Queer in West Virginia

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“Here, in the heart of every belief system I’ve mocked or fought against, I was welcomed with open arms by everybody.” –Anthony Bourdain on his visit to West Virginia

In high school, I never imagined finding online spaces boldly embracing the terms “queer” and “West Virginia”. Despite growing up with two gay aunts and other close queer influences, the things I was told and the things I told myself about who I was and where I came from wrongly left me believing there weren’t any people like me in West Virginia. I consumed narratives that LGBTQ+ lives cannot thrive in small towns like mine. I believed this until I began discovering the digital queer community.

In 2017, Canadian designer Lucas LaRochelle created the project Queering the Map—an interactive means of documenting queer experiences by anonymous users, pinpointing locations on a map and leaving personal notes attached. When describing the work, LaRochelle has said that its goal “is to ‘queer’ as much space as possible”.  

While some pins on the map are attached to physical landmarks, the majority of them chart memories, such as a pin outside of State College, Pennsylvania that reads:

“My first love. My first partner. We spent a year here. It ended here too.”

Or, a bit more humorous, one outside of La France, South Carolina:

“I lived here a long time. I added this because… well… things get better. No-where-ass South Carolina sucks, but it gets better.”

Screenshot of Queering the Map. Image courtesy of queeringthemap.com.

Screenshot of Queering the Map. Image courtesy of queeringthemap.com.

When I discovered this map at the age of 27, I studied the hills and valleys of West Virginia, noticing my original stomping grounds were dotted with pins—one of which read:

“The scars left by the conversion therapy here have only just started to heal a decade later.”

Another pin placed near my current residence read:

“Where she told me she loved me, and changed my world forever.”

These notes, precariously placed along the Appalachians, read like a secret code between nameless partners and to the hills themselves.

Queer life can often be thought of as only thriving in urban areas (see Judith Halberstam’s theory of metronormativity), but according to the Human Rights Campaign, LGBTQ+ people “make up a significant portion of the overall population in predominantly rural states”. Regardless of location, LGBTQ+ peoples share similar experiences and needs. We experience violence at a disproportionate rate and lack access to basic needs such as housing, medical care, and employment. According to the FBI, LGBTQ+ are far more likely to be victims of a hate crime than any other minority group. The reality is, despite our progress with LGBTQ+ rights and worldwide demonstrations of gay Pride, queers living in rural regions, like West Virginia, continue to face systematic inequality and isolation.

There are no comprehensive, statewide non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people in West Virginia. Though we currently have numerous state and national advocates that are working toward educating our government and communities on why non-discrimination protections are needed in our state. In January 2016, legislators introduced House Bill 4012—a broad bill that would have legalized discrimination by allowing any business or individual to cite their religious background as a reason to deny service. This bill was shut down by the West Virginian Senate, setting the stage for us to move forward in 2017.

The civil rights advocacy organization, Fairness West Virginia. Photo courtesy of FairnessWV.org.

The civil rights advocacy organization, Fairness West Virginia. Photo courtesy of FairnessWV.org.

The people that we fight with and for are members of our community and our allies—our chosen families. “Chosen family” is a well-known and important survival strategy for the LGBTQ+ community. In a 2013 study, it was estimated that 39% of LGBTQ+ adults have experienced rejection from a family member or friends, while an estimated 40% of homeless youth identify somewhere on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. However, in the face of this rejection from family and friends, queer people have built chosen families for decades—families that are created by hand and heart, in a strong effort to find support and love that one’s biological or legal family may not be able to provide.

Although the term itself, “chosen family”, is relatively new, queer and trans peoples have been coming together in vastly similar ways throughout history. In the 1860s, the Harlem Drag Balls began. They grew into inclusive gatherings where queer and trans peoples of color could safely come together. In order to escape discriminatory policing, attendees would dress in drag in order to “pass off” as straight couples. Those in attendance would then self-organize into “houses”—different groups that would compete for prizes and honor through drag, dance, and various performances that would play off the idea of gender. Later on, these balls would evolve into the vogue balls of the 1980’s and 90’s—a culture still thriving today—which often allow Black, Latinx, and Asian LGBTQ+ the opportunity to find social support and empower themselves in a comfortable environment.

Prizewinners at the Hamilton Lodge drag ball. Image courtesy of Notes from a Composer.

Prizewinners at the Hamilton Lodge drag ball. Image courtesy of Notes from a Composer.

The beauty behind these families is that one does not need to lack a biological or legal family to join, and one does not necessarily need to be on the spectrum. A 2010 study showed that 64% of LGTBQ+ baby boomers belong to a chosen family. Major cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City have legislative protections in place that provide people with paid family leave to care for their chosen families.

It wasn’t until I left West Virginia, that I realized I’d spent my entire life creating my chosen family. Queer relationships are vastly similar to the West Virginian way of developing kinship. I do not believe there is a singular “West Virginian culture,” or that our wide-ranging, diverse region is limited by specific folklore. However, I do believe it’s likely that we share a unique way of making kin.

Above: Extended family in Appalachia.Below: Seattle-based queer and trans art collective, Lion’s Main.

Above: Extended family in Appalachia.Below: Seattle-based queer and trans art collective, Lion’s Main.

Members are welcomed through shared passions, with a focus on love and kindness rather than blood and family trees. In addition to my nuclear family, my family’s lifelong friends have helped mold me into the individual I am today. Their neighbors who have resided on the same lands for generations have proven to be as dependable as my blood relatives. Family friends have become part of my chosen family, and I have also found members of my chosen family through social media outlets.

Over the past few years, the digital queer community has expanded, giving those of us spread throughout West Virginia a way to feel connected, safe, and understood. Nowadays, we can live-stream the Parkersburg Pride luncheon that fed hundreds of people from all different backgrounds. Or, we can watch the fine members of Wood County Indivisible fight a backwards City Council to bring the Non-Discrimination Ordinance to Parkersburg. Being able to find one another helps us organize and act collectively.

Gay pride parade in Charleston, West Virginia. Photo courtesy of tripsavvy.com

Gay pride parade in Charleston, West Virginia. Photo courtesy of tripsavvy.com

The queer digital landscape creates the potential for transformation in LGBTQ+ life in our deepest hollers. With today’s technology and social media platforms, queers around the world can “meet” and build their chosen family. We have the histories and resources, once unreachable, at our fingertips. Here in the heart of West Virginia, we are reflecting on the growth we’ve had and looking for way to plant seeds and grow stronger. Us mountain queers can persevere.

Ash Bray is a writer for Global Climate Weather Center, writing about the history and occurrences of global meteorological events. They’re currently studying GIS and hopes to work with city government to help communities prepare for severe meteorological events. Ash is a non-binary queer and hopes to bring more awareness to LGBTQ+ members in the STEM community.