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Rural LGBT youth face challenges using the Internet

by Peter Cassels
Contributor
Tuesday Aug 3, 2010
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The Internet is a lifeline for LGBT youth, particularly those living in isolated rural communities where it’s often the only way they can connect with others. Often, however, they face challenges their peers in the cities and suburbs don’t.

If they don’t have their own computers, they must rely on using those in public libraries and schools, where privacy is often not an option and filtering software prevents them from accessing information. Less than 50 percent of rural communities have high-speed access, so many rural youth also have to rely on the much slower dial-up connections.

President Obama wants to increase broadband access to 90 percent of American homes by 2020 under a multi-billion-dollar plan some have compared to the Tennessee Valley Authority’s expansion of electricity and indoor plumbing to rural areas in the 1930s.

Mary Gray, an associate professor at Indiana University who spent two years studying LGBT youth in rural Appalachia, told EDGE most don’t have their own personal computers, so Internet access is a challenge. Gray’s work resulted in her landmark book, "Out in the Country: Youth, Media and Queer Visibility in Rural America," which NYU Press published in 2009

"A number of them share computers with their families, which makes privacy difficult," she said in a phone interview. "Most only have dial-up connections."

Software filters "gay", "lesbian" and other LGBT-specific words
Most of the youth lived in communities where their schools had computers, but came equipped with what Gray called "draconian" software that monitors key strokes and filters access by blocking "gay", "lesbian" and other words. Interestingly, some filters allow access to "ex-gay" Web sites.

While most public libraries have computers that don’t have filtering software, they are often located in areas where anyone can easily see what users are reading.

"A lot of the young people didn’t heavily participate in chat rooms or Facebook or other social media because they did not have private access," said Gray.

On her blog Gray mentions a group whose world changed the day their local public librarian decided to reposition two Internet-accessible public terminals so passersby could not easily see what patrons were surfing.

The more fortunate among rural gays Gray studied had friends with computers so they could often go online together. "Being able to find each other to connect locally was the main reason to go online," she reported.

Transgender youth she met were among the most active Internet users.

"I think that’s because they have an even greater, pragmatic need to share information about finding resources for exploring or shaping their genders," said Gray.

Online organizing
Unlike those in urban areas, many rural LGBT youth don’t initially connect with peers through the Internet, but through community organizations involved with social justice and economic issues, which is the way Gray found many of them. While there is a resistance to forming gay-straight alliances in rural schools, Gray observed communities are protective of their LGBT young people in surprising ways.

She mentioned one community in Boyd County, Ky., that rallied around youth wanting to form a GSA after residents learned the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church was planning on picketing.

"A paradox of country living is that pretty much everyone is out," explained Gray. "It’s just coded differently."

Instead of gathering at a gay community center (not an option in rural areas) young LGBTs get together in groups outside neighboring towns. The meeting place may be a public park, the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant or even in the aisles of a Wal-Mart.

"The communities know about them and while there may not be approval, they are still the community’s kids," said Gray.

Online life in Downeast Maine
Linnea Rogers is a bisexual 17-year-old who lives in a town of under 1,000 people on the Maine coast near Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park. She told EDGE she used the Internet to connect with others, initially in other parts of the country.

"I started talking online to people in chat rooms," said Rogers. "I said, ’I feel really isolated here. Is there anyone else in this situation?’ I was able to connect with youth and adults who were going through the same thing. Some were rural. Some were from larger towns. They all identified with the idea of finding people who would understand them, but they felt more accepted in their communities."

Rogers later found lesbians near her. "It took some time for people to feel comfortable talking about that with me in this part of Maine," she acknowledged. "It takes a lot of networking," which she does more often in person than online.

The town’s public library doesn’t have filtering software on its computers, but Rogers reported they are in a public area where anyone can look over your shoulder.

"It’s difficult in a small town," she pointed out. Her high school formed a GSA last year, but "the community hasn’t accepted us yet."

"The faculty has approved of us, but not the student body," said Rogers. "Our signs announcing events were torn down. People would call us names, especially when they’d see us, because they know we don’t like the use of the term ’gay’ as derogatory."

The school library’s computers have filtering software. "Students occasionally gripe to a teacher, but it never goes further than that," Rogers said. "The GSA is still very young and not very powerful. That’s a future battle."

All of the students now have laptops, she added, so privacy is no longer an issue.

Originally from Massachusetts, she wound up in Maine after her parents divorced when she was 10 and her mother wanted to live closer to Linnea’s grandmother. Rogers stopped attending church because it doesn’t accept her and at her job in a different town her co-workers won’t speak to her because she speaks up when "they say something badmouthing lesbians".

Rogers, who will be a senior in the fall, doesn’t want to stay in rural Maine -- "Definitely not." Asked if she’ll look in the rearview mirror on her way out, she replied, "I intend to tear my rearview mirror off and don’t want to look back." She wants to attend a liberal arts college to study history and live near a big city.

She may be following the goal of many rural LGBTs who believe they will be more comfortable in urban areas, but some say activists are ignoring those who wish to stay in the country.

"We’ve always assumed that we have such urban bias about what makes a good life," observed Gray. "We’ve never reached out to the rural youth."

An underserved rural population
Economic circumstances, particularly among those in poor rural communities "really have no other option than staying put." And Gray emphasized activists need to reach out and listen to them.

Jean Marie Navetta, communications director at PFLAG, agrees.

"While the Internet is a lifeline, LGBT activists and advocates involved in this need to be really conscious that some people prefer to stay in rural areas," she said in an interview. "We need to be sending a message that it is absolutely spectacular about staying where you are and informing people in those areas. We should not always be looking at down at people who wish to stay."

Eliza Bayard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, also believes the Internet is a "crucial lifeline" for rural LGBT youth because it sometimes is the only way they can connect with others, particularly if there’s no GSA or similar organization where they live.

Even then, "it can be a heavy burden for them" without online access, she told EDGE. "It shows how the Internet can move things in a local community."

Bayard reported that GLSEN’s Facebook page has 70,000 fans and 170,000 fans on one devoted to its Day of Silence campaign.

"What we see on those pages is a lot of communication among students who are planning events, including those in very rural areas," she said.

Peter Cassels is a recipient of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association’s Excellence in Journalism award. His e-mail address is pcassels@edgepublications.com.

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