When people want to emphasize the smallness of a place, they call it a one-stoplight town. Apache, Oklahoma doesn’t even have a stoplight. As of 2017, 1,416 people live there — plus me, sometimes.
My parents, brother, and I moved to Apache when I was 14. Two years later, I had my first crush on a woman, Bethany*, the star of the high school drama club. In 2009, I left Apache for college in Syracuse, New York. I was still closeted and still terrified of the fact that I might be gay. A year later, I came out and started dating my first girlfriend. She and I moved to New York City together after college, at which point we quickly broke up. And so, I found myself back in Apache three days before Christmas 2017, browsing on dating apps. Except there wasn’t much to see, at least compared to Brooklyn, where I could look at profile after profile for months without seeing the same woman twice. Even spreading my distance out to a 100-mile radius, I was able to scroll through all of my potential dates in about 20 minutes, a far cry from the experience I was used to in New York City.
Where are all the queer women, I wondered. Surely, they exist.
Yet, it made sense that I wouldn’t see nearly as many women on the apps in Oklahoma as I do in New York. Dating — on or off apps — is partially a numbers game. When you’re dating in a place with fewer people, there are going to be fewer potential partners, regardless of whether or not you’re queer. I know from watching my brother, cousins, and high-school classmates date, get engaged, and settle down that even dating as a straight person can be wildly more difficult in rural areas than in a big city. Most met their eventual spouses in school or at work, while my friends in New York tend to meet people all over the place — in bars, at parties, at museum exhibits, on the subway, and, often, on dating apps.
Some queer women who live in rural areas also meet partners at work or in school (my first crush, Bethany, actually met her wife while they were both serving in the military), but it’s less likely. As far as I know, there were only five queer women in Apache when I was in high school: me, Bethany, Heather*, Jana*, and Julie* — and only three of us were out. If you can’t see that a person exists, then you can’t date them. It’s something Kerith Conron, Sc.D., Blachford-Cooper research director at The Williams Institute, calls an “invisibility problem.” Combined with the fact that LGBTQ people often leave for bigger cities — there isn’t much data around this because sexual orientation isn’t counted on the U.S. Census, but research from the Williams Institute shows that queer people favor larger cities — there are simply slim pickings to begin with.
Of the four queer women I grew up with, only Heather, now 27, stayed in our small town. And living there has definitely made it difficult for her to date. “I honestly don’t feel that there is a queer community where I live,” she says. “I have friends and some family who accept my sexuality, but as for a whole community, no.” Heather delayed coming out until her mid-20s, because her church, parents, and friends all made it seem as if being gay was the worst thing you could be. There’s a good chance that she’s met queer women who are still closeted for the same reasons, but she didn’t know they were queer, so how could she ask them out?
Dating apps can break down that barrier — if you’re a woman searching for women, you know the women you see online are also gay — but many queer women in rural areas may not be on apps out of fear of outing themselves. Then it comes down to sussing out who is or isn’t gay in person. “I have a hard time knowing who else is queer — my town is definitely a don’t ask, don’t tell society,” says Nicole, 38, who recently moved to rural Michigan from San Francisco. “I don’t know who I can relate to or ‘out’ myself to (even making jokes in the checkout line), so I’m not sure how I would ask someone out in person without some fear. I feel forced back into the closet.”
But even in a perfect world, where no one is scared to be open about their sexuality, queer people will always have fewer potential partners. If the estimates of a recent Gallup poll are correct, roughly 4.5 percent of Americans are LGBTQ. Even in a large city like New York, that cuts numbers down drastically — about 387,000 of NYC’s 8.6 million people are LGBTQ, based on this statistic. In Apache, the number of queer and transgender people should be about 63. If you’re a queer woman looking to date another woman, you then have to subtract out queer men, transgender people who aren’t interested in women, queer women who are already in relationships, queer women who aren’t out of the closet, and queer women who are either too young or too old for your taste. It’s no wonder the options start to dwindle, both on dating apps and in real life. “Where I live now in Morristown, New Jersey, is definitely overwhelmingly straight,” says Kelly, 23, a bisexual woman. “There are no gay bars or spaces. I know there have to be other gay people here, but I just can’t seem to find them.”
It gets even more complicated for people like Kelly, because that 4.5 percent statistic isn’t true all over the country. In a map of the LGBTQ population, a majority of queer and trans people clearly live on the two coasts. California is made up of 5.3 percent LGBTQ people compared to 2.9 percent in Montana. The going theory isn’t that California births more queer babies but that the queer people who grow up in Montana eventually move to Los Angeles, New York City, Seattle, or another city where they feel safer and part of a bigger queer community. Often, big cities are more liberal, more accepting, and more likely to have anti-discrimination policies that protect sexual orientation. So it’s no wonder queer people tend to gravitate toward these places.
I certainly did. Being queer wasn’t the only reason I left Apache, but getting out helped me feel safe enough to come out. Lots of other small-town-born queer people feel the same, while staying put may keep some in hiding. “I think it’s likely that people either live quietly or they move and maybe don’t come out ’til college,” Conron says. “People are more likely to come out and live authentically in places where they feel accepted.”
Because LGBTQ people don’t always come out, because we move away, and because there are fewer of us in general, it can seem to people that we don’t exist in rural areas at all. Yet, that’s far from true. Even Montana’s measly 2.9 percent represents more than 300,000 LGBTQ people living in the state. And that’s why Conron and her colleagues create these kinds of maps. “We’ve tried to show that same-sex couples [and single LGBTQ people] live in most counties and states,” she says. “They are part of every community.” The challenge now is: How can we find each other?
*Names have been changed to protect innocent daters.