The challenges facing rural farmers are almost unparalleled in the modern workforce. Long hours, poor conditions, isolation and tight profit margins are taking a toll on this group, with more than one farmer dying by suicide each week.
But the reality faced by LGBTQ farmers can be even more dire. Farming communities are usually small, tight-knit and, often conservative, making it extremely difficult to live an openly gay life. On top of this, there is immense pressure to produce a heir to work on the farm, leading many gay farmers into the closet.
Since 2010, Canon Keith Ineson has run a helpline devoted to gay farmers who are experiencing mental health problems, social exclusion over their sexuality or are having trouble coming out. Ineson has helped hundreds of gay farmers come to terms with their sexuality and live more complete lives.
“I was the agricultural chaplain in Cheshire [a county in northwest England] for about 15 years and around six years ago I found myself working with a few gay farmers,” says Ineson. “Even though I’m gay myself, you don’t really hear about gay farmers, it’s almost like they don’t exist, but of course they do – it’s just that their problems aren’t spoken about.”
Before setting up the helpline, Ineson went to the Office for National Statistics to find out how many farmers worked in Cheshire and from these figures estimated that there were close to 300 gay farmers working in the county alone. With just a mobile phone to receive calls and an advert in a farmers’ newspaper; the Gay Farmer Helpline was launched.
From the first few days of operation gay farmers have been calling into the helpline and even now Ineson is averaging one new case every week. Rather than advising callers on what to do, Ineson provides a sounding board for any concerns or questions the farmers have.
“The helpline offers a listening ear. We go down the wrong route with them if necessary and just wait there to pick up the pieces if necessary. In some cases farmers will ring up on a regular basis because they have nowhere else to turn and are stuck because they daren’t come out. For some it’s a one off call and we never hear from them again and others will touch base when things are happening,” explains Ineson.
Practical help is also available for those farmers who ask for it, whether that comes in the form of putting them in touch with local LGBTQ-focused services or simply explaining the dating sites they can use. Ineson recalls a Sunday morning when a farmer called up the helpline panicking about having unprotected gay sex, after going out on the gay scene for the first time the night before.
“He was very concerned with what he had done and what was going to happen next. He was even scared to go to a nearby doctor, as he was worried about being outed. We told him he could go to a health clinic far away from where he lives, where no one will know him to get checked out. He rang back the following day and told me the nurse was wonderful, and was surprised she didn’t have a heart attack when he told her he had unprotected sex,” says Ineson.
The typical farmer that rings up the helpline is in their 50s and married, usually with children. As their children go off to University or begin working at the family farm, many gay farmers begin to ask themselves difficult questions about their future and think about coming out. Divorce within the farming community is still very difficult due to the costs involved and many farmers thinking about coming out often just stay in a marriage that isn’t happy.
These complex circumstances contribute to the extremely high suicide rate of farmers, with the isolation faced by rural farmers combined with anti-gay stigma driving the suicide rates of gay farmers even higher. Ineson believes that although there may be higher levels of homophobia in the farming community than in other parts of society, the bigger problem is the fear of coming out rather than the experience itself.
“We never tell callers what to do or say they must come out or mustn’t come out, but instead point out various options – they decide. There was one fella who was getting closer and closer to coming out and eventually he did so on Facebook – you can’t get much more public than that. A few days later I asked him how things were going and he was really annoyed, so I immediately thought he’s had some negative comments, but then he tells me: ‘I’m really annoyed, I was sat there waiting for all the trouble and I haven’t had any at all!'”
When Ineson first set out to create the helpline he had a similar fear, as he puts it, “that the heavens would fall in on me.” Despite the widespread coverage of both Ineson and his Gay Farmer Helpline in in national press, he has only heard from 13 people in the past decade who said they don’t approve of his idea.
Yet it’s far more difficult for agricultural workers to come out in isolated areas of Northern Ireland than in a place like Cheshire, where attitudes are relatively more progressive. Equally, rural farmers in the hills of Wales or the Highlands of Scotland face many additional challenges living an openly gay life but, in general, the worst fears most farmers have about telling friends and family they are gay simply don’t materialise.
Highlighting the problems faced by gay farmers is helping reduce the stigma attached to talking about LGBTQ issues and mental health among people who are most vulnerable and at risk. In turn, some of the more damaging aspects of the farming community are slowly changing, but perhaps not fast enough.
“I expected that the younger generation wouldn’t have the same type of problems but when I gave talks at agricultural colleges and mentioned gay issues, there were young folk coming up to me afterwards and saying: ‘I’ve never told anyone else this but I’m gay,’” says Ineson. “I honestly didn’t think it would be a problem at their age. Attitudes in the countryside are perhaps 10 to 15 years behind those in say London or Manchester. There are parts of London where you can walk down the street with your partner holding hand, you wouldn’t even think of doing that in many places in the countryside.”