Is everything quiet on the Appalachian front?

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By Caroline Dunlap

In opposition to popular belief, some queer people do not live in cities. Though this notion is central to many books and films about rural queer life, it is sometimes hard to believe when you live in a town of less than 700 people. 

When we think of the recent advances in LGBT rights all is quiet on the Appalachian front. Or so it seems.

In the fall of last year, I moved from the Bay Area to volunteer in a small Appalachian town whose heyday had passed with the coal boom. It’s a place where strangers don’t pass unnoticed and many families trace their roots back to the earliest settlers.

The mountains and the highways seem to go on forever, with little indication of what might lie beyond. Natural resource extraction fuels the economy, with the coal, oil, gas, mining, and logging industries lobbying (very) effectively for their own interests.

At times, it seems implausible that this place is so close to Washington, DC when it is culturally and socio-economically worlds apart. Poverty, drug addiction, and lack of educational and work opportunities pose enormous problems. 

Despite having elected a Democratic governor, it’s a red, red state. Nonetheless, there’s a lot that’s especially unique about the Mountain State, such as long-held traditions of old-time dance and music, the Monongahela National Forest, where the ecosystems of north and south converge, and a rich cast of old-timers and back-to-the-landers.

Organizations for LGBT folks can be found in Appalachia, but they take a much different form than what one would find than in other parts of the country. 

Fairness West Virginia, with headquarters in the capitol of Charleston, states: “Our mission is to ensure LGBT people can be open, honest, and safe at home, at work, and in the community. We represent the diversity of Appalachia, and our membership is open to everyone who believes in fundamental fairness.” Fairness West Virginia and other LGBT groups in Appalachia appeal to the values of rural Americans, namely respect for hard work, honesty, and family-mindedness.

Earlier this month, the Charleston Gazette announced that Buckhannon, WV, had become the fifth city in the state to pass nondiscrimination legislation for LGBT West Virginians. One supporter on Fairness West Virginia’s Facebook page commented, “Buckhannon has been, for as long as I can remember, an extremely conservative, Republican town and county. Decency, compassion and fairness can come from all sides!” It is encouraging to see that even in small, hardscrabble Appalachian towns, folks are beginning to understand the need for equal rights for LGBT people in their own families and communities.

Because visible queer life does not resemble what one might find in larger metropolitan areas, it was tempting to conclude that it couldn’t be found at all. At every turn, I’ve been surprised, as when I stumbled upon a drag show in Cumberland, Maryland, or when I went to the Appalachian Studies Conference in Boone, North Carolina, and learned about a breadth of academic research on LGBT identity in Appalachia (App State in Boone and Berea College in Kentucky have become known for being particularly welcoming to LGBT students). 

Pride Week in Charleston, which began on June 2nd, included a Mr. Mountain State Bear contest, a parade, and an interfaith worship service. 

For those who remain unconvinced that gay life can exist in a seemingly unfriendly environment, there are a number of excellent books about the rural queer experience.

Although living in a small town as an LGBT person has taken some getting used to, I am still glad that I came to this community to volunteer, and in the words of Allen Ginsberg, put my queer shoulder to the wheel.

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