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When Sylvia Ximi was in middle school, she recalls looking around her hometown of Prescott, Arizona, for any sign there were other queer people around.
One low-slung building at a four-way stop caught her eye, with “LGBTQ” in its name. “Even as a 13-year-old, I remember thinking, ‘I have to go visit that place,’” Ximi, 29, told LGBTQ Nation.
The organization shuttered from a lack of resources before she had the chance.
“That was the one place I could find in this town that that was queer and I could have turned to, and I never even got to go inside,” Ximi said.
A former frontier town for gold and silver mining in central Arizona’s Yavapai County, Prescott touts the motto, “Welcome to Everybody’s Hometown.” But for Ximi, whose family relocated from Los Angeles when she was 4, that sentiment often seemed disingenuous.
“I definitely felt very alone,” Ximi said of her experience coming out, first as bisexual and later as a lesbian, to a few friends at her small high school and eventually to her parents. It wasn’t until she started working at a local performing arts center that she met and developed strong connections with a network of friends and theatermakers.
Today, Ximi runs a drag troupe and nonprofit based in Prescott called House of Hues, composed of local queer artists. The group came together in 2021 and hosts variety shows at venues around town, drawing enthusiastic crowds and creating a welcoming space for self-expression.
“We’ve been here — we grew up here, we’re working here,” Ximi said of her close-knit crew of friends and collaborators. “I want people in my community to see me and know that there are others like them.”
While major urban areas like New York and San Francisco remain vibrant and welcoming centers of diversity, up to 20 percent of queer people in the U.S. reside in small towns. In fact, about 3.8 million LGBTQ people live in rural America, according to a 2019 study from the Movement Advancement Project. And they are coming out in record numbers and pushing for greater visibility.
“More people have come out such that we have a huge queer population in the middle of the country that’s hungry to be seen,” Samantha Allen, author of Real Queer America: LGBT Stories From Red States, told LGBTQ Nation.
Pride events are one meaningful way to get people talking, said Raymond Braun, the queer advocate and media personality featured in State of Pride, the 2019 documentary from Oscar-winning filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman.
“Pride forces a conversation,” Braun told this reporter of his experience traveling the country to make the film. “If you do have a Pride in a rural, conservative town, it’s going to get some pickup in the local newspaper, city council might debate it. I think it’s good to inspire the conversation because you realize that we literally are everywhere,” Braun said. “My hope is that people can live wherever they want to live and have that place accept them for who they are.”
As they come of age, many queer people migrate to urban centers, where populations are notably younger, more liberal, more secular, and less white. But others are carving out space for themselves in rural areas, which are growing more diverse. Queer people like Ximi are forging connections and creating welcoming environments for communities to come together and support each other in small towns across the country.
“There are people, regardless of how they identify, who want to live where they grew up,” Megan Paceley, associate professor of social welfare at the University of Kansas, told LGBTQ Nation. “That’s no different for queer or trans people, even if that place isn’t what we would think of as ideal or safe,” added Paceley, who has studied the well-being of queer and trans youth in rural settings.
“More people have come out such that we have a huge queer population in the middle of the country that’s hungry to be seen.” — Samantha Allen, author of Real Queer America: LGBT Stories From Red States
Yet progress also has been met with backlash. Dozens of states have enacted or are considering anti-LGBTQ legislation, especially involving trans youth. At the same time, polling shows that approval for civil equality is at an all-time high. Roughly 80 percent of Americans support nondiscrimination protections for queer people, according to a 2022 poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute.
“As a moral question and as a matter of public opinion, equality is headed toward settled territory,” Allen said. “It’s also not true that ‘real’ America is a unilaterally and universally hostile place for LGBTQ people.”
Seeking out support and community may assume a different urgency and take on various forms in small towns, but queer people, a remarkably resilient community, have a way of coming together and making space for each other no matter where they live.
“It’s important to recognize the strengths inherent to rural communities and the resources that do exist there,” Paceley said. That may include close-knit ties, family connections, or affirming mentors and organizations that help queer people feel supported.
Sylvia Ximi, House of Hues
Before Ximi formed her own chosen family of queer artists and friends in Prescott, her contact with other people like her was almost exclusively virtual. “I don’t know what I would have done without the internet,” said Ximi, who found community online with Tumblr and Discord in what she called “nerd culture.”
Ximi’s experience with childhood sexual abuse made it difficult to come to terms with her queerness, and being autistic meant she often felt more introverted. It wasn’t until she landed an internship and then a job at Suze’s Prescott Center for the Arts that she encountered other people in a way that encouraged connection and fast friendship.
“Now that I have come into my own a bit and I’m doing work for this community, I can see things changing so quickly,” Ximi said of her work with House of Hues and the liberating impact the shows have had on Prescott. Though she may not feel comfortable holding another girl’s hand just anywhere in town, “I feel a lot more confident to stay here and be able to live an authentic life safely and comfortably,” Ximi said.
The group is careful about how it advertises performances, finding safety in word of mouth, and security volunteers are at every show in case anyone needs to be escorted out. But they haven’t encountered pushback so far, aside from a couple of angry emails or the occasional smirk when they hand out flyers on the sidewalk. Most everyone who attends is there to have fun. “It always feels very supportive and loving, like people are here to show up for our community,” Ximi said.
She even recalled that a friend once noticed a couple of buttoned-up men eyeing a House of Hues poster. Her friend explained that it was a drag show; the men wound up attending the event and looked to be having a good time.
“If we converted two cowboys, I’m chill with that,” Ximi said.
House of Hues also engages in outreach to young people in Prescott, promoting the kind of visibility that Ximi craved at their age. When a local youth group called The Launch Pad Teen Center hosted a queer prom, they invited House of Hues to set up a table so kids could get their makeup done. At a later event, one of the kids, who was living in a group home, even asked Ximi to help develop their drag persona.
“I can’t even fathom if this had been here when I was a kid,” Ximi said. “I want there to be more opportunities for queer people to show up and feel safe and supported. You can live however you want to live. That’s what I want them to see.”
“I want people in my community to see me and know that there are others like them.” — Sylvia Ximi
In addition to Ximi, LGBTQ Nation spoke to others across the country about why they choose to live in small towns and the triumphs and challenges they face along the way:
Danielle May and her son Phoenix support queer youth in Arkansas through The Equality Crew; Daniel Galbreath leads Laramie PrideFest, which honors the legacy of Matthew Shepard; and Shawn Perryon Sr., who brings together Black queer residents of Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
Danielle and Phoenix May, Equality Crew
Phoenix May, now 16, didn’t get to choose how he came out to his family. They were living in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, when, at age 13, Phoenix confided to a friend that he was a lesbian (Phoenix has since come out as transgender). That friend’s parents, who were involved with a conservative church, wound up outing him to his own.
“[The parents] called me and said that this was not OK and I needed to take care of it,” Danielle May, Phoenix’s mom, told LBGTQ Nation. “We sat down as a family and let him know we support you 110 percent and will do whatever we need to to make you feel safe,” Danielle May recalled.
That meant relocating to the nearby town of Springdale to find a school that supported Phoenix’s identity and his needs as a student with autism. It also meant sending Phoenix to a queer camp, where he connected with other kids and recognized that there was a need for more welcoming and safe spaces for them to get together.
The Equality Crew, which the Mays launched with support from Michael Bennett-Spears, its program director, began with a prompt from Phoenix’s Girl Scouts troop to create a project that impacted the community. Their organization provides resources and hosts events for queer kids throughout northwest Arkansas.
In April 2021, the same month the Mays launched The Equality Crew, Arkansas became the first state to outlaw gender-affirming care for minors. A federal court later blocked the ban from going into effect, but the clinic where Phoenix had been pursuing hormone replacement therapy preemptively shut down in response to the threat. Though the May family was able to find another clinic, the legislative battle highlighted the need for support and affirmation among queer and trans youth.
“The goal was to create a safe space for them to come together and have fun and be themselves,” Danielle May said of The Equality Crew’s first event, an ice cream social they expected might draw a dozen kids but wound up hosting 75. More than twice that number attended the queer prom the group organized this past spring, with some families driving more than six hours to attend.
“When kids come back to different events, you can just see in their faces that they’re so happy,” Phoenix said. “They know that they’re in a safe space, that they can be who they are and don’t have to worry about anything.”
Still, Phoenix has witnessed the traumas some kids face coming from less supportive families. One nonbinary guest at the prom became visibly emotional in response to a heartfelt song performed by a trans artist. “I came over because I noticed this kid was crying and obviously needed someone,” Phoenix said. Once they were able to calm down, Phoenix took them over to the crafts table where they made masks together.
The Equality Crew has compiled a database of affirming teachers and counselors at schools throughout Arkansas. More than 200 teachers and staff have joined the directory, which is confidential to protect them from any potential consequences from their administrations.
“It was cool to connect with them and help them through that process,” Phoenix said.
In addition to organizing events, The Equality Crew has compiled a database of affirming teachers and counselors at schools throughout the state. More than 200 teachers and staff have joined the directory, which was built by word of mouth and is confidential to protect them from any potential consequences from their administrations. Students and parents can reach out to The Equality Crew to find out which teachers at their school are affirming.
Danielle and Phoenix May are part of a pattern of cross-generational advocacy that’s charting a path for progress in communities throughout the country. With young people in America coming out in record numbers, parents are being forced to make decisions about acceptance earlier than ever.
“On one hand, that leads to heartbreaking situations like homelessness and conversion therapy,” said Allen, the author of Real Queer America. “On the other, we now see moms who might not necessarily have been politically activated become the most fierce allies the community has,” after their children come out, Allen said. “That combination gives me hope.”
Daniel Galbreath, Laramie PrideFest
Daniel Galbreath, 33, was also fortunate to have a supportive mother when he was growing up in Wyoming and coming to terms with being gay. Galbreath has a memory from early childhood of his older brother pointing out an employee he thought was gay at the YMCA in Sheridan, the rodeo and ranching town where they lived in the northeast part of the state, just below the Montana border.
“You know that’s OK, right?” Galbreath’s mom responded. “In my head, all I could think was, ‘How could that possibly be OK? It’s so unusual,’” Galbreath told LGBTQ Nation. It was the first time he had encountered a queer person, and it was clear to Galbreath, even at a young age, that Wyoming was not an easy place to be gay.
When Galbreath reached high school and began questioning his sexuality, his family moved downstate to Laramie. Two hours north of Denver and home to the University of Wyoming, Laramie was relatively more open-minded, he said. It was also the site of one of America’s most infamous hate crimes, the murder of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard in 1998.
“Of course, it scared me,” Galbreath said of the legacy of Shepard’s death. “It made all of us think carefully about what coming out would be like and when and where we might feel safe,” he said. Galbreath gradually came out to friends, first at Laramie High School and then at the University of Wyoming, where he went to college. After attending graduate school in the U.K., Galbreath returned to Wyoming and got involved with Laramie PrideFest, wanting to make a difference for LGBTQ people in the state.
“They’re some of the only times and places where queer people in this community can feel comfortable and safe,” Galbreath says of Laramie PrideFest events, which started with a small picnic every June and has expanded to include a range of programming throughout the year. “We hold events to celebrate queer joy and promote queer visibility to nonqueer people. We also want to make clear to queer people across the state that they’re not alone.”
One example that touched Galbreath was a woman in town who had been divorced for some time before she finally came out as a lesbian. She showed up at a low-key event called Pride on the Patio at a local yarn shop, where people were knitting and doing other crafts.
“She shared with us all that it had been a long journey getting here, and this was the first Pride event she had ever worked up the courage to come to,” Galbreath said. That kind of quiet breakthrough is what PrideFest strives to make possible for queer people in Wyoming.
Pride on the Patio is characteristic of get-togethers in small towns that provide support and community. “Often, events are more ad hoc [in rural areas,]” Allen, the author, said. “They’re smaller and more intimate, and as a result, they can feel warmer and more approachable.”
Volunteer Zanna Wright agreed that offering a range of PrideFest experiences has cultivated participation from a larger segment of the population.
“Daniel did get a little bit of pushback just in terms of logistics for doing so many events, but it’s very important to him that we have so many things available for people,” said Wright, 27, who grew up “in the boonies” of Springfield, Ohio. She relocated to Laramie to earn her master’s degree in geology from the University of Wyoming and now works at the Wyoming State Museum. “Some people find it difficult to come up to events or are afraid or concerned — something like a big Pride parade might be too much, a little bit too overwhelming. But Daniel and other people have made sure that there are different events that someone can feel comfortable coming to show support.”
Wright, who was adopted from China at 8 months old, is married to fellow board member Kevin Rossi and has found a support system to navigate and embrace her intersectional identities.
“I’ve been a recipient of racism my entire life,” said Wright. “Coming to terms with my identity as well, I found that I identify as bisexual, and that tends to be a sexual orientation that gets weird discrimination. I don’t feel that I should have to hide who I am. And it’s easier to hide that I’m bisexual than to hide that I’m Chinese; you can see that I’m Chinese. And so I guess that was sort of a gateway into me being more active in Pride, seeing a community that accepts people regardless of what you look like or who you love.”
“Daniel exudes a sort of quiet strength,” said Wright of Galbreath’s leadership. “He’s not a threatening person. He’s the kind of person that has a sort of solid, reassuring air about him. He’s not the face of inclusion at Laramie, but he’s one of the strong proponents of LGBTQ+ awareness and acceptance.”
“I think what Daniel did for these multiple events was give people a space to be sad, be scared, be angry. But also, there were events where people can just be happy to be in the community to share the joys of being with people who accept you,” said Wright. “I think Daniel did a very good job of being respectful about both aspects of what Pride is about.”
Laramie PrideFest, which celebrated its five-year anniversary this June, is also part of a coalition of advocacy organizations working to gather resources for LGBTQ people around the state, including access to gender-affirming care.
“Queer people in Wyoming are some of the most courageous human beings I’ve ever met.” — Daniel Galbreath, Laramie PrideFest Board Chair
Honoring Shepard’s memory is an indelible part of Laramie PrideFest’s mission. “As much as PrideFest is about celebration, there will always be this grieving at its heart,” Galbreath said. “We embrace that because it’s important to us.”
Galbreath believes that there has been a lot of progress toward acceptance in the state but that there’s still much work to be done. “Queer people in Wyoming are some of the most courageous human beings I’ve ever met because there’s so much external pressure to behave a certain way,” he said.
Despite the early indication that his mom would be accepting, Galbreath delayed coming out to his parents until he was in his 20s, describing them as open-minded but old school. It wasn’t until Galbreath invited his father to a PrideFest event that they had their own breakthrough.
Galbreath’s father, whom he described as enormously loving but introverted, hesitated to attend at first. Later, according to Galbreath, his father turned to his mother, his eyes filling with tears, and said, “I think I need to broaden my horizons.”
“He loves his family and realized this was an important way to show it,” Galbreath said. His father showed up at Pride in the Park with a big smile, met Galbreath’s boyfriend at the time, and walked around, taking in the event.
“That meant so much for me to see,” Galbreath said.
Shawn Perryon Sr., UBG Pride
Shawn Perryon Sr., 44, created her own chosen family when she moved to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, from nearby Prentiss, the rural town of around 1,000 residents where she was born. Perryon had always been a tomboy and remembers being interested in girls starting from the fifth grade. “These have always been feelings I’ve had, and I’m not going to change just because it might not fit somebody’s outlook,” Perryon told LGBTQ Nation. “I wasn’t going to hide.”
After a girlfriend outed Perryon to her mother in high school, Perryon moved to Hattiesburg, where she met and bonded with what she calls her LGBTQ family. “As I lost my aunts, uncles, and other family members over the years, I didn’t have anyone else here. So they were my family,” Perryon said. They would hang out and visit clubs together, supporting and uplifting each other.
Upon entering her first gay club, Perryon recognized the breadth of the queer community. “The first club I went to in Jackson, City Lights, I started seeing I’m not the only one — these people like me are everywhere,” Perryon said.
In November 2008, about a decade after she first moved to Hattiesburg, a friend started talking about opening up a gay club in town. She partnered with him to open Xclusive, which drew strong support from Black queer patrons.
“To me, it was about giving us a place that we can be comfortable,” said Perryon, who ended up closing that first club after a year because she wound up running the business alone and in competition with another gay bar run by a straight owner.
Soon afterward, another member of her chosen family urged Perryon not to give up, telling her there was a need for a safe and welcoming place for the Black queer community to get together.
Perryon opened another venue, called Club Xclusive, which became the only gay bar in Hattiesburg after her competition closed. Business was good for 10 years, as the bar became a social hub. Perryon’s approach to running Club Xclusive was deeply personal; she said she knew everyone in the community, and when conflicts broke out, she would be the one to encourage a resolution.
But support for the club gradually waned. Young people grew up and moved away. Crowds migrated to new hot spots in Jackson or to straight bars in town, a couple of which started hosting their own monthly drag nights. “It’s more open now than when I was coming up,” Perryon said. “I feel like gay people can go anywhere and be themselves; nobody makes me feel out of place.”
Perryon held on to the business, which she rebranded MvP Lounge, a multi-purpose venue that hosts a variety of parties. And she organizes Unapologetically Black Gay Pride, or UBG Pride, now in its sixth year, to promote a sense of unity, despite no longer running a year-round venue.
“I still want to continue to do UBG Pride to bring people together because there are no gay clubs in Hattiesburg. I’m the only one who hosts these events,” Perryon said.
Meanwhile, the queer family she formed more than 20 years ago has continued to grow, adding young people into the fold whom Perryon calls her children. She organizes a family reunion every November when those who’ve moved away return to Hattiesburg for a cookout and a big party.
“It’s 2022, and my family is still here,” she said.
Queer people in small towns are forging visibility and belonging. In doing so, they are also promoting acceptance and understanding among the larger community — inroads that are essential to further progress and establish equal rights outside major metropolitan areas.