LGBT Rural Summit
The LGBT Rural Summits
This section examines the ways that conservatives and liberals alike talked about the LGBT Rural summit held on August 18, 2016 in Des Moines, Iowa. The summit was organized by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in collaboration with the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) and the True Colors Fund (Cyndi Lauper’s organization that focuses on homelessness among LGBT youth). Although the USDA and company had organized fourteen similar summits since its inaugural event on June 6, 2014 in Greensboro, North Carolina, this was the first summit to garner national attention.
According to the USDA, each Rural LGBT summit “aims to elevate the voices of the rural LGBT community, highlight the important federal policy efforts to protect this community, and identify next steps to ensure all rural communities have access to the resources they need.”
Conservative radio show host Rush Limbaugh, along with his fellow conservative bloggers and pundits, consistently described the event as one for lesbian farmers—to celebrate them, recruit them, or use them to “replace conservative farmers.”
Interestingly, the discussions that took place at the summit specific to lesbians and to farmers were minimal. We might ask how a day-long conference in which one of four breakout panels focused on agriculture and LGBT life—and on which one woman was a panelist—at a summit attended primarily by men has come to be described as an event for lesbian farmers. (For another example of this framing of the event, click here.) Considering that there were essentially no lesbian farmers at an event ostensibly for lesbian farmers, it seems likely that the goal of the conservative commentary was not to provide an accurate description of the event. It was, of course, meant to trivialize and mock the summit.
Many self-proclaimed liberals responded to Limbaugh’s sexist and homophobic comments. In doing so, some ended up reproducing the same kinds of simplistic and stereotypical ideas about rural place that are evident in Limbaugh’s comments.
Thom Hartmann, host of the Washington, D.C. based “number one progressive talk show,” responded to Limbaugh’s critiques of the summit through caricaturing the rural in ways that more overtly yoke the rural to homophobia and hate than did Limbaugh. Later in his show, Hartmann provided a specific example of rural homophobia as a basis for his conflation of the two: Matthew Shepard.
Matthew Shepard was not dragged behind a truck; the person to whom Hartmann is referring here is James Byrd Jr., a black man killed by white supremacists who beat him, urinated on him, and dragged him behind a truck by his ankles until he died. Byrd died in Jasper, Texas. Matthew Shepard, on the other hand, was a white gay man remembered for his death at the hands of homophobes, who tied him to a fence, tortured him, and left him to die over several days. (Incidentally, scholars and journalists have challenged this widely-accepted version of the story of
Shepard’s death, noting that metronormativity and classism drove the case, as well as cultural representations of it.) Shepard died in Laramie, Wyoming.
Approximately a decade after their deaths, these two men—remembered as victims of two different types of hate—were joined together through the passage of The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Beyond this, the circumstances of their deaths are very different, not only because of the motivations of the killers, but also because of the locations of the murders: With a population of 30,000, Laramie is the third largest city in Wyoming, a state with a total population of just one half million. Jasper is a town of 7,500 people in a state with twenty-seven million people. Rather than a simple mistake, this conflation of the deaths of two men—by a progressive radio show host who is attempting to show his support for an LGBT Rural Summit— reflects precisely liberals’ metronormativity: all rural places are so “intolerant of diversity” that we need not distinguish between rural places or the people who live (and, in this case, die) there. Rural place—and its lives and deaths—matter so little that we conflate them to argue for the dangerousness of rural place.
Samantha Schacher, a host of PopTrigger, an “unfiltered” “smart show about dumb stuff” based in Los Angeles, California and hosted on The Young Turks Network, laughed as she introduced the episode entitled “Lesbian Farmers Invading Rural USA.” For Schacher and other liberal supporters of the event, Limbaugh is not to be taken seriously. In the episode, which has a distinct light-heartedness to it, Schacher says, “There are farmers and there are people in rural areas who are same-sex couples and they need outreach and they need help. And the reason they have this initiative is to reach these people.”
The problem here is not just this framing of the rural—always in need of help and outreach, always a site of discrimination, intolerance, and related joblessness—but also that these self-identified liberal commentators reproduce the very framing of the event constructed by Limbaugh as one
for lesbian farmers. Grace Baldridge, another co-host of Pop Trigger, laughed as she described Limbaugh’s comments as “a little bit true” because “lesbians love farming!” Baldridge’s evidence for her position included a Facebook post from her girlfriend on the topic and the related comments by some of her Facebook friends, all of whom were excited by the ostensible possibility of starting a (lesbian) farm (with the assistance of the USDA). In response to Baldridge’s story, Hasan Piker, the third co-host, exclaimed, “Oh my god, maybe [Limbaugh] is right!” Again, the LGBT Rural Summit series is in no way an assistance program and, frankly, the events would not help a lesbian (become a) farmer in any material manner.
What this discussion of the LGBT Rural Summits tells us is that the rural LGBTQ person has so little cultural resonance that it is difficult for urban based LGBTQ people and supporters of LGBTQ issues to imagine the rural outside of a farming framework and to imagine that there might be issues particular to rural LGBTQ life—outside of discrimination, intolerance, or farming—that such a summit could address.