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JOURNAL ARTICLE

Invisibility, safety and psycho-social distress among same-sex attracted women in rural South Australia

Jane Edwards
Rural and Remote Health 2005, 5 (1): 343
15865475

INTRODUCTION: Available work from North America indicates that same-sex attracted (SSA) individuals enjoy aspects of rural life but nonetheless report encountering homophobia and experiencing isolation from SSA networks. The experience of prejudice and social isolation are often associated with psycho-social distress among the general population of same-sex attracted individuals. Little is known of how SSA women experience life in rural areas of Australia and how this influences their psycho-social wellbeing.

METHODS: This was a small-scale qualitative study using guided interviews to explore the experience of SSA women living in rural areas of South Australia. Seven women identifying as same-sex attracted were interviewed. In addition, a woman who provides a counseling and support service for same-sex attracted women was also interviewed. All interviews were audiotaped and transcribed verbatim and were then analysed for emergent themes. Summaries of the interviews, based on the emergent themes, were sent to all interviewees so that they could verify or challenge the validity of the emergent themes, as well as to allow them to remove any information they felt might identify them.

RESULTS: Most women had felt 'different' while growing up; almost unanimously describing themselves as having been 'tomboys'. However, the lack of visible SSA role models in rural areas, together with a lack of SSA social networks, did not allow some of the women to identify and name their same-sex attraction. For many of the women in this study, it was visits to the state capital, where they had the opportunity to meet other SSA women, which precipitated them identifying themselves as same-sex attracted. In light of this new knowledge, some women denied their same-sex attraction and entered into heterosexual relationships, often entailing marriage. Other women entered same-sex relationships but tried to keep them invisible within their communities. Rural communities are frequently close-knit environments, where 'everybody knows everybody'. In such settings, much of the conduct of daily life is visible to other community members and may be closely scrutinized. In such locations, women initially try to keep their same sex attraction invisible. Women rarely comment on the threat of violence that underpins the attempt to keep same-sex identity or relationships secret. Nevertheless, even while it remains a largely unarticulated factor, it was a powerful one fueling the maintenance of their invisibility. Fear of violence ranges from the threat of overt physical violence to more commonly voiced concerns over 'mundane' harassment. Fear of social violence, in the form of rejection and ostracism, is the most frequently nominated factor motivating women to keep same-sex attraction invisible in rural settings. While keeping their same-sex identity and relationships invisible offers women some safety from physical and social violence, it may pose dangers for their psycho-social well-being. Trying to keep SSA relationships invisible within communities involves women censoring their behaviour while in public. Invisibility also gives rise to isolation, since women do not have the opportunity to form same-sex attracted social networks. Furthermore, some women experience great psycho-social distress as their awareness of their same-sex attraction becomes increasingly incongruent with the established pattern of their lives. Women find it very difficult to seek appropriate forms of help if they do experience psycho-social problems. Concerns over confidentiality means that women are extremely reluctant to seek help and support locally. Distance is a powerful mediating factor in both women's experience of distress and their capacity to seek help to ameliorate it. For women who live in closer proximity to the state capital, the capacity to meet other SSA women and engage in same-sex attracted social activities helps ease their sense of difference and isolation. Likewise, should they wish to utilize counseling or support services, it is relatively easy for them to do so. However, women living at greater distances from a capital city experience greater isolation and loneliness. Moreover, their ability to confidentially access appropriate services is markedly curtailed.

CONCLUSIONS: Same-sex attracted women living in rural areas need social contact with other SSA women, where their safety and confidentiality can be assured. They also need access to safe, confidential and appropriate services. Telephone and internet services are one way of anonymously and confidentially giving women access to information and support. Peer support networks, internet and telephone networks need to be further developed. Ways in which specialist gay and lesbian services and locally based health and human services could collaborate to provide accessible and acceptable services and to help women develop safe and confidential social networks need to be identified and trialled.

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