Rural Places

Three older LGBTQ+ adults on living and building community in rural Oregon

Dan Meyers via Unsplash

The first thirty-nine years of my life were spent in a small rural town, home to barely 2,000 people, tucked away at the edge of a rolling mountain plateau in the South. Growing up there as a transgender child, then a teen, and later an adult, forced me into a closet that was plenty deep. I sure didn’t have a transgender community to find solace in, so I guarded my secret as closely as the skin on my body. 

I was living in this small town when I decided to transition. I desperately needed to go out in public—and experience life—as my female self. So I began by making short trips, mostly to the grocery store and the mall in a nearby city. I would spend hours on makeup and preparation. I agonized over what clothes to wear. Every detail was analyzed, as I didn’t want to be seen as anything other than the woman I hoped people would see. 

There was a routine involved with leaving my house as Stacey. My house was in the middle of town but just off a short gravel drive. I’d park my car in the basement garage so I could leave without having to walk out my front door and down the sidewalk to the driveway. 

One morning after finishing my transformation, I was in my car, about to head out for the day. Standing at the end of the driveway, thirty feet away, was my immediate next-door neighbor. She was looking right at me, not moving a muscle. 

My mind raced for what to do next. It felt useless to drive back into the garage when she had already seen me. So I pressed my foot on the gas and slowly made my way down the driveway. As I passed by her—moving at what seemed like millimeters per hour—I stole a glance and saw her slightly puzzled look. She had recognized me. 

About a week later, I was wandering the aisles in the local hardware store when I saw a not-too-close friend walking toward me. She stopped and said, “I don’t quite know how to say this, but there is some gossip going around town about you. They are saying your neighbor saw you leave your house as a woman. Is that true?” I was dumbstruck. The other shoe dropped quickly when she informed me that my neighbor had also called my mom to tell her.

I left the store in shock. Mentally and emotionally, I couldn’t face having to see people, knowing they were gossiping behind my back. And I thought about the danger I was in. Maybe there would be some people who weren’t on board with having someone like me in their town. It was going to be hard enough transitioning; carrying this around as well was more than I could handle. Six months later, I moved out of my small town. 


A recent study by the Movement Advancement Project estimated there are between 2.9 and 3.8 million LGBTQ+ people living in rural communities throughout the US. And in Oregon, older LGBTQ+ adults have been calling small towns home for decades. 

Sara Wiener and her wife, Joanne, were living in Olympia, Washington, but had grown tired of the rain. Both triathletes, they mostly trained outside. “We'd lie in bed, hearing the rain all day, all night,” says Sara. It wasn’t long before they started thinking about moving to Bend. Joanne was very familiar with the area from the ski trips she had made as a child with her family. Eventually the couple bought some property in East Bend and built a tent platform where they could sleep when visiting. From the tent, they moved on to build a yurt, then a second yurt, and finally, a house.

In 1996, they permanently moved to Bend, which at the time had a population just over 30,000 people, and left behind their lives as out lesbians in Olympia. Just before they moved, Sara experienced what she calls a “little bit of a breakdown moment.” She says, “I’m like, what are we doing? I'm Jewish, and we're gay and, you know, are we nuts to move to a place like Bend, Oregon?” 

When they moved, Sara was pregnant with their daughter Bella. She says she soon received the title of “The first pregnant lesbian anyone knew of in Central Oregon. There were two doctors fighting over me, as they both wanted to deliver my baby!”

The couple immediately started working to find LGBTQ+ community. Sara says, “I literally pulled out a Bend phone book and looked in the Yellow Pages under ‘Gay,’ and believe it or not, there was a number to call.” It was a place called the Funny Farm, which was a “quirky, super campy gay place” spread over several acres of fields and outbuildings. The owners were two gay men who were partners, and their spot was known as a significant space for the community’s gatherings and celebrations.

But Sara and Joanne also learned that not everyone in the community was so welcoming to newcomers, and fears of being outed were still pervasive, especially as a result of Oregon Ballot Measure 9, a 1992 citizen’s initiative that would have declared homosexuality as “abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse.” Luckily, the ballot measure didn’t pass, but the remnants of the campaign were still floating around. “That was happening right before we moved to Bend, and people were kind of paranoid,” says Sara. 

After Bella was born, Sara and Joanne became members of the Athletic Club of Bend and began training for the Gay Games—a worldwide LGBTQ+ sports and cultural event. They participated in several competitions and won numerous medals, including gold. There was a push from the club’s employees to honor Sara and Joanne's accomplishments on the Wall of Fame, an idea that the club’s director rejected. When Sara got wind of this, she set up a meeting to confront the director on his homophobic behavior. During the meeting, Sara says, the director told her it was a “predatory issue—you know, the locker room thing.” Her chin dropped, and she couldn’t think of a thing to say. She ended up writing a letter asking for their initiation fee back. “I wrote some stuff," she says, "and he wrote back and said I’m sorry you feel that way, which, oh my god, is a classic response.” They got their money back and quit the club. 

After moving to Bend, Sara and Joanne became active in advocating for local LGBTQ+ issues and greater inclusion in the community. They got involved with the Human Dignity Coalition, a local organization founded in 1992 in response to Measure 9. Over a decade later, in 2004, the Coalition put on Central Oregon’s first-ever Pride event at McKay Park. Sara says it was tiny, with only five booths. For comparison, last summer’s Central Oregon Pride event had over one hundred booths. Of the more recent event, Sara says, “I saw kids with their parents—so many kids. It was mind-blowing the number of queers and the number of supportive family and friends. So that is a big change.”

Still, she points out, the changes aren’t complete. “It’s a misnomer of Bend that it’s so progressive. People think of Bend as on par with Portland, and it’s not. It’s half and half—definitely a purple county.”


Unlike Sara, Rand Bishop was in his early sixties when he moved to the small coastal town of Newport in 2012. He came to take care of his aging parents, seeing them through the last years of their lives, and stayed after they both had passed.

Rand spent most of his twenties playing in rock and roll bands and traveling around the world. He says he dressed androgynously and still recalls the spangled denim hot pants, wine-colored body suit, and glittering scarf he wore during a performance with his glam rock band when they opened for The Doors at Carnegie Hall. During this time, Rand was openly bisexual. He says the circle of musicians and performers he was part of made it easier to be open about his identity. “It’s really odd when you look back at the era, in the early seventies. It wasn’t part of my consciousness, because I was living in this culture where it was taken for granted.”

It was only years later, when Rand had settled into a domestic life with a wife and child in Nashville, that the depression he had experienced his whole life came back and reached a crisis point. With a nudge from his wife, he sought help from a therapist, who convinced him to stop the affairs and the denial and come out to his wife of twenty-two years. The revelation ended the marriage. He says, “It was very painful going through this, but they say the truth will set you free.”

By the time he moved to the Oregon coast, Rand had already had a long and successful career in the music industry as a songwriter and producer and was hoping to focus on shifting into film and literary work. But when some of his projects started to fall through, he began to notice both the social and professional isolation of living in a small town.

He says it was hard at first finding community on the coast. There are no gay bars in Newport, and the nearest one is an hour’s drive away. On top of that, Rand says, most of the people he knew were partnered up and settled into their lives at home, with less interest in going out. But through the help of a friend, he found it at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Newport. “In a Unitarian fellowship, of course, everybody is accepting. I was able to be very out," he says. And he has been able to grow his community by being involved in the planning committee for Newport Oregon Pride.  

Rand says he finds Newport to be a generally accepting place, but he still encounters resistance and misunderstanding related to his bisexual identity, not only from straight people but from within the gay community also. His lifeline has been a group called Husbands Out to Wives, an international group with about one thousand members, all gay or bisexual men who have come out to their wives. “We help each other," he says. "We have weekly Zooms. And it's my community.” 

Rand is still writing and performing music and will be publishing a novel based on his journey this year. He says, “I hope that others will see themselves in this story, understand they’re not alone, and find evidence that the journey to honesty is worth it, that light, love, and a measure of personal peace awaits outside the closet.” 


Jeanne St. John and her wife, Kae, fell in love with the Oregon coast on a trip they took in 1988 for Jeanne’s job as a school administrator. They moved from California in 1990 after Jeanne was offered a full-time role with the Lincoln County School District.

The couple wanted to find community in their new home, and as churchgoing people, they began attending a Presbyterian church. “We were tolerated—not welcomed,” says Jeanne. “We were so naïve. We thought they had seen our California license plate.” 

They decided to try the Episcopal church in town, St Lukes by the Sea. They were greeted that first Sunday morning by the priest, who Jeanne describes as a “tall, large woman in a white robe and Birkenstock sandals and socks.” Jeanne says, “The congregation was made up of little old ladies in hats and gloves, who welcomed us with open arms.” 

Over the school Christmas break in 2002, a gay teen at Newport High School had died by suicide. Jeanne remembers getting a call from a therapist in town, who invited her to a meeting with other professionals from the gay community who worked in human services in Lincoln County. She says, “There was really no support for LGBTQ+ teens at that time.” The therapist wanted to galvanize the community into organizing to prevent another loss. She said to Jeanne, “We have to do something. We can’t let his happen again.” 

As a result, Newport’s PFLAG chapter was formed, a national organization whose acronym is short for Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. The Newport chapter became an umbrella for all LGBTQ+ activities on the coast. When the group’s early organizers put an ad in the Newport News-Times for an exploratory meeting to gauge local residents’ interest in starting a chapter on the coast, thirty people showed up to participate. Jeanne became the point person for the chapter and helped coordinate meetings and discussion topics, as well as themed events and celebrations. Every October, the group threw a party to celebrate National Coming Out Day. Jeanne loved this party and the stories people told about coming out. “It really connected people,” she says. 

In 2008, two weeks after Jeanne’s sixty-fifth birthday, she and Kae registered their domestic partnership at the county clerk’s office in Lincoln County. It was soon after an Oregon law had taken effect that allowed same-sex couples to have access to domestic partnerships. 

While filling out the paperwork, they were approached by the County Clerk who asked if they’d be interested in being featured in an article for the local newspaper. “We looked at each other and said ‘Hell yeah!’ On Friday the newspaper came out, and we came out,” Jeanne says.  

The article and their photo were on the front page of the paper, above the fold. “We started getting phone calls, and when we went to the community pool, all our buddies applauded as we came in,” Jeanne says. But some people reacted less enthusiastically, like the acquaintance who called to compliment them on their front-page photo but avoided any mention of the reason they were being featured in the first place. 

Today Jeanne finds meaning in championing the young people in her community. Around 2010, she began working with middle and high school students in Lincoln County to establish student-run gay and straight alliances (GSAs), a model adopted by schools throughout the country to build safe and supportive spaces for all youth, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. As part of this work, Jeanne and local teens have led trainings for district staff, teachers, and group sponsors. The trainings have evolved and expanded over the years, and in 2015, Jeanne began providing Transgender 101 trainings for the staff at Lincoln County Schools, which has led to a broader understanding of the transgender journey and the issues that trans youth face.  


There are a number of LGBTQ+ people in rural places who have done and are doing deeply impactful work. They have done this by telling their stories, building community, providing accepting and safe places for LGBTQ+ people to be—and by advocating in the ways they can. It is hard and difficult work, but the payoff is in seeing the differences they have made in the lives of their neighbors and LGBTQ+ people who call rural places home.


Belonging, Place, Aging, LGBTQ+


1 comments have been posted.

A wonderful piece, Stacey. I feel honored and proud to have my voice and experience included in your telling of this important story. Queer and trans folk are everywhere, trying to live fulfilled lives with a sense of safety and acceptance. Most of the time, when folks get to know us as our true selves, we don't seem so threatening. Articles like this one can only help as we struggle against the societal stigma of sexual diversity.

Rand Bishop | February 2024 | Newport, OR

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