Since the election of President Donald Trump into office, and some would argue even before, the idea that America has become two separate countries living as one has seemed more and more a reality. Red and blue stumble over each other, yelling without hearing one another, and carrying completely opposing banners depicting the America they each believe is great — one a utopia of acceptance and justice, the other a picture-perfect capitalist haven that leaves the rest of the world trembling in fear and respect.
As social media feeds become one-sided echo chambers and their users unfollow their so-called friends with opposing views, it seems clear that we are not learning from our mistakes post-election. And more and more people who have worked tirelessly for the rights of LGBTQ people and other minorities are throwing up their hands at the red states who, in their estimation, have dug their own graves. “They made their bed, now they have to lie in it,” is the common refrain.
LGBTQ individuals in blue states have more resources and support than those living in the most conservative areas in the country — so aren’t those the very areas that activists ought to be focusing on at this time? Leaving the so-called backwater areas to fend for themselves seems to be the fall-back plan for many activists.
There is an illusion throughout the country that any queer individual living in a sparsely populated, conservative area is stuck, or too afraid to come out. While an element of this certainly exists — and those who say “just move” absolutely don’t get it — the reverse has begun to be true. In recent years, there has been somewhat of an LGBTQ exodus to the red states. Queer populations in small cities have rapidly increased, such as in places like Salt Lake City where in 1990 only 1% of the population identified as LGBTQ. As of 2014, the Utah locale boasts an LGBTQ population of close to 5%.
It seems like a contradiction that, as the country seems ever-more divided, this democratic-skewing demographic is leaving its liberal big-city havens to seek out smaller towns with smaller LGBTQ communities and fewer protections. However, for more and more non-hetero or non-cis folks, it just makes sense. For one, a slowly-shifting public perception of homosexuality and gender identity is making it easier for folks already living in these areas to come out about their sexuality. While that shift is certainly more evident in the more heavily-populated blue states, it’s affecting traditionally conservative areas as well. This, coupled with increased protection and marriage rights from federal laws, is making rural or small-town living more viable to LGBTQ people. As a result, more are staying, while others are more comfortable moving to these areas.
Additionally, the costs of living in LGBTQ havens such as San Francisco or Portland have become prohibitively expensive for many people. The cheaper cost of living has made smaller cities in places like Texas or the Carolinas more appealing. Given this, it’s no wonder that we’ve seen LGBTQ populations increase in these areas.
Despite this good news, the recent political climate is sure to make red-state LGBTQ communities feel a little uneasy, and perhaps abandoned by their blue-state counterparts. “The thinking is that the left should just not even bother reaching out to [the red states], to just stick to winning where they know they can win,” says Amanda Kerri, a transgender writer and comedian living in Oklahoma. “As a liberal and a minority in the reddest state in the union, I look at all of these attitudes and wonder, ‘What the hell is wrong with you people?'”* It’s only by reaching across the aisle and having real conversations that any progress can be made. “You canít swap Congress to progressive control without not only winning back purple districts but picking up traditionally red ones,” she continues. “And weíve seen what can happen when itís just assumed that classically liberal states and voters are just going to vote for the liberal candidate and no effort is made to address their interests.”
What the red states need right now is not to be left to wallow in their perceived ignorance and “Make America Great Again” rhetoric. They need their young, progressive and LGBTQ populations to continue growing. They need those populations to get involved in their political systems and to shift them from their traditional white, cis-male control. We shouldn’t be encouraging these red states to secede — we should be working with our allies already living there to bring them into the fold. “Queer people do what we can,” says Dianna Anderson, a queer South Dakotan writer**, “but we canít do it alone, especially when weíre not represented in the larger political structure.”