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The War on LGBTQ People Being Waged in Rural America

Pride should be about celebration and protest. For many this year, especially in rural America, it’s also about fear.

Jon Cherry/Getty Images
A protester at the Kentuckiana Pride Parade on June 17 in Louisville, Kentucky

On June 3, James Hensley, a 21-year-old from Corbin, Kentucky, joined a small group of local queer activists downtown for what was supposed to be a celebration of Pride. Corbin, a small mountain town of just under 8,000, boasts a rejuvenated main street and is most famous for being the home of the first Kentucky Fried Chicken—so, naturally, the group gathered in a park and draped a Pride flag over a statue of Colonel Harland Sanders, KFC’s legendary founder. They decorated poster boards with affirming slogans they held up for passing cars to see. 

After a peaceful morning, the afternoon took a harrowing turn. Two men drove past on motorcycles and flipped off the activists. Hensley, a take-no-shit Appalachian man, cursed at them—and the men pulled over. They approached the group; one of Hensley’s fellow protesters began recording on their phone, later posting two separate videos to Facebook. “I’m a fucking racist and I hate fucking faggots,” one of the interlopers can be heard saying to Hensley in one video. “I want to rip your fucking face off and shove it up your fucking ass,” he says in another.

“I’ll be honest,” Hensley told me days later. “I [was] very angry. Very angry. Because he didn’t come there to debate.… He came there to call us child molesters, pedophiles, the whole nine yards.”

Pride Month, for many, is a time to celebrate the beauty of queerness. But this year’s festivities have been tempered by a crisis of hate and discrimination that is unfolding nationally: an alarming rise in demeaning rhetoric and threats of violence, according to a sobering new briefing by the Department of Homeland Security, and the enactment of around 60 anti-LGBTQ laws in nearly half of the states across the country. In early June, the Human Rights Campaign declared the first-ever state of emergency in its 40-year history for the LGBTQ community. 

The situation is especially dire for members of the community living in rural America. According to a landmark report released in 2019 by the Movement Advancement Project, or MAP, an LGBTQ think tank, between 2.9 million and 3.8 million lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people live in rural America, an amount that comprises 3 to 5 percent of the country’s rural population. (The study used a nuanced definition of “rural,” including geographically isolated communities and small population centers, having agricultural or other industrial roots, possessing a “small town feel,” self-identifying by community members as rural and/or communities that are growing but still lag in infrastructure.) After a slow trickle of progress and acceptance of LGBTQ life in places where it had once seemed daunting—if not impossible—to be out and proud, national politics are once again threatening the safety and well-being of LGBTQ populations.

“The threat is extreme” to rural queer people, Logan Casey, senior policy researcher and advisor at MAP, told me. 

Recent months have seen a spate of threats and attacks in small communities and towns, or in small cities that serve a significant rural population, including attempted arson using Molotov cocktails during a drag show at an affirming church in Chesterland, Ohio (population 7,415) and a pepper-spray assault at a Pride event in Bozeman, Montana (population 54,539). Organizers of an all-ages drag show scheduled in March to support transgender youth in Pikeville, Kentucky, a small town of just over 7,000 in the heart of Appalachian coal country, were forced to cancel the event due to numerous threats of gun violence.

In Corbin, a chaotic scene unfolded quickly. The man shoved what Hensley said was a KKK card in Hensley’s face; Hensley said the card and the man’s hand grazed him. “After I knocked his hand out of my way … he tried to swing at me and I dodged, and I was ready to come back at him,” he told me. “He put his hand immediately on his gun.”

About a minute later, one of the Facebook videos shows the man pulling out a pistol and briefly brandishing it before laying it on the ground as police approached the scene. The cops gave the counterprotesters a warning and sent them on their way; because Hensley’s group had failed to obtain a permit from the city, they were also made to leave. No arrests were made. According to the Corbin Police Department, the incident has been referred to the FBI for investigation. 

Many Corbin residents have worked hard in recent years to overcome the town’s legacy of bigotry. Corbin was known as a “sundown town”—a town where Black people were not welcome after dark—until the late twentieth century, when townspeople began to fight for change. Now, the town’s Sunup Initiative promotes racial justice, while the Wrigley Taproom & Eatery, a popular bar and restaurant, displays a Pride flag behind the bar. 

But the incident earlier this month tracks with national trends. Recent reports indicate that hate speech, threats, and violence against the LGBTQ community have risen dramatically in recent years. Clear statistics on violence and hate crimes related to sexual orientation and gender identity, particularly in rural areas, are notoriously difficult to track. While the MAP report noted many of the reasons rural LGBTQ community members favor country life—including a connection to the land, strong community ties, and proximity to family and loved ones—they are also “more vulnerable to discrimination,” it concluded. “Public opinion in rural areas is generally less supportive of LGBT people and policies, and rural states are significantly less likely to have vital nondiscrimination laws and more likely to have harmful, discriminatory laws.” 

The study also identified, using census data and methodology, 32 states as being majority-rural. When I compared the states identified in the report to a tally by the ACLU of anti-LGBTQ bills filed in state legislatures this year, the results were telling. Of the 491 bills, 412 came from majority-rural states—an astonishing figure that illustrates how the war being waged against the LGBTQ community is centered in rural America. The motivating factor that prompted Hensley and his friends to rally in Corbin was an extreme anti-trans bill passed by GOP majorities in the Kentucky legislature earlier this year. Among other provisions, the legislation banned gender-affirming care for trans youth and school discussions of orientation and gender identity with students of any age.

Restrictive legislation and attacks like the ones in Corbin, Chesterland, and Bozeman are causing LGBTQ people, rural and urban alike, to be increasingly on guard. There’s a sense in the community of something at once unspeakable but in need of verbalization: that the next shooting, the next massacre, could be near. Thefts and vandalism of Pride flags have occurred in Nebraska, California, Utah, Arizona, Pennsylvania, California, and New York in response to encouragement by extremist groups online. According to a report, the Proud Boys and the white nationalist group Patriot Front are planning to target Pride events like the one in Bozeman throughout June.      

This trend shows no signs of ceasing. The 2024 presidential race looks certain to at least partially center on these and other issues of “woke” identity; the price of admission to the Republican primary seems to be equating LGBTQ identity with perversion and grooming children. “We will never surrender to the woke mob,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared in a recent ad intended to frame his presidential bid. “We will oppose the sexualization of children. We will do battle with anybody that seeks to rob them of their innocence.” Although he once supported welcoming trans women in his beauty pageant, in January former President Donald J. Trump referred to gender-affirming care as “child abuse” and “child sexual mutilation” in a video posted to his Truth Social platform. And always, there is the specter of last year’s mass shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs that left five dead and 25 injured, and the 2016 massacre at Pulse in Orlando that killed 49 and wounded 53 others.

In response, some places in red states are limiting their Pride celebrations this year: The Florida cities of Port St. Lucie and St. Cloud scrapped their festivals altogether. But other towns and cities in majority-rural states are refusing to give in, returning instead to the ideals in which Pride was originally rooted: dissent, disruption, and visibility. Organizers of Knoxville, Tennessee’s festival, which takes place in October, have canceled the usual celebratory parade in favor of a march to protest Tennessee’s restrictive laws. Bastrop Pride Festival, a three-day event in the Texas town of 11,000 east of Austin, was held the first weekend in June.                     

The willingness to be visible is a sign of how far rural places like Appalachia have come, despite recent setbacks. Queer people have always been a part of small-town and country life, but in the past many tended to live quietly or completely hidden, abiding by a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy to survive. A protest like the one in Corbin would have been virtually unthinkable 20 years ago when I was Hensley’s age; back then, no one would have dared risk it. Today, despite the region’s overwhelming support for Donald Trump and anti-LGBTQ politicians, there are pockets of acceptance that have grown more visible over the last two decades and are newly defiant in the face of national homophobic and transphobic backlash. Pride gatherings have sprung up in small towns across the region, including Corbin. The Lige Clarke Liberation Fund was established in 2022 by the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky to provide grants “to increase public support for queer rights and equality” in the region. “Country Queers,” a West Virginia–based multimedia oral history project, was created in 2013 and has documented the contemporary and historical experiences of 90 rural LGBTQ people in 21 states spanning a variety of identities.

Despite efforts like these, rural LGBTQ people still often lack immediate, adequate access to the resources enjoyed by their urban counterparts, including a large community (and the notion of safety in numbers); bars, clubs, and gathering places; access to community organizations, social services, and resource centers; and affirming doctors that specialize in LGBTQ health care. Bans and restrictions on gender-affirming health care have forced many trans people to seek out-of-state medical care, adding additional stress and expenses, and caused some to relocate, or consider moving, to more welcoming environments. Country queers often face poorer health outcomes, including higher rates of anxiety and depression, along with a more visible and aggressive gun culture rooted in the kind of machismo that fuels counterprotesters like the two Hensley and his friends encountered in Corbin. 

“LGBTQ people in rural areas were already effectively at a disadvantage when it came to legal equality and policy protections,” Casey said. “It’s not that rural life experiences are uniquely homophobic or transphobic—we know that homophobia and transphobia can occur in big cities and in very progressive states. But the structural conditions that make rural life unique really amplify experiences of discrimination … and now with this dramatic escalation of legislative attacks, [those] disparities are just getting worse and worse.”

Countering such prejudice and hostility won’t be easy. In the absence of federal legislation, like the Equality Act, that would secure protections on the basis of orientation and gender identity, and in light of many states’ attacks on LGBTQ people, advocates like Casey are encouraging local lawmakers to pass nondiscrimination ordinances. The creation of queer-affirming spaces—especially those centered on the arts—is also key, particularly to ensure LGBTQ rural youth are given the option of staying rather than leaving. Grants from nonprofit organizations and philanthropic foundations could help to fund more necessary studies on rural LGBTQ life and projects like a mobile clinic devoted to queer health needs. Rural areas are also in dire need of more local grassroots organizations to build community, and closer connections to those in urban centers. Affiliations like these could provide increased training in peaceful protesting, including how to avoid or de-escalate potentially dangerous interactions.

We are now in a grave moment. The world, despite what Tony Kushner wrote in Angels in America, does not always spin forward. Sometimes it spins backward. And sometimes, it simply spins. The legislators proposing these bills are doing so with the implicit consent of those who elected them. While districts are often gerrymandered to ensure particular outcomes, that practice does not excuse the willful votes of people who are content to see the rights and lives of their family members, neighbors, and community members constrained, or who, with the best of intentions, turn a blind eye to the hateful rhetoric of politicians. Until that changes, the future of LGBTQ rights, in rural and urban America alike, will be tinged with darkness.

Reflecting on his experience in Corbin, Hensley has regrets about how heated he became. Despite what happened, the group intends to protest again. The visibility is important, Hensley said; they have another action planned for June 24. This time they have secured a permit and Corbin’s mayor has ordered a police presence at the event. Two of the group’s members are now planning to form a queer-focused nonprofit to build community and help others seeking acceptance and affirmation.

When Hensley speaks of eastern Kentucky, he is careful to not vilify the entire place. “It’s a very mixed bag,” he said, searching for the right words. “Because on one hand, you have people that just don’t really care. But then you have a lot of others that are kind of brainwashed into just hating people they don’t really know because they’re different. People here don’t like different.”

Will that ever change? “I have hope but it’s a very dark hope. I think that the only way anything’s really gonna change is that we fight for it. Because they don’t like us. They don’t like us.”