It is well-established that LGBTQ youth are over-represented among homeless populations and are at increased risk for a variety of problematic conditions. In the To Go Or To Stay research, we asked participants as part of the ‘application form’ / demographic data collection instrument to identify their gender as male, female or LGBTQ. Four participants among those who gave narratives self-identified as LGBTQ (Max, Ben, SC, Manny), but because that particular element of their lives was not the focus of the interview, we concluded at the point of co-analysis that we didn’t have an adequate understanding of how this element operated in rural communities, as differentiated from urban communities, to speak to it. Nevertheless, we felt it was important to include.
Consequently, we engaged with an agency in Peterborough that serves this population and arranged to conduct a discussion with youth attending a regular group event. Six youth and their regular facilitator participated. The discussion was scribed as closely to verbatim as was possible, given spirited and rapid-fire exchange, and is included among the data (link).
We also had access to a young man, not eligible for participation because he did not meet the criterion of being ‘insecurely housed’, who had been raised by lesbian parents in a rural community. This seemed another interesting perspective to include. (The interview with him – chosen name Obama - was direct scribed, and after an extensive exploration into our focal question, followed the usual narrative protocol. It is interesting as one variation on how one becomes a ‘successful stayer’, a perspective not otherwise included in the data, although there are many hopefuls.)
The experience of LGBTQ youth was not referenced specifically in the final paper to the funder. Because of limitations on the length of the paper, non-heterosexuality was included as one of several factors that exerted an exclusionary force and, as such, increased risk of homelessness. We do have a more thorough understanding of how it operates, which we share here.
Exclusionary conditions can be internal or external. External conditions in rural communities are things like where one lives, whether the condition of one’s home precludes visitors, whether one has access to transportation, family and individual social position and connections in the community. How one looks is also an external condition: participants referenced looking different because of skin colour (Aisling) or hair texture (Kent), size (Kodiak), or appearance (Kailey).
The extent to which these ‘real’ external conditions operate as an exclusionary force is mediated by the internalized perception or feeling about them. If your home is modest but you are comfortable with it, then housing is not an exclusionary force. Obama, although he acknowledged that having two mothers was atypical, didn’t feel that it reflected negatively on him – although, reading between the lines, one might say that his parents worked very hard to ensure that he felt included in the community: he references seeing a counselor, he was encouraged to invite friends to his home, his significant talent as an athlete was nurtured, and his ‘hands-on’ learning style was mentored and celebrated.
LGBTQ youth don’t necessarily look different, but all of them referenced feeling different and experienced this as an exclusionary force. Some dealt with this feeling by acting out their differentness: Manny dressed and acted ‘outrageously’ from an early age. Danny (focus group) exaggerated his appearance to keep people at a distance:
Well, like at school, I was always bullied and stuff. Now I dress like this [note: unusual, dramatic] and wear tons of makeup and contacts and stuff and now everybody is scared of me. So they don't want to talk to me and they keep their space. It just happens and it’s pretty good.
For other LGBTQ youth, the contradiction between their ‘different’ internal self and their ordinary-looking external self operated as an exclusionary force; at some level, they felt themselves to be a lie - they were not what they appeared to be. Many were aware that to change the outside to match the inside, as Manny and Danny did, would irretrievably exclude them from the mainstream.
Embracing one’s difference is very difficult if there is no one else who shares that difference. Some of the LGBTQ youth sought to belong to groups that were also different, even if they were differently different. Elaine:
I've hung out with kids who were in younger grades in high school because I was able to connect better. I hung out a lot in the special needs room. I helped out in that room, because in a way they are different too. I was able to connect with them. The normal kids would judge you [so] I just avoided them.
It is more likely in small rural communities than in larger urban settings that the LGBTQ youth is indeed the only person in their known world that is different in this way. This makes outreach into rural communities very challenging. Youth can be outed by showing interest or attending an event or activity targeted at LGBTQ youth, so that participating is itself a high-risk behaviour. Sparse attendance then confirms for the youth that they are, indeed, alone. The intensity or continuity of support available is unlikely to be sufficient to outweigh the risk of attending.
Participants talked about the pros and cons of addressing the loneliness of being a population of one through the private world of the internet. (Participants who felt socially isolated for other reasons also talked about developing internet relationships to fill the void.) Having high profile public personalities be openly out is also potentially helpful. Feeling kinship with the famous may be difficult, but knowing that others have felt similar exclusion, fear, and pain and have overcome it to become famous was potentially comforting. Hearing mainstream peers’ reaction to the celebrity’s sexual orientation is also an opportunity to gauge what the reaction to the youth coming out might be, although figuring out how to engage in that discussion – or avoid it - is fraught with complexity and fear.
Participants generally found public school the most difficult time, a combination, perhaps, of being constrained in a social world in which they did not feel they fit, and having the reduced resources of an earlier developmental stage. As social opportunities expanded in high school, and again in post-secondary, which often entailed leaving home, or was chosen in order to justify leaving home, the stress reduced. It may also have become more manageable with maturity and experience.
In any case, coming out is a prolonged and perilous process, and maintaining control of it a source of on-going concern. The belief in rural communities that ‘everyone knows everyone’s business’ (which has some basis in truth) increases the possibility that the process of coming out will be hijacked. If someone in the community outs them, they lose the possibility of controlling how and when they break the news to their family. If the family reacts to the youth’s announcement by kicking them out, they lose control of how they introduce the news in the community. If, as is likely, there is likely no formal resource available, no shelter, they may lose both home and community. Informal resources are making a potentially controversial statement to the community if they take in a youth whose family has kicked them out. Subtlety and control of the coming-out process, difficult under any circumstances, is particularly hard to come by in rural communities.
Ben illustrates this complexity, articulating the twists and turns of figuring out internal and external reality, where and how and whether to try to fit in. She describes herself as pan-sexual. She describes her entry to high school as ‘restarting myself…as this creepy Goth kid that was into paganism, listened to Death Metal all the time, really stood out’. She then entered a lesbian relationship during high school which led to her being kicked out of home. She returned home to live and work while in a controlling relationship with a much-older Goth boyfriend. The year of social isolation exacerbated her social anxiety and naivety which led to a date-rape at college. She withdrew from social life and discovered herself as academically gifted while hanging out a pot-smoking group of female students. She was able to parlay a student placement into a satisfying job, and is planning to take university training to broaden her career options.
Ben’s sexuality is one of many things on which she is working, but is a central consideration. Being outed as lesbian and being kicked out of home exposed her family, who prided themselves on being seen in their small community as ‘normal’, as physically and emotionally abusive.
I think the [most important event was] incidences of abuse within the family, particularly the first time I was kicked out. Because that was really a life-changing moment for me. I am still really close with my family but there is that mark on us, it’s something that has never really left my mind and it’s kinda put a damper, made it more difficult for me to trust and connect with people. It’s that if my family can treat me that way, it makes me worry about people that I don’t really know.
Betty was more in charge of coming out to her family, but it was still a high-risk experience:
When I came out I was fully prepared to be disowned by my family. I was 16. I had found a teacher at school who I had come out to first and I knew she supported me. When I came out to my mom I was prepared to be kicked out. It took her a while. There is still that fear there that you will not be accepted.
Returning to visit in a rural home community, once the person has been identified more or less publically as LGBTQ, is complicated by heightened visibility. Family members may be concerned about what the neighbours think; neighbours or acquaintances may consider the visit an opportunity to assuage their curiosity or vent their feelings about non-heterosexuality. Alicia refers ‘for fun’ as being under witness protection when she returns home to visit:
Now I'm a ninja. I changed my name on Facebook to my drag name. Some made up name. I used to have really long hair and make up and stuff and now (notes shaven head) they think I'm my grandma's grandson. And the reason I did this (shave my head) is because when I go home to visit my family, I want to visit them, not all the people who discriminate and gossip.
Ontario, as part of managing bullying in the schools, mandated all high schools to have Gay Straight Alliance clubs. Many participants saw attending GSA gatherings as tantamount to coming out. Mandatory education about sexual orientation was also seen as dangerous. Alison, a group leader who does community education, shares her view:
I won't do [one-off assemblies] anymore…. To me it was tokenism. But what I found is that it was actually – there are statistics to show this -- it was more of a detriment to those who are LGBTQ. If there were kids identifying with what I was saying, they would hear the responses of the people around them and conclude “Wow, I don't have a chance in hell”. Or if someone would want to answer the questions, just the fact that you’re interested, may out you. [The talk] didn't reach those who were bullying or who had discriminatory views; they would just stop listening. When someone doesn't want to hear about something they just stop listening. I found what was better was to go right into classrooms and spend time there and be the person who supported the GSA. You have to have continuity [to make it safe]. And most schools don’t make that investment.
The LGBTQ focus group answered the direct question of whether they thought there was a place for gay youth in rural Canada with a unanimous and resounding ‘no’. Until gender and sexuality is more generously defined by a critical mass of society, LGBTQ youth will have an uphill battle finding a place for themselves in rural communities.