I grew up in a small rural village. From a very early age, I knew I was different. Being different left me feeling like I had no place in my hometown of Solihull, West Midlands and at 16 I moved 20 miles down the road, closer to the centre of Birmingham. Three years later, I came out as gay.
I spent the following 11 years moving from city to city, believing that I was a ‘city boy’ at heart. I had no intention of moving back to a rural environment as I felt I did not belong there. In 2010, I was at a crossroads in my life and with absolutely no money, my twin brother and I, moved back to the Midlands. It was there, that together we founded Proud2Be Project.
In 2011, we both relocated to a rural village in Devon and I realised how much our experience of growing up gay in our hometown, had inspired Proud2Be. For the first year living and working in Devon, I felt isolated and alone. There were several times when I was close to packing my bags and moving back to Brighton, where I had lived happily for several years. I didn’t feel like there was a place for me here.
I stuck with it and through Proud2Be, had the privilege of meeting many lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or trans+ (LGBT+) people, who like us, faced similar battles, living in a predominantly rural area.
Let me be clear, I do not wish to discount the experiences of LGBT+ people living in urban areas. Life in a city can be a lonely existence and prejudice and discrimination can be found and experienced in even the most ‘accepting’ of places.
Right now, in rural areas of the country, LGBT+ people face prejudice and discrimination, the effects of which are made worse by the lack of visibility, social opportunities and support networks.
It could be argued that these could be accessed by travelling into the city, but for some, this is made problematic by financial restraints, inaccessible venues, fear of crowds etc. Some simply do not wish to travel to the city.
In January 2010 Equality South West launched a survey to investigate the key issues facing LGBT+ people in the South West of England. It found that one effect of living in a sparsely populated area is that in general there are too few ‘out’ LGBT+ people within close enough proximity to each other to form viable local social and support networks, or to influence or challenge local policy-makers and service providers to address LGBT+ issues.
Inevitably all this can have a negative impact on whether or not we as LGBT+ people, choose to come out to our family, friends, neighbours and co-workers.
For this reason, many who were born in rural areas are left feeling like there is no option but to leave and move to a city. For some, the idea of moving into a rural town and being ‘out and proud’ doesn’t even feel like an option.
This year, we held the first pride procession in Totnes. Being a rural pride event, we were unsure how many people to expect, particularly walking through the town behind a 7ft willow butterfly! I was not only thrilled to be joined by so many other LGBT+ people but many from the wider community, who showed their support by waving flags from the pavement, volunteering as marshalls and walking with us in the procession.
As I made my way up the main high street, holding the Proud2Be banner, chanting with the crowd “WE ARE HERE”, I felt that after many years of running away, I had finally reclaimed my place in a rural town that I now call home.
Written by Mat Price