OPINION: LGBTQ+ people in the countryside need a voice

Friday, 3 November 2023 09:36 GMT

A country lane is seen between farmers fields near Appleby in Cumbria, Britain January 9 2020. REUTERS/Phil Noble

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Isolation is common for LGBTQ+ people living in rural communities

Thom Petty is an actor, writer, director and doctor living in the Staffordshire Moorlands in northern England

It was an early start today getting ready for the vet to arrive. Every six months our small fold of Highland cattle undergoes mandatory bovine tuberculosis testing. The autumn mornings have become tardy and the mist clings to the fields between the trees, holding us in isolation until the sun eventually wins over.

In 2021, my partner Sam and I escaped city life and moved to the Staffordshire Moorlands near to the Peak District. We both grew up in semi-rural communities and longed to return. The pandemic (and a puppy outgrowing the shared garden) catalysed the decision to buy a small farm.

In London, we were surrounded by other LGTBTQ+ people. Queer life is catered for: cafés, bars, festivals, bookshops, even a Pink Oktoberfest – there is an everyday visibility that reflects wider progress in society in terms of acceptance and a huge strength in congregation.

Whilst LGBTQ+ people tend towards urban centres, there are still those living in rural areas through choice, familiarity or necessity. There’s an increasing recognition of this and organisations like Agrespect are giving LGBTQ+ people in the countryside a voice.

For anyone moving to a new area it’s a challenge to establish social networks and as a gay couple with no children (although Merlin our Ridgeback X Dalmatian comes close) we don’t have the usual friendship shortcuts such as meeting other parents at the school gate or on the sports field sideline. We plan to grow old here, but with that comes anxiety and uncertainty.

In 2021, Age UK published a report looking at the experiences of older people living in rural and coastal locations. Isolation is common. There’s also a lasting impact of lived experiences with stigma, discrimination and abuse on how older LGBTQ+ people engage with healthcare. This generation has lived through Section 28 and the emotional devastation of the AIDS crisis. The echoes of these experiences remain.

And the statistics show that increasing numbers of men overall are living alone in rural areas and ageing without children. Agricultural workers have concentrated lives in farming and the transition to retirement and finding a new purpose is not easy. Pubs have closed and public transport is limited. Embracing a smart phone does not mean there will necessarily be enough local connectivity to be able to use it.

Although I now work as an actor and writer/director, I started life as an NHS hospital doctor and still work part time. The healthcare system is way behind in accommodating the needs of LGBTQ+ patients and their loved ones, and helping staff to understand how to approach them. A biennial online diversity training module simply doesn’t cut it.

My last short film Ticker looked at a moment in time for a gay farming couple, Howard and Joseph, as they drive to hospital for Joseph to have major surgery. There is a tentative approach to each other, a reluctance to go inside the hospital as a couple, and an uncomfortable but ultimately healing public display of affection in the car park.

These queer fears are not baseless – evidence suggests that stigma, discrimination and abuse is still happening today. At the recent Iris Prize LGTBQ+ film festival in Cardiff, Julia Alcamo’s documentary about activist Ted Brown and his civil partner Noel Glynn was a stark reminder. Noel was subjected to severe homophobic abuse in a London care home and Ted knows that it is not an isolated case.

I cricked my neck the other week whilst hammering in a fence post for a new TB testing pen. It was short-lived but the increasing aches and pains of manual work make me think to the future. I wonder what support will be available for me and Sam when we’re older and rattling around the farmhouse.

For LGBTQ+ people there is a greater need for formal care provision as we’re less likely to have children and other family relationships may have broken down. I hope that we will be accepted and understood on visits to hospital and that we will have found our tribe, queer or otherwise.

The work for me now though is to discover, tell and share the stories of the older queer generation and to actively seek out those who exist out of everyday sight.

Ticker, written and directed by Thom Petty with actors Paul Copley, Ian Gelder and Liz Fletcher, is available to stream on All4 from 3rd November

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