This April, HB Lozito, Executive Director of Green Mountain Crossroads and all-star Taurus and tortilla maker, connected me with Elisabeth Waller, a student at Castleton College living in Rutland, Vermont. Elisabeth has been involved in queer community organizing for the past year, and I caught up with them in late April to hear a little about the sweetness and challenges of queer rural community life.
GMC: Can you tell us a little about yourself and what your life looks like on the daily?
EW: I started out at Champlain College right out of high school. I was an artist, but I also came from a very poor family, and I decided the prudent thing would be to do something I could earn money at, so I went into the accounting program. It was just really not a good idea, and I ended up quitting. I was miserable. I decided I'd take a break for a while, and that break somehow turned into eight years. I started going to Castleton in 2012 and moved to Rutland this last October. I'm a communications major with an emphasis in journalism, I take photographs and I'm trying to combine those two things. I definitely identify with the term queer. I identify with being trans, specifically non-binary. And I also identify as being a lesbian even though I identify as being non-binary, and I know that’s hard to understand for some. In Rutland, I was looking for [queer] community and there really wasn't any. I just said, ok, I'm selfishly going to create some community for myself.
GMC: Can you tell us a little more about any of your other identities that might impact or intersect with a queer identity?
EW: I definitely have strong views about mental health and how that intersects with class. Coming from a poor background and also a background of mental health issues, I think about how that intersects with getting a job and also being queer and being trans, and also deciding I no longer want to have any jobs where I have to be in the closet. I reached a point where I just don't want to do that to myself anymore.
GMC: How did you end up meeting HB and getting in touch with GMC?
EW: When I moved to Rutland, I thought for sure since it is the second largest city in Vermont there would be some type of organized community here, and I was really surprised to find that there wasn't any. The closest thing [geographically] really was stuff going on publicized through GMC. A couple months ago, I went down with my partner Sam to see a really awesome trans panel at Marlboro College. We met HB there, just got to chatting about how I had started a book club. I wanted to ask HB questions about how to get people involved, how to publicize. It was really awesome to hear that HB totally empathized with some of the issues I was asking about and bringing up, and they had some awesome ideas.
GMC: Can you tell us about your current community organizing projects?
EW: Previously, there had been efforts in the area, and I don't know why but they just fizzled out. There had been some support groups happening, its possible there's still one happening at the Unitarian Universalist Church, like an LGBT brunch get-together. I think there's also a gay men's book club group that meets once a month. Those were the only things when I moved to Rutland, and I had a hard time even finding out about those things. This area's kind of not very much into social media and advertising. Over the summer, this past August, I started a queer book club, and that's still going strong.
GMC: What have you read?
EW: Oh we've read so many things! Our inaugural book was Alison Bechdel's Are you my mother?, and we just finished reading Persistance: All Ways Butch and Femme. That's such a great one. We've actually had a lot of interest in books about trans narratives and that was really a surprise to me, I didn't think many people would have interest in specifically trans narratives.
GMC: Is the book club open to all people queer-identified? And allies?
EW: It started out being called the Rutland Area Queer Ladies Book Club, but I didn't like the word "ladies," I never liked it. I struggled a lot with the name. The way I list the book club on Facebook is that it’s open to anyone who experiences gender and/or sexual-based oppression. There's already basically a book club for gay dudes, so I wanted to have something for everybody else. We have a core group of 3 or 4 people who show up every time, but we have 20 members on our Facebook page. For a while we were combining the book discussion with a potluck brunch, so if you didn't read the book, that's cool, come and hang out anyway, we want you there. Now we have a separate brunch date during the month.
GMC: Are there any other queer events in your area?
EW: We also have a trans support and social group. It’s a peer led support group that meets the second Tuesday of the month at the Rutland library. It just started, we've had one meeting so far, just me and my partner eating chocolate. My partner's name is Sam, and she is now going to be taking over and running the group.
GMC: Do you have previous experience participating in queer community, in other places you've lived or growing up?
EW: No, not really. I grew up in Ryegate a little bit south of St. Johnsbury. Where I grew up, you know, the words lesbian and gay aren't used except as slurs. There was no community. I wasn't attending Pride. When I went to Champlain College in Burlington, obviously there's community there, but I wasn't really involved with it at the time. Champlain has an LGBT club now called "Include," but I'm not sure it existed when I was going there.
GMC: Did that influence your coming out experience, not having queer network or community?
EW: I think so. I definitely do. I don’t think I had a lot of internalized homophobia or transphobia or anything, but it still felt like that stuff influenced my coming to an understanding about myself.
GMC: Like not having any mentors or role models to ask questions of?
EW: Exactly, yeah. In terms of coming out, I can't remember exactly when I started, it just started happening, I just decided, this is me.
GMC: Have you always lived in rural areas and small towns?
EW: Yes, except for when I lived in Burlington.
GMC: Which isn't the biggest town in the world.
EW: That's true. (laughs)
GMC: Do you think there's anything particularly awesome about being rural and queer? What do you feel the relationship for you is between your ruralness and your queerness?
EW: I guess I can't say that there's anything super awesome about being a queer person living in a rural area. I almost want to say I have a defiant attitude about it, just being who I am at my place of work, at school, but there are definitely times when it feels very uncomfortable walking down the street in a rural area holding my girlfriend's hand. I haven't experienced any outright homophobia or transphobia myself, here yet, living in Rutland. I tend to be a homebody, but there still is that fear that that might happen. Or just getting looks, or whatever.
GMC: Do you ever think about moving to an urban area or somewhere where there's a larger queer community?
EW: All the time. I go to Castleton because it's the only school that I can afford. I like living in the country and it would be awesome to find a place where there was a queer community in a rural area, but I also don't know where that would be.
GMC: It sounds like you feel that there are more challenges being rural and queer than there are awesome things about intersection. What are other challenges you see about being rural and queer?
EW: I definitely see challenges for trans people specifically. I see trans people having a hard time finding employment. To me that's one of the most serious issues, because it's hard to find a job, period, in a rural area, that you can sustain yourself with. It's an even worse issue for trans folks. I feel like that's just a really huge issue. Also, finding appropriate healthcare. Knowledgeable health workers, doctors, mental health providers. I think there's two people in Rutland who list themselves as LGBTQ knowledgeable, and even trans knowledgeable. I don't know anyone who's seen them, so I don't know much about them. That's one reason I started the Vermont Trans Connect Network on Facebook, to try to help trans people connect to safe spaces and health care by writing reviews and reading other people's reviews of actual experiences.
GMC: One thread on this blog is concerned with investigating existing healthcare options for queer rural folks and visioning what queer positive health care could look like in rural areas.
EW: I'm really interested in that too. I've seen several therapists, not in Rutland but in Middlebury, that have all been great people, helpful in their own unique ways, but also not knowledgeable about trans issues and gender. If you're a queer person seeing a therapist, you're likely having some issues with those issues, so the provider having an innocent ignorance may not be helpful, to say the least. That can be extra depressing. It can leave you feeling very alone in the world, and I think in the queer community there's already this continuous feeling of being alone and not understood.
GMC: What do you think could help providers offer better care or help healthcare seekers access better care?
EW: I know that some Planned Parenthood locations, on their websites, indicate that some providers have received specific training on queer issues, but I don't know anything about what that training entails.
GMC: There's no way for individuals to assess the quality of that training until they interact the provider.
GMC: What are some things you like about rural or small town living?
EW: I love nature, I like quiet, I'm not a real go-out-and-party type person, so that works. I tend to be kind of introverted and quiet, so I like that about the country. But it is nice to have a sense of community and feel that there are some people you can relate to on that [queer] level, and there's just the visibility thing. That word is used so much, but it’s so meaningful.
GMC: It seems like there's a difference between being visible and judged versus visible and appreciated or validated.
EW: It definitely feels better to feel visible and appreciated, or accepted, but most of the time I feel pretty ok with being invisible. For me that's a privilege issue, because many people just see a cis-woman, and my sexuality isn't tattooed on my forehead or anything.
GMC: Can you envision new realities for rural queer folks?
EW: There would be lots of awesome resources available, there would be both mental health and physical health care. There would be jobs offered to queer people. People would be accepting in the general community, and not give queer or trans people a hard time, people could be out, and not worry about it, and just be happy living there lives. Mainly, more resources, like Outright and the Pride Center of Vermont and Green Mountain Crossroads.
GMC: If you could say anything to rural queer youth reading this blog, what would it be?
EW: It may sound like a cliché, but I would tell them to live their truths -- that's the only truth that exists. If they are struggling, I think that the internet is an awesome gathering place, there are some amazing support groups online. If a person is living in a rural area and they don't have access to those things in real life, the internet is definitely a resource.
GMC: Do have anything else you want to weigh in on before we sign off?
EW: Yeah! If anyone wants to get involved with community organizing in Rutland, contact me. There are several different Facebook pages. Our email is email@example.com. I want folks to show up and do things they're interested in. If they want to garden, if they want to do brunch, or just throw a frisbee around, we’ll do that. I want folks to feel free to organize what they’re interested in.
GMC: Thanks so much for sharing your work and stories with us.
* * *
Naomi Rachel Ullian is a white queer femme writer, herbalist, and performance artist. You can find more of her work at proseforpeople.com