Why Rural Areas Need Queer Spaces
I came out to my family when I was 21.
A late bloomer to some, early to others. It had been something I had been battling with for years before that day, but I finally had no other choice. Mum phoned me on a quiet Friday at work, and asked me that question.
‘We’ve been talking about it - are you gay?’
In a moment of exhausted vulnerability (I’d been out the night before to one of London’s most famous gay venues, Heaven) I admitted that I was. It was no shock to my family, and because they already knew, there was nothing in their reaction but warmth and acceptance.
I was lucky.
I am lucky. I am and always will be grateful that my family, for all of their faults and flaws, will always accept me for who I am. No questions asked. Apart from my Mormon grandparents, who I still haven’t told. But that’s an entirely different story for another day.
One of the biggest reasons as to why it took me so long to admit to myself and my family that I was, in fact, a raging lesbian was the place that I grew up.
For 20 years of my life, I lived in a sleepy Devon village on the edge of Dartmoor. To get an idea of the kind of people I grew up around, imagine the least diverse set of folks possible, and then make it even less diverse.
That was the village.
And for all it’s faults, it was an amazing place to grow up in. I spent my childhood roaming free through the streets, spending half my time down the recreation field or in the woods. We were hardly ever home, but parents were never worried, because the whole village knew each other and there was always someone on the lookout.
If you’re asking yourself if I grew up in the 50s, you’re not half wrong. Going back home is like stepping back in time - but with WiFi thank the lord. I love my village.
But it’s the reason I couldn't admit to myself that I was as queer as they come until I moved away and discovered the drag scene in London. ‘Gay’ was used as an insult for pretty much my entire youth. The word ‘lesbian’ was barely ever used, and I didn’t really know what it meant until later on in my teens. We didn’t even really understand that trans people existed.
Related post: How Drag Changed My Life
It was like living in a very white, very straight bubble.
I don’t know what it’s like now. I’d like to think, with the prevalence of social media and the internet that we didn’t have so much, that the kids of Devon are more open minded.
But back then - and we’re not talking 50 years ago. We’re talking ten - fifteen years ago at most. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a tiny amount of time. But I would never have dreamt of coming out when I lived in Devon.
No-one in my school came out as gay until we were much older and had left the ghosts of secondary school behind us. If someone had come out of gay, I dread to think how they would have been treated.
It wasn’t really a thing. It wasn’t not a thing, but it wasn’t something people did.
And if someone had come out as gay? Well, there wouldn’t really have been anywhere they could have gone to find people who had the same interests and life experiences.
Devon doesn’t have queer spaces.
I’ll make a sweeping assumption that many, many other rural areas don’t have queer spaces either. Exeter, to my knowledge, has one gay bar. One. And even then it’s not one I’ve ever spent much time in, or would want to spend much time in.
I’ve been spoilt by spaces in London where every queer person of every sexuality and gender identity has been welcomed in and treated the same. I’m well aware that not all spaces in London are like this, but I’ve been lucky enough to only frequent those that accept everyone.
It’s in these spaces that I’ve grown and learnt and accepted people from all walks of life. It’s in these spaces I’ve met trans people and gay people and people of all sexualities and genders and races.
It’s been beautiful.
It’s what I wish I’d had access to when I was much, much younger. If I had, maybe I’d have been able to accept being gay before the age of 21. If I had, maybe I wouldn’t have spent so many years being so completely unhappy because I thought I had to grow up and marry a man.
If I’d had a space where I could go and meet people who understood, perhaps I wouldn’t have lost so many years to poor mental health. Perhaps I wouldn’t have hurt myself and my family in the manner that I did.
Related post: What My Mental Health Has Stolen From Me
But I didn’t have those things. And kids in rural areas still don’t.
If there was even one space in Devon where queer kids could go and meet people who have had the same experiences as them, where they could feel comfortable enough to accept who they are, where they could talk to older members of the LGBT community and realise that it does get better?
It would be more valuable than I have the words for.
This kind of space would also teach those in the cishet (cis-gendered and hetrosexual) community acceptance and love for those who have a different life experience.
I’m not naive enough that I think a queer space would stop there being bigoted individuals altogether. There will always be people who can’t accept other people being who they are, no holds barred. Some of the gentlest, kindest, brightest, most vibrant individuals I’ve ever met aren’t always accepted by wider society.
But showing people that the LGBT community does exist, and does deserve space just as much as the cishet community? It could work a magic in an area like Devon.
We shouldn’t be forced to move away from the areas in which we grew up just to find people who understand us. Wanting to move away is one thing, but feeling like you have no choice?
One day I’d love to move back to Devon. It’s where I want my kids to grow up. But I fear losing my tribe, and losing the spaces in which I feel most comfortable.
Rural areas need more safe, queer spaces. And they need them now.