How Farmers Union Values Can Guide Allyship
Updated: Sep 10
by Hawthorn McCracken, WFU Communications Intern
I was nervous about attending my first Annual Convention. As someone who doesn’t fit the traditional image of a farmer, I wasn’t really sure how I’d fit in. But I found that Wisconsin Farmers Union exceeded my expectations and truly lived up to its values. The cooperative framework of Wisconsin Farmers Union shines through on the debate floor and in chapter meetings -- people of all backgrounds and farming styles are welcome to come and reason together. But once we leave the convention, how can those guiding frames help to create stronger relationships year-round? I believe the Farmers Union guiding principles can serve as a model for fostering more accepting and cooperative communities. I write from my perspective as a rural LGBTQ person, but these principals could be applied to building relationships with folks from other marginalized communities as well.
Growing up LGBTQ in the country, it was often difficult to tell which neighbors or friends were safe enough to be out with. I didn’t see any outward indication of allyship. Most folks didn’t even discuss LGBTQ people unless it was to make jokes or speak hatefully. It wasn’t until I was 16 and had moved away that I found out my birthplace of Johnson City, Tennessee was a well-known LGBTQ cultural center. But because I was young and often isolated, I had no chance to learn about those aspects of my community. My story is not unique -- up to 81% of LGBTQ youth report hearing slurs and hate speech in rural schools. Even though at least 20% of the LGBTQ population lives in rural areas, many folks tend to keep to themselves or stay quiet about their identities for fear of reprisal. LGBTQ rural folks often report feeling isolated, and they have worse mental and physical health outcomes than their cisgender (those who identify with their gender given at birth) and straight peers.
At a time when farmer isolation and suicide rates are making headlines, it’s absolutely vital to make our rural communities open and accepting to all people who live there. As more farmers transition into retirement, it’s also important to welcome the next generation of land stewards. Whether they are farm kids returning home or first-generation farmers, inviting more people into our communities is essential to renewing rural economies and culture. Below are six ways in which the principles of Education, Cooperation, and Legislation can guide allies in supporting their diverse neighbors.
Learn about the lived experiences of rural LGBTQ folks
Contrary to mainstream narratives about the LGBTQ community and rural spaces, there are plenty of us already out here! Understanding more about rural LGBTQ histories, from cowboys to modern co-ops, can help allies connect more with their LGBTQ neighbors. The best way to learn about what it’s like to grow up LGBTQ in a rural area is to listen to the stories of our LGBTQ countryfolk. Some wonderful rural stories can be found in books like Queering the Countryside by Grey, Johnson, and Gilley, oral history podcasts like Country Queers, and films like Out Here. Understanding LGBTQ identities allows neighbors, healthcare providers, and educators to use best practices to interact with everyone. Inclusive language can also help show LGBTQ folks that your farm or organization will be an accepting and safe place for them.
Have tough conversations
An important step in any education is passing on what you’ve learned to others. Whether intentional or not, even seemingly innocuous comments can reinforce dominant cultural norms and reveal that the speaker sees LGBTQ people as “other,” instead of neighbors and friends. A big part of allyship is simply not making assumptions -- for example, asking someone “where’s your husband?” or assuming that all families look a certain way. These little assumptions can be frustrating and deter people from participating in community life.
Outright discrimination and violence are also a reality for many LGBTQ people, rural or urban. Risking your reputation can be intimidating, but stepping in when you hear discriminatory or threatening statements serves to create safer communities and may prevent violence. Often people are more willing to have difficult conversations with those they already know, and are less likely to to see these ideas as coming from outside of their community. If you are a community leader or long-time farmer, using your social standing to advocate for LGBTQ folks will go a long way in creating safer rural areas.
Signal support openly
While it’s obvious to individuals themselves that they aren’t homophobic or transphobic, even close neighbors might have no way of knowing their stance without public symbols of support. In the polite Midwest, it may seem gauche or risky to put up signs, but I promise that it can make all the difference in the world to a struggling LGBTQ youth or a new person in town. Even a small rainbow flag sticker can encourage me to visit a new shop when I’m traveling. Supportive stickers or yard signs show that your house is a safe place to ask for a phone or directions if someone is lost. An ally’s “Love is Love” sign can help LGBTQ rural residents feel safer being out themselves. Having visible LGBTQ representation and support is essential to the mental health of young folks in the community and the social well-being of LGBTQ adults and elders, who often become isolated in their later years.
Maintain neighborly relations
One of the best things about living in farm country is knowing that my neighbors have my back. But sometimes it can get awkward if we don’t know how to relate to each other. Even if you don’t know the best way to interact with someone or don’t have a perfect understanding of their identity or culture, keeping up relationships is essential. Whether it’s the “farmer wave” while passing on the road or taking care of animals when someone is traveling, good community support can be the reason an LGBTQ farmer is able to keep on farming. Many folks lose community and family support when they come out, and it’s difficult to build those new relationships when moving to a rural area as a new neighbor. Be that neighbor that makes the first move. Leading by example to be a good neighbor to LGBTQ rural folks can have a domino effect through the rest of the neighborhood.
Create structures to support diverse rural people
Wisconsin Farmers Union is able to welcome so many diverse members because their values are built into the structure of the organization. Discrimination is unwelcome, and every member is allowed a voice. In small towns where the Legion or the church are the centers of social life, it can be harder for people to navigate social or organizational structures. Having welcoming spaces to gather and be in community is essential for health and happiness (at least, thinking beyond COVID). It’s vital to build the values of diversity, inclusion, and cooperation into the structures and policies of all of our local organizations.
Libraries, community centers, and small businesses can lead the way by offering space to an LGBTQ gathering, stocking LGBTQ books and resources, and participating in local Pride events. If your school does not have a GSA, see if there is interest among students and parents to create one. (See https://gsanetwork.org/ and https://pflag.org/ for more parent and teacher resources.) Many churches are now becoming open and affirming congregations as well. These community-based social structures can be a lifeline for rural LGBTQ folks who would otherwise be isolated or travel long distances to socialize. It might be a hard sell at first, but making your community center open to all the people in your area is critical in revitalizing rural spaces and getting folks invested in the future.
Advocate for inclusive policy
Even though marriage equality finally arrived in the US, LGBTQ folks still face many systemic barriers in accessing needed resources. In rural areas where medical care is already sparse, finding an affirming practitioner can mean traveling hours away. LGBTQ people often struggle to navigate grants, loans, and even family inheritances due to their relationship structures and identities. Many small businesses are technically exempt from fair hiring practices, leaving LGBTQ folks with no legal repercussions to discrimination. These barriers prevent us from living our lives fully and enjoying access to many of the most important resources to farmers and small business owners. Wisconsin Farmers Union members already know the importance of well-crafted policy in creating a better world for rural folks. Expanding our vision to include our LGBTQ and otherwise underserved neighbors is an easy next step. Check out organizations like GLSEN and the National Center for Trans Equality to learn more about ongoing LGBTQ policy priorities.
To learn more about the strengths and challenges of rural LGBTQ life, check out the Rural Report by the LGBT Map Project https://www.lgbtmap.org/file/lgbt-rural-report.pdf.
If you or a LGBTQ loved one are experiencing stress or isolation, reach out to https://www.thetrevorproject.org/ or call their hotline at 1-866-488-7386
Thanks to: Ash Bruxvoort, Harvey Eustice, Vanessa Herald, FL Morris, Lori Stern, and Jaclyn Wypler