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While JJ Hartley says that they have faced discrimination as a transgender person working in agriculture, they have also found allies.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

For folx expressing their pride in smaller, rural communities, showing their true colours can sometimes place them at risk.

“I don’t want to jump to violence, but [queer people can be] at risk for hostility, for sure,” says JJ Hartley, a transgender person and dairy specialist who works in a rural community in Ontario.

Their main job – providing dairy herd management for Lactanet, a farmer-run organization providing tools and solutions for Canadian dairy producers – is primarily telework and keeps them behind the scenes. “I lose visibility, but it keeps me safe,” explains Hartley, who says they don’t apply for jobs on farms where they know there will be open hostility.

According to U.S. data compiled by The Trevor Project, rural LGBTQ+ youth report greater physical harm and more discrimination than their urban counterparts. Nearly 70 per cent of youth living in rural U.S. communities stated their communities were somewhat or very unaccepting places for LGBTQ+ people. The same can be true for rural Canadian youth.

A 2021 report by advocacy group Egale Canada found that 64 per cent of LGBTQ+ students did not feel safe at school, and that the usage of directly hostile homophobic language was more frequent in smaller communities than in larger ones. In 2019, police in Canada reported a 41 per cent increase in hate crimes targeting LGBTQ+ populations.

While Hartley is no stranger to discrimination and unaccepting environments, they have also had good experiences, and speak highly of allies they have found on a farm in a small, conservative rural community where they work part-time.

The farming couple that hired them had never met a trans person before, and Hartley says they do struggle with the LGBTQ+ acronym and misgender Hartley regularly.

None of that matters to Hartley.

“The couple that hired me have come under fire for hiring me even on a part-time basis. They are under no obligation to defend me and yet they do. That, to me, speaks more of their commitment and their allyship than gendering me correctly,” says Hartley.

A rise in women-led farms

As a person assigned female at birth living on a cow-calf operation in Saskatchewan, Hartley’s family adhered to heteronormative, traditional gender roles on the farm. Hartley was discouraged from using the farm equipment because that was “men’s work.”

Fast forward to their university career at McGill University and a summer job at a teaching farm where they found themselves surrounded by dairy cattle and a farming team of mostly women. That’s where Hartley became a farmer.

“It was the first time in my life I saw women in agriculture taking a leading role,” they say.

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Heather Surprenant, who identifies as queer, is a farmer and a recently-elected state representative in Vermont.Supplied

“Some of the women would come to work in full make-up, throw on overalls and get dirty in the barn,” says Hartley. “I saw women being masculine and remaining feminine.”

It was in this environment that Hartley started understanding themselves.

Hartley believes having more women in agriculture creates a more inclusive environment. “You have a more diverse view when you hire diversely,” they say.

Statistics Canada recently released information noting that the number of female farm operators has increased for the first time since 1991. Currently, women run nearly 30 per cent of farming operations across Canada. In the U.S., female producers account for 36 per cent of all farms.

For Heather Surprenant, there’s “no question” that there’s a correlation between the queering of farming and the growth in women-run farms. Surprenant, who identifies as queer, is a farmer and a recently-elected state representative in Vermont.

“There’s definitely this unspoken understanding that [it’s] going to be a much more compassionate and inclusive environment when it’s women-owned,” she says.

Surprenant works with interns on both her own farm and another organic farm called Kiss the Cow, many of whom are gender non-conforming or queer. She says that the LGBTQ+ youth she works with tell her that farming fulfills a desire for connection and social justice.

“[They feel] like they are directly impacting the land and community in a positive way,” she says. “Farming to them is that link to social justice that they were struggling to put into practice in the ‘real world.’”

Changing attitudes

Nicole Stewardson owns her own broiler chicken farm in a community of 3,500 in Lambton Shores, Ont. She is also a lesbian.

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Nicole Stewardson on her broiler chicken farm in Lambton Shores, Ont.Supplied

“Before now, when someone came out in a small community, they left and went to a bigger, urban area,” she says.

In Canada, according to recent Census data, half of all same-sex couples live in Toronto, Montréal, Vancouver and Ottawa.

Stewardson remembers facing sexism early in her career. At one of her first jobs in farming, she was regularly mistaken for the secretary. When asked why she didn’t bake for her co-workers, she would respond, “because I’m a farmer and I don’t have time for that.”

When she started her farm as a single 25-year-old women, Stewardson says a lot of people would say, “Good for you,” in a condescending tone.

“I would tell them, ‘I don’t want your congratulations. I’m just a person farming,’” she says.

Stewardson notes that while her parents supported her move to open her own chicken farm, they did not “love the idea” of her being gay at first. It was mostly because they didn’t want her to struggle like the LGBTQ+ people from their generation, she explains. But she counts herself as “one of the lucky ones” because her family and community accept her.

“My parents are not out there marching or anything, but they love me no matter what,” she says.

Celebrating Pride in agriculture

As farming in Canada has become more diverse, it’s become more visible too.

While the past two years of the pandemic saw many Pride celebrations temporarily suspended, more small and rural communities are joining the party, such as the fourth annual Kincardine Pride in Kincardine, Ont. Pride in Ag is an Instagram account featuring LGBTQ+ farmers, founded by Guelph, Ont.-based agricultural production system specialist Julia Romagnoli.

And for people in rural communities looking to be allies or to create more inclusive spaces, resources such as Parents and Friends of Lesbian and Gays Canada, Pride Foundation and Egale Canada can provide valuable guidance.

Stewardson says she’s passionate about two things: agriculture and Pride. She hopes her visibility in the industry will show young people that they, like her, can be out and working in agriculture.

“I hope [LGBTQ+ youth] are also comfortable feeling that way and they don’t withdraw from the agriculture community based on their sexuality,” she says. “If there’s anything that I do in my career, I hope that is one of the main things.”

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