Mineral, Virginia is 327 miles away from New York City, but it may as well be another country.
I say that not only because of all the obvious differences between the small Virginia town with a population of 424 and the largest city in the country. I say that because for all the focus Mineral has gotten on the news so far, you might think it was a million miles away from where any of us live.
I was checking Facebook this afternoon when my feed suddenly contained post after post from friends all along the Eastern seaboard who had felt the tremors. It soon became clear the center of the quake was in central Virginia. I grabbed my cell phone and dialed my parents' house. I was met with a busy signal. I tried their cell phones. Dead air.
Flipping on MSNBC the cameras focused in on the streets of New York City. I was momentarily confused. Had there been another quake? Did something else happen? Why weren't they on the ground in Virginia?
By the time I finally reached my dad and verified everyone was fine, the verdict was that the epicenter of the quake was in Mineral. I watched the news waiting for cameras to make it to Louisa County, but even now, two and a half hours after the quake, no one seems to have made the hour and a half drive from DC to Mineral. I keep thinking to myself, "Shouldn't someone go to Mineral to make sure it's still, you know, there?"
I seem to be alone in that sentiment. Right now I'm watching the news prepare for a press conference with NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg. MSNBC did manage to get a phone interview with the vice mayor in Mineral, but that's about it.
Mineral is a small town. A rural town. A map dot in the American South that had its boom years decades ago. It's not a place filled with millions of people and hundreds of millions more dollars. There are no sky scrapers and not a lot of breaking headlines. Just 424 people who were just, literally, shaken to their core.
But the cameras aren't there.
So what does this have to do with LGBT rights? On the surface not much. But as I sat watching coverage, I was struck by a familiar feeling that we were missing the heart of the story. I felt the same frustration that I often feel watching the LGBT movement when the people who are most affected by an injustice are ignored because they are not as convenient, or not as interesting, or not as big a contingent.
That's not to say that what was happening in NYC was not important. It clearly was. Buildings were evacuated, fears were stirred, confusion ran high in a big city setting. Newsworthy to be sure. But sort of missing the point. The coverage in DC made more sense given the proximity to the epicenter, but the absolute focus on NYC just seemed odd.
We do that in the LGBT movement a lot. We forget, for example, that we don't all live in the big cities, and that the day to day life of LGBT folks in rural America is often far more harrowing than that of their big city counterparts.
I pastor in a small town. I live in a fairly accepting community, and yet I meet a lot of local LGBT folks, or families of LGBT folks who struggle. I hear stories of kids who left this community to head for places that would be more accepting and where there were greater resources. I know gender non-conforming and trans folks who drive two and a half hours to see a general practitioner. There is a feeling among many of us rural LGBT folks that we live outside of the radar of the greater LGBT movement. (And this is Vermont. Imagine being in North Dakota or Mississippi.)
To be LGBT in rural America can feel at times like wandering in the wilderness alone. Just like to be trans in the greater LGBT civil rights movement must often feel like being at the back of the bus. I often wonder why we don't focus as a community on the places that need immediate change the most. Why don't we support the people for whom daily life can be a maze of legal, medical, and social hazards? Why don't we try to make it better for the people who have it the hardest first?
I suspect that in many places their stories are not being told.
When I was in the Capitol building in New York for the marriage equality vote, a group of television personalities who were straight supporters were brought in to lobby for us. They were names who got some attention to be sure, and I certainly thank them for their support. But I wondered, "Why are their stories being privileged over the stories of everyday New Yorkers? Is it because they make a good impression at a press conference? Because we know their faces? Because they spark more interest than your everyday New Yorker? Because we think the average American can relate to them better than your average LGBT person?"
If the LGBT movement were a cable news channel, this is what I would like to see on my screen: A rural person talking about scraping by economically in a depressed town with the added stigma of being gay. A trans person testifying about what it's like to struggle to pay for medical treatment. A gender nonconforming person sharing their experiences of being shamed in our community. A lesbian elder telling us what it's like to have to struggle with the decision of whether to go back in the closet in the nursing home. Those are the voices that need to be heard the most.
In the LGBT community the earthquake hits us everyday. Some of us are fortunate enough to not live at an endless epicenter that shakes our worlds day after day. (I'm not just talking about geography there.) That's not to say we don't feel the quake in profound ways. That's just to say that there are some among us who need our attention first. Is it really justice when we fail to serve them before we serve ourselves?
When I pray for those affected by the quake, I will remember the entire Eastern seaboard with compassion. But, regardless of where the news cameras go, I'll remember Mineral, Virginia the first. Just as when I pray for our community, I pray for us all. But there are some who are always at the front of my mind, no matter how seldom their stories are told.