Gay farmers open up about homophobic stigma that leaves many considering suicide
A powerful segment on BBC show Countryfile investigated the high suicide rates among gay farmers – and the stigma that is still rife in rural communities.
BBC reporter Tom Heap looked at attitudes towards gay people within rural and farming communities – and found a shocking link to depression and suicide.
Acclaimed gay film God’s Own Country recently explored the life of a farmer who has come to terms with his sexuality – but in real life many in farming communities repress their identity for years, leading them to the brink of suicide.
Livestock farmer Frank opened up to the show about his sexuality, having spent years in the closet due to fears of a negative reaction.
He said: “I knew I was gay from very early years, really. It was always difficult – you’re always aware that you’re trying to cover up anything that may give it away.”
Frank added: “Farming being as macho as it is… who wants a gay, weak workman?
“You’ve got your gay life and you’ve got your work life, and I’m quite sure that if anybody’s got two lives like that it’s going to tear you in half, really.
“Later in life, as I got older, I thought [keeping it secret] is wrong, and I needed to let folks know who I am. At the age of 60 I finally decided to come out.”
Frank, who considered suicide prior to coming out, added: “There’s been very little hostility. I’ve got a couple folks who don’t ring me any longer, but that’s all really.
“It would have been easier doing it years ago, and my life would have been different doing it years ago. I could have met somebody and been quite free and open.”
A 29-year-old gay livestock farmer who did not wish to be named also spoke about his experiences.
Known as George, he said: “Being gay is not something I can tell my parents.
“They believe that having feelings towards men is wrong. I have always felt like I am worth nothing or not right due to my sexuality.
“I was raised to believe that I would find a girl, get married and have children and carry on farming our family land.
“Many times I broke down and prayed it would be fixed. Suicide, I’ve had dwelling in my innermost thoughts. It was a potential way out. I had nobody to talk to so I went to the clinic out of desperation.”
Experts are beginning to look into the link between suicide and homosexuality in farming communities.
Psychiatrist Dr Ciaran Mulholland of Queen’s University Belfast explained: “We’re very aware that farmers are men who often work in isolation and face a lot of pressures in life, so they’re very prone to hopelessness and very prone to depression and to suicide.
“Gay men are also prone to hopelessness, depression and suicide, and it seems reasonable to assume that a gay isolated farmer is even more at risk.”
The researcher is involved in a project which looks in depth at the experience of farmers who are struggling with their sexuality.
He adds: “I’ve met a number of men from a farming background who are finding it difficult to cope with their sexuality due to factors in society and that has led directly to suicidal thoughts.”
For farmers struggling, there is at least one place to turn.
Keith Ineson runs the Gay Farmer Helpline – and has spoken to hundreds of people who are struggling with their sexuality.
He explains that the helpline gives people “somebody to talk to in total confidentiality, non-judgemental, and they can say whatever they want.”
Ineson adds: “The pressure in the farming community to get married and produce an heir to keep the farm in the family is enormous. A lot of folk did exactly that, but then they get into their 50s and find out they didn’t sort it all out.
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“Those who ring the helpline are in their 50s very often, and one of the things that comes out of it a lot is they’re frightened of hurting their wives. They will say ‘she’s not a bad woman, I just shouldn’t have married her’.
Ineson shared the harrowing details of one call.
He recalled: “This farmer rang up and said, ”I was out with my father, checking on the cattle and we found a car with a hosepipe running from the exhaust through into the window of the car, and a man was attempting suicide.’
“His father smashed the window and dragged the man out, and they found out he was trying to kill himself because he was gay.
“His father turned round to him and said, ‘If I’d known that he was gay I would have left him to kill himself.’
“This lad already knew that he was gay and spent 40 years believing his father would have left him to die rather than admit he had a gay son.”
Suicide is preventable. Readers who are affected by the issues raised in this story are encouraged to contact Samaritans on 116 123 (www.samaritans.org). Readers in the US are encouraged to contact the National Suicide Prevention Line on 1-800-273-8255.