Growing up in my rural, conservative, almost completely white hometown in the 90s, it was impossible to imagine the existence of a local Pride festival—let alone attending one myself. Homophobia and transphobia were rampant, even from otherwise kindhearted folks who may not have fully understood the damage they were doing to local youth.
Today, though, things are changing. Rural LGBTQ+ youth and their allies still face prejudice and discrimination, but in many ways, peeking out of the closet is met with more love and acceptance than it was 20 years ago. While my hometown still doesn’t hold a Pride festival, many have popped up within driving distance, and I take a great deal of joy in seeing country people celebrate themselves in their own way.
This has led me to do additional learning about the changing nature of rural Pride—and I’ve discovered a lot. If you’re thinking of attending a rural Pride festival, here are five lessons I’ve learned that may help you navigate these waters:
1. Rural Pride festivals serve a larger community than you might think.
Since New York City’s 1969 Stonewall Riots, much of the LGBTQ+ Pride movement has been concentrated in urban environments. However, just because cities have largely remained the epicenters of queer life doesn’t mean you’ll be alone at this year’s rural pride festivals. Today, more country dwellers than ever are living their lives out and proud. A 2019 study by the Movement Advancement Project (MAP) found that 2.9-3.8 million people in rural America identify as LGBTQ+.
For context, that equates to 3-5% of the total rural population. MAP goes on to report that, nationwide, about 4.5% of the population is LGBTQ+. That means statistically, the likelihood of rural residents to identify as queer is similar to that of city people. In fact, MAP concludes that around 15-20% of the total American LGBTQ+ population live in rural areas. And not all of those people are yearning to leave—in fact, for many, country living is as important to them as being openly accepted as LGBTQ+. For this reason alone, the recent rise of rural Pride festivals is enormously beneficial.
2. Rural Pride brings its own unique style.
Urban Pride has long defined the aesthetic of LGBTQ+ events. Attendees expect to encounter forward fashion, experimental hair and makeup, and the most glorious drag queens (and kings) around. Attendees of Pride festivals in the country may see much of the same—but with a rural edge. After all, many queer folks today are embracing their country roots.
If you’re attending your first rural Pride event, don’t be surprised to hear banjo music alongside alternative rock, engage in talk about farming and hunting between conversations about queer relationships, and see plenty of unironic cowboy hats. Because here’s the glorious truth: Being queer doesn’t mean you can’t also be country af. And rural Pride-goers are here to prove it!
3. Rural Pride events welcome and educate potential allies.
It’s no secret to anyone—especially to those of us who grew up in the country—that rural regions can be more conservative and less progressive than urban areas. However, LGBTQ+ folks living in the sticks are not without allies. Navigating rural Pride involves understanding that many attendees are potential allies looking for ways to learn and support; in this, rural festivals actually aren’t much different from those in cities.
This offers an excellent opportunity to foster healthier communities. With all the progress made by the LGBTQ+ community in recent years (and the even more recent threats to that progress), there’s never been a better time to welcome allies to the movement. Informed and supportive allies in our rural communities can make as much—if not more—of a difference as those in urban environments.
4. At rural Pride festivals, LGBTQ+ individuals can build community and honor intersectionality.
Pride is almost always a beautiful blending of people from all backgrounds and walks of life, and new rural Pride attendees will find that it’s much the same. It’s true that, the farther you travel from the city, the less diverse populations seem to become. However, that doesn’t mean country Pride events can’t still be hubs of intersectional community building.
Recently, I read about a Pride festival in Pikeville, Kentucky that started in 2017. The first event was organized following a neo-Nazi gathering in the small town. Residents sought to fight back against this image of their home as a haven for hatred, and so began the tradition of Pikeville Pride. The group that organizes Pikeville Pride acknowledges the connection between LGBTQ+ discrimination and other instances of oppression.
And they’re not alone—many small town festivals are a place for queer folks to come together and unite against all forms of oppression and hatred. Many find this especially valuable with the recent SCOTUS overruling of Roe vs. Wade and ongoing battles involving racial discrimination and violence. If you’re attending your first rural Pride event, don’t be surprised to find yourself shoulder-to-shoulder with many people involved in intersectional resistance. 5. Rural Pride festivals are more important than ever before.
All of this said, it’s clear that rural Pride festivals are more important than ever before. With “Don’t Say Gay” laws and anti-trans legislation on the rise, the LGBTQ+ community needs space to organize in rural areas as much as in cities. And it’s up to us to make it happen. So, if you’re thinking about attending a rural Pride event—whether as an LGBTQ+ individual or as an ally—the best advice I can give you is to go. If there’s not a Pride event in your community, here’s a great guide for starting one.
Interested in attending a rural pride event? Check out the resources below to find festivals near you.