us who live away from the big city, who are moving to a different beat. That is not to say that there are not challenges and complex issues to living in more remote or rural areas, but that if we do not tell broader stories about who we are, we end up perpetuating the ‘escape-to-the-city’ narrative in which the gay person relentlessly seeks happiness in an urban community that may not actually be ‘home’.

According to a five-year study carried out by John Pachankis and his team at Yale[i], gay men experience stressors not only from the outside (straight) world, but also from within their gay communities and networks, especially around issues of perceived social and sexual status. Some of these pressures, which I have experienced, seem particularly acute to gay men and the result of a potent mix of gay shame and toxic masculinity. The body-fit culture has certainly been exacerbated by social media with literally thousands of gym-focused accounts, where selfies with abs are provided to satisfy ‘thirst’ but also unconsciously make us judge ourselves by those relentless standards. There is also the constant stream of ‘humblebrags’ that can make the rest of us feel as though we are not achieving enough. There are several studiesthat show an increased level of narcissism in gay men, and some of this behaviour can be linked back to the shame we felt earlier in our lives. We have used introspection — even narcissism — as a defence mechanism, because to be within ourselves was — and is — safe. But when our (helpful) self-obsession meets the aggressive, materialist demands of urban living, the result isn’t freeing, but rather gruelling.

As I mentioned in my last piece, the city is often portrayed as a place to aspire to, both in straight and gay culture, because it advertises itself as a place of material and social gain. The reality is, for many people, that they end up feeling isolated while stuck on a treadmill of having to show they are living their best gay life. There are, undoubtedly, more support services available for gay people in urban settings with places like 56 Dean St offering all kinds of useful support. There are also more social places to meet, although many of these are under threat.

Yet, what I am talking about is the value system to which many of us unconsciously ascribe when we are in an urban setting: the conversations about jobs, the places we eat at, the places where we spend money, the emphasis on working hard, achieving and being a visible success. By locating all this behaviour in our sense of internalized shame and the past, we avoid having to confront the realities of the culture into which we are buying, which is itself as toxic as the persecution we experienced when we were younger.

There is a disconnect between what we say to ourselves and each other, and what we actually do much of the time. For example, I saw a recent Instagram post of a gay reader which showed him reading a queer book with the tag ‘it’s okay to be who you are and don’t judge a book by its cover’ yet the person was holding their book while topless and flexing their abs. Another said: ‘Social media is not about being perfect, it’s about sharing real shit,’ again accompanied by a topless image. Clearly Brexit has restricted the supply of T-shirts.

I’m not trying to be prudish and, of course, there is a place for shallowness (thanks Bridgeton), but there are plenty of gay people living by different values and many of them don’t live in the city. For some of them, it was a conscious choice to move away from the cultural values associated with the city. Richard, a farmer and horticulturalist from Norfolk explained: ‘I evolved as a person. I was more comfortable not to fit into a preconceived idea of what gay men did. I fell into a lot of traps that to be successful you had to earn loads of money… but by the time I got here (Norfolk), I was actually… you need to be happy and there are different ways of measuring success.’ He was clear to say that he didn’t think it was just a gay problem and that ‘there is more pressure on everyone in an urban environment…financial security equals success.’ On the other hand, he pointed out how not enough value is given to rural jobs: ‘I don’t think people necessarily value gardeners or people who work in agriculture. A very urban view of looking at that is that you go out into a field and pick potatoes.’

fin, who identifies as non-binary, lives in Wales. Their non-gay-male perspective may be instructive: they explained that their interaction with the local farming community and village felt far more activist than going to London Gay Pride. ‘The local farmers were letting us plant more trees for wind breakers…and you know all these negotiations have to go on. That negotiating process, that is actually activism on an everyday level. It’s the constant back and forth’.

Living in the countryside is by no means easy for gay people, and I have written about the decline in queer venues and the lack of services, but there is still a lot of community action, outreach groups and gay people choosing to make a life away from the city. They find meaning and purpose in their relationship to nature, to the land, and most importantly to the local communities whether straight or gay. Many of the people I have spoken to say they try to live life away from their screens and social media. It is also worth noting there are also many gay people who never left the place where they grew up, who chose to stay with their family and friends, or did not have a choice to leave because of poverty, education or any number of circumstantial reasons. Many of them recognized being seen as almost second-class gays. Jon, from East Anglia, explained how he often felt ‘put down’ by city gays who were rude about where he lived and the little it had to offer.

My intention is not to pitch the city against the country, although I do think we have neglected the complexities of life that exist outside of major urban centres. But I do know the pressures of socialising with gay people whose concerns are vectored toward what seem to me to be stereotypical heteronormative male ambitions. I also know many gay people who felt they had no choice but to move to the city and were encouraged to do so because of the urban gay life they saw on their social media, televisions and in the books they read. Yes, we have to continue to work out our issues of internalised shame from experiences earlier in our lives (reading The Velvet Rage is a good place to start), but I think there is also a lot of work to do in challenging the urban gay assumptions about the culture in which we are now living — a culture that accentuates the ‘I’ and ‘me’ over the more community-affirming ‘we’.

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.