Rev. Emily C. Heath

What Can Coverage of the Earthquake Teach Us about the LGBT Movement?

Filed By Rev. Emily C. Heath | August 23, 2011 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Media, The Movement
Tags: earthquake in DC, media, rural, trans, Virginia

Mineral, Virginia is 327 miles away from New York City, but it may as well be another country.

Thumbnail image for DC-earthquake.jpgI 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.

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I would suggest you rethink this a little. It isn't that rural LGBT Americans exist outside of the radar compared to those of us in America's urban centers, but simply that it isn't possible to maintain support resources in all of these rural areas.

American urban centers have the benefit of more money, more people, more news outlets, more centralized forms of communication, and most importantly: more universities. It is in the urban centers that many of our nation's youth come to, learn, grow, encounter and accept diversity, and then eventually leave to return to suburban/rural areas to take with them an understanding of diversity and tolerance.

This movement began in American urban centers where we united for safety and security. It is in our urban centers that fights continue for marriage equality, employment non-discrimination, and movements towards social tolerance and, inevitably, acceptance. All of these things radiate from urban centers into rural centers.

I do agree, that everyone and anyone deserves to have their stories and experiences told. In 2011, virtually everyone in America has that opportunity in online forums, chat rooms, social media, and blogs. Nothing is stopping any American from making their own blog, whether using a computer in their home or in their local library, submitting stories to any number of media outlets, or attempting to pursue opportunities of their own in press or radio media.

As with any movement involving politics, it is important to elevate those people who can influence the most change in our favor: politicians, entertainers, organization leaders, etc. In regards to political and social change, who is going to be more effective? A gay factory worker from rural America or a political correspondent from a national gay rights organization? The latter, of course, since that person has taken the time to foster relationships with politicians, has the eyes and ears of the public, and is capable of pooling resources and money to influence change.

It is always important to focus attention on those who can influence the most change. Stories of those who cannot influence significant change are also important and should be told. Unfortunately, your average, rural LGBT American needs to tell their stories themselves to whoever will listen. They cannot expect that people will automatically listen in large numbers unless the story is particularly profound.

My personal opinion? It is vitally important that these stories be available. LGBT men and women in America are lacking in all forms of print, audio, and video media. Anyone can write a book. Anyone can produce an audio program or independent movie. Anyone can create a blog. It is not easy, but it can and should be done.

First of all, this was not just a piece about rural LGBT people. It was about all LGBT people who get shoved to the back of our community. Beyond that, there are certainly ways to extend resources to rural America. There's just little will. There is an abundance of resources in some areas, but few are willing to leave the safety of LGBT centers to extend them to less populated places. Your argument is sort of a "trickle down" system of justice. Do it with the fortunate ones and then the folks out in the sticks can get the leftovers. Except, like trickle down, economics, that doesn't work so well. As far as disenfranchised folks having access to publishing, or even blogs (half my town still has dial up and many can't afford that), your privilege is showing.

My argument wasn't necessarily a "trickle down" system of justice, but an observation that maintaining an active LGBT presence in urban areas is essential for the mission of promoting tolerance and acceptance. As for an abundance of resources, I'm not sure exactly what you're referring to. LGBT resources in urban areas, whether health clinics, social groups, grassroots activists, major Gay Inc. organizations, bars, or shops, aren't doing all that well. In Boston, NYC, San Fran, etc. etc., they are strapped for money, resources, clients, or patrons, many having to close up shop or drastically reduce their mission.

I'm not exactly sure what you expect urban LGBT men and women to do. Many of us come here to study and graduate with degrees that require proximity to urban centers for employment. There are some who have moved to rural America or smaller urban centers and have done a substantial amount in turning those communities around. Portland, ME is a very safe city with a very vibrant gay culture. Sharon Springs, NY is another and that is a very small town. Efforts in Albany, Syracuse, and Amsterdam, NY have been launched to inform and educate the public in areas of tolerance, especially among minority populations.

Things are being done, but unlike urban America, rural America faces a very large amount of religiously influenced hostility that is very difficult to fight. The only mechanism so far that has been established to fight anti-gay rural sentiments is in coming out to friends and families and educating them in acceptance.

I sympathize with you. I really, really do. I was born and raised in Gloversville, NY. It is a very small city (estimated 12k). My entire family is there and before me, they did not know one gay person. Now, however, I am aware of over 200 people in that city whom I have come out to who have, through knowing me, come to know and accept gay Americans and support equality.

What resources would you feel useful in rural areas? Is there a gay population enough in these areas to merit continued resources? What would a county with a population no more than 5k people and a land mass the size of NYC do with an LGBT community center, health clinic, bar, or book store? Would a gay-friendly church have enough regular attendance?

You say "Do it with the fortunate ones", but what is "it"?

In your last comment, you failed to realize that I specifically cited that media access may not be easy, but I do know that most counties in America have a local library with at least one computer available for public use. One needn't go all that far to find a Starbucks with free wifi. A rudimentary netbook can be bought for $100 to $200, posts can be written on said netbook and published to a free blog in bulk at one's earliest convenience.

One can always write poems, short stories, auto-biographies or semi-fiction novels to tell their stories and send them, even if by mail, to any number of small publishers or save up enough to self-publish and distribute.

Are you going to reduce me to one who is privileged because I worked hard since Middle School, received outstanding grades, went to a college in an American urban center on scholarship, studied Computer Science and now have a job that pays me according to my hard work? Yes. I have an internet connection and two computers, an iPhone, a one-bedroom apartment the size of a shoebox, health insurance, a car, ample money for food and luxury spending. I don't have cable, though. It's an unnecessary expense. You may call me privileged, but it isn't a privilege I always had. I came from poverty and worked hard to be where I am. My living in a big city has little to do with that.

I do know, however, that despite where one lives in this country, we're all capable of becoming more with hard work and discipline. So... what is it that you want us to do or give? What, specifically?

The work of LGB men and women in American urban centers has already done so much. In Iowa, NY, VT, CT, and NH gay couples, urban and rural, can now marry the person they love and share in the state benefits that come with that - including sharing medical insurance, co-adopting their children, having secure hospital visitation. Many states have employment non-discrimination policies so that gay Americans, both urban and rural, can no longer be discharged from their jobs for who they love. Many gay, rural Americans join the military. Because of the work of lobbyists and lawyers and benefactors, we are so close to the point where they can serve openly and honestly. We're close to an overhaul on immigration reform, where gay Americans, rural and urban, can rest knowing their foreign-born partner has a path to citizenship... or at least a stop-gap on deportation. Many urban areas have homeless shelters that operate under a mission to provide warmth, clothing, a place to sleep, and resources to succeed for gay youths who are disowned by their parents.

Urban, gay Americans have launched countless campaigns focusing on non-urban school districts to teach tolerance and acceptance and to make schools safer for gay students. There's currently a viral, nation-wide project launched by Dan Savage to make sure the simple message that life gets better reaches rural, gay youth who are depressed and contemplating suicide. Gay men and women in urban areas have started and fund crisis hotlines and peer listening lines that operate 24x7. Even the NOH8 campaign has roots in urban centers.

Urban gay Americans have developed and implemented online resources to help those in rural America connect and meet one another online. has a list put together by a Harvard student (yes, living in urban America) of resources available for some rural, gay Americans.

There exist organizations headquartered in American urban centers who, through generous benefactors, provide free legal advice and very superb representation for all gay Americans who experience unique legal troubles because of conflicts based on sexual orientation.

Lastly, urban America exists in a way to provide a place of safety and sanctuary for gay Americans to retreat and find a home apart from an environment of social hostility.

What is it? What would you have us do? Please... be specific. Would you have those of us who live in urban areas to leave our jobs and our homes and move to the country where there exist no opportunities for us benefit from our education and background that we've worked so hard to accomplish? Would you have us abandon important work being done in lower-income urban areas to combat homophobia, bigotry, and violence at our own doorsteps? Or stop donating to, maintaining, and staffing urban, medical centers focusing on providing treatment in a non-biased way to LGBT citizens?

You seem to harbor a great deal of bias towards Urban America without realizing that the vast majority of the population in urban cities comes from rural America. Most of us know what it is like to live in hostile, rural areas. We've chosen to escape it for both physical safety and a better chance at financial security. Is that reason enough to be angry at us for refusing to abandon our established lives, jobs and homes to aid yours?

Again... what would you specifically have us do that we aren't?

I don't think the earthquake coverage taught us much about the GLBT movement, but it did teach us that our cellphone network remains tremendously vulnerable to failure during over-use emergencies. Let's fix this as we continue pouring billions into so-called homeland security. I thought infrastructure improvement was supposed to be a major thrust of the stimulus spending. BTW, the NY Times today did have several paragraphs about Mineral, Va., including a mention in the second paragraph of its round-up. The Boston Globe was more parochial, confining its coverage mostly to Massachusetts.

This is off topic. But just goes to prove that the convenience of the privileged is often placed before the basic needs of those who are not.

This is a really interesting and timely parallel. Thanks, Emily.

Paige Listerud | August 24, 2011 7:47 PM

Emily, Emily . . .

You had me nodding my head in complete agreement . . . all the way to your hypothetical LGBT cable channel.

Not one half-hour segment for the bisexual kid who comes out to his parents and is told that if he was gay, they would understand, he wouldn't have a choice--but being bisexual, he has a choice, so they can't accept him? Or for the bisexual sex teen who, after his father tells him that he wants nothing to do with him, goes to a local LGBT center for support, but only runs smack into biphobic discrimination there? How about the lesbian woman who comes out to her lesbian friends as bi, only to lose their friendship--and then 3 months later, when she's fired from her job because a co-worker overhears her talking about her bisexuality on the phone, she has no community of support? How about the young bisexual woman who tries to set up an LGBT group on her campus and meets with death threats as a result?

These things happen to us. But not a blip on your screen? Really? What do bisexuals have to do? Get a cable channel of their own?

You're right in that bi voices would indeed need to be heard. I am always striving to be conscious of bi members of our community. I would submit that the exclusion of bi identity from my hastily written paragraph comes not from a desire to exclude bi people, but from my offering of a few real life examples of people I have spoken to in the last few weeks.

Paige Listerud | August 24, 2011 8:30 PM

I don't want to get bi-furious with a fantastic writer and spiritually conscious woman who says what I've felt is the biggest downfall of LGBTQ movement activism for the past two decades. But I can't help but be disturbed by what I hear and see as a bi activist and writer that seems to barely get transmitted to the rest of LGBTQ culture. If not one bisexual has spoken to you within the last week about anything resembling the experiences I've mentioned--which are all true stories from my encounters with bi men and women--then you should have at least heard something like them in the last month, the last three months. And I know you are a person who cares. I think what I'm witnessing is a profound disconnect from what bisexuals know and what the rest of the LGT know about us.

I do understand that bi folks face all the same challenges LG folks do. In fact, I'd wager they face their own unique challenges on top of that. I talked about this issue recently when I led a workshop on confronting anti-LGBTQ bullying. Mea culpa that I did not make clearer my commitment to bi inclusion, but please know this was a quickly written piece on which I simply drew my experiences from the last few discussions I've had with LGBT people. It wasn't a deliberate slight.

Paige Listerud | August 24, 2011 9:01 PM

No, I'm clear that it's not intentional.

Paige Listerud | August 24, 2011 7:49 PM

Sorry--"bisexual sex teen" should be "bisexual teen."