While visibility of LGBTQ+ individuals living in cities is high, we can be found living in all parts of the country. There are between 2.9-3.8 million LGBTQ+ people (around 15%-20% of the US LGBTQ+ population) living in rural communities in the US. Rural LGBTQ+ communities face the same challenges as those living in cities, but they also face their own specific set of obstacles.
Rural populations generally have fewer resources, due to much lower population sizes. This means fewer (if any) LGBTQ+ specific resources are available, such as community centers, social spaces, or informed medical providers. If they face discrimination in any space, they may have few alternative options available to stay safe or receive quality services in the future. If faced with a lack of resources, they may have to travel long distances in order to obtain trans-focused healthcare or a queer support group, which can be economically unfeasible.
While many LGBTQ+ folks choose to live in rural areas to be close to family or for the tight-knit community feel, a smaller population means fewer LGBTQ+ community members and more visibility for those who are queer and out. Community centers are important for more than just connection to resources – many people choose to access LGBTQ+ centers for the sense of community. Social spaces such as queer neighborhoods, bookstores, and bars can also provide this sense of belonging and connection to those with a shared experience. People living in rural areas may have limited access, if any at all, to these spaces.
The internet has provided rural communities with a lifeline of access to more resources than may be available within their immediate vicinity. LGBTQ+ people can now access online support and social spaces, queer-specific education, and importantly, telehealth services. The development of telehealth services has increased access to LGBTQ+-focused health care providers, including specialized mental health care services. The pandemic has caused an accelerated development of telehealth services, which has been crucial to safely continuing non-emergency medical services over the past few years. Telehealth has proved to be an essential resource for people living in rural areas, even beyond the context of a global pandemic.
Of course, in order to access telehealth services as well as online queer spaces, one must have reliable access to both the internet and a device with which to access it. People living in rural areas face another barrier to connection considering that many lack access to reliable broadband. About 72% of rural Americans have access to broadband internet in their homes, compared to 77% of Americans living in urban areas and 79% of those in suburban areas. Additionally, people living in rural America are less likely to own a smartphone, tablet, or computer with which to connect to the internet.
As technology becomes more ingrained in our daily lives, the importance of connectivity becomes more vital in ensuring that people have equal access to opportunities and basic resources. LGBTQ+ individuals living in rural areas are heavily impacted by the digital divide when they face a lack of access to LGBTQ+-specific in person services. PowerOn is working to change that. By providing the tools needed to stay connected, PowerOn is working to ensure that nobody in our community gets left behind in the digital divide. We believe that the internet is a powerful resource for the LGBTQ+ community to gain information, community, and access to services, and that everyone has the right to be connected.
In 2020, PowerOn distributed $47,000 worth of technological devices to the queer community through our 46 partner centers across the US and Puerto Rico. In 2020, the program had a potential reach of over 55,000 LGBTQ+ individuals in both urban and rural parts of the country. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, this technology enabled centers to continue serving their communities virtually. Youth OUTright, located in Asheville, NC said of the PowerOn tech they received; “An unanticipated silver lining to the challenges of the pandemic has been the access that virtual programs offer some of our most rural youth. Young people who could only make an in-person group once a month or once every other month are now in our spaces multiple times a week!”
Technology that enables connectivity to the internet is already integrated into almost every part of our lives. As new technology develops, more opportunities for virtual connection and access open up. The widespread and rapid development of virtual reality and augmented reality technology has the potential to open up even more space for LGBTQ+ individuals to be connected with others in their community and those who serve it. As these technologies advance and become more accessible, it could mean more access to resources like queer-informed therapy, for example, but also to important spaces such as pride parades that typically take place in large urban areas. As the world adapts to new technologies, it will be essential that those in the LGBTQ+ community have the tools to stay connected.
To learn more about our work ensuring rural LGBTQ+ communities are connected, check out the 2020 PowerOn Impact Report.