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Federal program to promote LGBT pride in rural America met with uncertainty in Utah

By Bronson Teichert

Sept. 23, 2016

A federal campaign to “promote and strengthen” LGBT communities in rural America is being met with a bit of skepticism in Utah — from an LBGT advocate.

Michelle Bogden-Holt, the director of the Access and Diversity Center at Utah State University, said she’s concerned the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s LGBT Rural Summit Series might come across as a top-down effort to push acceptance on rural Americans.

“In my experience I have always found that it works better from the bottom up, because you have everyone involved as opposed to a big governmental agency coming in and saying, ‘you have to do this,’” Bogden-Holt said. “When that happens, you will have push-back.”

The biggest changes, Bogden-Holt said, happen at a grass-roots level.

That perspective aligns Bogden-Holt with Utah state Representative Michael Noel, a Republican rancher from Kanab who said he didn’t think the campaign was “necessarily” needed.

Noel, however, made it clear that he was open to learning more about why the program exists.

“If there is a need that I’m not aware of, I’m not for discrimination so that fine,” Noel said.

The need, according to the USDA, comes from the fact that about 10 percent of same-sex American couples live in rural areas. The summits are intended to focus on the needs of these individuals and their families.

Bogden-Holt said she was surprised by the federal initiative, which has its own hash tag — #RuralPride — and a vocal supporter in singer and LGBT rights activist Cyndi Lauper.

“I had not imagined the USDA going down this road,” Bogden-Holt said, noting that she didn’t know any LGBT students with plans to pursue a career in agriculture. “In the seven years that I have worked here, I have yet to run into a LGBT student that’s in the college of Ag.”

The latest summit was held on Aug. 18 in Des Moines, Iowa, where issues such as rural housing loans, community facility grants, and bullying were discussed. The program has not yet been introduced to Utah, but the USDA has dubbed the summits part of a national campaign.

Jamie Jaro, a public information officer for the USDA, said campaign details haven’t trickled down to local USDA offices yet.

Bogden-Holt is glad the USDA is at least taking this initiative one community at a time, and said she supports the overall goals of the effort.

“Depending on what part of the country you’re in, you may not get the same employment protections as you would in another part of the country,” Bogden-Holt said. “Say you’re in the LGBT community and you’re living in a part of the country where you’re not getting those protections — your employment opportunities probably go way down and you’re often under-employed.”

If the program does come to Utah, Noel said he’d like to see the federal government take a supporting role.

“It would be better for the local communities with federal oversight,” he said.