Small-town living can either feel like a safe haven or a life sentence. Sometimes it just depends on your role in the community.
In some regions, any association with feminism, social liberalism, and/or alliance with LGBTQIA+ causes can cast you in the role of a pariah.
But even though you may feel like an outcast, you are not alone.
Conservative, small towns create unique challenges for activists. Your area’s culture is shaped by its politics, industry, religious institutions, armed forces, and beyond; these factors mold the nuances of your community’s attitudes toward queer people.
For example, I went to high school in Carlsbad, CA, which is engulfed by beautiful beaches, rich retirees, Churches of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and a Marine base. All the facets of that area individually and collectively created an anti-gay, Republican attitude, even in a Blue state.
As you can imagine, my hometown made it super fun to be a liberal, girl-dating, Atheist pacifist with a big mouth.
Right from the get-go, I knew I would move somewhere far away and entirely different, but I was just a freshman in high school. I had to make the best of my time in Carlsbad – because I didn’t really have a choice.
My teenage years became a challenge to balance my passionately held beliefs with my enormous desire to be accepted. Even though it was hard, I managed to make some friends in my conservative town while still speaking out for equality.
Not everyone can up and move to cities like New York City or the San Francisco Bay Area. It would be crazy of anyone to advise that.
Sometimes, you have to stay in your small town. That doesn’t make your support of LGBTQ+ issues any less significant; in fact, I think your area’s demographics make a voice like yours even more important.
If you are in a similar position, I want you to know that I have been there. If I made small-town LGBTQ+ activism sound emotionally trying and difficult, that’s because it is, sometimes.
Nevertheless, I strongly encourage you to continue pursuing what you think is right, whether you’re in Carlsbad, Pace, Provo, or anywhere, really.
In owning your beliefs, you join the generations of activists who came before you to stand for equality.
I know from experience that it can be so frustrating and lonely to support queer issues while living in a conservative town, so here are some tips to maintain your resolve to keep fighting the good fight.
1. Use the System
Take advantage of the social and political orders in place rather than directly opposing them.
As tempting as it may be, please do not alienate yourself or push away anyone else in your community. You won’t gain supporters (or votes!) that way.
If you are in school, find out if there is a Gay-Straight Alliance you can join. If there isn’t, you can start one. Any opposition from your school or district is actually illegal, so don’t be afraid of potential backlash.
Surprisingly, you may be able to find support or a venue in a community center or church. Obviously, not all faiths or denominations will want to endorse anything queer-related, but some will. Even in my town, our Unitarian church often organized events to educate the public and include everyone,.
Remember, public facilities are just that: Public. You are a member of the public. If you follow the rules, you may use those resources granted to you to promote your message.
Do your homework. Know the rules and your rights, and explain them to people who are interested.
Sometimes, propositions seem to be written with the intent of confusing the public. An example that comes to mind is California’s Proposition Eight, the same-sex marriage ban that was just overturned by the Supreme Court. People on both sides of the argument often asserted that Yes on 8 meant “Yes on Same-Sex Marriage,” when that was not the case.
Educate others on the legal language of policies and the stances of candidates for office.
Most importantly, vote. Encourage your friends to vote. You can’t force them to vote your way, but at least you can set an example.
2. Be a Beacon
You do not need hate speech, character attacks, shock, bombardment, or violence to get your point across.
Read that last sentence one more time.
I totally understand the urge to yell at people and call them assholes if they don’t care that your personal life is affected by discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, mainly because I’ve done just that.
But you know what? It doesn’t help.
Even though some of those people are certainly assholes for reasons outside of social issues.
Instead, try to show your support for queer issues without an “Us-versus-Them” mentality.
Unfortunately, bigotry exists on both sides of every issue. In the words of Dr. Seuss:
“So be sure when you step,
Step with care and great tact.”
Think of yourself as a lighthouse and your message as the flame. Let your support glow, but never maim or offend.
Continue to shine, and you never know who might notice.
3. Leave Room for Surprises
If you want others to open their minds, you need to open yours as well.
Believe it or not, some social conservatives do not actually harbor hate for the queer community.
Sure, maybe religion and deeply-rooted beliefs about family structure affect some people’s stances, but hate is not always part of the equation.
Also, keep in mind that some people may be unaware that they know anyone who isn’t cisgender or straight. Sometimes, a loved one’s coming out of the closet can drastically alter a conservative family’s views on LGBTQ+ issues.
You may come across intelligent, highly logical people who will shock you with their stubbornness against queer causes. Unfortunately, knowledge does not lead to compassion, in some cases.
And it is all too easy for both parties to hold faulty assumptions about one another.
Let go of what you think you know about opponents of queer issues, and maybe they will do the same for you.
4. Remember the Internalized Fears of the LGBTQ+ Community
In conservative areas, resources for the queer community are scarce to non-existent.
A lack of resources creates a lack of knowledge for everyone.
This includes LGBTQ+ people.
Whether they recognize it or not, some LGBTQ+ people’s engrained behaviors can include homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, misogyny – any of it. You name it, a queer person can hold it.
In some situations, you may be in a position to call out discrimination within a queer space. If you hear gay people treating bisexual people as illegitimate or dirty, speak up. If you hear cisgender lesbian feminists using transphobic or cissexist language, point out the reasons why it’s problematic.
It will definitely feel awkward, but discrimination is discrimination, regardless of the source.
Queer people, just like straight and cisgender people, may need a reminder that the LGBTQ+ Civil Rights Movement isn’t just for white, rich, cisgender, gay people getting married.
5. Let Them Misbehave
No matter how diplomatic you are, you may come across people who hate you for your beliefs.
That is not your fault. You have not failed as an activist.
As a vocal supporter of LGBTQ+ causes, you might upset some social conservatives, because you challenge their values in the vulnerable arenas of sexuality, gender roles, and religion.
As you go on, you will learn when to say “When” in discussions with others who clearly are not open-minded enough to absorb your message.
This always makes me think of a phrase often used in online communities: “Don’t feed the trolls.” Basically, this means that you do not need to waste your time on people who are simply trying to pick a fight or upset you.
Please, do not lose sleep over people who refuse to change their behaviors or stances. If people are going to come around, they have to do it on their own.
I am not suggesting that you excuse problematic behavior. You just cannot let it consume you.
In your activism, always keep in mind that your safety and well-being are paramount. You do not need to martyr yourself for a cause that has already hurt and killed so many all over the world. Please, please keep yourself as safe as you can.
There are always going to be people on the “Wrong Side of History.” Take comfort in knowing that you are absolutely not one of them.
Please know that you stand on the shoulders of so many who love and appreciate you, even if you haven’t met them yet. Conservative town life can be difficult for an ally, but you do not need to suffer.
P.S. If you ever need advice or a cheerleader, I will be here for you. I’m serious. Tweet me.
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Maddie McClouskey is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She’s a twenty-something lesbian in New York City and currently writes weekly dating advice pieces for the LGBTQ event app and website SheSeekOnline and was a regular contributor to the sexuality and feminism site ToughxCookies. When she’s not writing articles about gayness, she’s performing stand-up comedy, singing show tunes to her girlfriend and dog against their will, or making up jokes for Twitter @SoundofMaddie. Read her articles here.
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