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New Research on Rural Gays and Lesbians from Gender & Society

It’s Not Just City Folk: Gays and Lesbians Experience Striking Gains in Acceptance in All Regions and Subgroups of America. New study examines diversity of gays and lesbians living in rural areas


At a time of dramatic change in attitudes towards gays and lesbians in America, a new study released this month in Gender & Society highlights the diversity of gay and lesbian experiences in America. “Midwest or Lesbian? Gender, Rurality, and Sexuality,” by University of Nebraska sociologist Emily Kazyak, puts the lives of rural gays and lesbians under the microscope. Almost 10 percent of gays and more than 15 percent of lesbians in the United States live in rural areas. While 25 percent of same-sex couples are raising children, same-sex couples in rural areas are even more likely than their urban counterparts to have children.
As University of Massachusetts sociologist Joya Misra, editor of Gender & Society, puts it, “the rapidity of changes in attitudes toward gays and lesbians has been stunning. Kazyak’s article helps bring into focus how greater acceptance of gays and lesbians is not simply a phenomenon of big cities – but reflects changes and opportunities in rural communities as well.”
How much change? Researchers at Sociologists for Women in Society and the Council on Contemporary Families recently surveyed how much and how rapidly gays and lesbians have been integrated into mainstream life. Consider these changes in the past year alone:
• In November, for the first time, three U.S. states approved same-sex marriage by popular vote. Just three years ago, Maine voters defeated same-sex marriage by a margin of 53 to 47 percent. This year they reversed themselves, approving it by 53 to 47 percent. Maine joins a growing list of rural states including Iowa and Vermont that recognize same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, Minnesota defeated the same kind of anti same-sex marriage measure that had passed everywhere it was introduced in the previous 15 years.
• While California defeated same-sex marriage in 2008, a February 29, 2012, Field poll shows that if the measure were submitted again, it would win. Today a record 59 percent of registered voters in California approve same-sex marriage.
• In numerous public opinion surveys, including one from November 2012, the past decade’s rise in approval for same-sex marriage in all regions of the country is evident: even the Midwest and the South, where gay and lesbian rights are less popular, have seen a 14 percent increase in approval for same-sex marriage.
• In 2009 Hispanics opposed same-sex marriage by a large margin. In 2012 exit polls, 59 percent of Hispanics supported it. In just the four months between July and October 2012, the number of African Americans opposing same-sex marriage fell from 51 percent to just 39 percent.
• White evangelical Christians are seeing a dramatic generational shift, with 40 percent of those under 30 supporting same-sex marriage, compared to only 18 percent of those over 30.
• And on December 6, a new poll by USA Today found that almost three-quarters of Americans 18 to 29 years old now support same-sex marriage, while more than a third of Americans say their views about same-sex marriage have changed significantly over the last several years, with approval rising in every age group.
Are these changes significant for gays and lesbians living in rural areas? Dr. Kazyak’s Gender & Society study, published by Sage Publications, offers answers, based on her examination of the experiences of gays and lesbians who live in rural areas (with populations as small as 2500 people). The University of Nebraska-based researcher focused on rural areas in the Midwest. She finds that rural gays and lesbians enjoy more acceptance than stereotypes about rural life would suggest. In fact, Dr. Kazyak reports that lesbians in rural areas can pick and choose from a wider range of gender behaviors than their urban counterparts. Largely because of the tradition of shared labor in farm families, behaviors and activities that would be considered unfeminine or “butch” among urban women are more widespread and meet greater approval in rural areas.
Dr. Kazyak describes how rural lesbians reported the gender flexibility available to them. One lesbian described the kind of upbringing that is common in rural areas: “I helped my dad a lot on the farm, raising…livestock…I really enjoyed driving the farm machinery! It just empowered me, driving a tractor or truck.” Another woman stated, “Tomboyishness was somewhat more acceptable than it might be somewhere else.” A third pointed out that “farm girls might dress up for the prom, but they also could slaughter a hog.” This flexibility allows lesbians who are drawn to masculine activities or who dress in masculine ways to find more acceptance than they might in an urban or suburban setting.
On the other hand, Dr. Kazyak discovered that gay men felt required to appear more macho than their urban counterparts. One man she interviewed commented on how few rural gay men display the mannerisms that are sometimes associated with gay life in metropolitan areas. He noted how surprised he initially was by “getting flirted with what I thought were straight men….[T]hey weren't straight men, they were gay men, but they looked very straight, they acted very masculine…. It was, like, this wasn't what I thought of as a gay man. So being in this town really changed how I thought of myself and the gay community.” Both rural gays and lesbians thought their lives and identities were much different than their urban counterparts.
Dr. Kazyak noted, “My research on rural gays and lesbians shows us that the lives, behaviors, and self-presentations of gays and lesbians are more varied and complex than portrayed on TV, even in shows such as ‘Modern Family,’ where one of the gay characters grew up on a farm. The rural Midwest is not a place we typically associate with gay and lesbian life, but my research shows us how gays and lesbians are increasingly out and accepted in small towns across the country.”
Dr. Kazyak adds, “Times have changed for gays and lesbians throughout the United States; but there are still many challenges, from the fact that employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation remains legal at the federal level and in many states, to the alarmingly high rate of homelessness among gay and lesbian youth.”
Article: Kazyak, Emily. 2012. “Midwest or Lesbian? Gender, Rurality, and Sexuality.”
Gender & Society 26 (6): 825-848. (.pdf available upon request.)

Gender & Society is a peer-reviewed journal, focused on the study of gender. It is the official journal of Sociologists for Women in Society, and was founded in 1987 as an outlet for feminist social science. Currently, it is a top-ranked journal in both sociology and women's studies. Gender & Society, a journal of Sage Publications, publishes less than 10 percent of all papers submitted to it. For more information, contact Gender & Society editor Joya Misra, Professor of Sociology and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts. Misra is also affiliated with Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies and Labor Studies. Her research and teaching focus primarily on inequality. She can be reached at misra@soc.umass.edu.
Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS), currently headquartered at Southern Connecticut State University, works to improve women’s lives through advancing and supporting feminist sociological research, activism and scholars. Founded in 1969, SWS is a nonprofit, scientific and educational organization with more than 1,000 members in the United States and overseas. For more information, contact Dr. Shirley Jackson, Professor of Sociology at Southern Connecticut State University and SWS Executive Officer, at swseo@socwomen.org.
The Council on Contemporary Families is a non-profit, non-partisan organization of family researchers, mental health and social practitioners, and clinicians, dedicated to providing the press and public with the latest research and best practice findings about American families. For more information on CCF researchers, contact Stephanie Coontz, Director of Research and Public Education, coontzs@msn.com.
AUTHOR CONTACTS:
Emily Kazyak is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her research addresses the variations in identities and family relationships of sexual minorities across cultural and legal contexts. In one of her current projects, she examines legal decision making in LGBTQ families and how the lack of legal protection these families often face impacts their well-being. She can be reached at ekazyak2@unl.edu or 402-937-9057.
MORE STORY IDEAS ON GAY AND LESBIAN DIVERSITY:
On gay athletes coming out experiences and the change over the past decade, Eric Anderson, University of Winchester (England), can discuss his research on "Updating the Outcome: Gay Athletes, Straight Teams, and Coming Out in Educationally Based Sport Teams" in Gender & Society (2011) that compares gay athletes who came out in 2000-2002 and those who came out in 2008-2010. Dr. Anderson is an American sociologist whose work shows an increasingly positive relationship between gay male athletes and sport, as well as a growing movement of young heterosexual men’s masculinity becoming softer and more inclusive. Dr. Anderson is at EricAndersonPhD@aol.com . UK cel: 07896791954 and US: 949 528-3875
For research on young people, Lindsey Wilkinson, Portland State University, and Jennifer Pearson, Wichita State University, can discuss research on "School Culture and the Well Being of Same-Sex Attracted Youth" in Gender & Society (2009) that highlights the impact of rural communities on psychological well-being of gay and lesbian high school students. Current projects include the impact of high school religious context on same-sex sexuality and the family relationships of sexual minority youth. Dr. Wilkinson is at lindsw@pdx.edu or 503.725.3975.
For variations within African American lesbian families, contact Mignon Moore, University of California Los Angeles, author of Invisible Families: Gay Identities, Relationships and Motherhood among Black Women. Among her recent projects is an in-depth examination of the relationships African-American lesbians and gay men have with their racial and religious communities. Dr. Moore is at moore@ucla.edu or 646-345-7822.
For research on lesbian, bisexual and queer Latinas, Katie Acosta, Tulane University, can discuss her work. Her book entitled Amigas y Amantes: Sexually Nonconforming Latinas Negotiate Family will be released in Fall 2013. Dr. Acosta can be reached at acostakatie@gmail.com  or 504-862-3002.
For more information on sexuality among Latinas contact Lorena Garcia, University of Illinois-Chicago. Garcia, author of Respect Yourself, Protect Yourself: Latina Girls and Sexual Identity, can address coming out for Latina youth. Dr. Garcia is at lorena@uic.edu or 312-413-3759
Amy Brainer, University of Illinois-Chicago, researches gay and lesbian families in Taiwan, focusing on parent-child, sibling and other family-of-origin relationships. She can speak about gays and lesbians in East Asia; transnational and immigrant same-sex couples issues; and relationships among gay and straight family members in Asian and Asian American communities. She is at abrain2@uic.edu.
For research on the diversity of gender patterns and sexual practices, Mimi Schippers, Tulane University, can discuss her recent studies of gay and lesbian communities in Paris, Chicago, and New Orleans and her current work on open and polyamorous relationships. Dr. Schippers is at mimi@tulane.edu    .
C.J. Pascoe, Colorado College, can discuss gay and lesbian family issues, homophobia, and her research on boys in high school and on media portrayals of gender and sexuality. Dr. Pascoe is at C.J.Pascoe@ColoradoCollege.edu .
For updates on research on changing attitudes towards same-sex families and same-sex marriage, contact Brian Powell (Indiana University), co-author of Counted Out: Same-Sex Relations and Americans' Definitions of Family (Russell Sage Foundation, 2010), (Catherine Bolzendahl, Claudia Geist, and Lala Carr Steelman). Dr. Powell can be reached at powell@indiana.edu  or 812-360-0474.

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