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Five years ago I moved home to the farm where I was raised in southeastern West Virginia. I was told—in not so many words—that I could not have my queerness and my mountains, too, that I would not be safe there, that I would not be able to survive, much less thrive. This is a common experience for those of us who have left the small towns and rural areas where we grew up. This assumption has been buoyed by stories of violent homophobic murders, such as those of Brandon Teena and Matthew Shepard—which, until very recently, have served as some of the only accessible evidence of rural queer existence.
For many of us raised in the country, following this normative queer migration narrative rips us from the landscapes, communities, and traditions that are as much a part of ourselves as our queerness. Young people in the mountains are often encouraged to leave or escape, whether they are queer or not.
Educational opportunities, jobs, clean water, and possibilities all beckon from flatter lands outside the jagged borders of our states. But young queer folks from the region often face additional pressure to go. Not only did I find deep contentment once I finally moved home to West Virginia, I also began to meet other young queer folks throughout Central Appalachia who had returned or who had never left, and who were determined to stay. I was introduced to many of them through the STAY Project Stay Together Appalachian Youth , a regional network of young people who create, advocate for, and participate in safe, sustainable, engaging, and inclusive communities throughout Appalachia and beyond.
STAY envisions an economically and environmentally sustainable Central Appalachia where young people have the power to build and participate in communities in which they can, and want to, stay. In July I founded an oral history project called Country Queers out of intense frustration at the lack of rural queer visibility. I asked these young people about their experiences growing up queer in the mountains, about whether they felt pressured to leave. I asked them what was challenging about being queer in this place, and what was delightful about it.
I asked them for funny stories, for ideas about what might make it easier for isolated rural queer folks to flourish in the mountains. I asked them about queer history in the counties where they were raised and about dreams and concerns for their futures. Their wisdom shines through. Each of these wonderful country queers has a lot to teach us about the often studied, rarely understood mountain region that we call home.
Sam was twenty at the time of our interview. Sam is a talented musician and songwriter, writing modern songs in a traditional style. Sam Gleaves: The initial obvious one is that lack of open community. The second is lack of a history.
The stories about your family and that you get in the music and the socializing, the visiting. You get that history in all these different places that makes you feel rooted there. SG: I had to be in a place where both of those could be celebrated with others first, and for me that was at Berea College.
Because I made some friends who are country queers. And so that all came together and we clung to that word and used it, and used it, and used it, and used it when we first combined it. Because it set something right in ourselves. It announced that we were fully human. That we were whole. SG: I had an experience where I felt like my grandmother knew for the first time that I was gay.
I was playing a gig somewhere, and my grandmother has been the greatest supporter of my music that I ever could have asked for. She told me from the time I was little tiny that I had a pretty voice and that I should really pursue it, that I should share it. So, she was the foundation of me taking up music, period. So, one time she came to this little local gig that I had in a bar, and I wanted to sing a song I had written that mentions explicitly.
So I just sung it. And I remember—my grandfather and my grandmother—looking at the floor. I began to worry that I had upset them in some way, and there were people that we know from the community sitting all around them. I think of it as our small town unofficial gay bar, but people of all ages and walks of life hang out in there. I know they would go to any lengths to help me, and I would do the same for them.
I never doubted for a second the love that we all share as family. We are all just learning how to communicate that love in our own way. Ethan Hamblin was twenty-two years old at the time of our interview and a student at Berea College studying Appalachian Studies. After graduating, Ethan worked at the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky. EH: I love that! I thought you was gonna ask if I was a Democrat, because I am, and a Presbyterian! People from home, including my mother—and including me up until coming to Berea—we were mountain people.
Simply mountain people. But anyway, I identify as a Fabulachian, which—I love using that term, which is a term that my good friend Sam Gleaves and I coined, you know, putting the words fabulous and Appalachian together. But the term is Fabulachian and it is used to represent the queer community in the Appalachian region. EH: Being from a rural place? Compared to an urban place? However, it works for me, and the reason being is because being from the country and being gay are very similar.
I have found those two communities to be very similar. Which is why I love the Fabulachian Movement, because what better way to bring my mountain culture and my queer identity together? Because both of them are these wild, crazy, very communal ways of thinking. But, yes. I think it would have been [harder] compared to an urban area, but I think that country queers can handle things a lot better than urban queers can. We are survivors. Country queers are survivors. Raised in Powell, Tennessee, and now residing in Knoxville, Elandria was thirty-four at the time of our interview.
Elandria works at the Highlander Education and Research Center with the Appalachian Transition Fellowship Program, and is a long time youth advocate and organizer. Elandria Williams: One of the largest struggles to me is how to talk about race and class in the queer community.
Are we really gonna deal with other things that people need? Like [issues around] bullying, around stuff around prisons, around economics—knowing that a lot of the poorest people are people who are differently-abled and queer, combined. And I think that almost all issues that impact everybody are the biggest issues that queer people face, because queer people have every other thing in back of them.
If the country is dealing with an economic recession, the biggest issue queer people face is the economic recession. Because at the end of the day, everyone needs a job. In rural areas people are still fighting for survival. That can be urban, too. Somebody just got murdered a couple weeks ago for being trans—a trans man just got murdered and a trans female just got murdered a month ago in New Orleans.
And the kid got murdered in Miami. Like a week ago. So I think that is maybe the biggest fear still? Like what does it mean for people to be murdered because of their identity? And the way they express? That to me is huge. I think in rural spaces? Communities are small. How to maintain. How do you deal with your family? How do you maintain stability? And how do you have a family? Whatever family means to you, right? And small town gossip. That to me is the hardest thing. And churches, did we talk about churches? Ada was twenty-nine at the time of this interview.
I love it, I love it, I love it. And also I really recognize how much whiteness has to do with that. Clearly, there are structural issues. I think there is a problem in Central Appalachia about being queer, and rural, and a person of color. I can imagine a time that no queer rural people felt like they belonged.
But that has shifted. Now, in general, in Central Appalachia, can we have rural queer people of color that can be their full selves? RG: Do you want to talk at all, or do you have thoughts about access to health care for gender-non-conforming people in rural areas versus in urban ones?
Kenny Bilbrey: First of all, I would add that access to quality affordable healthcare for any person in this county and in so many rural areas is horrible. I struggled for a very long time to find a physician that I felt comfortable with just as a primary care doctor.
So, maybe it would be possible for me to get out and go to that every now and again.Stonega-VA oral sex
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“Well, We’re Fabulous and We’re Appalachians, So We’re Fabulachians”