As part of the Pride in Agriculture series, today we’ll hear from an ally, Alaina Sill (she/her), who lives in Liberal, Kansas where she works in Human Resources at Seaboard Foods. Alaina shares experiences with diversity and how she has found avenues to be allies in rural communities and the workplace.

Alaina and I met as part of the NIAA Agriculture Leadership Cohort we are participating in this year. You can connect with Alaina on LinkedIn and Instagram.

Alaina Sill Pride in Agriculture

How are you involved in the agriculture community?

My grandpa ran a Hereford cow-calf operation and farmed several crops while I was growing up. I would go visit him at the farm over summers when I was younger and join him on the farm during various farm chores.

However, even with that experience, I don’t consider myself to have grown up “in” agriculture. My parents were in law enforcement and education and I didn’t have exposure to agriculture on a daily basis other than growing up in rural America where agriculture is prevalent.

I started my career in education and thought that’s where I’d finish it. I was recruited into agriculture by a company and decided to make the career change as it was still a noble profession where I am able to help people, which is why I went into education.

Why are you proud to be part of the agriculture community?

Agriculture is an industry that affects every single person on this planet, whether they’re vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, meat-eating, or something else.

I love knowing that the industry I’m involved in supports people worldwide. Not only that, but it provides great, stable, good-paying jobs to people and allows them to earn a living wage to support their families and feel proud of the work they do.

I work as a manager in an HR capacity, so I get to directly impact the lives of the employees at my company and future employees by giving them jobs and that’s important to me.

How have you felt or seen support for LGBTQ+ people in agriculture and rural communities?

I’ve always been a supporter of diversity and people who are different than me. Thankfully, my mom always instilled and modeled for me to love everyone for who they are. All through elementary school, my very best friends who I spent the most time with were children of immigrants from Japan, Israel, Africa, and India. I learned so much from their families about their cultures and tried many new foods I didn’t get at home.

When I moved to southwest Kansas in middle school, I was surrounded by even more diversity with the amount of meat processing plants in the area and the large number of immigrants they attracted for work. This just allowed me to gain even more exposure to diverse ethnicities. When I went to college, I went to a large Big 12 university and was exposed to so much more diversity than just ethnicity. I loved it. I love learning from people.

In general, people in agriculture and rural communities are friendly toward LGBTQ+ people (and people of other diverse groups). However, I truly think that’s mostly because the ag and rural communities are generally more outwardly friendly to everyone they cross paths with.

Unfortunately, I have not always seen or felt a lot of open acceptance or support of LGBTQ+ people in ag or rural communities. In fact, I’ve seen a number of people who are friendly to an LGBTQ+ person’s face and then talk poorly about them behind their back, or make derogatory statements about being LGBTQ+. We have a lot of work to do.

There are a few events that stick out to me and really made an impression on me, highlighting the fact that diversity in ag and rural communities isn’t as widely accepted as I’d wish it were.

Allies in Rural Communities

An instance that is at the forefront of my mind was when my best friend decided he wanted to live a life true to himself and be openly gay. He was in a leadership position at work and held an elected community leadership position, as well as being very active in our community.

He had not dated anyone nor had he been open with anyone about being gay. When he decided he was tired of living life secretively, he moved to a large city. He moved because he did not feel like people in our small town would accept him as an openly gay man. He had heard and experienced the things people said behind his back or behind the backs of other LGBTQ+ people.

He also was in rooms when derogatory comments were made about LGBTQ+ people. The situation can become even more difficult when there aren’t many activities or gathering places specifically for LGBTQ+ people to attend and be their authentic selves in small communities.

That’s when it hit me – I had “lost” my best friend because he didn’t feel safe here. As friendly as people may be on the outside, it still wasn’t enough.

In the workplace, we’ve hired a handful of transgender people in the last couple of years. Each time my team has worked with the managers to ensure the individuals can use the locker rooms and showers they identify with and feel comfortable in, while also ensuring the comfort and privacy of all employees. These are moments I’m proud of and see the support of LGBTQ+ people in agriculture.

Unspoken Judgement of LGBTQ+

In part of my response to this, I reached out to a couple of friends in the LGBTQ+ community from my town, one of them being my best friend who moved away, to get their perspective on feeling and seeing support for the LGBTQ+ community in agriculture and rural towns.

My best friend confirmed the reason he felt uneasy “coming out” or being openly gay here is that he felt the unspoken judgment of LGBTQ+ from other people.

Another friend said he surrounded himself with open-minded individuals who are prominent members of the agriculture community who were socially open-minded. They shielded him from people who saw him as less than equal, which in turn kept those individuals from feeling they could express their dislike of his sexuality.

He ended his comments by saying “to say the majority of the rural community would support me is a stretch, but they did respect me and my partner. After I came out, I never felt like I was unsafe.”

How do you consider yourself an ally?

The best thing anyone can do for a person they think might be part of the LGBTQ+ community is not to question or judge their sexuality. It’s unnecessary and irrelevant, but also disrespects people who may not be ready to share their story in their own journey to being their authentic selves.

Be respectful, kind, and genuinely caring about others. Avoid questioning if someone is gay, lesbian, trans, etc. as part of gossip or rumors.

Essentially, follow The Golden Rule – treat others the way you would want to be treated. And when you see something that’s wrong, say it’s wrong.

Call people out when they “joke” around about being gay or make disparaging remarks and let them know it’s not appropriate or funny. People know these comments aren’t respectful but may often have been let off the hook so many times that it’s become acceptable in their circles. Sometimes they just haven’t been given a different perspective.

I’ve never been nervous to speak up about issues because to me, right is right, and wrong is wrong. If I receive pushback or am fearful of the repercussions of speaking up, then it’s not a person or organization I want to be affiliated with anyway.

What can people in the larger agriculture community do to be strong allies of LGBTQ+?

Love people, stand up for people, speak up when something isn’t right, and welcome people of all backgrounds.

In reality, you don’t have to fly a rainbow flag outside your home and join a Pride March to be an ally – although both are fun! Simply love people, express concern where there’s a need, help others see LGBTQ+ people’s skills and qualifications, and thoughtfully listen to the voices of LGBTQ+ people to learn from them.

According to Merriam-Webster, one of the three definitions of an ally is:

one that is associated with another as a helper; a person or group that provides assistance and support in an ongoing effort, activity, or struggle – often now used specifically of a person who is not a member of a marginalized or mistreated group but who expresses or gives support to that group

Is there anything else you’d like to share during June Pride Month?

If someone is unsure how to be an ally, but knows they want to be, I encourage them to spend this Pride Month reading articles, following LGBTQ+ people on social media, listening to podcasts, and taking the month to learn from LGBTQ+ people about their experiences, what they truly want and need, and how to best listen and support.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt to ponder from an insightful article about LGBTQ+ people in agriculture:

“…most straight people, and even some queer people, do not associate queerness with an agricultural life. This is not because queer people have not been part of rural life for generations, but because of a binary of images.

On one hand you have the prevailing image of the American farmer as a white, cis, conservative, heterosexual man clad in denim and riding a tractor. On the other you have the narrative for queerness in America, as told by media and many people who’ve lived it, as one of coming out and moving to a city to find a kindred community away from the judgment of conservative, rural life. But like most binaries, the binary between a life on the land and a queer one is false.”

The Pride in Agriculture series highlights voices from LGBTQ+ people and allies in agriculture to feature the diversity and leadership within our industry who work to make our community a better place for everyone. To have your LGBTQ+ or Ally story featured, contact Ryan Goodman here.

Consider making a contribution this month to the Cultivating Change Foundation, whose mission is to value and elevate LGBTQ+ agriculturists through advocacy, education, and community.

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