The Only Gay in the Village: We Must Challenge Meteronormativity

Ellen Jones challenges meteronormativity and shares the work of UK trans charity Not A Phase in creating sober safe spaces outside of London.

WORDS Ellen Jones

PHOTOGRAPHY Meg McGrady

There is no doubt that city-living is idolised and idealised within the queer community. We have mythologised what a queer, urban existence means. Where rural spaces are positioned as places of persecution, isolation, and absence of community, cities frequently are portrayed as epicentres of tolerance, community, and freedom. And yet, this focus on urban queer communities results in an alienation of LGBTQ+ folks in rural areas. Meteronormativity – a term popularised by queer anti-urbanist Scott Herring – describes the way urban living has been assumed to be a prerequisite for queerness.

Out of the 10 local authorities with the highest relative lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations in the UK, six are located in central London. Unsurprisingly, Brighton and Manchester make the list. However, existing data alone cannot tell the whole story of the reality of life for rural LGBTQ+ people, not least because trans people have been excluded from research. In addition to this, in some regions there simply has been a lack of sufficient data available, which perhaps in itself reveals the extent to which LGBTQ+ are underrepresented in these places.

Cities frequently are portrayed as epicenters of tolerance, community, and freedom. And yet, this focus on urban queer communities results in an alienation of LGBTQ+ folks in rural areas.

“When I was in therapy as a teenager, I was told I needed to leave the countryside and encounter other queer people”, says Ibby, a marketing intern who moved to London to study from rural Suffolk, one of the regions on which there has been insufficient data. Now, having graduated into a pandemic, they may be forced to move back into their family home, meaning a loss of both community and independence. 

“The village I grew up in had a Church and a road. There is a corner shop now, but that is new. There is no infrastructure. Growing up, I literally could not go anywhere without my parents taking me.”

Photography by Meg McGrady for their project on queers and rurality: Away With The Fairies

This lack of infrastructure in rural areas leaves young people entirely reliant on their parents or guardians, with little to no freedom. For queer youth, this can create further issues, especially if their families are not accepting of their identites. According to recent research by akt, 78% of young LGBTQ+ people cite an absence of family support as being a reason they became homeless. While cities provide specialist services where queer youth can seek support, it is clear that more must be done to support LGBTQ+ people living in rural areas where there is a lack of these services.

“I did go to one group that was a lesbian, gay, and bisexual group organised by a youth worker”, says Tiiva, a non-binary muscian who grew up in the Lake District and is now based in London. “Five or six of us would meet in Costa and it was amazing but very informal.” 

This lack of infrastructure in rural areas leaves young people entirely reliant on their parents or guardians, with little to no freedom.

Ibby had less positive experiences of these spaces: “The only support available were groups, which were a kind of crude therapy. It always felt as thought we [queer people] were the problem that needed solving. No one knew what to do with us.”

Outside of support groups, the most common LGBTQ+ community hubs are bars, though these are becoming increasingly few and far between. 

“I didn’t even know gay bars properly existed apart from in movies and TV shows, while I was growing up”, says Prishita, who lived in several rural villages across the UK. “I had never been to a gay bar until I was at uni, and even then that was only because I would come to London to visit friends. It wasn’t a regular part of life.”

Whilst gay bars serve a function, it is important that there are a diverse range of spaces available to the queer community – both within and outside big cities. This is something Dani St James, founder of Not A Phase, is all too aware of. Dani founded Not A Phase, the UK charity supporting trans adults across the UK, in order to bridge the gap that the trans and gender nonconforming community regularly fall between.

From the start I have been keen that Not A Phase is not just a charity for London people.

Dani St James, Not A Phase founder

With a background working in the nightlife industry, Dani has since pivoted her career, gotten sober, and is working through Not A Phase to raise awareness of the need for trans-inclusive, non-nightlife, and sober spaces for trans and gender non-conforming people across the country. Whilst it might be easy to assume these spaces exist, even within London, they are, in fact, few and far between. 

Recently, the charity has launched a five-week programme for trans and gender non-conforming people in London focussed on fitness, self-defence, and confidence. But in the next year they are looking to expand their physical events (pandemic conditions allowing) to reach trans people across the UK. Not A Phase will be piloting their Safe Space workshops not only in London, but also in Glasgow, Manchester, and Bristol, creating spaces for trans and gender non-conforming people that are sober, accessible, and offering a variety of activities.

“From the start I have been keen that Not A Phase is not just a charity for London people”, says Dani. “We have things that happen here because I am based here, but I have always been adamant about the fact we will go wherever we are needed. I have no qualms in funding Not A Phase workshops anywhere. If someone came to me and said ‘we really loved your safe space workshop in Manchester, but we would really benefit from having them in Bolton.”

Rather than expecting communities to travel to the big cities to engage with the community forever, Not A Phase is actively, from its inception, meeting people throughout the UK wherever they are based and supporting them in their existing community. 

Photography by Meg McGrady for their project on queers and rurality, Away With The Fairies

Oftentimes, LGBTQ+ people are faced with what can feel like an obligation to move to the city to find community, but this fails to consider the inaccessibility of cities for many.

It is no secret that London is expensive to live in, but the shift to remote working has seen the cost of living spike in cities around the UK. The financial implications alone make moving to a city incredibly difficult, particularly when you consider that LGBTQ+ people are on average paid £6,703 less than their straight, cisgender counterparts. 

“London is a very double-edged sword in that sense”, explains Tiiva. “It’s an amazing place with every kind of person you could possibly imagine and the creative scene is incredible. On the other hand, it’s a struggle and there is a real lack of accessibility.” 

Indeed, whilst cities could offer greater infrastructure and the possibility of independence, the reality is very different. Only around 70 of London’s Tube stations are step-free, meaning wheelchair users and people with buggies can find it impossible to navigate around the city. 

“I’ve wanted to go to Pride events in London but they don’t often mention accessibility”, says Emma, who is a wheelchair user living in a very rural village. “It’s like you have to find a subgroup of queer disabled spaces, instead of being included in what’s meant to be an inclusive community.”

Alice, a disabled illustrator and full-time wheelchair user felt first-hand how London’s inaccessibility impacted their connection with the queer community as their health worsened.

Growing up, the only ties I had to London queers was through people who squatted, which definitely opened my eyes a lot as a young teenager, but my health was declining a lot and the spaces no longer became accessible to me.

Alice

Metronormativity places urban environments on a pedestal, but, on examination, LGBTQ+ people experience discrimination, prejudice, and exclusion in cities and rural spaces alike. Rural environments are not inherently harmful to LGBTQ+ people in the same way that urban environments are not inherently welcoming by sheer virtue of having greater population density and greater buildings.

“I have a lot of reasons for not leaving Norwich,” says Alice. “I grew up here, my whole support system, carers, friends and medical team are here and feel familiar. I have a hard time changing where I live and have a lot of anxiety about being stranded with no help. Still, I am really limited here which can be so frustrating. London is worse in a lot of ways though. I don’t know anyone with an accessible house and public transport is either nonexistent for disabled people or really expensive.” 

Eddie, who chose to relocate from London to the countryside with his husband, has found little difference in the quality of life between the city or countryside. “We chose to leave London because it was so expensive and was giving me a lot of anxiety, but it feels like the countryside is only nice if you’re white and straight. My husband and I lived in Wiltshire for a while and people would legitimately stare at us whilst we were out and about.”

Rural environments are not inherently harmful to LGBTQ+ people in the same way that urban environments are not inherently welcoming by sheer virtue of having a greater population density and number of buildings.

Photography by Meg McGrady for their project on queers and rurality, Away With The Fairies

Not every LGBTQ+ person wants to live in a city, either. And as the pandemic continues, increasing numbers of people are re-evaluating their living environments and adjusting to an increasingly remote world.

“I would go back”, states Tiiva. “It’s been interesting going back to the Lake District quite recently and seeing the juxtaposition of how I felt there as a queer person growing up versus feeling more comfortable in my queerness now.”

Others, like Ibby, feel they have less of a choice to return to rural environments if they want to pursue a career. 

“Especially with my industries being very much based in London, there is no point in moving somewhere else in the UK – if I am going to work it will have to be here. It has changed a little bit with Covid, but not hugely.”

Notably, Ibby would not be able to afford to live in the village they grew up in. Even with recent additions of new ‘affordable’ housing developments to the village.

“They are literally building houses with the nuclear family in mind; there are no living options for any queer, non-nuclear or alternative family set-up. They assume that wouldn’t exist”, they share. “And even if I could move from the city and afford it, I would not want to live in a bungalow in the middle of nowhere because people knowing where I live isn’t safe. If it hasn’t been safe for me in London, it definitely won’t be safe there.”

What is striking is that every interviewee reaffirmed the ideas that moving to London was an expectation and a quasi-requirement for being included within the queer community – irrespective of whether living in London is or was an option for them. 

As a community that resists binaries, we are still internalising and – often unintentionally – perpetuating a harmful dichotomy: be miserable in the countryside, or come to the city and thrive. Both of these are not only gross simplifications of the diverse queer experiences that exist, but also serve to reinforce classist and ableist notions of success.

In truth, when we inspect the barriers LGBTQ+ people face in both rural and urban environments, it becomes glaringly obvious that it is not the location that is the determinate factor in a queer person’s experience, it is the role people have historically played, and continue to play, in either aiding or hindering inclusion. And whilst rural LGBTQ+ people need support, they also need urban queer folk to interrogate the idealisation of cities as the only means of creating queer community. Just as we fight heteronormativity’s pervasive impact, we must also interrogate metronormativity, which comes firstly through recognition of the issue.

We must engage with LGBTQ+ communities based outside of London and other cities meaningfully, not just as an afterthought. Whether through creating spaces in local communities, supporting people to access cities if they would like, or developing a dialogue between urban and rural communities – we can all do more to show up for LGBTQ+ people irrespective of where they live.

Dani is very incisive on this matter: “If the demand is there, there is no reason why we can’t meet that demand and support people”.

As our lives continue to rapidly transform, shift to digital spaces, and new ways of living and working, we have the perfect opportunity to evaluate what happiness and prosperity look like for LGBTQ+ people, whether we want it to continue to be determined by where we live, and whether this is antithetical to the goal of queer liberation for all.

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