Rhea Murray, the mother of a gay son in Seymour, embarked on what looked like a quixotic project in the mid-1990s. She resolved to organize a Seymour chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). She asked the national PFLAG office for advice.
"They suggested I seek support from my local human-rights commission," Murray recounts. "We didn't have one! They suggested I approach some liberal local churches. We didn't have any!"
Nor were there up-to-date materials on homosexuality in the local public library.
"It seemed like an impossible task," Murray recalls. "There were no models to go by. Most people in my community were isolated from the wider world, and most gay people and their families were isolated from one another."
After consulting several books on community organizing, Murray realized they also lacked awareness of the relevant issues in rural areas.
A decade later, Murray has put together a PowerPoint presentation, based on her experience, her research, and the experiences of the rural gay and transgender people she has known.
That presentation opens a one-day training on "Rural Organizing for LGBT Civil Rights" at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bloomington on Jan. 28. The free event is co-sponsored by the church's Civil Marriage is a Civil Right Task Force and Indiana Equality.
Topics will include: special challenges of rural organizing, understanding the legislative process, interacting with the media and the public, and fundraising.
To spark conversation, Interaction Theater, funded by a President's Freedom to Marry Fund grant from the Unitarian Universalist Association, will perform three scenes depicting different community organizing situations.
"A majority of Hoosiers still live outside urban areas," notes Kathy Sarris, president of Indiana Equality. "But they have little or no impact on the legislative process, much less on the congressional process. They're losing more and more control over their destinies.
"Within the arena of LGBT politics, gay and transgender Hoosiers in small towns and rural areas can and should be playing a significant role in determining strategy and policy because it's their homes, their families, their livelihoods at stake. This training conference will begin that empowerment."
In Murray's view, rural America is similar throughout the country. She says there is an insularity that makes new transplants to rural communities feel like they've stepped back in time.
"The social roles are tighter," she says. "You're automatically suspect if you're not married and have a family by the age of 30. People get punished for being honest and open — not only gay people but their families. It's all about the majority's comfort level. As long as you censor your life, stay quiet, and play by the rules — they don't have to think about the gay people in their midst."
Rural gays comply for a variety of reasons. One is fear.
"Churches contribute to the fear," asserts Judi Epp, Task Force chair and an Owen County resident. "In my town, there's a conservative church on every corner. Nearly everyone raised in the area belongs to a church. The churches put up the most visible defense — or offense."
Another is family solidarity. "Family members fear they could lose a promotion or a job — or an election to, say, the school board — if the truth became known," says Murray. "'Don't tell family secrets' is deeply ingrained in the family code."
"The mindset of many rural gays is 'please don't rock the boat and draw too much attention, because it can make life uncomfortable and even dangerous,'" adds Murray. "But the boat rocks quite easily when something unexpected happens to shine the spotlight on them, due to life-circumstances. When that happens, they often find there's no support network. They realize — often too late — that 'this is more than just about me.'"
Murray's own son was outed by their homophobic pastor, as described in her autobiography A Journey to Moriah.
Some rural gays make the fateful decision to live openly. "My sexuality is a very small part of who I am," says Jim Delpha, a Task Force member who grew up in Lawrence County. But the walls he was forced to build around his sexuality by his family and community led to a feeling of "being dead." He moved to Bloomington, where this part of his life "was not just OK, but valued."
"I got to know my 'tribe,'" he says. "And I also began to work for political change, rather than just sitting on the sidelines bitching. It was a life-giving experience, especially working with straight members of the task force, all of whom feel personally affected by the oppression of gay and transgender people."
Throughout rural Indiana, he asserts, it's important to "put a human face on the issue. Then the effect of oppression on all kinds of people becomes clearer."
Epp has an additional reason for working to organize Hoosiers to protect LGBT civil rights.
"For my 30th anniversary — two years away — I'd like to get married somewhere," she says.
John Clower can be reached at email@example.com.