A few weeks ago, I was able to attend the afternoon portion of the LGBT Rural Summit, held at Wayne State College (yes, in Northeast Nebraska), which is part of a national series hosted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (yes, the U.S.D.A.). As it turns out, the U.S.D.A. is second only to the U.S. Post Office in its width and breadth, having a presence in every county in the country. And, as the Obama administration has recognized that 99% of the counties in the U.S. house same-sex couples, the U.S.D.A. (which is everywhere) has been tasked with an office which handles civil rights issues.
I was most interested in attending the panel on "LBGT Youth in Rural America," which was thoughtful, but the discussion I learned the most from was through the "Health Disparities in the Rural LGBT Community" panel, which stressed the importance of coming out to one's health care provider, as well as the strategy of posting a subtle symbol (formerly a pink triangle, but now often a rainbow, according to one rural physician) somewhere in one's office or workspace as to designate a safe space for LGBT individuals and/or advocates.
Indeed, the Gardner Auditorium in the small town known as Wayne America was a safe space to have these conversations that day, which were generative, and of course I was interested in how language was being used by a range of well-spoken and diverse voices. And so I couldn't help but think that two particular words--which numerous panel members used repeatedly, while others carefully avoided--were holding back our conversation: liberal and conservative. As can be common, the word liberal was used to describe an environment which advocates LGBT issues (to roughly paraphrase one panelist's comment: "Academia tends to be a more liberal climate, and so there is much less homophobia in that work environment.)" and of course conservative was at times deliberately used as an adjective describing a homophobic climate.
On one hand, I get it, and I have probably used these two words in a similar context, conversationally. But on the other hand, the elephant in the room was that Northeast Nebraska is known as, at least according to voting patterns, a rather conservative region. And so I suppose there was an assumption that out the auditorium door was a political line in the sand that had already been crossed just by walking into the big room that day. But is this true? Or were there self-identified conservatives in the room who silently attended out of a genuine curiosity for what the summit participants had to say--people who, while they might not necessarily be sympathetic to the cause, are willing to be persuaded by a good argument (which, of course, is the ancient Greeks' criteria for engaging in rhetoric). If so (and I don't know) then were those individuals marginalized by political language instead of being invited into the community conversation so full of good ideas?
Oh, I don't know. I am not intending to say that an individual with a certain political affiliation was the person in that room most in need of sensitivity or protection from marginalization. But by now I think it is clear that I am attempting to marshal the idea that we do ourselves a disservice in rural American (an area defined by its practical people, and therefore, I would argue, generally a moderate culture) by continuing to divide ourselves within the usual politics of ideology with the words we choose to use. As a panelist on staff at WSC clearly and directly asserted (in a room slightly lacking in WSC staff and faculty that afternoon, unfortunately), "Language matters."