The image of rural America is often white, working class, and socially conservative — and most definitely not where lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and same gender loving people live.
This mental picture is largely reflected in the media and in popular depictions of rural America, but the reality is that millions of people of color — including Black, Latinx, Native, Asian, Middle Eastern, and multiracial people — live in rural United States, and many of them are LGBTQ/SGL. Particularly as Congressional leaders from across the country consider the Equality Act, which would update our nation’s nondiscrimination laws to provide protections for LGBT people, people of color, and women, it is time to challenge the notion of what it means to live in rural America and where LGBTQ/SGL people, including LGBTQ/SGL people of color live.
The 2010 U.S. Census shows that one in five people living in rural America is a person of color, and among rural residents, about 40 percent are Black, 35 percent are Latinx, and 25 percent are Native American, Asian or Pacific Islander, or multiracial. Research shows that increasing numbers of people of color are moving to rural areas, so the demographics of rural America are continuing to shift.
In fact, in several states, the majority or a substantial share of rural and small-town residents are people of color, including in Hawai`i (69 percent), New Mexico (61 percent), South Carolina (44 percent), Mississippi (43 percent), Arizona and Texas (42 percent), and New Jersey (41 percent). According to the Housing Assistance Council, Black people are the majority in many rural areas in the South and mid-Atlantic, and rural areas and reservations in the upper Midwest, Mountain West, and Southwest are home to many Native Americans. In the South and Southwest, Latinx people are a significant portion of the population, including in rural areas.
Among the people of color living in rural America are many LGBTQ/SGL people. In fact, data from Gallup shows that nationwide, people of color are more likely than white people to identify as LGBT. As the leading civil rights organization dedicated to the empowerment of Black LGBTQ and same gender loving people, we at the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC) are proud to partner with the Movement Advancement Project, the Equality Federation, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights on a major, groundbreaking report, Where We Call Home: LGBT People in Rural America, released this week. The report shines a spotlight on the experiences of LGBTQ/SGL people, including LGBTQ/SGL people of color, living in rural America.
While the report makes many important contributions, one of its core arguments is also the simplest: millions of LGBTQ/SGL people, including LGBTQ/SGL people of color, call rural America home. The report shows that an estimated 2.9-3.8 million LGBTQ/SGL people live in rural America, accounting for roughly 15-20 percent of the national LGBTQ/SGL population. As noted above, many millions of rural Americans, including LGBTQ/SGL rural Americans, are also people of color.
The report also highlights another key area of NBJC’s work, noting the over 1.1 million people living with HIV in the United States, especially in the rural South. The South — which has both the highest portion of the Black population and of the LGBTQ/SGL population — is disproportionately impacted by HIV, facing the highest rates of both new HIV diagnoses and HIV-related deaths in the country. Among people in the U.S. who were diagnosed with HIV in 2017 alone, people living in the South made up over half (52 percent) of these new diagnoses, and over half (53 percent) of these new diagnoses were among Black people. In fact, Black Americans make up the plurality of new diagnoses in every U.S. region except the West.
The sad reality is Black people, including in the South and in other rural areas throughout the country are dying as a result of HIV and this does not have to be our reality. Data provided by reports like Where We Call Home: LGBT People in Rural America are critical to ensuring that Black LGBTQ/SGL people are counted in all of the places where we live and work.
Unfortunately, as the report also shows, rural areas are far less likely to have vital nondiscrimination protections across a variety of areas of life, including health care, employment, housing, public places and services, education, lending, and more. This means that the millions of people of color, LGBTQ/SGL people, and people living with HIV in rural areas are left at heightened risk of discrimination, and are less able to respond to its harmful, sometimes even life-threatening effects.
This is why NBJC strongly supports passing the federal Equality Act, which would extend existing civil rights protections to include on the bases of sexual orientation, gender identity, and sex. For far too long, too many Black Americans have faced discrimination both because of their race and because of who we love, or how we show up in the world. Updating the hard-fought and hard-won civil rights laws to provide important protections for LGBTQ/SGL people, people of color, and women would move our country one step closer to fulfilling the promise of opportunity for all.
DAVID JOHNS is the executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition.