Is a “Gay Drain” Depleting Rural America?

New York City might benefit from the so-called “gay drain” of rural and suburban LGBT Americans. Or it might not. / image via Nout Gons.

Like the better-known term “brain drain,” the question of whether a “gay drain” exists, and what it actually exactly, is complicated.

Revisiting Old Ideas

The idea of a “brain drain,” coined in the 1960s, describes the flow of people—usually professionals and highly educated workers—from one place or country to another. As the term evolved, it was applied to European and South Asian scientists moving to the United States, as well as internal movements between states in the U.S., among others.

Just as gay rights advanced over the last decade, Taonga Leslie, writing in the Harvard Political Review, argued “greater opportunities for social equality outside [one’s] home region” could encourage more people to leave their hometowns.” A new evolution was born: the “gay drain.”

New Data, Old Questions

Since Leslie’s writing six years ago, available data on LGBT Americans’ lives and habits improved dramatically. So, what do they say now?

The most current data, provided by UCLA’s Williams Institute this past January, provide only state-level figures. An estimated 5.6 percent of Oregonians identified as LGBT in 2018, the highest for any state. (If Washington, D.C., counts, the nation’s capital comes in first, at 9.8 percent.) The bottom ten, from lowest to highest, come from the Mountain West, upper Great Plains and Deep South: North Dakota, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Wyoming, Kentucky and Mississippi.

Does that confirm the “gay drain” theory? Not entirely.

Several of America’s top-10 states with LGBT populations are small, predominantly rural ones, including New England’s Vermont (#7), Maine (#9) and New Hampshire (#10). Vice President Mike Pence’s home state of Indiana, meanwhile, comes in at number 15 and Georgia, in the Deep South, is number 17.

All across the nation, LGBT communities complicate easy generalizations. In major urban areas along the coasts—like San Francisco and New York—“gaytrification” of past decades “transformed” certain sought-after neighborhoods, thus “accelerating gentrification” and “pricing out” older LGBT residents. For lesbians, who often have lower incomes and are more likely to have children than other groups, places like San Francisco’s Mission District and Bernal Heights saw dramatic declines since the late 1990s.

At the same time, rural and small-town America, even in the deep-red South, are not barren of LGBT life and community. From isolated college towns like University Park, PA (where Penn State’s main campus sits) and mid-sized cities like Albany, NY to this year’s high-visibility transgender community around Shreveport’s Pride in Louisiana, Pride reaches more parts of the country than ever before.

Nationwide Needs: The 2019 Equality Act

Still, Leslie’s article holds up in several ways. Leslie cites a 2011 Center for American Progress poll reporting “73 percent of [respondents] supported protecting gays and lesbians against workplace discrimination.” A 2019 Reuters poll, however, showed only 65 percent of Americans supporting federal non-discrimination protections for LGBT people and 45 percent reporting they believed LGBT Americans already were protected under federal law. (They are not.) Interestingly, nearly one-quarter of those polled by Reuters responded they were “not sure” whether they supported or opposed federal non-discrimination protections. As recently reported by Instinct, diminishing LGBT support among even younger Americans has shown up in the last few years of survey results. The shifting national environment for LGBT inclusion and acceptance echoes Leslie’s concerns about polarization, though more information over longer spans of time remains needed.

The Equality Act of 2019, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives just last month, would finally make federal non-discrimination protections the law. With Republicans still controlling the Senate, the bill faces intense opposition and is unlikely to become law anytime soon.

In smaller communities, far from more-urban gay hubs, isolation and lack of nearby resources, especially, can be challenging. The “gay drain” is not entirely myth; it may be a bit overstated. But millions of LGBT Americans would benefit from—and need the protections of—something like the Equality Act even today.

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