NCDC229: Health, well-being, and economic opportunity for LGBT persons in rural communities

(Multistate Research Coordinating Committee and Information Exchange Group)

Status: Inactive/Terminating

NCDC229: Health, well-being, and economic opportunity for LGBT persons in rural communities

Duration: 07/01/2015 to 09/30/2017

Administrative Advisor(s):

NIFA Reps:

Statement of Issues and Justification

Prepared by:

Ramona Faith Oswald, Ph.D., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Jenifer McGuire, Ph.D., University of Minnesota
Erika Grafsky, Ph.D., Virginia Tech


To improve the economic and social vitality of rural communities by improving the economic opportunities and social climate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons living in those communities.

We are seeking approval to form a 2-year multistate development committee (NC-DC Regular) that will collaborate to create a full multistate proposal to meet our goals through research and outreach. The mechanism to be pursued with a full proposal (research project v. coordinating committee) will be determined by the development committee. The below justification presents our initial objectives, stakeholder need, importance, feasibility, and impact.


  • Establish a baseline by using available data regarding the current state of health, well-being and economic opportunity for LGBT persons in rural communities.

  • Develop assessment protocols and sampling strategies for targeted data collection within participating states.

  • Collect data with LGBT stakeholders and community members within rural communities.

  • Analyze data and generate reports regarding the health, well-being and economic opportunity of LGBT persons in rural contexts.

  • Disseminate findings to stakeholders in rural communities, state and federal policy makers, and the scientific communities.

  • Work with stakeholders to apply findings in support of community viability.


When ecological systems are more diverse they have a broader range of available resources to respond to threats or changes in the environment. For this proposal, we stipulate that the value of diversity extends to social systems, and that more diverse social systems will be better equipped to respond to the economic and social challenges faced by rural communities. These challenges include job decline and outmigration, especially among more educated people (USDA, 2014). Rural communities thus have a compelling interest in promoting themselves as desirable places to live and work. Valuing the diversity of citizens is one way to do this. Toward that end, we propose to examine the health, well-being and economic opportunity of LGBT persons in rural America. According to Badgett (2014), the social inclusion of LGBT people can strengthen communities by increasing economic productivity and innovation, improving health, and building social capital (see also Florida, 2014).

Rural communities are typically imagined as places where sexual and gender minority people do not reside (Weston, 1995). Despite this stereotype, census data has documented the presence of same-sex couples in 93% of all US counties (Gates & Cook, 2010) and Gallup Poll data has documented that LGBT people constitute between 1.7% and 10% of every state’s population (Gates & Newport, 2013, includes the District of Columbia). Same-sex couples raising children are more likely to reside in rural communities than their nonparent counterparts (Gates & Ost, 2004). Further, rural same-sex households are at greater risk for poverty than their urban counterparts (Badgett, Durso, & Schneebaum, 2013). These residential and economic trends are also found for heterosexual people, suggesting that rural LGBT people are demographically similar to their heterosexual neighbors and therefore have similar needs and constraints. However, minority stress theory posits that LGBT people face additional stressors due to stigma, and may need unique resources to remedy the effects of stigma (Meyer, 2003).

The research on rural LGBT individuals and families is small but growing. Consistent findings across these studies generally support the tenets of minority stress theory. Specifically, research has found that LGBT residents of rural communities often face stigma, isolation, and a lack of resources beyond those faced by anyone living in a sparsely populated area (Oswald & Culton, 2003; Preston & D’Augelli, 2013; Swank, Frost, & Fahs, 2012).

However, a recent analysis that pooled data from three nationally representative datasets found that rural sexual minorities have the same, or better, well-being than their urban counterparts (Wienke & Hill, 2013). The authors of this study did not deny minority stress, but argued that the belief in rural hostility towards LGBT people is exaggerated, and that rural LGBT people appear to be faring well despite stressors. An emotional attachment to place may be key to well-being; people who identify with a rural lifestyle may be most likely to remain or migrate in. Oswald and Lazarevic (2011) found that place attachment among rural lesbian mothers was highest when they had relatives nearby, and when they had access to other LGBT people and an LGBT community organization. Another study of lesbian and gay parents found that they felt socially included in many settings (Holman & Oswald, 2011). Further, LGBT people make important civic contributions to rural communities through their participation in both general and LGBT specific organizations (Oswald & Masciadrelli, 2008; Paceley, Oswald, & Hardesty, 2014). Thus the need is to document both stressors and strengths; to move beyond stereotypes towards a more accurate understanding of rural diversity.

Our project seeks to document the needs and opportunities faced by LGBT people living across the rural United States, and use that information to help strengthen rural communities. Each author of this proposal has engaged in similar work within their home state: Oswald in downstate Illinois, McGuire in outstate Minnesota, and Grafsky in southern Virginia. Oswald’s ongoing Rainbow Illinois project has involved surveys of LGBT individuals living across more than 30 Illinois counties. Surveys were conducted in 2000 (N=527) and again in 2010-2011 (N = 458) using similar sampling strategies (a third wave is planned for 2020). Each survey included closed-ended questions about demographics, employment, religion, romantic relationships, parenting, families of origin, LGBT and residential community attachment and involvement, victimization, disclosure of sexual orientation, and the social climate in community, religious, and workplace settings. In addition, each survey asked open-ended questions about the “best” and “worst” things about life as an LGBT person living in their community, as well as “what would improve your life?” Municipal and county-level indicators of social climate using public data have been attached to each survey participant (see Oswald, Cuthbertson, Lazarevic, & Goldberg, 2010). In addition to surveys, in-depth interviews have been conducted with 61 individuals and couples.

Overall, most Rainbow Illinois participants describe where they live as “tolerant’ rather than “hostile” or “supportive”. Consistent with the vast research on minority stress and health disparities (Institute of Medicine, 2011), Rainbow Illinois documents that more supportive communities are associated with greater psychological well-being and satisfaction with social and romantic relationships. From 2000 to 2011, the perception of support has increased, and victimization has declined, but stigma, discrimination, and a lack of economic and social resources remain concerns (Oswald & Holman, 2013). Furthermore, the county-level data shows a polarization in social climate such that equal numbers of counties have increased versus decreased their support for LGBT people (unpublished). This Illinois-specific project demonstrates the importance of supportive communities for the well-being of LGBT people and their families. It further describes the many contributions that LGBT people make to their residential communities.

McGuire’s research involves two ongoing studies. The Transgender Youth Study (TYS) is focused on examining family relationships for young people (age 16-26) who identify as transgender, and how family responses to individuals’ gender identity predicts well-being among youth. Ninety youth from around the United States, Canada and Ireland completed in depth interviews. These assessment data provide a foundation for understanding the ways in which gender identity intersects with family and social environments, and what sorts of contexts are needed to promote well-being. Specifically, transgender people may require medical interventions (e.g. hormonal care) that is typically difficult to access in rural environments, and may be inaccessible without family or social supports for care-seeking. Completion of rural assessments could help to inform outreach efforts by metropolitan based gender identity clinics specifically in/near the three states (clinics exist in Minneapolis, Chicago and Washington DC).

McGuire’s second project exists in collaboration with the University of Minnesota Cooperative Extension Center for Family Development (UMN-CFD), and is focused on service provision to same-sex couples seeking divorce education programs related to shared custody via Minnesota Family Court. Cooperative Extension has long provided mandated divorce education programs throughout Minnesota that have been adapted by several neighboring states (North and South Dakota, and Wisconsin). With the emergence of legalized same sex marriage, UMN-CFD has supported an agenda to conduct assessment of Minnesota’s divorcing or separating same-sex couples who share custody of children. This project will start with a statewide assessment of couples, a proposed adaptation of the existing divorce education materials, and an evaluation of the adapted program. This program is administered in person and online throughout all of Minnesota. The in-person programs are well-attended in rural environments, suggesting that program adaptations to the in-person curriculum could have benefits of improving social support within rural communities in Minnesota.

Grafsky’s research focuses on LGBT youth and their families. Using questionnaires and in-depth interviews, Grafsky has explored LGB youth disclosure decisions to family and the ongoing relationships with their families from the perspective of youth and parents. Data collection is currently underway that expands this inquiry to include siblings and extended family members. Preliminary analyses indicate that youth who exhibit more depressive symptoms and difficulty with the disclosure process are more likely to report little connection with LGBT specific resources. In addition, community variables such as local social climate and connectedness to community have emerged as relevant factors in youth disclosure decisions and perceived ongoing acceptance. This is consistent with existing literature that has indicated characteristics such as social isolation, lack of access to resources, conservative attitudes, less anonymity, and more conservative attitudes are unique obstacles that LGBT youth may encounter in rural communities (Poon & Saewyc, 2009). In an effort to reach LGB youth who are isolated or in communities with fewer LGBT-specific resources, Dr. Grafsky is developing a web-based program to assist LGB youth in making safe and successful disclosure decisions. A committee of local primary and secondary stakeholders have been involved in the development of the program to reflect a community-based participatory approach.

Individually, these projects make valuable contributions to their local stakeholders. Together, however, they contribute a set of questions, methods, technical expertise, and professional networks upon which this multistate proposal seeks to capitalize.


There is no existing national effort to bring together researchers and Extension specialists to work on these issues. Researchers who study rural LGBT life are either isolated from practitioners or working within very locally defined projects. We have conversed with colleagues at more than 10 land grant universities and believe that there is national interest in this effort. This project is an opportunity to build the capacity of rural communities by creating a structure that enables us to learn from and build upon each other’s efforts. If this project is not conducted we will continue to reinvent the wheel in each location.


We propose to develop and complete community based assessments that stem from public health and family development perspectives (CDC, 2010). Specifically, we will promote a multidisciplinary approach and recruit working group members from diverse family, child development, economic development, and community vitality backgrounds in order to provide a diverse and well-rounded examination of the status of LGBT persons in rural America. The proposed project provides a unique opportunity for interested researchers and extension personnel from diverse perspectives to join the effort and contribute to the depth of assessment.

Given the multidisciplinary nature of our questions and team membership, we will incorporate multiple approaches, including consolidation of existing data sets, collection of publically available county and municipal data, and interviews with key stakeholders and LGBT community members. Our mixed method approach will to promote a deeper examination of the multiple layers where LGBT persons can connect and support community, or alternatively become alienated from local communities. Using mixed methods allows us to better examine the interactions of multiple contexts and how those relate to LGBT well-being (see Creswell & Plano Clark, 2007). In developing the assessment protocols, we will work collaboratively with community members and stakeholders to ensure that crucial indicators of health, well-being and economic opportunity are measured in ecologically valid ways.

There are four primary components to the proposed assessment which map closely to our specified objectives. First we will consolidate the limited but growing body of knowledge about the status of rural LGBT persons from existing assessments. This process will clarify and narrow the scope of new data collection efforts. Second we will develop and collect systematic data grounded in methodology most suited to this population. The goal is to collect data that extends existing knowledge at multiple levels (individuals, families, communities, policies). Third we will analyze data and develop reports to disseminate to local communities and academic audiences. Fourth, we will work with local stakeholders to develop intervention strategies that will guide future efforts.

The targeted assessment can be developed by the proposing team, and implemented in diverse ways across states. For instance, in Minnesota, University of Minnesota Extension has a family development presence in all regions, with offices in almost every county, and the presence of people familiar with communities who may be able to help the assessment team identify participants for interviews or survey data collection. In Illinois, Dr. Oswald has extensive connections with rural stakeholders regarding LGBT issues, and has collected data focused on LGBT populations in downstate Illinois over the last decade. Further, she was the Illinois PI for NC1171, and served as Chair of that multistate project for two years. Over the past three years, Dr. Grafsky has fostered connections with local LGBT serving organizations in the Southwest, VA area. In addition, in Spring and Summer of 2015 Dr. Grafsky has begun working with Virginia Extension professionals to conduct a needs assessment to determine what resources would be beneficial for Extension professionals working with LGBT youth through 4-H and other community programs. Extension programs in Virginia are delivered through a network of faculty at two universities, 107 county and city offices, 11 agricultural research and Extension centers, and six 4-H youth educational centers. The Southwest district, where Virginia Tech is located, is comprised of counties that are among the most rural in Virginia. These existing relationships serve to enhance the probability of successful data collection efforts.

Once collected, the members of the petitioning team have extensive experience analyzing quantitative and qualitative data, and disseminating findings to both communities and academic audiences. All three sponsoring universities provide office, computer and software resources to all faculty. As such, faculty will have access to tools needed for data collection and analyses, and the skill set and student support needed to conduct the research. Each of the sponsoring universities has an active and well-regarded PhD program, with support for graduate research assistants. Finally, the three initiating members of this proposal have extensive experience researching and publishing in the field of LGBT well-being.


  • The formation of our development committee will lead to a national network of researchers, students, and Extension professionals. This network will provide research training for graduate students in the social sciences. Further it will increase the research capacity of each institution by creating a mechanism for sharing expertise. It will also improve the knowledge and skills of Extension and other community professionals regarding the social inclusion of LGBT people in rural communities.

  • The development committee will write a full proposal for either a multistate research project or a research coordinating committee. The full proposal then will be used to leverage external funding for research and dissemination.


Badgett, M.V.L. (2014, October). The economic cost of stigma and the exclusion of LGBT people: A case study of India. Washington, DC: World Bank.

Badgett, M.V.L., Durso, L., & Schneebaum, A. (2013, June). New patterns of poverty in the lesbian, gay, and bisexual community. Los Angeles, CA: The Williams Institute, UCLA College of Law.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2010). Community Health Assessment and Group Evaluation (CHANGE) Action Guide: Building a Foundation of Knowledge to Prioritize Community Needs. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Creswell, J., & Plano-Clark, V. (2007). Designing and conducting mixed methods research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Florida, R. (2014, February 7). The global map of homophobia. The Atlantic City Lab.
Gates, G, & Cook, A. (2010). United States: Census snapshot 2010. Los Angeles, CA: The Williams Institute, UCLA College of Law.

Gates, G., & Newport, F. (2013, February). Gallup special report: New estimates of the LGBT population in the United States.

Gates, G., & Ost, J. (2004). The gay and lesbian atlas. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

Holman, E., & Oswald, R. (2011). Nonmetropolitan GLBTQ Parents: When and where does their sexuality matter? Journal of GLBT Family Studies, 7, 436-456.

Institute of Medicine. (2011, March). The health of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people: Building a foundation for better understanding. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences.

Meyer, I. H. (2003). Prejudice as stress: Conceptual and measurement problems. American Public Health Association, 93(2), 262–265.

Oswald, R. & Culton, L. (2003). Under the rainbow: Rural gay life and its relevance for family providers. Family Relations, 52(1), 72-79.

Oswald, R., & Holman, E. (2013). Rainbow Illinois: How downstate LGBT communities have changed (2000-2011). Department of Human & community Development, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Oswald, R., & Lazarevic, V. (2011). You live where?! Lesbian mothers’ attachment to nonmetropolitan communities. Family Relations, 60, 373-386.

Oswald, R., & Masciadrelli, B. (2008). Generative ritual among nonmetropolitan lesbians and gay men: Promoting social inclusion. Journal of Marriage & Family, 70, 1060-1073.

Oswald, R., Cuthbertson, C., Lazarevic, V., & Goldberg, A. (2010, invited). Measuring community climate. Journal of GLBT Family Studies, 6(2), 214-228.

Paceley, M., Oswald, R., & Hardesty, J. (2014). Factors associated with involvement in nonmetropolitan LGBTQ community centers: Proximity, generativity, minority stress, or Social location? Journal of Homosexuality, 61(10), 1481-1500.

Poon, C., & Saewyc, E. (2009). 'Out' yonder: Sexual minority youth in rural and small town areas of British Columbia. American Journal of Public Health, 99, 118-124.

Preston, D. B. & D’Augelli, A. R. (2013). The challenges of being a rural gay man: Coping with stigma. New York, NY: Routledge.

Swank, E., Frost, D., & Fahs, B. (2012). Rural location and exposure to minority stress among sexual minorities in the United States. Psychology & Sexuality, 3(3), 226-243.

USDA. (2014). Rural America at a glance: 2014 edition.

Weston, K. (1995). Get thee to a big city: Sexual imaginary and the great gay migration. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian & Gay Studies, 2, 253-277.

Wienke, C., & Hill, G. (2013). Does place of residence matter? Rural-urban difference and the wellbeing of gay men and lesbians. Journal of Homosexuality, 60, 1256-1279.


Procedures and Activities

Expected Outcomes and Impacts

Projected Participation

View Appendix E: Participation

Educational Plan


Literature Cited


Land Grant Participating States/Institutions


Non Land Grant Participating States/Institutions

L&L Farms, University of Kansas, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
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