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I take the back roads to work, winding along the one-lane switchback curves that climb the steep slope of Muddy Creek Mountain. I avoid the interstate, which is easy to do when you live in West Virginia. I listen to NPR as I follow the creek down the other side of the mountain, losing reception around every other curve. This is how I follow the news: the same way I follow the creek in the hollow below me, losing sight of it in the thick rhododendron at times, but picking it up again somewhere farther down the line. Listening is my favorite way to gather news, no patience for reading it online and no regular access to papers out here.
At work, I also listen. I work for a dropout prevention organization in a rural public middle school in the West Virginia county where I was raised. Teachers, administrators, counselors, and community members refer students who are struggling academically, behaviorally, emotionally, or socially—or in all of those ways—and I meet them one-on-one to tutor them, to mentor them, but mostly, to listen to them.
I do my best to give support. I try to remind them that there's a world they've never dreamed of outside of these mountains, even while I tell them there is nothing wrong with this place. There is nothing wrong with staying in a place like this.
"Where does your dad work?" I ask a newly referred sixth grader.
"He doesn't." The boy answers and looks out the window above my desk at the clouds hanging heavy on the mountain tops. "He got laid off from the mines."
He doesn't need to say more. He has already told me there is no other adult in the house, and this is a common story here. Many of the students I meet with live with one parent, aunts and uncles, or aging grandparents. Some students' parents have overdosed and died, or are incarcerated on drug charges. Many are unemployed—and not for lack of trying. The sixth grader and I both know that mining jobs are dying out here and across Appalachia. We both know that there has never been a job in these mountains that paid anywhere near as well as mining. And we both know that, at least for now, there don't appear to be any other good paying gigs coming down the line.
Even the Magic Mart closed down a few months back, wiping out 30 some jobs. Losing even 30 jobs is a disaster in a town of 1,000 people. The fracking boom that has begun in counties north of here hasn't reached us yet. And I, for one, am grateful—because we do deserve better. We deserve better than yet another industry that will extract natural resources from our mountains, create wealth for people who don't live here, pollute our drinking water, destroy our land, and then—once the boom is over—leave boarded-up ghost towns and a devastating drug epidemic in its wake. We've seen all this before. These industries don't bring lasting wealth, sustainable careers, or healthy communities.
Daily I ask students, "If nothing was too crazy to dream of, what would you want your life to look like when you're 25?" They all look at me like I'm nuts. Many of them have never thought about it. To start with, 25 sounds older than the hills when you're 13. And besides, the thought of pursuing things because they bring you joy is not always presented as an option. In some ways they are right; I am crazy to ask them this question. It doesn't seem relevant to the reality they find themselves in.
I bite my tongue a lot at work, and I listen more than I talk. But I speak up when students use racist and homophobic language. At a school that is 98 percent White, in a community where few openly queer people live, this happens often. It is hard to know how much power a single conversation holds in any young person's life, but in a region where neo-Nazi groups still function and in a national moment where institutionalized violence towards communities of color is impossible to ignore, it feels crucial to talk with youth about the violent power of words and about what unites us as humans across all the divisions we have been taught.
I find it much harder to speak up when administrators say things I disagree with. During my first month in this job, I met with an administrator to look over my proposed programs for the year. I explained that I hoped to facilitate a "Mix It Up at Lunch Day," a Southern Poverty Law Center activity that helps students break out of their cliques and guides them through conversations about their experiences with tolerance and intolerance. The administrator looked slightly panicked. "Tolerance is a pro-gay buzz word," he said. "We aren't here to talk about that." In the same meeting, after proposing a group that would meet in classes to talk about respecting diversity, I was told that we don't have a problem with diversity here; we just don't have much of it.
I have never verbally outed myself in the schools for fear that parents, pastors, or coworkers might start to talk. The fact that no one has ever asked if I have a husband is a sure sign that most of my coworkers are entirely aware of my queerness. None of them have directly asked because that's rude in the rural South, and because by not naming queerness, people don't have to acknowledge it. Many people here are incredibly accepting and open-minded, but there are still old conservative currents that run deep—especially when it comes to working with youth. This job is hard enough without complicating things with my queerness, with my political beliefs, or with my lack of formal religious ones. Or with a multimedia oral history project I founded in 2013 called Country Queers.
Country Queers aims to document the diverse experiences of rural and small town LGBTQI folks in the United States, collecting stories that showcase both our similarities across regions and how our experiences differ across race, class, gender identity, immigration status, ability, age, religion, and other parts of our identities. At home, in the evenings, I have phone calls with professors and journalists, activists and organizers, oral historians and media-makers. In my time off, I communicate with volunteers from across the country. I gather stories.
Last summer I drove 7,000 miles in a month, interviewing over thirty amazing country queers in Mississippi, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma. They fed me incredible meals, hosted me in their homes, and shared their stories with me, a total stranger. I won't put words in their mouths, but I suspect it was because they too feel isolated and under-represented, they too believe in the power of telling our own histories, they too know firsthand that there have always been queer folks in rural places no matter what mainstream narratives say. They too believe that some of us can—and all of us deserve to—not only survive, but thrive in the rural communities that we love.
Working in the public schools in a small town feels a little like living your life under a microscope. It is tricky to attempt to stay in the closet in a public career in a rural community while you also direct an online queer project. It's kind of contradictory too, isn't it? I advocate for the need for increased visibility of rural queer folks, the need for us to finally tell our own stories and see ourselves reflected somewhere in the media, the need for young people in small towns and rural communities to see examples of queer adults in their homes, adults who are making it. Meanwhile, I still hide at times. It doesn't bother me to obscure details of my personal life from my coworkers, but I am uncomfortable with the hypocrisy of encouraging young people to be themselves and to treat others respectfully no matter what—when I am not out to them.
Writing about this is tricky, too. I don't want to reinforce all too common stereotypes of rural places, and of rural Appalachia specifically, as backwards, ignorant, or dangerous. But I don't want to dismiss the unique challenges of being queer in rural places, either—challenges that are further complicated by other parts of our identities. I think our understandings of rural communities could use some simmering, some thickening. It's a lot more complicated than the stereotype that cities are queer friendly and safe while rural places are not.
Let's pause for a minute to think about that word, "safe." When we talk about cities being safer for queer folks, whom are we actually talking about? Usually, we mean White, cisgender, middle to upper class queer folks who live in "good" (which means White) neighborhoods and conform to "normal" (which means straight) family structures. For those people, urban spaces may seem safe or queer-friendly—but they are certainly not safe for all members of the LGBTQI community. In January 2015 alone, at least six transgender and gender-non-conforming people of color were murdered in the United States. Jessie Hernandez, 17 years old, in Denver, Colorado. Candra Keels, 20 years old, in Rochester, New York. Yazmin Vash Payne, 33 years old, in Los Angeles. Lamar Edwards, 20 years old, in Louisville, Kentucky. Lamia Beard, 33 years old, in Norfolk, Virginia. Ty Underwood, 24 years old, in Tyler, Texas. Out of those six murders, five took place in major cities.
I don't want to simplistically flip the narrative by saying, 'Actually, urban spaces are unsafe for queer folks and rural places are safe.' What I'm saying is that we need stories and conversations that better reflect the complexity of all communities as well as the layers of identity that each of us carry on our shoulders. We need stories that counter the longstanding assumption that queer means White, middle class, and metropolitan— an assumption that renders invisible queer people of color, queer immigrants, working class queer folks, and country queers. We need conversations that honestly uncover who can take advantage of safety in our communities and at whose cost that safety comes. And we need to acknowledge that discussions about safety within the queer community have long mirrored national conversations that value the safety of White lives—in particular wealthy White lives—over all others.
There is an unspoken message that gets drilled into you if you trade whatever "backwoods" and "backwards" place you came from for a "safe" queer mecca in a city: There is no greater freedom, no greater achievement, nothing more important than being able to live 100 percent out in every space. But for myself —and for many other young queer Appalachians I've met through the Stay Together Appalachian Youth Project (STAY), a diverse regional network of Central Appalachian youth—it isn't so cut and dry.
For many of us, the question comes up often: What's most important when you come from a place like this? We want to be able to stay in these mountains, to bring our full selves into our communities here, to provide younger queer folks with examples of queer adults who are thriving here. We want to know that we will be safe and welcomed. Safety just looks different here. It looks like access to clean water, drug rehabilitation programs, and educational opportunities. It looks like access to well-paying careers in sustainable industries that don't devastate our homes or kill our community members in mine collapses or with the slow creep of black lung.
I keep thinking I'll find some resource, some workshop or training or book for rural Appalachian queer radicals that teaches you how to walk these fine lines: between self-preservation and the violence of silence, between advocating for change and preserving the traditions we lose along with the youth who flee these mountains—yet another of the natural resources extracted to create wealth elsewhere. STAY and Country Queers have taught me that there is no guide for how best to navigate these tensions. Because rural queer existence has been largely invisible until very recently, we haven't had the opportunity to learn from our elders—and so, we'll have to seek them out ourselves. We'll have to create our own map.
When you come from a place like this—a place that needs young people to stay, a place that needs radically creative and innovative visions for the future that still respect our rich and unique past—some things just feel bigger than your right as a queer person to be as out as you want every moment of every day. Some things feel more urgent too. Do we dream of a future in which there is room for everyone at the table—any table—anywhere in these mountains? Absolutely. But in the meantime, despite the despair that can sometimes sneak in at the daunting task that lies ahead, many of us believe in these mountains enough to stay. For some of us, being able to stay in the loving arms of our mountains is worth each sacrifice that comes with it.