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’sBroken 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.
Slung back into the box room on a single bed, because that was the only spare place in my dad’s house, I found myself having strange dreams. I had moved away from Suffolk nearly twenty years earlier, from a working-class family, to build a life elsewhere as a gay man, thinking that being gay and happy meant being in a city. But after having an operation I retreated to Suffolk to convalesce. After a week it felt as though I had never left at all. The fields, the Co-op, the village pub — they were all still there. And although I was miles away from my friends, unable to hold them, the fields began to unfold older memories that I had locked away. My thoughts reached out like a fog across the fens, conjuring people I had all but forgotten.
It was the summer before our exam year and I was stuck in the village most of the time because dad, when he was not at work, was caring for mum whose MS was getting progressively worse. It limited the trips we could make and so I had to rely on my bike most days to get me around. A few times I went over to my friend Mike’s, whose family worked and lived in a small cottage on a farm; they were not the owners, just tenants on the land. Even in the 1990s there felt something positively eighteenth century about the landowning class in rural Suffolk.
Mike liked to play violent computer games, watch Manga films and shoot things. His house stank of dogs and body odour but his mother was a kindly mother-hen of a woman, who always made sure we were all right for food and cups of tea. It was while hanging out at the cottage that I became good friends with Dave and Nigel. Dave, I knew reasonably well because his mum sometimes cut my mum’s hair. He was into motor bikes and off-road car racing.
We used to play in the barns and the fields. One day Mike took out his father’s rifle and suggested we go shoot at targets that his father had painted onto the back of the barn. Before we got there, however, we came across a goose in one of the corn fields. Mike spotted its head jiving in and out of the corn. It was a massive bird, with a neck as thick as my arm. All four of us stood watching it, alive as anything, and yet I think all of us wanted to see Mike shoot it. Mike took his time positioning his gun and the bird seemed to pause and watch us. At first, I thought how stupid it was not to understand what was happening, but then I started to panic. I looked over to Dave, who smirked and made a gesture with his hand as though he was going to push Mike at the moment he tried to shoot. But then the sound of the gun rang out across the field. I looked back into the field but the goose was now just a mass of flesh, its wings painting its belly bright red with the blood that was trailing down from its neck. Dave kept repeating the word fuck, almost screaming, while I moved back away from the field. Mike and Nigel just watched in silence until the bird lurched forward and into one of the drains next to the barn. The sound of its wings smacking against the concrete sides of the drain as it tried to understand why it could not fly anymore. At that point Mike put it out of its misery and flung the body into a ditch so that his father would not find out. After that we went and swam in the farmer’s lake because it seemed pointless shooting targets now that we’d killed a bird.
I remember not being able to get the image of the dying bird out of my head. I kept thinking about its last moments in the drain and the sound of its wings. Dave could see I was distracted and so came over and started splashing water at me. I didn’t want him to do it either, he said. He kept on splashing me, so I did the same. We grappled with one another until we were in some awkward embrace and then, reaching around with his hand under the water, he felt my arse. I grabbed his dick and he said, I see, and then pushed me under the water.
Over the rest of that summer we became much closer and started hanging out almost every day. He was good friends with Nigel, who I had also been friends with when I was much younger because my dad and his dad worked at the same meat factory, which was one of the largest employers in the local area but Dave and I would give each other secret looks sometimes.
Nigel, Dave and I ended up going to the woodland behind our old primary school because it was a good place to smoke and light fires without being seen. I do not remember who initiated the discussion about sex, but it was on all of our minds because we were fifteen and raging with hormones. Somehow, we end up daring one another to suck each other off and so began my experience of sex. It was arousing, but I was also disgusted by the matter-of-fact approach. Nigel had this habit of sucking me for a couple of minutes and then spitting gob onto the ground. He was not concerned with my pleasure, only doing what was necessary for a return of the favour. I did not feel the same wave of desire for Nigel as I felt for Dave. He did not wash himself very often and was infamous among his group of friends for having nearly set fire to his house after trying to boil potatoes without any water.
With Dave things developed more complexly. In the weeks following, he invited me over to his place perhaps half a dozen times while his mum was working. His dad had been out of the picture for a long time and while his mum had a partner, he was never around and only lived with them some of the time. Dave was poorer than we were, in that his house was rented. I noticed that all the good furniture was in the living room, but there were parts of the house that were in need of work. There was a damp problem in the shower room and the bathroom cabinet had come off or been removed from the wall, but several of my friends’ homes were in some state of disrepair, so while it was something I noticed, it was not unusual. Dave’s room had an old wardrobe and a set of battered drawers with the fake veneer coming away at the edges but was typical of a lot of boys’ rooms in having posters of women like Gillian Anderson and the model Kelly Brook on the walls. I, too, had a poster of Kelly Brook, and I would often look at it and wonder why it did nothing for me.
When we went to his room, he put on straight porn tapes and showed me a biker magazine with a couple of half-naked women laying on bikers in completely impractical ways. I would feign a little interest. We would lie on his bed and he would usually initiate things with a have you heard about when someone does this to you… before explaining the sexual move. I would go along with the game. The fooling around very quickly escalated so that we did it a couple of times, after we worked out that lubricant (Johnson’s baby oil) was necessary if the experience was going to be enjoyable for both of us. Dave did not feel scared to talk about sexuality or what he liked and I asked him once what he thought he was and he replied: I reckon I’m bisexual. I just like sex a lot. The second statement was a sort of step back from his first remark in which he had openly defined himself as not straight. This was 1997 and still before the watershed moment of Queer as Folk, and it filled me with joy that Dave described himself as bisexual. Much of the queer fiction I would read twenty years later would be filled with working-class men who had sex with other men, but would never define themselves as anything other than straight. In those few secretive weeks together, there were moments when we would just lie together, holding or stroking each other and talk. That was one of the most shocking elements for me: being naked with another male body while we talked about school, other friends, and what we were going to do when we were older. This was what intimacy meant, I thought, but Dave was careful not to let things develop too much, often undermining moments of tenderness by talking about this girl with whom he had been in an off-and-on relationship and insisting that we did not kiss with tongues.
The countryside felt like a straight space because I didn’t know other gay people; I didn’t hear about the rural queer lives back in those days. But they were there, as I would discover years later. Instead, Dave and I made our own space. One time, we went out along the fields and along the edge of a copse until we came to an old raid shelter. We both looked at each other, having the same idea. I can still recall the pain from the sticks and foliage as I laid on the ground, looking up at the rust-stained roof. I liked the danger of having sex in a space that, although secluded, was not private. It was used by locals, and a public footpath passed close by. We were effectively trespassing, but it felt good to be taking possession of the space. And afterwards, we sat watching the evening arrive, talking about nothing and listening to the low hoot of the wood pigeons. In recent weeks I have learned to reconnect with my rural roots, and to see them as an integral part of my sexual awakening. Those experiences in the wood and the air raid shelter were the first times when I began to think it might be possible to have relationships with men.
He was one of the most influential British filmmakers of the 20th century with numerous features and shorts including Sebastiane (1976) and Caravaggio (1986), but Jarman was also a painter, set designer, gay rights campaigner and gardener. In 1986, he purchased a small cottage, formerly a fisherman’s hut, on the beach at Dungerness. In sight of a nuclear power station, he set about creating a sculptural masterpiece made from hardy plants rooted into the shingle alongside pieces of driftwood he found scattered on the shore. After his HIV diagnosis, Jarman said he found gardening a form of therapy. It is well worth a visit, and both his Modern Nature and Derek Jarman’s Garden are food for the soul.
Mary Renault is best known among the gay community for her Alexander the Great novels (including the must read The Persian Boy) and her war-time gay novel, The Charioteer, but The Friendly Young Ladies (1944) explores two ladies living on a houseboat. It opens in Cornwall with the adolescent Elsie deciding to search for her older sister who fled the village a decade earlier. Elsie discovers Leonora (Leo) living on a houseboat on the Thames with another woman. Exploring bisexuality and friendship, the unconventional setting of the river offers a liminal space between the town and country.
Mike Parker writes about his move to rural Wales and how he and his partner become involved with the lives of an older gay couple, whose house they inherit. Combining memoir, nature writing, and a discussion of gay history, this multifaceted book eloquently captures the journey of gay people searching for a sense of belonging. It offers an unsentimental portrayal of the natural world and what it means to make a life in the countryside. When I recently chatted with Mike, who is now working on a new book about borders and borderlands, he spoke of other LGBTQ+ people who inspired him, including Jan Morris and James Baldwin.
Scallop, is a four-metre high steel sculpture on the beach at Aldeburgh, Suffolk, created by artist Maggie Hambling. Hambling, who describes herself as ‘lesbionic’ made the piece as part of a memorial to Benjamin Britten. The shell features a line of text from Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes: ‘I hear those voices that will not be drowned’. Some opposed the memorial on the grounds that Britten was a homosexual and conscientious objector, but Hambling explained how the piece is also about a conversation with the sea. It is a stunning piece of work which won the Marsh Award for Excellence in Public Sculpture.
I first saw Tuke’s work as part of the Queer British Art Exhibition at the Tate. After training at the Slade School of Art, Tuke travelled to parts of Europe before settling in Newlyn, Cornwall. While some of his work has raised questions about his focus on adolescence and young male nudes, (The Critics, 1927 or August Blue, 1893) his impressionistic rendering of the English coast and the human form has made him an important chronicler of coastal life and boyhood in the Victorian period. His paintings depict fishing, sailing and swimming as well as T E Lawrence, who would go on to become known as Lawrence of Arabia.
It is interesting to note that most of these artists and writers have engaged not just with the rural but with interstitial spaces, such as the coast. It is perhaps the natural position of an artist to exist between spaces, observing from an edge, but perhaps this is also something particular to a lot of rural gay experience.
And for the American rural queer experience…
Take a look at Dorothy Allen’s Trash, Jim Grimsley’s Dream Boy and Megan Kruse’s Call Me Home.
As queer theorist and poet Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick explains in Epistemology of the Closet: ‘there are remarkably few of even the most openly gay people who are not deliberately in the closet with someone personally or economically or institutionally important to them.’[i] She goes on to explain how ‘heterosexist presumption’ leads to continual encounters where we have to make decisions about disclosing our sexuality. As Richard, a gardener from Norfolk, spoke about in my previous piece, he was constantly assumed to be straight because of his job. The invisibility of LGBTQ+ people in rural areas has often meant a greater degree of ‘heterosexist presumption’ in the country than the city, which, in turn, has often made the process of coming out more fraught. This invisibility is supported by research carried out by Dr Catherine Lee, which shows how teachers are less likely to come out in rural schools and more likely to suffer from mental health illness. People of all ages are less likely to come out in an environment where there is a visible lack of role models, support and allies, and for much of the countryside this is, unfortunately, still the case.
A largely positive aspect of rural culture that is often lacking in more urban environments is the interconnectedness of people, but this also means less anonymity. When I came out at eighteen, I only had to tell a couple of my friends before word spread around amongst the rest of my school year and the village. I knew one of my friends was a bit of a gossip and used this to my advantage, so that I did not have to tell everyone. However, the lack of confidentiality means that some gay people are outed without their consent. Craig, from Suffolk, who had married and had a son, split from his wife after several years of being together. He was out to her and to one other person but not his family. His mother, who was a cashier in a supermarket, was at work one day when someone she vaguely knew as a friend of her son came through the checkout and said, ‘I went out with Craig and the other gays to Betty’s[a former gay nightclub in Ipswich] the other night.’ Craig explained that his mum could not believe what she was being told and phoned him to check. Craig admitted that he was gay but they did not talk anymore about it, his mother assuming that it was simply ‘a phase’. A short while later Craig entered into a relationship with a man. A year or two later, another friend went through his mother’s checkout and said,‘Isn’t it wonderful Craig’s son is really accepting of his new fella?’ Finally Craig’s mum was made to confront her son’s sexuality. They worked through it and now have a good relationship. Craig believed that a lot of his mother’s angst was about the news being spread around: ‘I think my parents were embarrassed. They were embarrassed about what the neighbours were going to say. I think if I’d lived in a bigger area, a city maybe it may have been easier. Here everyone knows everybody’s business. I remember the comments they used to make about the hairdresser. It did make it harder to come out.’ For gay people who remain in the place they grew up, the process of coming out can take longer than for those of us who move away. Craig’s partner, Jon, said, ‘I remember my teenage years and going through turmoil. I heard some derogatory things said about gay people, even from my own parents. I told my parents when I was 25, and I’d been having a relationship with someone for a year and a half in secret.’
The differences for those who stay in their rural community and those who move away are clear from Jeremy’s experience as one of three siblings who came out as gay. Jeremy grew up in a small coastal town, before moving to a village. Jeremy’s older brother had a similar experience to Craig in that he married before separating from his wife, moving away for several years. ‘At that time, it was really difficult because my father worked in the hospital and my brother also worked in the hospital and it was one of these sorts of communities where the word went round really quickly and he was really an outcast from the family. My brother left the hospital, moved away, right away. And we didn’t see anything of him. He was in his early 20s. He moved down to the south for a while.’ Jeremy’s younger brother also moved away, eventually to Australia for several years, before revealing that he was also gay. During all of this, Jeremy was also coming to terms with his sexuality, ‘Can you imagine, I was in the middle of this? I was sitting there thinking, well me too. But I was going out for drinks with my dad. I was probably closer to my father than anyone else. It was really difficult being in the middle. Some people might think it was easier because you’ve got two that have come out and I was the third one. It was complicated at the time because there was nowhere to go, there was no support…I was working in a male environment within BT. So, my emotions were suppressed to my mid or late twenties before I could even start to experiment.’ For LGBTQ+ people who remain in the place that they grew up, delaying coming out may be a reasonable response to circumstances.
While homophobia is sometimes still an issue, it is often the lack of resources and practical support that inhibit people from coming out. The lack of LGBTQ+ space, emotional support networks and services means that there are few places to turn other than online. A lot of young people are using YouTube to reach peers, and the ‘YouTube coming out story’ has become a genre in its own right, with many youngsters from rural areas talking about their experiences. But for some older gay people, who may not be as computer savvy, the same social interaction on the internet is not something as immediately accessible to them. One respondent explained, ‘I just never got into computers.’ They also said that as a single person they are assumed to be straight.
As has often been the case in LGBTQ+ history, change can come out of tragedy. In 1999, Jeremy’s younger brother was killed in the Admiral Duncan bombing in Old Compton Street. Jeremy explained how the tragedy brought greater acceptance to the community where he and his parents lived. ‘When my younger brother was killed it hit the whole community in Felixstowe. My dad had all the support of people in his local bowls club, all round town. Everyone supported them because they knew them and it educated them a little bit. You know, that you can have a gay son.’
There are some signs of hopeful change. As part of my work through Turn of Phrase, we are seeing students across the country speaking about their experiences of coming out and being supported by their peers at school and many of these are in rural or non-metropolitan areas. We are openly discussing what appropriate LGBTQ+ sensitive language is, and we’re seeing better understanding from all sections of the school community. Coming out is rarely an easy process, and there are certainly challenges for some LGBTQ+ people living in rural areas. We need to continue finding ways to reach and involve these communities as a whole — to show there are LGBTQ+ people everywhere.
[i] Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky, Epistemology of the Closet (California 1990) p 67
It was the summer after I had finished school, early evening on a Friday, and I was on the train to Norwich from Stowmarket because I had heard there was a gay pub on the edge of the city called The Castle. From my research on Ask Jeeves (this was the year 2000) it looked like the pub was within easy walking distance of the station. Like a lot of rural queer spaces, it was a little removed from the city centre, slung out on a roundabout leading up to Mousehold Heath, the site of Kett’s Rebellion. I remember hanging outside the pub for a good fifteen minutes until I saw someone walk in before I worked up the courage to go in myself. Inside the pub, the bar was centrally placed with two seated areas around it. It felt more like a social club than a traditional pub with plush curvaceous upholstery and plastic chairs. There were perhaps only a dozen people inside, but then it probably wasn’t even seven in the evening. Still, even though it wasn’t busy, I was thrilled to be in a space with a group of gay people. I bought a pint of bitter tops because that was what my dad used to drink and sat on a stool at the bar. The woman tending the bar started talking about the forthcoming football season and I chipped in as best I could, thinking to myself that it seemed unfair my first conversation in a gay pub had to be about football. Then in walked a middle-aged man, a regular who lived on the outskirts of town. He came and stood by the bar and began chatting to me, asking me about where I was from and what I was going to do at university. I probably looked nervous as hell, assuming rather arrogantly that he was going to hit on me, but after ten minutes he wished me goodnight and went off to pick up some Chinese food. I made myself stay another hour and slowly began to feel a little more comfortable, talking to a couple of other people while NSync’s It’s Gonna Be Me played over the speakers. By eight-thirty I was on the train back to Stowmarket and I felt this wave of excitement that I had been in a gay space and that I had talked to other gay people. I remember the experience helping to give me the confidence to come out when I went away to university.
In my last piece I spoke a little about the problem of overstating the gay metropolitan elite as the centre of gay culture and how this emphasis has come at the expense of devaluing the rural gay space. I suspect if you’d asked a twenty-something gay Tim about The Castle, he would have scorned it, but actually it was an important part of my gay awakening. Twenty years later, it is perhaps easier now for gay rural people to meet via social apps, but with the closure of so many gay and queer venues, in some ways the rural space remains a challenging place for more complex and nuanced social interaction.
Many LGBTQ+ people still fear that a move to the country means being lonely. David, originally from Derbyshire but who now lives in South London, explained that, ‘I wouldn’t want to do it by myself but could imagine doing it with someone else’. Sometimes these fears aren’t without justification with one respondent from the north of the country explaining how a newly single friend felt like leaving after ‘finding only four people on Grindr nearby and none of them suitable’. There exists a fairly accurate perception of gay people in the countryside being slightly older and already settled. Richard, a gardener living and working in Norfolk explained, ‘there’s quite a lot of gay people in my area but they mostly seem to be in couples and seem to be, well there don’t seem to be so many young people who identify LGBT plus, mostly they’re thirty upwards’. The experience of many of the people I have spoken to appears to be that they grew up in the countryside but went to London for a few years to find a partner before moving back to a rural setting where they had always felt more comfortable.
Several talked of being invisible to their queer friends in the city or that they had sometimes felt as though they had, in some way, failed with one respondent from the south-west saying, ‘I don’t always feel seen’. As I previously mentioned, when my partner and I told our gay friends we were leaving London, largely due to the cost of living, we were met by some responses of horror. But perhaps there was a part of me that wasn’t being entirely honest about our reasons for moving. Yes, we could live more cheaply and have more space, but the truth was I also missed not being close to the countryside. I felt stifled by London while feeling the absence of the rural space. And I don’t mean in that way that some of my city friends would need to get out to Margate for a day of hipster-by-the-sea; it felt as though a part of me had been lopped off. I think those early experiences roaming the countryside created emotional resonances with particular places, horizons and people that have remained a part of me. There were other respondents who felt this longing to be in the country: ‘I hate everything urbanisation stands for, so if I had to choose between a gay social life or looking at some rare orchid up a mountain, I would unfailingly choose the latter’. The same respondent, Alex, who now lives in rural Scotland, went on to say that it is easier for gay people to live in isolated areas now because of social apps: ‘you can find whoever and whatever you want’. When an urban gay couple came up to stay with them, ‘they were always on the apps and found someone in the village shop’. Undoubtedly, the internet has helped some rural gay people to connect, although some interviewees stressed that ‘it’s mainly for sexual encounters and not people I want to date’ or mentioned that it was difficult for some older gay men who were not particularly computer savvy. Craig, an NHS worker from Suffolk, explained how he had joined Grindr ‘just to make some friends’ but found that most people were only ‘looking for hook-ups’. Henry, from the south-east, also spoke of this problem: ‘I feel the natural way to meet queer people now is on apps, which often seem mainly for finding sex’. Part of the challenge of living in rural areas as a gay person is that, while social apps have made sexual encounters potentially much easier, they have not necessarily provided the sense of community — and perhaps have even contributed in the demise of rural communal spaces.
The decline of gay and queer space has not been restricted to rural and provincial areas, and there have been plenty of reports on how London has seen the number of its LGBTQ venues more than halve since 2006[i], but the lack of rural queer space is something acutely felt by many of the gay people I’ve spoken to, where the one or two venues that did exist have now gone. Craig said: ‘I used to go to Betty’s (a former club in Ipswich) now and then…well quite a bit when I first came out. Because I’d come out quite late, I felt like I needed to build a social circle… But gay life here, there isn’t much, well there’s nothing now’. His partner, Jon, added: ‘I remember the Fox and Hound out near Manningtree. Middle of nowhere but people would come from miles to go to that place. You’d really look forward to a night out. Go on a Saturday and someone would either drive or you’d get a taxi or whatever, but you’d meet people from all over the place’. The fact that people would drive thirty or forty miles to go to a venue demonstrated that there was a desire to congregate in one place. That is not to say that meeting a sexual partner was not still a motivation for many, but in going to a venue, other forms of social interaction and bonding were possible. For example, Craig and Jon felt the loss of a meeting place where they could have a laugh and be themselves. Craig said, ‘I’d like there to be a couple of gay clubs or bars around here. We go to Gran Canaria on holiday…when we go, we like going to the gay bars and having a drink and feeling comfortable… we talk to other gay people and enjoy the atmosphere. To go out and have a laugh with gay people. People don’t do that here now’. They also spoke of how the vast numbers of gay men in one place in Gran Canaria allowed them to feel comfortable showing public affection because ‘everyone was holding hands’. When I asked them whether they would feel comfortable holding hands walking around Ipswich, Jon shook his head and said, it wasn’t necessarily about the fear of being abused ‘but the fear of being judged’. A gay space allowed them somewhere to go where they did not to have to second guess what people thought about them, and where they could forget about being in the minority for a while. Perhaps being in these communal spaces allows some gay people to more easily let go of any internalized shame. Jon also said they had friends in London who had access to things like gay sports clubs but there was nothing like that for them in Suffolk. For Richard in Norfolk, he said that there were a few gay places in Norwich but in the very rural part of Norfolk where he lived and worked, ‘there are venues that are accepting or owned by gay people but they’re not specifically gay’. I asked the interviewees why they decided to stay in a place when it felt increasingly difficult to meet new gay friends. In Richard’s case, his desire to work on the land — a love he had developed through his farmer Godfather — was the most important part of his working life: ‘As 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 thinking you need to be happy and there are different ways of measuring success’. This relates to my discussions on what we choose to value, and how many gay and straight people feel the pressure to move to the city to earn money because it is overstated as a symbol of success through aspirational values. For Craig, it mattered that his family were close by and that he felt he was ‘more of a homely person’; for Jon it was important to be ‘close to his friends and his job was there’. This is where class and opportunities come into play because neither went to univeristy after leaving school. For some gay people, the act of going to university, fits into a perception of a gay middle-class life that never felt like it was open to them. Craig, who grew up on a farm with little money, explained that the onus was on him to get a job at sixteen to support the family. His confidence was also affected, saying that he wanted to study more, but that higher education seemed like it was ‘for the well-to-do kids’. Twenty years later he has begun a university course in Suffolk. As both he and his partner are now in their late thirties, their whole social network, home and work is located in Suffolk. To move simply to have more gay friends is not a trade-off they are willing to make, but it does seem they lack or miss elements of a gay community because of the loss of local venues such as Betty’s. For those gay people like me, who felt lucky (and it was mostly luck) to get to the city, these moments of physical movement (such as going to Uni) can precipitate our coming out, or allow us to engage in a wider gay community that may not have been as easy, immediate or accessible if we had never left the space in which we grew up. I think this is part of why some of us are keen to latch onto the ‘escape’ narrative and accentuate the positives of a city-life over where we came from. And perhaps this is also why gay people in the countryside are often disregarded or devalued.
Gentrification across the south-east, expressed through exponentially rising rents, in addition to the rise in supermarkets selling alcohol after changes in licensing laws, have made many pubs and bars unviable businesses. But when a town or county only has a handful of gay or queer spaces, their loss can be devastating to the local gay community, while reinforcing assumptions that the countryside is an inherently unappealing or homophobic space. This, in turn, can perpetuate more young LGBTQ people feeling the need to leave for the larger cities. One owner of a gay bar who wanted to remain anonymous, said ‘it was just was too expensive to keep going and I also wanted to do other things with my life’. The loss of queer space also leads to a fracturing of other LGBTQ services. Another owner, Simon, who ran The Wynford Arms in Reading for twenty-three years, said he was keen to have a space ‘run by gay people for gay people’. While in some ways being quite a traditional pub, The Wynford served the community in a number of ways. Simon said, ‘it was always important for The Wynford to provide local groups space for meetings and we held fundraising events for local groups and charities including Thames Valley Positive Support and Reading Pride’. He agreed that social apps had made an impact but pointed out that pubs were facing many pressures because of increased rents, unsupportive breweries and then the changes in licensing laws which allowed supermarkets to sell alcohol cheaply so that: ‘drinking at home became an alternative and with that comes preloading at home so people drink before they come out and so when they come out they spend less’. As a minority we are often relying on a small number of individuals to help maintain gay spaces and I would argue straight forward capitalism serves majority hetero interests more than minority groups. It makes me think whether rural gay and queer venues should have their business and building rates paid for by the council or receive some form of subsidy to ensure they can continue. Gay rural communities aren’t necessarily helped by free market forces, despite providing services that many of us would think of as vitally important to our mental health and wellbeing.
The loss of gay spaces along with an increased use of social apps also raises questions about how gay people treat one another. I’ll hold my hands up and admit that I have sometimes behaved badly online, choosing to ignore or block people without much thought to how it might hurt their feelings. The anonymity I have online has allowed me to be dismissive of even engaging with some gay men because I assume all they are after is a hook up. But had I met one of these men in a bar I regularly patronised, I would have certainly made more of an effort to get along with them or socialise, knowing that we were in a shared space that was important to us. The stakes of behaving badly to someone online do not feel as high as in a community venue from which you might be excluded. There are certainly a sizeable number of gay people on Grindr who have felt able to dismiss groups of people based on their ethnicity, size or age. When I spoke to Henry, he said ‘that online it also makes it easier for us to ghost each other or not engage and build meaningful relationships’. Henry went on to explain how the former gay pub, The Wynford Arms, was particularly important to him because ‘I’m not sure if I’d ever end up talking to older gay guys if the only options had been Grindr and straight bars’. As someone who did not grow up in a large city ‘it also felt a lot less intimidating than a trip to London, so it was psychologically more accessible’. I am not saying that gay or queer spaces were entirely free from prejudice or judgment, or that they weren’t also about places to meet for sex, but there is something different in being physically in a shared space versus sharing pics on social media accounts. Meeting in a bar seems to allow some gay people to broaden their perception of who they might be attracted to, whereas the online world often leads to us atomising our desires to specific kinks and being dismissive of anyone who does not fit. It seems unfair that social apps are the only option for many rural and provincial gay people because these communal spaces no longer exist. I should, however, be careful not to entirely demonize social apps, which have clearly allowed gay people in isolated areas to connect in a way that was not previously possible, and for some people with complex needs or mobility issues they have been a lifeline. Perhaps we just need to focus on ways of making community run venues viable, so that the online world is not our only option.
This shift from meeting in venues to online might play into the stereotype of the rural being an unwelcoming space to LGBTQ+ people, but there have also been many rural places that have a tradition of queer presence, activism and acceptance. fin, someone who identifies as non-binary, queer and as an immigrant, talked to me about the community in North Wales, and their continuing experiment in queer environmentalism and sustainability. When I asked them about their experiences of the rural, they spoke of the radicalism of engaging with the local straight community, especially about the use of the land. ‘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’. They went on to say that for them being in the countryside was more important for being a queer activist than being visible in the city: ‘There’s loads of work to do here. And part of being intimate with my communities, asking my community to see me as me, and not just see, you know, to totally accept me’. Even at the local school, where trans youth is now recognized, fin explained how ‘lots of parents come up to me and ask me questions because their kids are asking them questions, you know’? ‘That’s the thing that is part of community, where someone knows who to go call to talk to about something’. What emerged was a sense of kinship, even when there were disagreements. Simon, of The Wynford Arms, also made the important point that ‘not everyone is a pub person’ and pubs were only part of the ecology of the gay community, ‘there have always been outdoor walking groups…the Reading Area Gay Group’ and other ways for people to meet. And across the country there are many gay farmers, who have formed their own Facebook group and organize social events and support for one another. LGBTQ+ people living in the countryside are often taking things in to their own hands in creating queer spaces and events. Richard, from Norfolk, explained how he had set up a Rainbow Garden Party on the estate he worked as a gardener. It was attended by 6–700 people from across East Anglia in 2019: ‘This would have been our third year (cancelled due to Covid-19). This year we would have had a mental health and family element to it. We had a speaker coming to talk about surrogacy, a local mum whose son had committed suicide who was coming to talk about the importance of acceptance in the family. We see lots of extended families turn up and local villages. They are not all gay but have brought their grandchildren’. Without compromising confidentiality, Richard told me about a man in his eighties who had come along and came out because his neighbour also happened to be there.
There remain elements of homophobia in parts of the countryside, but for most people I spoke to it was more an issue of visibility. Without physical spaces to go to, it allows the straight community to not be as aware that gay people are living and working around them. Richard explained while ‘God’s Own Country was a very good film, it largely spoke to a gay audience’ and that part of the work needs to focus on visibility with the rural population as a whole. For gay farmers and land workers ‘the assumption is still that we’re straight’. But through his work, he is helping the whole community of North Norfolk to understand the diversity of queer people who live and work in rural areas. And he is hopeful for the future: ‘things are changing…things are improving’.