For all of my professional career I have had the opportunity and privilege to work at higher education institutions in rural areas. Being born and raised in rural areas I find these sparsely populated regions to be my home.
However, to some, my chosen rural residences sometimes flies contrary to my queer identity. People will ask why gay people would want to live in a rural area. LGBTQA culture is seen and represented from a lense of a “big city”. The US Department of Agriculture has found that about 10% of same-sex couples live in rural areas. Despite this fact, it is often assumed that LGBTQ people are only found in large communities.
The perception that queer issues are an urban concept trickles down to the work I do while working with queer students and advising LGBTQA student organizations. Over the past few years I have been able to research queer student identity development in rural areas. Advising student organizations in rural schools can be incredibly difficult. As a case study, please consider the following: most college and universities today have at least one student organization for LGBTQA students. However, many non-rural and larger schools will commonly have more than one. Why is this important? Typically, the more LGBTQA organizations that exist at a school, the more diverse their focus.
This becomes increasingly difficult when considering the diverse amount of students we serve. For example, the group I currently advise is the only LGBTQA affiliated group on campus. We must somehow (as a single organization) serve students that want to belong to a purely social organization and those that want to pursue advocacy against homophobia and heterosexism. At one point in time, a non-traditionally aged student came to a meeting. The meeting was largely made up of first-year students that came to the meetings as a safe-place social venue. However, the non-traditional student wanted the organization to organize protests and other advocacy issues. The group did not share this view. The non-traditional student never came back to a meeting – their needs were not met. At a larger school or at a school with more LGBTQA organizations, this student could of found a better fit in an organization. Instead, this student never came to a group meeting again.
This non-traditional student could very well represent a variety of identities. It could be a student of color not feeling comfortable in a largely white organization. It could be a trans* student not feeling like their needs are not being discussed, or even recognized. Simply put, when at a rural school with only one LGBTQA organization, it is often seen as a “catch all” organization for all LGBTQA peoples.
How do we address this problem? The easy answer would appear to “simply” create more organizations. However, if you work at a small rural school, you know that many times resources are limited.
I don’t think there is an easy answer. I think the uneasy answer is a community based journey of advocating for LGBTQA students. Whether or not you personally advise a LGBTQA student organization, I ask you as a student affairs professional to advocate for both individual LGBTQA students and their organizations. This can come in many forms: attending programs, allocating funds, and offering assistance. Change often comes slow in rural areas. It truly takes a community effort to support, embrace, and educate a new generation of students.
My purpose in writing a piece on rural LGBTQA student organization advising is to give hope to others. It is hard to work with organizations that are under-recognized and over-burdened. Please know that the work we do in rural areas is not only important, but essential. Even though we don’t have all the tools readily available that our students ask for, I truly believe that students in rural areas can feel the passion of the work we do. Regardless of if a LGBTQA student is from an urban area or a rural area it is our responsibility as student affairs practitioners to support students the best we can with the resources we have.
This post is part of our month-long series #OrgAdvising, an in-depth look at the different aspects of the student organization advisor role. This series hopes to bring front-and-center a role otherwise overlooked or forgotten in the discussion of “advisor.” For more information, see the intro post by Cindy Kane! Check out the other posts in this series too!