Gender and Acceptance of Lesbian Women and Gay Men in Small Town, USA

by Emily Kazyak

Kazyak_imageWhen I talk about my research on rural gay men and lesbian women in the Midwest, people are often surprised that so many of the people I interviewed described being out and accepted in their small town communities (here). As a scholar committed to highlighting the diversity among LGBTQ people, it is important to me to share these findings since they go against widely held stereotypes about what rural life in the Midwest is like for gays and lesbians. Yet equally important to me is to also address how acceptance in small towns is not necessarily universal. Rather, as feminist intersectional scholars would predict, acceptance is shaped by factors such as race, class, and gender. In other words, not every gay or lesbian person experiences acceptance in rural communities.

Indeed, some research (here and here) begins to hint that gender might matter for how sexual minorities experience small towns, as gay couples are more likely to live in cities than are lesbian. Does this mean that lesbian women are more accepted in small towns than gay men? To address this question, I analyzed the stories that the 60 people I interviewed told about gender, sexuality, and geography.

In listening to their stories, I found that acceptance is gendered: both lesbian women and gay men gain acceptance by embracing ideals and practices associated with rural masculinity. For instance, they talked about being tough, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, taking pride in fixing things themselves, and doing fieldwork. Such practices made them feel like they belonged in and were accepted by their communities.

Interestingly, for gay men, being masculine also meant that they distanced themselves from what they understood to be a stereotypical feminine gay identity – an identity that they associated with their urban counterparts. So, for example, they stressed that instead of being into fashion, they wore jeans and t-shirts, or were “flannel gays.”

For lesbian women, however, being masculine fit with what they understood to be a stereotypical masculine lesbian identity and a rural identity. They felt that they had more freedom to participate in masculine activities or display masculine behaviors than they would in a city. In fact, they asserted that because it is so acceptable for women in small towns to be more masculine, it’s often hard to tell whether someone is a lesbian or just a Midwestern rural woman. As one participant said of her small town: “you’d think the place is full of lesbians!”

These findings show that understandings of gender impact the acceptance of sexual minorities in small towns. Specifically, gay men and lesbian women who are more masculine may find acceptance, while others, particularly gay men who are understood to be more feminine, may not.

Emily Kazyak is assistant professor of sociology and women’s and gender studies at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her article, “Midwest or Lesbian? Gender, Rurality, and Sexuality,” was published in the December 2012 issue of Gender & Society. To view the article, click here.

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