It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
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In 2011 I moved back home to the farm where I was raised in southeastern West Virginia. I moved home 'cause I was homesick, and because I was literally sick and needing the support of family to get better. I moved home 'cause in 10 years away I'd never stopped comparing every single landscape to West Virginia, and talking loudly (and obnoxiously) about how nowhere was as beautiful as that land that raised me.
There was healing and joy in that homecoming. And there was isolation too. I hadn't known a single out queer person coming up through high school in Pocahontas County in the late '90s and early 2000s. There were rumors about the softball coach and her "friend." "There's only one bed in the house," a friend's mom had said. There were rumors about the Department of Natural Resources employee who came to our middle school during career day in her army greens and bourbon colored boots. I remember my classmates whispering behind their hands "She's a lesbian!" And, intuiting that this was bad, I had replied with an "Ewww!" before asking what that word meant. They told me, and I acted disturbed, but I made damn sure to go to her career day presentation, and I remember staring at her wide-eyed and shy.
But 10 years is a long time in queer time. And the young folks I met through my work as an educator once I'd moved back home were talking about sexuality and gender identity in ways and spaces that would have been unimaginable just a decade before. I saw queer folks in the Walmart, and we'd nod at each other. People would tell me stories about two old men who'd lived together for 40 years raising sheep, going to church, and no-one ever talked about their relationship. Everyone just knew. If it remains unspoken, it remains unnecessary to reckon with. It was hard to find these stories, and there was almost zero rural queer representation in media anywhere at that time.
In early 2013 I set out to start recording oral histories with rural and small town LGBTQIA+ folks. I had no formal oral history or audio training. I saved up $200 from my three part-time jobs and started interviewing young people I'd met through the Stay Together Appalachian Youth Project. I didn't think it would work. I didn't think I could do it, that people would believe in it, or that people would donate to fund its continuation.
It's six years, 65 interviews, and 15 states later now and the project is still trucking along, slowly but surely. This year we're launching a traveling gallery exhibit and a podcast. Six years is a long time in internet time, and these days there are all sorts of Instagram accounts and articles about rural queer life. But we still don't have many first-person narratives of rural queer experience across intersecting layers of identity such as race and class, gender identity and religion, ability and political belief.
"If it remains unspoken, it remains unnecessary to reckon with. It was hard to find these stories."
I believe in the slowness of oral history. I believe in the power of those of us living an experience daily sharing stories of the messy complicated joy, pain, monotony, and fabulosity of rural and small town queer life. Not simplifying our experiences into an easily digestible sound bite, but sharing the full contradictory glory that is human life, no matter who you are, or where you call home.
I visited Robyn Thirkill in Prospect, Virginia, where she shares a duplex with her mom on land that's been in her family for generations. Robyn, who's 41, told me she grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and lived in various cities before moving to her family's home place when she was in her 30's. We sat on her leather couch, with a giant tapestry of tigers in the forest hanging on the orange wall above us. Looking out the window, we could see two giant oak trees her great-great-grandparents planted.
Our conversation has been edited for length.
Rachel: If you were going to describe it here to somebody who has never been here, doesn't know anything about what it's like here, how would you describe this place?
Robyn: It's rural, but it's not the desert. It's not the most rural it could be, but it's pretty rural. It's a lot of one-horse towns. The town of Prospect does not even have one stoplight. There's probably 15 churches, but no stoplights, so it's one of those kind of towns. There's a post office and two stores here. That's it. It's pretty small.
Rachel: I like that—no stoplight, but 15 churches.
"She prayed about it, she read the Bible about it, and she still loved me when she was done."
Robyn: There's a lot of farmland. Farming is not as big as it was once, but there's a lot of farmland here, and there are a lot of people that still farm here for their livelihood. A lot of people are growing hay right now, just growing grass. This used to be a very big tobacco area. Now soybeans are the thing, because they're the most profitable. There's a lot of cattle farmers. A lot of people are still doing tobacco. Corn—the field corn for biodiesel I guess—is pretty big now.
Rachel: So, how do you identify?
Robyn: I pondered this question a lot. I think I'm just not really a label person. I would just say that I'm gay, generally, but it's hard to put myself in a box, I think. I don't date men, but then I don't really date. If I've got to pick something, I would just say that I'm gay. That's how I identify.
Rachel: Do you feel like there aren't words that fit it, or you just don't like to spend a lot of time thinking about it?
Robyn: That's it. I don't really spend a lot of time thinking about it. I have spent a lot of time thinking about it, and I can't… Nothing I pick seems to roll off my tongue with ease, so I would just say that I'm gay. Lesbian and homosexual sound really clinical. Yeah, that's pretty much it.
Rachel: Well, I guess when did you first know you were gay?
Robyn: I came out to my family and friends when I was about 15. I think as cliché as it sounds, I knew there was something different about me before I knew what it was. Then once I figured out what it was, I was like, "Oh, yeah, that's what it is." It was pretty comfortable.
Rachel: Coming out to people felt relatively smooth?
Robyn: Coming out to people is kind of crappy. No, it went well. My mom is very devout Southern Baptist, but she loves her kids more than anything in the world, so she prayed about it, she read the Bible about it, and she still loved me when she was done. Yeah, it was fine. My dad was fine. He found out somehow, and he was just disappointed that I didn't feel like I could tell him. Love everywhere. It was a good experience.
Rachel: That's good.
Rachel: If you'd spent that many years in cities, did you have experiences in the country growing up coming down here?
Robyn: Yeah, we used to come down to visit my grandmother when I was little. My sister and I used to spend the summers down here. Once when I was living in Richmond, I decided I was gonna come move down here and raise ostriches. I had no money, I had no knowledge of ostriches. I just decided I was going to do it.
Rachel: That's amazing.
Robyn: Yeah. Everybody remembers it, too. Every time something happens, people remember the ostriches. I'm like, "Do we really have to keep talking about the ostriches?"
Rachel: Did you actually raise ostriches?
Robyn: No. I did not. I did not raise ostriches. I toured an ostrich farm. I know everything there is to know about ostriches, but I never raised any ostriches. It was just a dream.
Rachel: Has it died? Are you over it?
Robyn: No, I'm not really over it. I could have an ostrich. There are more practical things right now. My next thing that I'm going to get is probably pigs or something. Yeah, I should probably get an ostrich one day, just so I can be like, "I got it. I got an ostrich." Yeah.
Rachel: I guess I'm curious, because when you were living in cities, were you always wishing you were in the country, or you pretty content in those?
Robyn: When I lived in cities, I thought I'd never not want to live in the city. I thought I'd live in a city forever unless I was independently wealthy, in which case I'd have a city home and a country home. I don't know if I matured or what happened, but when I was living in San Diego, suddenly after 14 years of being away from my family, I was like, "I really want to be by my family." I came home, and I really hadn't been home. Just Thanksgiving and Christmas for 12 years. I came home for Christmas one time, and I just decided, "I'm coming home. Mom, I'm bringing the dog. We're moving in."
Ended up with my sister, her partner, her daughter, and my mom. I was like, "This is really overwhelming." We're all living in a townhouse, but then my mom retired, and we decided this is her home place. Don't get me wrong, it was a huge, huge adjustment, a huge culture shock. Pay is different. Things are very different here, but now I like to visit the city, but I don't want to stay there. I want to be here. I feel a very strong heritage to this property that's been in my family for over 100 years.
I want to respect my heritage, and I want to preserve this land. That became more important to me than living in a city.
Rachel: Yeah. You said earlier—and if there's any questions you don't want to answer that's totally fine—that you don't date. Do you think that's about being here? Also, I guess the question is really more like, I'm almost curious how people find people to date or be friends with who are gay in the country?
Robyn: Yeah, no, that's tough. A friend of mine and I were joking. In my life, I've probably been single more than I've been coupled, and I'm comfortable that way. I've done the dating site thing. I've dated a couple people that I've met on dating sites, but it's really just laziness. Unless Ms. Right comes and walks up to my door, I'm not going to meet her. I'm not going anywhere or doing anything to try to meet people, because it's just not high on my list. Yeah, it really probably comes down to laziness, unfortunately. I think it also comes down to need. I don't mean any offense to people that date a lot, but I think a lot of times, people date out of a need. A need for something. A need for a partnership, or even just a want for it, and that's not on my list. When I have tried to date, it's usually been through social media or dating sites. I do go into the city sometimes. I go into Richmond sometimes and hang out, so potentially I guess I could try to meet someone that way.
Rachel: Totally. I'm curious, just about your family history on this land, or what you know about it. Your grandparents, did they farm?
Robyn: Yeah. My great-grandparents moved here from West Virginia and bought 40 acres of land.
Rachel: When was that?
Robyn: It was in the turn of the century. Actually, if you think about it, my great-grandfather would have then been a Black man traveling from West Virginia. Just wrap your head around that. He came here, and him and my great-grandmother bought the land on credit. There was some back and forth. I think he came here first, then he had to work, and then he went back to get her. Out of the original 40 acres, 35 are still here. My grandmother and her, I don't know, 14 brothers and sisters were born here. My mom and her five brothers and sisters were born here.
That wooden structure up there, the porch is the porch to the original farmhouse. It's important to me. There's a lot of history here. My mom… This is Prince Edward county, Virginia. When they passed a law, Brown vs. Board of Education to integrate the school systems, Prince Edward county closed all the public schools.
Robyn: Yeah, because they didn't want to integrate. At the time, my mom was in grade school, probably. Her and her brothers had to go to Baltimore to go to school, and they went to stay with family, if you can imagine that as an elementary schooler. Plus the fact that they farmed here. Sending your children away is sending your laborers away, you know what I mean?
"I want to respect my heritage, and I want to preserve this land. That became more important to me than living in a city."
That's a big piece of history for Prince Edward County. My mom was at the March on Washington, the Civil Rights movement, stuff like that. That was a big part of her upbringing. Then over there, my grandmother's house was there, and then my aunt lived over there, and our property goes back to that tree line back there, and then out to this road over there.
Rachel: Your great-grandparents or your grandparents, did they just grow enough for the family, or did they sell things?
Robyn: It was just a family farm. My great-grandfather worked outside the home. I don't know what he did, but he worked outside the home, and then they farmed, just to live on. My grandmother did the same.
Rachel: You know how long [the schools] were closed here?
Robyn: Five years.
Robyn: They opened some private schools for white students, and some churches got together to make scholarships for white students that couldn't afford to go to private schools, but yeah, the public schools were closed for five years.
Rachel: That's insane.
Robyn: Yep. Because they didn't want to integrate the schools. They refused. It's very interesting. Yeah. I think the experience of leaving when she was so young was pretty traumatic for her, so she never really discussed it until she was about to retire, and now she talks about it all the time.
Rachel: They were gone for five years, her and her sibling?
Robyn: I think so, yeah. She said it was some crazy aunt or something. It wasn't a fun situation. She said that her mom and her aunts were taking in laundry and cleaning people's houses to try to send money for the people that were taking care of the kids. No, they weren't gone for five years because at one point, somebody in the family rented a house in Appomattox so the kids would have an Appomattox address, so they could go to school in Appomattox. Then there was a million kids at that address. They tried. They tried. My grandmother, they were not educated people. They did the best they could.
Rachel: That's really interesting. I guess I'm gonna abandon my list now. You have some goats?
Robyn: I have some goats. Yep, I have six goats. I'm going to milk them when they're old
enough. They're my starter goats. I just got them. They're only about maybe five months old. I'm going to breed them, I guess, because otherwise they won't give me any milk. Then I'm going to have some milk and try to make some cheese and soap and stuff.
Rachel: Cool. Do you have bees, still?
Robyn: No. I had bees. I had a bear. I had a bear.
Rachel: Oh no! That's so upsetting!
Robyn: Yes, it was very upsetting, and I'm actually on the fence about having bees again. I really enjoyed the bees, but it's a lot of work, and it's risky financially. It was my fourth or fifth year of beekeeping, and I was about to have my best year ever. It's an investment. Yeah, I don't know what I'm going to do yet. I got pictures of the bear on the game camera. I guess the dog scared him. You could see him literally pick up two boxes and carry them back in the woods.
Rachel: He just took them?
Robyn: Yeah, he just took them.
Rachel: That's a bummer.
Robyn: Yeah, it was pretty depressing. I went out the next day to clean up, and I teared up, and had to come back in the house. I was like, "I can't even do it. I can't even look at this right now." It was horrible, but it's fine. I want to do it again, but I may… I want to do it for the bees, but now there was a big bee kill, I want to say in South Carolina, because they're spraying for the Zika virus or something like that, and just decimated tons and tons of bees. Bees are having trouble anyway, so it's just like, "Am I just going to be throwing my money away to try to do it?" We'll see. We'll see what happens.
"Do you have bees, still?"
"No. I had bees. I had a bear. I had a bear."
Rachel: Did you just teach yourself? In summer when you'd come as a kid, did you help with farming stuff, or did you teach yourself once you moved here how to do it?
Robyn: I pretty much taught myself once I moved here. When I used to come down in the summers, we did feed the chickens, and slop the hogs, and stuff like that, and go out in the garden, but when I moved down here, I pretty much taught myself everything. I studied bees for a year before I even had bees. I studied goats for a while before I had them. Of course I still have questions, but I have reference books, and I have references. Chickens are easy. Goats are pretty easy, too, actually. I just read and YouTube a lot. That's one of the joys of this century. I actually learned a lot. I work on my car now just reading stuff on the Internet. I skinned a deer from a YouTube video. Yeah, it's pretty fun.
Rachel: I guess… when are you happiest in your life here?
Robyn: Lately, it's just when I get to be home all day, and putter around, and at the end of the day, I'm hot and sweaty. I get my shoes off. I've done lots of stuff. I'm training the puppies right now to be nice to the goats. I love that. Yeah. Just that. I'll show you if you want. I love looking out my bedroom window every day. I love my landscape. I do. The oak trees which came through next to those trees right there, I'm going to do a photo essay, I think, with the different seasons.
If you stand up in the gazebo there, because I said that was the porch to the original house. Those two trees, that's the same view that every person in my family that's lived here over the years has had. When we first moved here, it was raining and I went up and sat in the gazebo, and I was like, "Yeah, this is it. This is the ticket here." Yeah. I'm happiest just being right here.