Rural LGBT youth face challenges using the Internet
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.
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.