This article was first published in Attitude issue 310, July 2019
Words: Tim Heap
Photography: Markus Bidaux
Many young gay people who grew up among the green pastures of the British countryside will have felt the pull of a big city once they matured into adults. Often, we feel it’s necessary to leave an old life behind to fully discover and embrace who we are, sometimes sacrificing childhood friendships in doing so.
It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that attitudes towards LGBTQ people — and other minority groups — generally lag behind in rural areas, compared with more urban locations. Of course, it’s an unfortunate cycle: the lack of an LGBTQ population away from cities drives queer people out, thus exacerbating the problem and reducing the opportunity to open closed minds.
A 2016 Office for National Statistics report showed that the national average of people identifying as lesbian, gay and bisexual was two per cent. In London, that figure was 2.7 per cent, while in parts of the country, such as the east of England, this dipped as low as 1.2 per cent.
Other challenges faced by countryside folk, gay or straight, include a lack of public transport services and of mental health support services.
The isolation and loneliness that the former can create frequently results in the necessity of the latter. And while LGBTQ representation on TV and film is, on the whole, booming, there’s little that echoes the experiences of those who work in rural or agricultural industries.
Non-heterosexual central characters in long-running radio drama The Archers can be counted on one hand, and Francis Lee’s acclaimed 2017 film God’s Own Country was a rarity in the gay movie genre, which so often focuses on urban stories.
God's Own Country actors Josh O'Connor & Alec Secareanu
Reassuringly, however, efforts are being made in parts of the country to incorporate queer people into rural communities: in 2017, 50 years after the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, the National Trust — one of the UK’s biggest landowners — celebrated its LGBTQ heritage and participated in Pride events around the country.
On a more local scale, independent country estates are finding ways to involve people of all gender and sexual identities, through dedicated events. Last year, a new initiative called Agrespect was set up by farmers Ben Andrews and Matt Naylor to promote diversity in the agricultural industry, by sharing stories of LGBTQ people and getting organisations and businesses to commit to inclusive values.
Despite the lack of mainstream visibility, Attitude spoke to five gay men who have chosen to live — and hopefully continue to thrive — in Britain’s rural communities.
I’ve lived in a small village just outside Exeter for the past 15 years, and work on an 80-acre farm, rearing cattle.
I grew up on a couple of big dairy and beef farms. It was the most idyllic upbringing but, looking back, it was pretty lonely.
My first gay encounter was when I was 17, with a 34 year old who was my manager at work, but I experienced homophobic jokes and comments growing up and remained in the closet. I’m now 38 and came out fully less than two years ago.
I was married with three children (my wife knew about my attraction to guys), so my family was my main concern: I knew that the news would spread like wildfire in a small, rural community.
I told close family and friends first, who I knew would bolster me, and on the whole I was met with nothing but love and support. Sadly, I was then put in a position where I had no choice but to come out fully.
Thankfully, I haven’t come up against any real negativity — a couple of local loudmouths make the odd joke, but mostly just playful banter which I’m more than happy to return.
That said, I’m under no illusions that I will have been the subject of some disapproving conversations but my worries about my children suffering have not come true.
A separation is tough enough for a child, let alone a parent saying that they’re gay, but they, and my ex-wife, have been amazing and supportive. I’m now in a relationship with a great guy, and he and the kids get on well.
There’s been a massive improvement towards the acceptance and understanding of LGBTQ people in rural places but opportunities for dating and connecting with other gay people are limited due to the population size.
I’ve suffered from loneliness and with depression, partly due to my sexuality, something that hit home when I saw God’s Own Country, which has some resemblance to my experience of being gay in a rural community.
David, 59 and Matt, 38
We live in an old farmhouse in the middle of Honiton, a market town in Devon, where I’m an area sales manager for Semex (yes, I sell bull semen) and Matt is an industrial engineer.
Both of us grew up in rural environments and loved every minute: me working on a dairy farm, playing rugby and being involved in the local young farmers group as a member and eventually chairman; Matt playing football, computer games and doing a lot of mountain biking, with no connection to farming until we met in 2011.
There’s an age gap between us, I’m 59 and Matt is 38, so our coming outs were very different. I was 33 when I came out and was probably the first gay person most of my friends and acquaintances had met.
My parents accepted me and my then- partner but the biggest challenge came from the young farmers group, where one woman was very against my involvement — in the end, I had to withdraw from all activities.
Matt was 21 when he told his parents and they were very accepting of him. He waited seven years to tell some of his closest friends, by which point they had a slight idea, and again, they were fine with it. For both of us, it didn’t change our day-to-day life.
Due to the internet, I don’t think there are now any problems when it comes to being gay and living in the countryside. That said, neither of us would describe ourselves as typical gay men and we’ve never felt the need to find an LGBTQ community. We have the farming community and feel we do more for the “gay cause” by being ourselves in the rural area than marching in a big city as a large group.
For instance, we married last year in a civil ceremony that was attended by 110 people and in the evening had a massive disco in a barn for about 500. Of those, more than
400 guests were people we know from the farming community who are not gay but fully accepting of us and our relationship.
I grew up in Cirencester, Gloucestershire and knew I was gay from a young age, but also knew instinctively that I shouldn’t mention it because it would single me out.
When I left secondary school, I came out to my mum who was and still is supportive, although she discouraged me from telling some of the older members of my family because they were unlikely to understand.
When I was 16, I left my rural home and moved to Cheltenham, and a few months later to London. I was convinced I had to leave in order to be a gay man, and I distanced myself from my school friends, both because I felt they wouldn’t accept me and because I didn’t feel I really fitted in. I imagine if I’d stayed, my life would’ve been very different — more settled but with fewer adventures.
Now 45, I live on The Stody Estate in Norfolk. I’m the head gardener and have lived and worked here for 13 years, after deciding I needed to leave my chaotic city lifestyle behind and make changes, for the sake of my career and my well-being. Moving back to the countryside was a way to achieve those things.
I’m a member of the Norwich Mature Gay Community, and in May 2017, some of the group visited the estate for a day out. Having enjoyed sharing the gardens with them, I wanted to create an event for all LGBTQ people in the area and last year we held the first Stody Rainbow Garden Party, to bring a sense of Pride to the countryside.
Despite nagging doubts that no one would turn up, I was amazed at how much support we got from the local community, and by the diversity of people who did attend.
The MacNicol family, who run estate, were very supportive and involved. We’re about to hold the event for the second time, and will donate proceeds to local Pride organisations. We hope to make it an annual event. It goes to show that although rural life for LGBTQ people is more difficult, huge changes have been made since I was younger and difference is now much more celebrated.
I’m 49 and recently married my partner of nine years. We live in an ancient church house in the centre of a hamlet, and run a smallholding on Dartmoor, in Devon. We grow a lot of our own food and I’m a plant-based chef working on a new food business. I’m also a parish councillor and volunteer as a driver for a couple of health outreach charities.
I grew up in a semi-rural environment and didn’t come out until I left home. I found it tough to come out but as a Catholic, it was more a crisis of faith than a crisis of geography — I’m not sure if living in a city would have made any difference.
I went to university in London, then travelled in Europe and the US, living mainly in cities. After that, I decided I wanted clean air, to grow food and to settle down with my partner somewhere exceptional — and our village is certainly that.
We live in a very active and resilient community of diverse people, with a lot of “blow-ins” including me: I’m originally from Yorkshire.
The biggest challenge to being gay in a rural environment is simply meeting people who have the empathy to understand what it is to be LGBTQ. That said, people are accepting, especially if you get involved as we do — I’m busier in the country than I was in the city. As a gay couple, we have experienced some subtle homophobia here but nothing too dramatic.
I do sometimes miss an LGBTQ community, though. Friends visit us and we sometimes try to go to the gay choir in Exeter, for instance, but the drive home at night puts us off.
Most LGBTQ people we do know are couples or very busy individuals and I think it would be a challenge to be single or indeed young in this part of the world. Facebook seems to be a way to stay connected — the gay farmers’ group can be a laugh and people meet up socially from time to time.
However, it’s not just more social interaction that’s needed, but representation too. We’re members of several farming groups and have never noticed LGBTQ issues raised. I think we’re almost invisible in the countryside.