When my fiancé, Karla, and I were looking for farmland to expand our community-supported agriculture business, we didn’t cruise past fields and barns first. Instead, we ate lunch in the small towns we were considering and searched for signs we would be welcome—or at the very least, safe.
Although we’d been organic farmers for four years at that point, and had spoken at conferences where we had gotten to know quite a few fellow farmers, we still felt hyper-vigilant as we transitioned from rented land in a progressive college town to very rural northern Minnesota. At a certain point, we simply had a take a leap of faith and choose a location, hoping we’d be accepted eventually.
Fast forward to five years of living in a small town—population 102—and we do feel a sense of security and community, but we’ve had our share of comments that emphasized that we are in the minority. There was the farmer who said he “doesn’t mind gay people, as long as they don’t talk about it,” or the contractor who said Karla and I were okay because we seemed like “the exceptions” compared to other LGBT people.
In speaking to other LGBT farmers, we’ve learned these types of incidents are common, and a recent report suggests that all LGBT in rural areas, not just farmers, are more vulnerable to discrimination and less able to respond to its harmful effects.
Released in April from the Movement Advancement Project, the Where We Call Home: LGBT People in Rural America report is a valuable look at the experiences of an estimated three million LGBT people in rural parts of the United States.
“General societal stereotypes and pop culture portrayals of LGBT people suggest that LGBT people live solely in urban settings, while stereotypes and portrayals of rural communities rarely, if ever, include LGBT people—except as targets of anti-LGBT violence, or as people yearning to leave their rural home to migrate to ‘more accepting’ urban areas,” the report states. “These assumptions and narratives create a singular understanding of ‘how to be’—and where to be—LGBT in the United States.”
Those depictions can work against farmers like us, who have chosen to live in rural communities for a number of reasons, and it can also make us feel invisible or like we have to “pass as straight”—or at least be gay and not talk about it, as that local farmer recommends. Agriculture is still seen (often for good reason) as a very conservative profession—there are no stats on political leanings in agriculture, but the most recent census indicates that the majority of farmers are older white men, with most organized as family operations where a wife is involved in a secondary role. Because of that, it can feel like farmers like us are sometimes expected to operate on the outside fringes.
But it’s not always like that—we’ve met plenty of welcoming farmers around here—and more importantly, there is a small, slow, but noticeable shift in terms of attitudes that may open the path for more LGBT farmers in the future.
Navigating the Countryside
One notable strategy for becoming more accepted in a rural community is to simply stick around, as Karla and I have found. The longer you’re there, and the more you contribute to the area—Karla is a volunteer firefighter who also started a medical rescue team—the more comfortable people seem to become. But that can have its limits if you’re slamming up against anti-LGBT views.
For example, farmer Courtney Skeeba and her wife, Denise, of Homestead Ranch in Kansas, have been farming on their current land for six years, but have been in the area for about 20 years. She has been able to see the change that’s come over the past two decades.
“I’d say it’s evolved, and a lot of strides have been made with the LGBT community in general here,” she says. “There’s more understanding and knowledge than we had 20 years ago when we got into farming. In the beginning, we were very much outside the community, but we’ve gradually become part of it over time.”
Not in every way, though, she adds. She and Denise had a son 15 years ago, and when he was in the 3rd grade, they found having him in the public school system wasn’t going to work due to a high degree of bullying over having two moms. When they spoke to school administrators they were told, essentially, “What do you expect? It’s just going to get worse, there’s nothing we can do.”
They started homeschooling, and Skeeba recalls it was a disheartening reality check for the whole family. Through a virtual school, his son has a large group of friends and they do all the stuff high school kids do—dances, field trips, long text chats when they should be studying—so Skeeba says it ended well, even if it did feel disappointing at the start.
“Overall, we do feel very positive about being here and about our lives, we enjoy being farmers where we are,” she says. “We don’t feel threatened or unsafe. But even with the strides that have been made over the past 20 years, there certainly can be more openness and acceptance, and we’re hoping to see more progress toward that.”
More Need for Change
Although being an urban farmer, especially in an area that is much more welcoming of those in the LGBT community, feels like a lighter lift, it still comes with challenges, says Nate Looney, a transgender farmer in Los Angeles.
“I live in a bit of a bubble because of where I live, but I’m also aware that I present as a cis, straight black man,” he says. “Even living here, I never talked about being transgender when I started farming, as a measure of self preservation, given the predominantly conservative nature of agriculture.”
He adds that since he’s also a military veteran, that was one more factor allowing him to “fly under the radar,” but at a 2018 Farmer Veterans Coalition talk, he officially outed himself, as a way to bring more awareness to that fact that, yes, there are transgender farmers.
“It’s definitely easier to not call attention to yourself as an LGBT farmer, but I came to the point where I felt like people in the agricultural community need to understand that we’re here, and that we’re just as passionate about farming as any other farmers,” he said.
There is still, obviously, a long way to go. According to the MAP report, rural LGBT people are less likely to have explicit nondiscrimination protections, more likely to live where there are religious exemption laws allowing service providers to discriminate, and tend to have fewer alternatives when facing discrimination. And, as Looney shares, even urban farmers can feel challenged by the dominant conservatism of the agriculture industry.
But there are some signs of hope. For example, Looney says, at a recent farming conference, the biggest caucus group was the LGBT table, and that gave him hope. Also, he points out that some large agricultural companies, like Bayer, either have LGBT groups already or have been talking about starting them.
Karla and I are seeing those changes up close as well. When we have to meet with people in the community we haven’t encountered before—people who fix tractors, sell hay, come to buy an old implement or offer one of theirs—we don’t feel quite as much suspicion as we did in the past. That’s a step forward in its way, that even in a time of incredible political divide, some bridges in the rural community really are getting built at last.
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer, yoga teacher, and farmer living in northern Minnesota with her partner, Karla, and their zillion animals. She’s written for Experience Life, SELF, Women’s Health, and HuffPost, among many other publications. You can follow her on Instagram: @bossykind