BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — Kern County is a diverse community filled with people from a variety of backgrounds, histories, and cultures. 23ABC wants to highlight that diversity by giving those diverse voices a chance to talk about what it's like living in the place we all call home.
Chy Wright is a member of Kern County's LGBT community. They are an artist/illustrator and freelance writer and recently graduated from Southern Oregon University where they spent three years working for the school's Queer Resource Center. Today, they live in Tehachapi, one of Kern County's mountain communities. Instagram: @horobinota_arts, Twitter: @horobinota
There’s an expectation that growing up LGBT in a conservative area is always going to be a tense, cinematic affair. We expect it to be as bombastic as the longest, most caps-locked Twitter feuds. Maybe someone in a bright red MAGA hat shouts a slur at you from the driver’s seat of a Dodge Ram. Your order for a wedding cake was denied from the only bakery in town, or you and your partner are refused seating at a restaurant. Maybe you’re fired when word gets out about your transition surgery.
And these things do happen. They happen often enough to catch the eye of national news outlets. Enough that so many LGBT people flock to liberal cities on the off chance that they won’t ever have to deal with these kinds of reactions again - though they’ll still exist. Hate doesn’t stop at the San Francisco city limits.
But the reality of being LGBT in conservative areas, whether it’s a small rural town or a hub of activity in a deeply red state, is often much quieter than those big headlines would make you think. It’s a subtle, pervasive sense of “we don’t want you here” that will rear its head at you with a polite smile and a joke about men in dresses.
I lived in the Midwest for much of my life before eventually moving to Kern County, California. While it wasn’t as red as, say, a town of a thousand in the heart of Texas, Indiana and South Dakota weren’t exactly beacons of liberalism. And as much as I would like to say I grew up there as a proud, bisexual, nonbinary person - I really didn’t. For much of my childhood, I was too nervous to admit I might like more than just boys, and I hardly understood what made someone transgender, let alone “non-binary.”
Kids are left to grapple with these subjects on their own when no one wants to take the blame for “turning them gay”. Many conservative classrooms leave the sexuality and gender stuff to parents, who often aren’t equipped to talk about those topics anyways (if they planned to at all). There’s no room for talking about same-sex crushes, no tolerance for learning about gender beyond what your 8th-grade biology teacher says, and no people to ask why you feel so different from your peers. Openly LGBT adults hardly exist; sharing that information could cost you a job, especially back before those protections went federal. LGBT peers aren’t much easier to find. Of the three transgender students I knew, two didn’t come out until college, and one of those two was me.
And once you do figure it out, how things progress becomes a matter of luck. You might have supportive parents, you might not. If you don’t, finding a support group could be a challenge. Most are relegated to schools, and those can be on thin ice with an abundance of conservative administrators. The Gay-Straight Alliance group in my own high school was shut down—no warnings, no second chances - for watching Rocky Horror Picture Show during a club movie night.
LGBT people are constantly having to second guess whether or not it’s safe for them to be open about their identities, and that goes doubly for those living in an area where they know public opinion is not in their favor. A transgender friend of mine accepted a semester of being misgendered to avoid losing their tutoring job—they knew which parents would complain to faculty about someone like them teaching their kids. Another friend had to explain to their partner from Portland that they could hold hands while walking in downtown Sioux Falls, but if they ever left the city they were “just friends”. Two weeks ago I made the decision to tell my nurse practitioner I’m transgender; she informed me that God made me a woman, and “society has just made you think this way.” Yet, for someone who needs one, finding a trans-friendly doctor in a small red town might as well amount to being “too picky.”
Of course, none of this is exclusive to conservative communities. Homophobia, transphobia, any resistance to human differences is baked into the fabric of every society that lets it take root. And no community is homogenous, every person’s experiences are anecdotal and different. A conservative hometown doesn’t guarantee hate from every person you meet. But we can’t pretend as if conservatives aren’t the ones most often fighting LGBT people every step of the way. We see the bathroom bills, the rejection of young trans athletes, the fervent arguing for a business’ right to refuse service— one that suddenly dissipates the moment it’s about refusing the unvaccinated and unmasked instead of the queers. And to live surrounded by all of that, to hear on the daily how you’re too inappropriate to be discussed in school, how your pronouns are confusing, how you’re a predator or delusional or simply a burden, is exhausting. It’s scary. And it's frustrating to voice all of this to the tune of, “well if you don’t like it, leave.” (Most of us can’t afford to, you know.)
I don’t think everyone who lives in a red county is a bigot. I don’t think every conservative out there hates me. But for many LGBT people in these communities, that’s the picture the worst and loudest of these conservatives have painted. It doesn’t take big, flashy shows of intolerance to prove it. All it takes is a smile, a pat on the back, and a polite refusal to call you “he” instead of “she.” That’s all it takes to know we’re not welcome here.
NOTE: The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not reflect the opinions of 23ABC KERO-TV, E.W. Scripps, or any of our affiliates or advertisers.