November 17, 2017
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LGBT farmers find opportunity, adversity in rural Maine

By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff
Updated:

MORRILL, Maine — On a golden day last September, farmers Kyffin Dolliver and Greg King traded their jeans and Muck boots for slightly more formal attire and got ready to celebrate an old-fashioned wedding at their 150-acre Morrill Century Farm.

The two had a simple, private ceremony in the barn and then threw open the barn’s doors to, well, just about everyone. And they all came: friends, family, farm customers, neighbors, Morrill residents they know from the general store and more, crowding around long tables groaning with food, tapping their toes to the sounds of a string band outside and, after the sun went down, gathering around a huge bonfire that sent cheerful sparks into the night sky.

“It was a great day,” King, 29, said.

A few of the townsfolk they invited to the celebration were initially surprised to learn the two young farmers were not brothers or friends, as they had assumed, but engaged to be married. It didn’t take long for any surprise to turn to happy excitement, though, the newlyweds said. Dolliver and King felt like people in Morrill “kind of went out of their way” to let them know that even if their politics likely did not align with the farmers’, it didn’t matter.

“I’ve always felt growing up in Maine that there’s a really healthy dose of live and let live,” Dolliver said.

That is just another sign that things have changed profoundly and positively for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Maine and the rest of the country. June is LGBT Pride Month, celebrated annually to honor the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City. The riots marked the beginning of the modern fight for LGBT rights in the United States. Less than a half-century later, the movement has taken root across the nation, making it possible for two married gay farmers in rural Waldo County to be more concerned with their crops than with their safety or acceptance in their community.

Dolliver and King don’t take for granted the fact that, in rural Maine in 2017, they feel absolutely free to be themselves. Fifty years ago, they said, two gay farmers undoubtedly would have kept their sexual identity under wraps. Twenty years ago — or even five years ago, before gay marriage was legally recognized in Maine — they might have thought twice before sharing their wedding celebration with the world. It’s different for them now.

“It’s not like everything’s great for everyone,” Dolliver said of the homophobia and discrimination that still exist around the world. Their experience in Morrill, though positive and great, doesn’t mean that things have changed for the better everywhere in Maine.

“But I think it’s getting better every year,” King chimed in.

Changing the fabric of rural Maine

Cities like San Francisco and New York are known for their vibrant lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. These days, that extends beyond big cities to places including Portland, Bangor and Belfast, where pride parades and other festivities celebrate the LGBT movement in June and organizations support the community throughout the year.

But in small, rural Maine towns, social change has been slower to take hold. That’s not an accident, according to sociologist Isaac Leslie, who studies queer farming and rural heterosexism. He said the mainstream LGBT movement of the past half-century has been far too focused on cities.

“In the mainstream movement, I don’t think there’s enough attention to rural queer folks,” Leslie said. “Queer people live in rural areas. We have always lived in rural areas. Queer people shouldn’t have to move to the city to find queer community and queer support.”

This strong urban focus likely has helped keep some of the issues faced by rural queer, or LGBT people, in the shadows. Leslie, whose research paper on queer farmers in New England was published in January in the journal Rural Sociology, said the people he has talked to have told him they face different types of discrimination.

Sometimes it’s blatant and personal, he said. This was the case with the 50-year-old dairy farmer he interviewed whose parents reneged on their commitment to let him acquire the farm after he came out as gay, causing the farmer economic hardship and stress. More often, though, the discrimination was more subtle, but pervasive, such as the widespread American belief that the family farm, the economic unit that feeds society, is based on a marriage between a man and a woman.

“It’s so ubiquitous we don’t even question it,” Leslie said. “But the way we structure the family farm, it leaves people out.”

Yet another, more elemental problem for queer farmers in rural areas is that some of them simply do not feel safe, he said. This seems to be more of an issue for gay men who don’t conform to male stereotypes and for male-to-female transgender women.

“My guess here is that this tells a larger story about sexism, really,” Leslie said. “I think that the folks who are gaining more acceptance in the rural and farming spheres are the ones that are presenting as more traditionally masculine.”

Additionally, many of the rural LGBT farmers he interviewed in New England after the election of President Donald Trump said their comfort levels had declined in the wake of the fraught, heated campaign.

“I had a lot of people before who said they felt comfortable in rural areas now saying they felt less comfortable or were scared and were changing some of their farming or life decisions based on that,” Leslie said.

Feeling unsafe on the farm

Bo, a transgender farmer who lives in Somerset County and who did not want to share his last name or hometown for safety reasons, said he moved to central Maine a little more than a year ago. He came here from midcoast Maine to take an agricultural job, which he enjoys, but didn’t expect to feel so worried about safety in his new home.

“Safety has to be my number one priority,” Bo said. “I have to keep myself safe by passing as masculine, all the time. Transitioning to living in central Maine, it’s a much more gendered culture than midcoast or more liberal areas of Maine. There’s less room for ambiguity. That’s quite scary for a queer person. I make intentional decisions about my appearance when I leave the house. I want to stay safe.”

When he lived in the midcoast, he felt very accepted. But in Somerset County, he notices more of what he calls “microaggressions,” such as instances of people staring at him uncomfortably or someone “blatantly not respecting” his pronouns. He chooses not to share information about himself with some of the people he works with, even though he describes himself as very extroverted. And although he has never faced a physical assault, the repeated microaggressions do add up — and, he said, things did feel worse for him after the presidential election last fall.

“I love Maine. I don’t want to leave Maine. Farming in central Maine has been difficult, though,” he said. “The political climate as of late has amplified my fear.”

Bo said he is very aware of the urban-rural divide when it comes to LGBT acceptance. Still, he isn’t interested in living in a more urban area and doesn’t think he should have to do so in order to be safe to be who he is.

“I love living in rural spaces and being able to walk for miles with my dogs,” he said. “But being a queer rural person is not a piece of cake. Rural communities identify this is what a man does and this is what a woman does. When you’re queer within that space, you have to navigate those boundaries.”

And he isn’t likely to stay in Somerset County forever, in large part because of how it feels to be queer there.

“Queer people should move to rural areas so we can change things, but at the same time we have to stay safe and we have to stay strong,” he said. “So, it isn’t attainable for everyone and we shouldn’t judge people if they have to leave rural places. It’s hard for me to imagine raising my family here.”

‘Farmers for love’

It might not help every queer farmer in all parts of Maine, but one small, concrete change that could make a positive difference would be to have more farms self-identify as LGBT friendly, according to Leslie. This would allow farm apprentices to find farms where they can relax and get to work, unconcerned about fitting in or being safe.

“What I’ve found is that queer people, very understandably, are sometimes nervous or hesitant because they might get put with a family that was heterosexist, transphobic or unsafe,” Leslie said.

One organic family farm in Warren, which makes a point of explicitly welcoming queer apprentices to their land on its website has become a destination for many people who want to make sure they will be OK as they learn about growing, harvesting and selling vegetables.

“As people, we think a lot about gender and equality,” Reba Richardson of Hatchet Cove Farm said. “We think a lot about how the spaces we’re in aren’t necessarily the most welcoming spaces for people who aren’t traditional cisgender folks. … And in terms of gender and in terms of race, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to make our farm a comfortable place.”

Cisgender is the term used for people whose gender identity matches their birth sex.

Toward the goal of making the farm comfortable, Richardson and her husband, Bill Pluecker, do periodic pronoun check-ins to make sure they’re referring to their apprentices correctly. That’s not always easy to get right, Pluecker said, but they keep on trying.

“We make missteps, but it’s worth the effort,” he said. “It’s been great for us to be able to invite people in from all kinds of background. It definitely enriches our lives and the lives of our kids. I think it slowly but surely changes the fabric of our rural location.”

Each summer, the apprentices are generally made to feel welcome by neighbors and customers, too. Still, it’s not always easy. Last summer, Pluecker recalled, there was some friction between one local and two farm apprentices, both of whom were of color and one of whom did not conform to conventional gender distinctions. But a better memory came a few years ago, when two young, straight men who were “like super dudes” were farm apprentices at the same time as two people who were in the process of coming out as queer. It was a learning experience for the young men, the farmers said.

“At the Thomaston Fourth of July parade, this guy, who was wearing [camouflage], because he was a hunting bro dude, was also carrying a sign that said ‘Farmers for love,’” Richardson said. “That was my best moment of the season for sure.”

 


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