Growing up, 16-year-old Saun Phelps knew something about them was different. The gender they were assigned at birth didn’t fit the puzzle.
Phelps, who uses they/them pronouns, lives on the outskirts of Semora, an unincorporated community of fewer than 2,000 people near the Virginia state line. Over the years, Phelps struggled with depression and anxiety.
Phelps watched their father struggle with similar doubts for over a decade before he transitioned to life as a woman. They have learned from each other along the way, Phelps said.
“It gave me hope that I can assert myself without being too heavily persecuted for it or feeling unhappy about myself,” Phelps said. “That helped me sort of realize that I had similar feelings for a good bit of my life, even though I may not have recognized them at first were it not for a guiding hand.”
Now, two years after Phelps began thinking about how gender and sexual identity fit into their life, they say they’re already happier and feel more in control of their emotions. The rising sophomore at Person High School found support with their family but recognizes that’s not always the case for teens grappling with their identity — particularly in rural areas.
An estimated 2.9 million to 3.8 million Americans who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer, or “questioning,” live in rural communities, but not everyone has the same experience, according to the nonprofit Movement Advance Project.
Rural areas offer few, if any, resources specifically for LGBTQ people, and being perceived as different can amplify the potential for discrimination at home and work, but also in housing, health care and public services, according to a 2019 study from the Movement Advance Project.
“When LGBTQ kids have supportive environments, whether at home, in their schools, in their churches, wherever it is, that’s when the improvement of mental health symptoms begins to happen, and the change begins to happen,” Pilcher said.
Phelps’ outward appearance may be a little more masculine on some days and feminine on others, Phelps said, prompting confused or disapproving looks from strangers. Other students ask if they are a lesbian. Extended family sometimes struggles to understand.
Phelps now defines themselves as nonbinary and panromantic, “on the asexual spectrum,” which means they don’t prefer relationships with a specific gender or feel any sexual attraction toward people.
But they haven’t faced the same degree of discrimination at home and in public that some teens have shared in a listserv moderated by the LGBTQ Center of Raleigh, Phelps said. The center provides in-person and virtual resources that don’t exist in most rural communities.
“I think almost every LGBTQ person, especially minors, tend to experience discrimination, either in the workplace or at school or in the home,” Phelps said. “I’m lucky enough to have a relatively stable family that does not discriminate against me at home, but not everyone has that privilege.”
Terri Wilkerson, 34, recalled growing up in her rural Johnston County family thinking there was something wrong with friends who were LGBTQ. Eventually, Wilkerson realized that she valued her friends more than her conservative upbringing, and that her own experiences foreshadowed the realization that she was panromantic and asexual, she said.
Now married with two children, her husband has been supportive of her journey, she said, and younger cousins, who are coming out as members of the LGBTQ community, now turn to her for support.
Young people are different now, said Wilkerson, 34, who is a social worker with NAMI Wake County, a mental health association. But they also face “more subtle and more malicious” harassment, such as cyberbullying.
“They are excited and driven. They take the initiative,” she said. “I remember I was not excited or anything about it, because it was something else that I needed to worry about. … It’s a little bit safer (now) in smaller communities. You don’t have to worry about being shoved in lockers and beaten up all the time.”
Data collected by the nonprofit Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that one in three LGBTQ young people had an affirming home environment and that COVID had made the living situation for over 80% more stressful.
Roughly 42% considered suicide in the last year — a slight increase from 2020 — including more than half of those identifying as transgender and nonbinary. Nearly two-thirds reported experiencing major depressive symptoms, up from 55% in 2020.
On the other hand, teens who reported having some type of support, including family and friends who respected their chosen pronouns, and affirming spaces, such as online services and programs, reported lower rates of attempted suicide, the survey found.
LGBTQ centers reaching rural areas
Young people living in rural areas were coming to Raleigh’s LGBTQ Center before the pandemic, prompting staff to schedule more programs and events on the weekend, and make sure there was parking available, so that young people who live an hour or two away could attend, Pilcher said.
The number grew when everything went online during the COVID pandemic.
“What we did see was a lot of youth starting to attend our programs when we went virtual that we had never seen before, so a lot of them were either from rural areas or were from (the Triangle) area, but weren’t in an environment where they had the means to travel to us or were out at home,” Pilcher said.
The center plans to keep its virtual services and launch more programs for children ages 8-12.
“A lot of parents that were reaching out to us before the pandemic (were) looking for a space for a lot of their younger youth that we just weren’t serving at the time, which we now do,” she said.
Safety concerns and limited resources prevent rural groups from doing more, said Rebby Kern, director of Equality NC’s Rural Youth Empowerment Fellowship. Many schools also remain opposed to student support groups, such as the Gay-Straight Alliance, said Kern, who identifies as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns.
By relying on grassroots community building, rural groups provide resource guides, virtual safe spaces, and peer-to-peer networking, support and information, Kern said. More resources and a statewide non-discrimination law could make a bigger impact, Kern said.
“I think that social power continues to grow, and even in these rural areas, people are building the community that they want to see, and they are sticking together in a really strong way,” Kern said.
Pride in identity, Alamance County
Alamance County native Ethan Gabriel is gay but queer and questioning, an identity that he only began to embrace after high school. In his teens, he suppressed his feelings and focused on school, keeping his social life to a minimum. While Western Alamance High School is in a more conservative part of the county, it’s large enough that he could avoid students who he knew might be trouble.
As a result, he didn’t face the bullying that students who were more public with their gender identities may have faced.
Now an Elon University senior, Gabriel has found others like him and gone on a few dates.
People who know him — friends and coworkers — know his identity. But he hasn’t come out to his family yet. This summer, he is a public relations intern with the Burlington Sock Puppets baseball team, formerly known as the Royals. He’s working with Alamance Pride to host the first-ever Pride Night event at the stadium on July 16, with a portion of the proceeds to benefit the Alamance Pride Scholarship Fund.
“I wouldn’t be lying if I said I’m really scared of how this could turn out,” Gabriel said.
The team’s name change, when the Appalachian League ended all of its affiliations with minor league teams, angered some fans, and a few suggested a link between sock puppets and pedophilia, he said.
“There’s definitely people who are ready to hurt the next person just for being themselves, but I think North Carolina is trying to become a lot more progressive towards people who share similar views as me,” Gabriel said.
Visibility, openness changing communities
Alamance Pride President Ken Smith, who is gay, agreed that the lives of LGBTQ people in rural areas, while not yet ideal, are changing in positive ways. Young people now are more open to differences, with pop culture and the internet playing a role, he said.
“In any situation, when you have an information vacuum and people are unfamiliar, if they don’t have facts or know people, you’re left with rumor or whatever you may think about that stereotype, preconceived notions, and those things flourish when people are in the closet and there is no information about who people are,” Smith said.
Pride festivals and other events increase visibility and acceptance in conservative communities, he said. Alamance Pride was formed in 2015 to plan Burlington’s annual Pride festival.
“What really left an impression on me (at Alamance Pride) were the number of younger folks, high school-age students, who came out, and it was really amazing to see that they felt safe and that they could do that at that age,” he said. “When I was that age, I don’t know people who were doing that. People didn’t feel free to do that.”
Phelps came out as nonbinary just months before the COVID shutdown, so they’ve been more open online with people than in person. Their identity doesn’t define them and is just one part of who they are, Phelps said.
Phelps advised other young people to find comfort in what makes them happy and in the journey to discover how they see themselves.
“When it comes to dealing with negative responses, I choose not to give it too much thought,” Phelps said. “It’s their opinion, not mine, and as far as I’m concerned, unless they’re someone I trust and have a relationship with, they do not have the right to dictate my identity and who I am. That is me, I am Saun.”