A Lifeline for Gay Farmers
When soft-spoken chaplain Keith Ineson started a gay farmer’s helpline in the Cheshire countryside, he expected the worst.
Soon after, he publicly outed himself. A tidal wave of backlash seemed inevitable.
“Rural England is quite a few years behind in terms of progressiveness,” he said.
And yet, after three years, 40 radio interviews, and dozens of stories in the local, national, and church press, Ineson has received only 13 negative reactions. Total. The average kitten video on YouTube earns more vitriol.
In his chaplaincy, Ineson had encountered multiple closeted farmers. Each one thought they were isolated misfits, without a kindred spirit in the world. The helpline was designed with a simple goal: to let these people know that their feelings – and their struggles – are not unique.
Circumstances are often less dire for Ineson’s younger callers. They want to know about others like themselves, maybe make a few gay friends. It’s the older farmers, typically living with a wife and family, who call from a darker place. They’ll use blocked numbers and give fake names, dreading the specter of getting caught.
These farmers don’t just fear emotional repercussions; a messy divorce could result in losing their farm. Ineson’s own coming-out was like “a great unburdening,” but he doesn’t suggest it for everybody. He understands the economics at play. “I can share my story, or tell people about the relief of coming out,” Inseson said. “But when you’re afraid of losing your farm, that’s a tough spot to be in.”
The helpline doesn’t provide easy solutions, but it has created the beginnings of real community. It inspired a secret, invitation-only gay farmer Facebook group, which led to a Cheshire social group called “Farmers and Friends.” The group has met for BBQ, Indian takeout, and meals in two of the farmer’s homes. It even sparked a couple of love connections.
“I kid that we’re going to start charging as a dating service,” said Ineson.
The helpline is still a local number, though calls come in from well outside county borders. Ineson has even fielded emails from the U.S., home to its own burgeoning LGBT farmer movement (see: the Rainbow Chard Alliance, the Fabulous Beekman Boys and others).
As rural attitudes shift throughout England, Ineson pictures more social groups, more openness, and maybe no need for his helpline at all. “We live in a time when gay police officers march in the Pride parade,” he said. “[Farmers] will get there soon enough.”