Despite stereotypes about rural residents as exclusively white and straight, rural America is home to millions of LGBTQ people of color, and a new report from the Movement Advancement Project, an LGBTQ think tank, shines a spotlight on their lives, their experiences and the unique issues they face.
“Rural communities have always been home to people of color and LGBT people of color, but their lives and needs are often unexamined or overlooked,” Ineke Mushovic, the organization's executive director, said in a statement. “LGBT people of color are more likely to live in poverty, more vulnerable to discrimination and less able to respond to its harmful effects.”
The organization’s report found that many LGBTQ people of color choose to live in rural areas because of connections to family and community, and many consider it an important part of who they are. The report also underscores their vulnerability to discrimination based on race and immigration status at the same time as discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
There are over 10 million people of color who call rural America home. Rural areas — defined by the U.S. census as anywhere other than a city and its surrounding suburbs with a population of less than 2,500 — is becoming increasingly ethnically and racially diverse. From 1990 to 2010, nine out of the 10 rural areas became more racially diverse, with the trend only continuing today, according to research cited in the report.
Rural America is also home to an estimated 2.9 million to 3.8 million LGBTQ people, many of whom are people of color. In fact, people of color are more likely to identify as LGBTQ than white people (42 percent versus 36 percent), the report notes.
David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, which partnered with Movement Advancement Project on the report, said “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and same gender loving (LGBTQ/SGL) people of color are central to the fabric of rural life in America.”
“With little to no attention paid toward the challenges and joys of what it means to be a LGBTQ/SGL person of color living in places like the South or the rural Midwest, this report reveals the heightened risk of discrimination for those who are both LGBTQ/SGL and a person of color,” Johns said in a statement. “This is especially salient for Black people who continue to be disproportionately impacted by the intersections of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and location in America.”
LGBTQ people of color living in rural areas of the U.S. face a unique set of challenges, according to the Movement Advancement Project.
“Because LGBTQ people of color in rural areas live at the intersection of multiple experiences — being LGBTQ, being a person of color, living in a rural area and more — their experiences are often unique from their non-LGBTQ rural neighbors or from LGBTQ white people,” Logan Casey, a policy researcher at the Movement Advancement Project and the report’s author, told NBC News. “It is important to understand how experiences differ so that policy can effectively reflect and address these unique needs and experiences.”
According to the report, the smaller populations that characterize these areas can make “difference” more noticeable and cause LGBTQ people of color to stand out. For LGBTQ people of color, this increased visibility as both people of color and as LGBTQ people may increase their vulnerability.
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LGBTQ people in rural areas also have fewer options when it comes to service providers and employers. When LGBTQ people of color face discrimination in health care, employment and services, due to racism, homophobia, transphobia or all of these, they might not have anywhere to turn.
The existence of religious exemption laws in many states that allow individuals, nonprofits and businesses to seek exceptions to nondiscrimination laws on the basis of religious beliefs exacerbates this issue, denying LGBTQ people legal recourse to address discrimination. For example, when foster care agencies turn away LGBTQ couples or deny health care to transgender patients, there may not be any alternative options nearby.
The report also explores how LGBTQ people of color in rural communities have access to fewer resources and support, such as legal aid or health services, and the resources that do exist may be geared toward the experience of white LGBTQ people.
“Rural areas have generally fewer providers, including for important services like medical care or senior care, which makes it difficult for some rural residents to get the services they need,” Casey explained. “Religious exemption laws effectively give businesses and providers a license to discriminate, and this even further limits the ability of LGBTQ people of color in rural areas to access even basic needs.”
Lack of nondiscrimination protections
The report highlights how rural LGBTQ people of color experience marginalization on the basis of race and immigration status, concurrent with discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. This puts rural LGBTQ people of color at “heightened risk of discrimination,” the report states.
LGBTQ people of color then confront the reality that “rural states are significantly less likely to have vital nondiscrimination and other LGBT protections, and are also more likely to have harmful, discriminatory laws,” the report states.
In fact, more people of color live in states without nondiscrimination protections. “In rural states with LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination laws in employment, housing, and public accommodations, an average of 21 percent of the population are people of color. However, in rural states without these laws, 28 percent of the population are people of color,” the report states.
Nearly one in six Americans think it's OK for businesses to refuse to serve African Americans for religious reasons, and about 30 percent think businesses should be able to turn away LGBTQ people on religious grounds, according to a 2019 Public Religion Research Institute report.
“Nondiscrimination laws protect people against this kind of discrimination, and it’s crucial that everyone is treated fairly when it comes to access to employment, housing, health care, schools and places like stores and banks that are part of our everyday life," Casey said.
The report makes several recommendations to improve the experiences of LGBTQ people of color in rural areas. The report calls for the passage and enforcement of nondiscrimination laws in employment, housing, public accommodations, education and health care in states that do not yet have these laws. Given that LGBTQ people of color in rural areas are less likely to live in states that offer such protections, the report argues for the necessity of federal nondiscrimination legislation, including the Equality Act, which would add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the classes protected against discrimination by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“Comprehensive nondiscrimination laws are vital to improving the lives of LGBT people of color in rural America — as is blocking and rescinding religious exemption laws that allow employers and taxpayer-funded service providers to discriminate,” Mushovic said.
The report also suggests repealing existing laws that criminalize HIV as part of broader criminal justice reform. These laws, which the report says were adopted out of fears and stereotypes surrounding the disease, disproportionately affect LGBTQ people of color.
Given the paucity of service providers generally, the report suggests improving the competency of existing service providers.
“Rural service providers should seek out training and information about how best to serve LGBT people, including LGBT people of color,” the report states. Relatedly, overall access to health care should be improved, including for HIV, transition related care and addiction treatment, according to the report.
“Rural areas face a scarcity of health care providers, and many rural communities have seen hospital closures and other obstacles to accessing care, even while rates of HIV diagnoses, addiction disorders or other medical needs have dramatically increased,” the report states.
The report also calls for the expansion of data collection on LGBTQ people of color living in rural areas. At present, the two largest national surveys — the U.S. census and the American Community Survey — do not include questions specifically on sexual orientation or gender identity, limiting the amount of publicly available information. In fact, Casey said he doesn’t have a good estimate of the number of LGBTQ people of color in rural areas because of these data limitations.
“This highlights the need for the census and other federal research efforts to include these questions,” he said. “These policy advances are important for all LGBTQ people in rural areas, and across the country, but especially so for LGBTQ people of color.”