Stefani has lived in rural areas in both Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and the heavily-rural Upper Peninsula. From a young age, Stefani struggled with physical symptoms that doctors struggled to diagnose. In her rural town outside of Traverse City, the physicians she went to in search of support dismissed these symptoms as related to her weight or potential anxiety.
“When the doctors are uncomfortable with your body and who you are, they speak from that place of discomfort rather than medical knowledge,” she said.
In light of such invalidating and ineffective medical care, Stefani coped with her symptoms for years until moving to the Upper Peninsula for college. When she sought medical help again, the student center doctors believed her, but referred her to specialists outside the university system. Stefani recalls, “the specialists couldn’t get over the fact that I was queer, let alone fat, let alone Latina. All of which prevented them from seeing me as a serious patient with serious symptoms.” Again, the doctors attributed her symptoms to her weight, or dismissed them as anxiety attacks. One doctor even told her, “women have these attacks.”
Eventually, Stefani’s mom, who had extensive experience navigating the medical system after working as a medical interpreter for migrant workers, drove over eight hours to go with her daughter to the doctor.
“Just having her as a validator of my experiences was so important. If I wouldn’t have had that back up, I don’t think I ever would’ve gotten my diagnosis. But I had the privilege of her experiences, and her ability to make that trip for me. I really believe I would’ve had a different experience in a non-rural environment because I could’ve gone to a different doctor who believed me. …It’s just like any rural place: we don’t have enough access to health care outside of the big cities.”
Even in the largest city in the region, Stefani points out, “there are extremely few specialists, so you’re stuck with them unless you can afford to travel. And, even when you find an accepting doctor, they may have never knowingly treated an LGBT patient. So, you end up having to educate your own doctor about how they need to treat you.”
While Stefani’s experiences in rural settings include these stories of discrimination and poor treatment, she says she ultimately loves living in rural Michigan. LGBT people living in rural communities have many positive experiences and reasons for living where they live–whether because it’s where they grew up or their families live; because they seek a closer connection to nature; or because they moved there for a job opportunity. Stefani moved to the Upper Peninsula for college and chose to stay there because she loved it.
“What I like definitely outweighs the negative experiences that I’ve had. This is my ninth year here and I wouldn’t still be living in a rural environment if it didn’t call to me. My parents live in Detroit and I could easily move there if I wanted. My work as an activist is most needed in this place. I can find really enriching opportunities to help people who don’t have access to any formalized resources. The rural LGBT community that gets built is so strong and so resilient and really willing to come together and be supportive in ways I haven’t found as much in big cities. Here, they really show up for you.”
Where We Call Home: LGBT People in Rural America, the latest report from MAP, released in partnership with the Equality Federation, the National Black Justice Coalition, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, seeks to raise the visibility of LGBT people living in rural America. And while the report documents key challenges facing LGBT people, including lack of vital legal protections and meaningful political representation, it also showcases the joys and rewards of living in rural America for LGBT people and their families.