A new study published Thursday examines the lives of LGBTQ+ Americans in the South and the results might be surprising to some. The data indicates that the notion that LGBTQ+ people only live in blue states or big cities isn’t entirely accurate.
In a survey of 1,042 LGBTQ+ adults living in 12 Southern states from Alabama to Virginia, the progressive think tank and polling firm Data for Progress examined the significance of LGBTQ+ affirming community spaces, the relationships between LGBTQ+ Southerners and their communities, and the specific threats faced by marginalized, rural LGBTQ+ communities.
This research examined how queer people in rural America construct a sense of safety and community in a place where they traditionally are unwelcomed or feel unsafe. According to the findings, rural America isn’t necessarily a dangerous place, and people can live happy, fulfilling lives there, which could affect the perception of queer people living in rural America.
The study revealed surprising data on the number of queer people in these areas. It also showed their lack of safety and satisfaction with life and the need for more welcoming spaces, says Miles Davis-Matthews, the study’s author.
He tells The Advocate that one of the most surprising things he found was how unhappy many trans and non-binary people were.
“Something that the data showed repeatedly was the lack of feelings of safety, the lack of feelings of satisfaction with life,” he says. “It’s really, really concerning to see that because we know that there are more and more people coming out as non-binary and trans all the time.”
He adds, “Coming out during this time when rhetoric is super negative and super violent, and there are all these occurrences of violence happening, really just shows that the trans and non-binary community needs more support.”
On the flip side, though, he says, “I didn’t anticipate that there were going to be so many Southerners that felt safe and in being out and open, not just like in the South but also the rural South.”
He adds,” I think that’s a significant finding in that it challenges so much of the narrative that’s been told about South and also about rural America, and I think that might encourage people to look a little bit more closely at the things that they’re reading, challenge it a little bit more, question it a little bit more.”
Data for Progress research shows LGBTQ+ adults in the South value LGBTQ+ spaces. Nearly two-thirds of people surveyed say they can connect and meet new people through these spaces. In addition, in Southern LGBTQ+ communities, 17 percent say access makes them feel safer, while 22 percent say belonging is most valuable.
LGBTQ+ community centers, organizations, and groups are the most valuable to 14 percent of Southerners because they provide access to essential resources.
Transgender and gender non-conforming people may be incredibly grateful for safe LGBTQ+ spaces, as only 5 percent of nonbinary adults do not value access to LGBTQ+ spaces, the report found.
In recent years, LGBTQ-centered public charter schools have also appeared across the country in states like Ohio, Connecticut, California, and, more recently, Alabama, offering young LGBTQ+ students the chance to build better relationships with their identities and the community of people who share those identities.
Per the Data for Progress polling, 62 percent of people ages 18 to 24 believe that interacting with other LGBTQ+ people is somewhat or very important. Southern nonbinary adults significantly benefitted from socializing with the LGBTQ+ community. Compared to 53 percent of women and 55 percent of men in the same age group, 84 percent of nonbinary people find interacting with other LGBTQ+ people somewhat or very important. For young LGBTQ+ people, schools that cater to their needs offer a valuable opportunity to build community.
About 64 percent of LGBTQ+ Southerners believe that it is extremely or somewhat important for local communities to provide spaces for LGBTQ+ people to congregate and engage in social activities. The local queer spaces are the most important to lesbians and nonbinary Southerners, with 75 percent and 83 percent, respectively, finding these community spaces very or somewhat important.
In light of the higher rate of mental health issues, loneliness, and social disconnection LGBTQ+ people experience due to discrimination and marginalization, developing a space for people to find friendship, community, and social support becomes increasingly important. When social infrastructure is lacking, quality of life can be devastatingly reduced.
The survey reflects that 55 percent of LGBTQ+ Southerners disagree that their lives are close to ideal, and 59 percent disagree that they would not change a thing if they had to do it all over again. Compared to lesbian, gay, and bisexual men and women, nonbinary people are least likely to say they are satisfied with their lives. In contrast to 61 percent of men and 58 percent of women, only 34 percent of nonbinary people agree that their lives are satisfied.
Despite this, survey results indicate that 43 percent of Black LGBTQ+ adults in the South agree that their communities celebrate their identities, compared to 35 percent of white LGBTQ+ adults. Black LGBTQ+ adults are more likely than white LGBTQ+ adults to agree that it is safe in their communities to be openly and visibly queer.
Those living in rural locations report feeling closer to family than their urban counterparts and relying more on friends and family in times of need.
Although LGBTQ+ people in rural areas are less likely to be open about their sexual orientation or gender identity with their families, that does not mean they are more honest with each other. According to Data for Progress, two-thirds of urban LGBTQ+ people are open to their family members, compared with 52 percent of suburban LGBTQ+ adults and 54 percent of rural LGBTQ+ adults.
Over two-thirds of LGBTQ+ Southerners belong to a religious community, according to the study; however, 77 percent of LGBTQ+ Southern adults do not have access to churches or religious institutions that welcome them in their local communities.
Almost eight in ten non-religious LGBTQ+ adults believe their local religious community does not welcome them, while 74 percent of LGBTQ+ Southerners are religious. Moreover, in contrast to 35 percent of gay people, less than 25 percent of bisexuals, lesbians, and pansexuals report access to accepting religious establishments in their communities.
“There are people who are interested in being in churches, are interested in, that are involved already in church in other religious institutions,” says David-Matthews. “And yet they’re not finding spaces that are welcoming or open to them.”
He adds, “I imagine that just having that change, of having spaces that are there for them, could be huge in bridging gaps between the religious institutions and communities that exist out there and queer communities, and showing that there is not so much difference, or not as much difference as we may think, between our values, between the things that we care about, and the way that we live our lives.”