Abstract: Rural LGBTQ+ Youth School and Community Experiences (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Rural LGBTQ+ Youth School and Community Experiences

Thursday, January 21, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Traci Wike, PhD, Associate Professor, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA
Leah Bouchard, AM, PhD Student, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA
Aaron Kemmerer, MSW, Doctoral Student, Virginia Commonwealth University, VA
Mauricio Yabar, LCSW, Doctoral Student, Virginia Commonwealth University, VA
Background and Purpose: LGBTQ+ youth experience bullying and other forms of violence at school and/or in their community at greater rates than their heterosexual and gender-conforming peers (Kann, Olsen, McManus et al., 2016).The minority stress model posits that stress stemming from victimization contributes to higher instances of mental health issues such as depression, substance use, and suicidal ideation and/or attempts (Goldbach & Gibbs, 2016; Hatzenbuehler, 2009; Meyer, 2005; Ybarra, Mitchell, & Kosciw, 2015). LGBTQ+ youth living in rural communities and small towns may experience even higher rates of identity-based bullying and instances of homophobia and sexism than non-rural youth (Kosciw & Greytak, 2009; Palmer, Kosciw, & Bartkiewicz, 2012). Further, rural LGBTQ+ youth may be more socially isolated, have access to fewer resources, and have less exposure to members of the LGBTQ+ community (Hatzenbuehler et al., 2014; Kosciw & Greytak, 2009; Paceley, 2016). Research has identified supports that can buffer the effects of victimization (e.g. GSAs in schools; supportive teachers; LGBTQ+ visibility) (GLSEN, 2011; Hall, 2018; Hatzenbuehler et al., 2014); however, it is unclear if these supports are the same/are accessible for LGBTQ+ youth living in rural communities. To that end, this qualitative study explored the experiences of rural LGBTQ+ youth living in the Southeastern US to determine areas of support toward building resilience.

Methods: Semi-structured interviews were conducted with LGBTQ+ youth (n=11) living in rural communities in the Southeastern US. Participants were recruited through agency social media sites, fliers, and word-of-mouth. Interviews elicited participants’ narratives regarding their LGBTQ+ identity, victimization experiences, and social supports in varying contexts (e.g., family, school, community). Data were analyzed using a narrative approach in NVivo12. Three independent coders conducted open and axial coding leading to thematic analysis.

Results: Participants identified experiences within the family, peer, and community contexts as primary influences on their well-being. Having close connections to LGBTQ+ peers, supportive family, and accessing the internet were commonly expressed as important social support, especially when facing adversity in the form of microaggressions, bullying, and threats to physical safety. These experiences were captured under five major themes: 1) relationships that strengthen sense of self; 2) social conditions that affirm/negate identity; 3) experiences of bullying and victimization; 4) platforms for exploring identity; and 5) expressions of individual and community resilience in the rural context.

Conclusions and Implications:

This research sought to understand rural LGBTQ+ youth experiences to determine if and how their experiences with victimization and social support differ from their non-rural LGBTQ+ peers. Findings indicate that rural LGBTQ+ youth do encounter challenges specific to their rural context, namely that they have less access to supportive resources, especially to the broader LGBTQ+ community, and heavily rely on the internet to meet many of their needs. However, youth described points of support and challenge within each context, especially among family, suggesting that viewing a context as supportive or non-supportive does not accurately capture the full range of experiences for youth navigating their LGBTQ+ identities in rural communities.