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Queer Appalachia

In a World of Black & White, a West Virginian’s Religion, Sexuality Proves it’s Gray

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Wesley Chapel

Sundays were for sermons. The question wasn’t whether or not you went, but rather which church you attended on those mornings. Even those who called themselves atheists usually sat quietly in a pew, even if just to pick apart the words spoken in the pulpit. Small town West Virginia, in the heart of Appalachia, where life exists in the black and white. Gay or straight. Rich or poor. Christian or, well, nothing.

When I was in high school, I kissed boys, drank beer in the woods on Saturday night, and got home in time to make it to church on Sunday morning. Being gay was something you saw sometimes on The Real World, or maybe in Miami, like that Robin Williams movie, The Birdcage. Far away and incredibly flamboyant. The heroes at the helm of my religion were icons like the late Billy Graham and the mega-church leader Joel Osteen, who were also far away and flamboyant in their own way.

These charismatic faces at the front of modern Christianity made members of my hometown feel like they were part of something bigger than themselves, bigger than the small space we filled on the map. The wealth in the form of financial freedom would never be promised to most of us, but the wealth of heaven was, and that would last much longer. How can you justify feeling overlooked in this life if you were going to be lucky enough to earn a special spot in the afterlife?

In the evangelical congregation my mother and I joined after leaving the Methodist church amidst a child pornography scandal, there were no hymns in the pews or cushions for kneeling. Praise and worship was done standing tall, hands in the air. Elderly men sprinted up and down the aisles, shaking tambourines. At least a handful of people shouted incoherently in tongues during each service, and occasionally a few would collapse, slain in the spirit. Yet, traditions like seances and tarot readings were scoffed at as preposterous.

Even when my college years rolled around and two close friends came out to me, I had never heard of such thing as a spectrum. You like guys or girls. End of story. My high school was made up of about 1,000 students, and my university was right at 7,000. At no time did I ever meet anyone who identified as anything other than Christian. If they did, they didn’t say it. And at no point in my childhood or young adulthood did I ever meet anyone who either defied labels or identified as queer, bisexual or transgender. Black and white. This or that.

It wasn’t until I turned 25, packed my tiny apartment, and moved out of the rolling hills of West Virginia and into the sports and (to me) skyscraper-filled city of Pittsburgh that I realized that instead of black or white, my existence resides primarily in the gray. Before I moved to Pittsburgh, I had never seen a mosque or a Jewish temple and had given little more than a fleeting thought to the fact that not everyone celebrates Christmas.

Yet when I explored the city streets, I discovered this melting pot, boiling over the brim with diversity. My favorite deli to frequent on the weekends was kosher. Not every business was closed on Sundays. I also found myself attracted to people in my life who didn’t identify as men. The crush I developed on my best friend was alarming and confusing to me, to say the least. She toed the line between feminine and masculine, with her edgy faux hawk, J. Crew button-downs, and girlish voice. I was falling in love. Did that mean I was a lesbian? You have to be either, or, right?

As I slowly rediscovered who I was by blurring those lines that had always so clearly defined my identity and belief system, I found myself unsure of how to build a bridge back to where I came from. My best friend, now my wife, is Pagan with a dash of Buddhism tossed in. She doesn’t believe in hell, and Jesus Christ was a teacher just like Muhammed and Buddha. Trees hold the wisdom of the world, the moon is powerful, and reincarnation is as real as the sun on your face. If I had been introduced to a person who believed all of these things when I was 22, living in Fairmont with the conviction that the only religious text that mattered was the Holy Bible and that prayer belonged in every school, I would have looked at them like they had walked straight out of Lucifer’s kitchen. What would my mother think?

It turns out, the ones I love the most were more than willing to step outside of the black and white and spend time in the gray with me. Or maybe in the rainbow would be more appropriate. My mother now helps my wife clean her crystals if we visit them during a full moon, and she smudges herself with sage most Sunday mornings before church. As for me, I prefer my religion like my romances, a little in the middle. Not gay or straight, not Christian or atheist, but somewhere on a spectrum, and it’s so much more colorful than black, white or gray.

Beth McDonough (@bmacduhnuh) was born and raised among the hills of West Virginia. Upon graduating from Fairmont State University with her bachelor’s degree, she went to work in oil and gas in WV and Pittsburgh before leaving the industry to pursue a full-time freelance writing career. She now lives with her wife and stepdaughter in Meadville, Pennsylvania where she writes primarily about pop culture and LGBT issues. You can follow along on her blog The Babbling Blonde.

Queer Appalachia

Growing Up Gay in Appalachia: Anthology Shares Poetry and Prose of a Region

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Image: Kristen Uppercue/100 Days in Appalachia

Growing up in southern West Virginia in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Jeff Mann first came to terms with his sexual identity in the pages of Patricia Nell Warren’s “The Front Runner.” His favorite teacher, who confided to him that she was a lesbian, lent him the love story about a running coach and his star athlete.

“That’s how I learned I was gay,” Mann said. “I read a novel.”

His teenage revelation helped to name a lot of things he’d felt for years, but it also meant some new, hard truths for the West Virginia boy. If he were to be honest, Mann knew, he would likely be shunned from his little hometown of Hinton, or worse. Books and stories, however, offered a safe, inviting refuge, a place to learn and relate. But all of the LGBTQ literature Mann came across was set in big cities, like San Francisco, Los Angeles or New York.

“I thought how can you be Appalachian and like the countryside and be gay?” Mann said.  

More than 40 years later, Mann has helped to publish a new book, released this month, that through poetry and prose tackles that very question — as a queer Appalachian, how do you juggle your heritage, family, and home in a region where religion and, often, conservative values are deeply rooted?

The collection “LGBTQ Fiction and Poetry from Appalachia” was released April 1 by West Virginia University Press. The anthology, the first of its kind, features poetry and prose from lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer authors from Appalachia.  

Mann, now an author and associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, co-edited the book with Julia Watts, an author and professor of English at South College based in Knoxville, Tennessee. Both Mann and Watts have work included in the collection.

Julia Watts is an author and professor of English at South College and co-editor of the book. Photo: Courtesy WVU Press

“This one was different because what we really wanted to do is put together an anthology that was really representative of the most important voices in LGBTQ Appalachian literature,” Watts said.  

For that reason, instead of holding an open call for submissions, Mann and Watts solicited by invitation writers that had already published at least one body of work. The collection features nationally-known voices such as Dorothy Allison, Ann Pancake and Fenton Johnson as well as emerging voices like Savannah Sipple and Jonathan Corcoran.

The collection takes the reader on a wide journey both through the region — from a Tennessee coal camp to Lexington, Kentucky, to the banks of West Virginia’s Little Kanawha River — and to urban centers outside of it, like New York City. And while no two lived experiences are the same, the collection’s pages are interwoven with themes of home, family, place, the natural world, gender, sexual identity and religion.

“That’s also something I think just about all LGBTQ people in Appalachia have to deal with,” Watts said, “is this is a region where the predominant religion says that you’re a sinner, that you shouldn’t be the way you are.”

Raised in Elkins, West Virginia, Jonathan Corcoran spent the first 18 years of his life in the closet. Growing up in a religious household, the messaging Corcoran received at a young age both from his family and his community “was that someone who was gay was an anomaly and didn’t necessarily belong in that town, in that place, in our state, in our region,” he said.  

And Corcoran understood around the time he was graduating high school in the early 2000s, just like Mann understood 30 years before him, that to proclaim himself as gay would be a serious risk.

When he was 20 and attending college out of state, Corcoran’s mother found out he had a boyfriend and disowned him. It took more than a decade to repair the relationship. And when they finally sat down to talk about it, Corcoran said his mother told him, “It’s just the way I was taught. I didn’t know what you went through growing up.”

Corcoran, who now lives in Brooklyn, said he’s hopeful that a collection like “LGBTQ Fiction and Poetry from Appalachia” has the power to teach people, to lift the veil on lives and experiences, to tell actual stories of what a queer person goes through in a place like West Virginia.”

“People have an idea of what Appalachia is, and I think a book like this blows that idea open,” Corcoran said. “It explodes that idea and shows that this is a diverse region full of people living complex lives.”

Jeff Mann is an author and associate professor of English at Virginia Tech and co-editor of the book. Photo: Courtesy WVU Press

Mann and Watts write in the book’s introduction that “writers who define themselves as both queer and Appalachian often find that juxtaposition of identities difficult, confusing and conflicted.”

You can try to simplify things, Mann said. He’s seen it play out many times. That it’s just too hard to be queer and live in the region, so either you stay and try to hide it or you move away.

“The people in this book, obviously, have chosen not to cut off one identity and focus on another,” Mann said.

“They’re going to be both.”

Anna Patrick is a journalist based in Thomas, West Virginia. A former reporter for the Charleston Gazette-Mail, her work has appeared in the New York Times and CNN’s Parts Unknown. Raised in Appalachia, her work explores the lives of folks who call these mountains home. 

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Queer Appalachia

Gender Issues in Appalachia: A Conversation on Changing Attitudes in the Region

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Do people who identify as LGBTQ struggle for acceptance in Appalachia? Ideas about gender are changing across the country and in places like West Virginia.

Still, some people, like 20-year-old Kyra Soleil-Dawe, who lives in Shepherdstown, West Virginia and identifies as gender-queer, have found that coming out to their family isn’t easy.

“Do you care about your perceptions of girl and boy more, or do you care about your kid more?” Kyra told West Virginia Public Broadcasting for the station’s series ‘Struggle to Stay.

“And I think that those are the lessons my family’s learning right now — that I’m learning right now as well. But I love them dearly; they love me back. We’re working out the kinks in between.”

But how does Appalachian culture affect gender identity?

“In Appalachia culture, which is a valid culture, they have very strong views on what is masculine and what is feminine,” said Dr. Darlene Daneker, an Associate Professor in the Counseling Department at Marshall University. She’s published several peer-reviewed studies on gender identity and, for the past three years, she’s worked to counsel those who identify as transgender — both adults and teens.

At the same time, she says transgender people are finding acceptance here in the mountain state and elsewhere in the region.

“It’s not like these people aren’t loved by anybody. Their moms and dads and their family love them, and so they’re not outcasts. That’s one really big benefit for Appalachians in West Virginia,” said Daneker.

Daneker recently spoke with Inside Appalachia to discuss how changing attitudes towards gender are affecting teens and adults in West Virginia.

So we’ll start with the definitions. What is gender fluidity and what is gender dysphoria?

Gender fluidity refers to the concept that gender is not a binary concept. We used to think there was male and female — and that was all. But that’s not true. If we think about the very female or feminine end and we place Barbie there — and on the masculine end if we put Ken there — most of us are going to fall somewhere in between there. I don’t look like Barbie and I don’t look like Ken. I look somewhere in the middle there. So, gender fluidity is moving somewhere along that continuum. We can’t say he or she is male or female. We have to kind of see where they fall on that continuous line.

Gender dysphoria is a disorder that is described in the diagnostic statistical manual [of mental disorders] as an extreme abhorrence of the body’s sexual body parts that one was born with. And this is really a disturbing disorder for those that have it. They cannot abide the sex organs that they were born with. For a person who is born female  — and who is male identified — when their breasts begin to grow, it’s as if, you know, a strange fungus were growing on their chest. And it’s very, very disturbing.

Luckily, there is a cure for gender dysphoria. Once an individual is allowed to transition into who they really are on the inside, so that now their outside matches who they already knew they were inside, then they’re no longer dysphoric. Now, they are a healthy individual that just continues on in our society like the rest of us.

And can you describe where the line might be in gender fluidity not being a disorder and gender dysphoria being a disorder until they might have the opportunity to get the cure.

Gender fluidity is not a disorder. Anybody can be gender fluid. If you were to see me walking down the street, I may be wearing jeans and a T-shirt and sneakers. And that is not a — in our society — typical feminine dress. Sex is biology and gender is a social construction of that biology. So, if somebody tells you I am a female, I’m a woman, you expect me to look and dress and act a certain way.

How important is it for you as a counselor to understand culture as you work to help folks who are transgender?

It’s critical. Understanding culture is critical for any counselor working with anybody, but particularly for those who want to work with transgendered people. When somebody is transitioning from a male to a female, for example, our social and gender roles, those things that we do in our culture that are defined as what women do and what men do, are defined by culture, as you said. And if we don’t understand that culture — and we’re helping somebody transition — then we might not be there and be able to help them understand how to fit into the culture that they were born into and where they live.

For example in this area, in Appalachia[n] culture, which is a valid culture, they have very strong views on what is masculine and what is feminine. And if we don’t understand what that means, then we might help somebody transition and help coach them to act like a male or a female in this culture. And they may not pass, which is an absolute disaster. Passing is the goal for somebody who is [in or has been in] transition. Somebody who can pass well, who was born female, will not be questioned or looked at twice but will be accepted as male and masculine.

What does the public need to know that might help bring more understanding to communities in West Virginia and across Appalachia, knowing the culture here? What does the public need to know?

First of all, that their family loves their transgender children. And so it’s not like these people aren’t loved by anybody. Their moms and dads and their family love them, and so they’re not outcasts. That’s one really big benefit for Appalachians in West Virginia. Many areas it’s not like that, but it is here that from all that I’ve heard from all of my clients, it would be really important for everybody to understand that this isn’t something that anybody, you know, decides to do on a whim. It’s not something to get attention. It’s not something to try to hide from anything. This is something that there’s something different about the person and they figure out finally it’s because they’re in the wrong body. Somehow, you know, when they were getting made, there were some wires mixed or chemicals mixed that didn’t work right. And they ended up in the body that doesn’t look like who they are.

Jessica Lilly (@JessicaYLilly) is the host West Virginia Public Brodcasting’s ‘Inside Appalachia.’ A lifetime resident of southern West Virginia, Jessica hails from Mullens in Wyoming County.

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