Rainbow flag over field© Matt Gibson/ING Image

Gay men have generally been stereotyped as city dwellers with jobs in hairdressing and the media. Few are represented in the rough, tough, down-and-dirty world of farming.

And aside from characters in the rural soap Emmerdale’s and Little Britain’s satirical sideswipe with only-gay-in-the-village Daffyd, it’s rare to see gay men presented as farmers.

But are rural areas devoid of them? And are they really absent from agriculture and the related industries?

Information released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) last October calculated 1.7% of the population identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual, based on a survey of 238,000 people.

That figure is lower than the 5-7% suggested in 2004 when the government was considering the potential effect of its Civil Partnership Bill.

Statistics released more recently by the ONS in its reportSubnational sexual identity estimate UK, 2013 to 2015  seemed to confirm the hypothesis of gay men being predominately city dwelling.

Inner London came out top of the list of English counties with the highest percentage – an estimated 3.1% compared with the list’s joint-three lowest entries of Staffordshire, Northamptonshire and North Yorkshire, which each had an estimated population of 0.4%.

Cambridgeshire came second at 1.8% and rural Devon was estimated to have a higher proportion of gay and lesbian (1.3%) people than East Sussex  (1.1%) – the county that includes gay mecca, Brighton and Hove.

Such figures might not show huge numbers of gay men living in rural locations, but they do prove they are not absent from them.

This was no surprise to Canon Keith Ineson, who conducted his own research ahead of setting up the Gay Farmer Helpline.

See also: Training to help identify farmers suffering with depression

Keith, an ex-farmer who received a British Empire Medal in the 2016 New Year’s Honours for his services to the farming community in Cheshire, says calls to his gay farmer helpline came thick and fast from the moment of its inception in 2009.

The idea for the helpline came while working for Churches Together in Cheshire.

“About six or seven years ago I found I was working with a couple of gay farmers,” he explains. “And, of course, you don’t hear about gay farmers. They don’t exist. Except, of course, they do, as much as in any other occupation.”

Keith quickly discovered the need for the service was very real after putting an advert for the helpline in the farming press.

“The first call came in immediately and we’ve averaged about one new call a week ever since.”

Even if we accept the reality of gay men working agriculture as a real – albeit small – presence, why should the majority of the farming community worry about the support they might need?

Agriculture already knows it’s likely to suffer a labour shortage in the near future.

As far back as 2003, Donald Curry, then-chairman of the Meat and Livestock Commission, warned of an exodus of young people from the industry and with it a loss of new ideas and new talent. “Young people do not see the farming industry as an attractive career,” he explained. 

Sir Donald was clear that agriculture must attract young people, not give them other reasons to leave.

But what’s the link between homosexuality and young people? Pamela Cobb of the ONS’s population statistics division points out that people between 16 and 24 years old are more likely to identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual compared with older age groups, and that a higher proportion of males identify as LGB than females.

For the gay farmers I spoke to, the perception of homophobia and a fear of isolation were two main factors they felt could result in good people being driven from the industry.

Homophobia

But is agriculture homophobic?

When Farmers Weekly originally shone a light on Keith’s work in June 2011, the related online forum thread quickly descended into comments suggesting gay men were either abnormal or sexual predators.

One forum user wrote: “Young boys as well as girls need to be protected from sex predators, even beyond the age of consent. Young people could be enticed down a path they otherwise would not have followed, which could blight their later life.”

Another wrote: “Live and let live, not many would disagree with that ’till you get to the detail… when two gay men get married and adopt a child, sorry, but that makes me feel very worried, especially for the child and where it will all end up eventually, in society I mean. It is to me, utterly unacceptable.”

The gay farmers generally agreed the agricultural industry could be homophobic.

Richard Hulbert, 43, works as head gardener at the Stody Estate, a 2,630ha mainly arable venture near Holt, Norfolk. 

Richard says he has experienced homophobia. “It was just gossip,” he explains. “Comments made about HIV and Aids when you were poorly. It was just a narrow-minded individual really.”

And he says most of that prejudice was simply the result of years of stereotyped gay characters in sit-coms, soap operas and dramas.

He expands on what he feels the rural community stereotype of the gay man can stretch to. “Camp, effeminate, if you are in a couple then there is a male and a female.

“I think to the extreme element if you are gay you are a paedophile.”

Industry brain drain 

I contacted Richard through the UK Gay Farmers closed Facebook group where administrators approve members and only group members can see posted content.

He explained he was originally from rural Gloucestershire, but moved to London because he was worried about the likelihood of meeting a partner outside a big city.

He later returned to the countryside, this time in Norfolk, a country the ONS have pegged as having a 0.9% population of people defining as LGB.

Richard believes it’s difficult for many people from the countryside to stay at home if they are gay. 

A lack of opportunity for relationships is one of the main stumbling blocks, he says.

“I think it’s easier to be gay [and work in agriculture] if you are in a managerial role. It’s very hard if you were brought up in a community and stay in that community and come out.”

He added: “They either don’t come out or move.”

One gay farmer who has defied this trend is Tim Croxton, a 35-year-old manager on his family’s sheep, beef and arable 283ha farm in south Shropshire. 

He, too, agrees it’s difficult for gay men to stay in the countryside they grew up in unless they remain in the closet.

Tim says: “Often they leave the family home and they go to work in something that may be connected to agriculture but not quite, but something they feel they can be a little bit more expressive in.”

Keith is familiar with the narrative of the gay son leaving the family business, not necessarily because they wanted to, but rather because they felt they had to.

He says: “I’ve worked with several men who have left the family farm because they couldn’t cope with the family knowing. In some extreme cases, they’ve gone to work abroad.”

But is this trend really agriculture’s loss? Keith thinks it is.

He explains: “Gay people tend to be quite sensitive, they tend to be quite understanding. So actually they make good farmers.

“Cows know when you are no good at your job – and I think the fact gay men can be quite sensitive can make them good farmers; well, does make them good farmers on the whole.

“But it also means because they are so sensitive, they are more prone to mental health problems, depression, suicide and so on.”

Industry factors 

What could be putting gay farmers off a career in agriculture? Some factors may be inherent to the work the industry does, limiting industry leaders’ possible responses to mitigate them.

One gay farmer, who has not come out and did not want to reveal his name, explained the unforgiving farming schedule can be problem enough.

The 36-year-old dairy producer, who lives in a small Pembrokeshire village, said: “The biggest factor that puts people off agriculture is probably the pittance you earn from it and the hours you have to work.”

He adds: “It’s a long day. It doesn’t help. It’s every day. Cows have to be milked every day.”

This demanding schedule, he explains, leaves him with little time to travel to find friendship, let alone romance – a problem magnified by his sexuality.

Keith agrees that a farming life can leave little opportunity for gay men to find companionship.

“There isn’t the opportunity to meet up,” he says.

“If you were in what I would call a ‘normal occupation’ you could go away for the weekend and it wouldn’t be a problem.

“You can imagine if you are milking you can’t just down tools and go away, so you have to work around the farm.

“Say you live in Cumbria, you may only be five miles away from a decent-sized centre. But with the lanes, it can actually be 15 or 20 miles. So it is complicated. And of course, they are frightened of being seen by other farmers.”

The Pembrokeshire dairy producer explains the subject of gay farmers is one generally unmentioned. His peers, he believes, could never imagine a man in his line of work could be gay.

He doesn’t think agriculture lends itself to that image of life and reckons there are inhabitants of his area who haven’t been out of the county, so have no idea what’s happening in, say, Blackpool or London. “They haven’t seen the world, I suppose. It’s almost a taboo subject.”

Despite this, he’s decided leaving home is not an option for him because it’s so hard to move away if you farm. “I’m tied to the farm. That’s my business and my life.”

He adds: “It’s a way of life if you are born and brought up in it. That’s the way I like it. I enjoy it. I couldn’t work in the city.”

Succession

The issue of succession also adds an extra level of complexity to the lives of gay farmers and their families. While the idea of the first-born son automatically inheriting the farm may be less fashionable, the idea still persists. Is this question likely to be complicated if a potential successor is gay?

For the 36-year-old dairy farmer, the subject is already settled in his mind.

The farm might potentially have gone to him as he’s the eldest of the two brothers (his father was the first generation in a three-generation tenancy).

“My brother is moving into the farmhouse. My parents have semi-retired off the farm and I’ve moved in with them and left my brother there.

“I’m quite happy for him to be the next generation to farm it for the reason that he’ll have kids and I won’t.”

Tim explained how a gay friend of his went through a similar thought process. 

“I had a very close friend who struggled with this and we spoke quite a lot about it.

“His main issue was that he wasn’t going to produce any kids and could not get into his head that he could adopt or that he could have kids by other means – that was just not a possibility.

“So he really lived a life of a lie for a little while and my advice was that you only get one chance at it, you need to get hold of it and live your life, not the life that somebody else wants you to live.”

Isolation 

Leaving aside the long hours and succession issues, another challenge gay farmers faced was one widely accepted as affecting most rural communities – isolation.

One of the chief solutions to avoiding it for Richard was the internet – underscoring the need for good rural broadband.

“I came [to rural Norfolk] in my 30s, so I knew where to go out, I was comfortable going in gay bars and clubs if I chose to do so.

“I was comfortable with my sexuality, but for younger people or people who have experienced a lot of homophobia, [the internet] is incredibly important.

“That’s also true of older people who have come out later in life and maybe don’t have their family support networks.”

Richard adds: “There are certainly some older people in the rural community that are very isolated being gay because they have no one.”

Keith points out that for older gay men, a lack of broadband and a lack of IT literacy can cement this isolation.

Often the farmers who do ring up are not very computer savvy. So they wouldn’t know how to get rid of their surfing history on a computer, that sort of thing.

”They wouldn’t know how to send private emails or how to put a password on when emails come in. So it can be very difficult.”

Mental health 

It’s breaking through this sense of isolation, Keith says, that is so vital to help farmers – particularly gay farmers – from experiencing mental health issues.

“We would like to see more social groups,” he says. “That’s the hardest nut to crack. We’ll get there eventually, but it will take a long time to do it.

“Everything’s against it, but we’ve got a social group in Cheshire… and it will happen in other areas in time. I’m not holding my breath that it will happen tomorrow.”

Keith points to the UK Gay Farmers Facebook groups as positive signs of this developing. Richard, too, speaks of emerging gay social groups in rural Norfolk.

“We’ve recently started, just through Facebook actually, an evening in Cromer which is about 15 miles from me where anyone can drop in. It’s in a hotel bar, we go for a meal,” he says. 

For Tim, one already existing answers could lie with the National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs (NFYFC). An active member in his county of Shropshire, Tim has made no secret of his sexuality and is hopeful that outwardly the NFYFC can continue to be seen as accepting and progressive.

“I’m openly out to all of the county members in Shropshire and I think for the most part I’m approachable to them. We all have a laugh and a giggle and I do take the p*** out of them if they take the p*** out of me, which I think makes them feel a little bit more comfortable.

He points out that there’s extreme talent within the NFYFC movement and gay farmers shouldn’t feel they have to go elsewhere. “Everybody has something to offer.”

Community cohesion 

Meanwhile, Richard feels the whole rural community needs to be more welcoming of people from various walks of life.

There is, he agrees, a need for young families to return to the countryside – but not to the exclusion of others who may also have a valuable role to play.

He lives in an area where there are lots of estates and often hears people talk, when it comes to recruitment, about how great it would be for the community to get people with a young family. “And then you are immediately excluding a cross-section of people, so I would hope that stops.”

Richard concludes by saying there’s work to do for everyone – gay and straight – in the farming community to do.

“I think it’s just about people being respectful of everybody’s life choices.

“Get to know people before you judge them.

“Don’t be judged on your sexuality, be judged on the merits of you as a person.”

Do you have a view on this topic? If so, email fwfarmlife@rbi.uk