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Queer Appalachia

Collecting Stories in the South, This LGBTQ Archive Shows a Thriving, Although Hidden, History

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A collection of the photos, articles and memorabilia the Invisible Histories Project has collected in the South. Images: Courtesy IHP

As a home-schooled child raised in Philadelphia, Mississippi, Mackenzie Gray didn’t have access to information about transgender people. The 39-year-old woman, now living in Birmingham, Alabama, thought she was just a gay man drawn to activities people typically labeled as feminine. But after meeting other trans women at drag performances in Southern Appalachia and watching the 2005 docuseries TransGeneration, Gray had finally found a term that she felt explained her “to a T.”

“I’ve always felt female,” Gray said. “I even had a name that I used to call myself secretly that nobody else really knew.”

Soon after that revelation, Gray made her first visit to a transgender health clinic in Tennessee and began hormone therapy. But when the Great Recession hit, Gray lost her job and moved back in with family. She decided to pause her medical transition, in part because she could no longer afford her prescriptions. 

Around 2013, she heard about the opening of an LGBTQ healthcare clinic in Jackson, Mississippi. Gray was living with a friend in the area and the clinic had a shuttle service that could take patients directly to their appointments. She called the Open Arms Healthcare Center and asked what types of services they would be offering to trans patients. 

“And they said, ‘None. There’s not a need in this state,’” Gray said. “I said, ‘Oh no, you’re wrong, I can give you access to a Facebook group where there’s 800 trans individuals in this state that are looking for healthcare.’”

Gray encouraged Open Arms to reevaluate the demand in the area, and connected them with others who needed medical care. Soon, the clinic opened a trans services department, and hired a doctor who specializes in hormone replacement therapy. Gray was one of the department’s first patients. 

“I also went on The Jerry Springer Show at about the same time,” to publicly talk about her transition. “My parents … cut all communication with me from that point forward. And so, because I had lost contact with my family, I had nothing to lose.” 

“So when I flew back [from the taping], I flew back as Mackenzie,” Gray said. “I burned every bit of male clothing and everything that was identifying as male. I started living my life full time.”


Gray’s anecdote is one of several she shared recently with members of the Invisible Histories Project (IHP), a non-profit organization based in Birmingham, Alabama. It launched in 2018 with the goal of documenting Southern LGBTQ culture and history by collecting photographs and videos of LGBTQ events and protests. IHP also accepts community memorabilia and is conducting a series of oral history interviews with notable community members. 

Joshua Burford, left, and Maigen Sullivan, right, are the co-founders of the Invisible Histories Project. Photo: Courtesy IHP

Co-founded by Alabama natives Maigen Sullivan and Joshua Burford, the project initially focused on LGBTQ history in their home state, but now is expanding, thanks to a $300,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellow Foundation. The support has allowed IHP to create two satellite projects in the neighboring states of Mississippi and Georgia, on the campuses of the University of Mississippi at Oxford and University of West Georgia. 

For now, the archives are largely being compiled and, to some degree, made available for viewing on university campuses, but IHP also plans to eventually open an off-campus public history museum in Alabama and is working to create a travelling collection that can be sent to museums and universities in other states. Eventually, Sullivan said that she hopes IHP will have locations throughout the Southeast.

Gray’s first interaction with IHP came when the organization wanted to document the history of Mystic Krewe of Caritas, a Birmingham-based fundraising organization that exists to raise money for AIDS Alabama. As Caritas vice president, she wanted to highlight the importance of their work. BUt IHP wanted to document her personal stories and life experiences too. Sharing those memories helped Gray realize that she had in fact contributed in a positive way to the LGBT community in Mississippi, if only in a small way. 

“In 20 or 30 years, there may be a young gay teen who’s able to access the website of the history,” Gray said. “They’ll read my story or maybe some of the other people’s stories and maybe get comfort from ‘Oh, I’m not alone.’”

Sullivan said she wants the public to have access to recordings of personal stories like Gray’s through IHP’s archives. Those oral histories, in combination with the project’s other collected materials, provide LGBTQ Southerners with proof that their communities– and their identities– not only existed in the region, but thrived there. 

“Growing up, we thought we couldn’t be queer because we’re Southern. Then we realized that we are queer because we’re Southern,” she said. “They’re both informed by each other. Our queerness is uniquely shaped by our experiences as Alabama folks.”

The idea for IHP was developed years before the project’s initial launch. Since 2012, Burford had been working on an LGBTQ history project in Charlotte, North Carolina, creating a collection at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. Sullivan and Burford wanted to expand the model to encompass an entire state. They decided to start in Birmingham, eventually branching out to Tuscaloosa, Huntsville, Montgomery and Mobile. 

The organization’s efforts have so far been well-received in those communities, Burford said. So much so that IHP has been inundated with material, most of which is recorded on archaic forms of media: old VHS tapes, 8-millimeter film reels and cassette tapes, to name a few. Burford and Sullivan even ordered a refurbished VCR, sold for $80, to preserve the donated footage. 

Joshua Burford processes some of the archives collected for the IHP project. Photo: Courtesy IHP

IHP plans to digitize some but not all of the materials it has received so far. The project’s staff is limited and digitizing material can require a lot of time, money and additional equipment. Beyond that, Burford said he and Sullivan don’t believe that digitizing everything in the collection would be helpful in the long run to those who live in the regions the project documents. 

“There are still a lot of people in the American South who don’t have access to the Internet. And so creating a fully digital archive doesn’t help someone that’s living in rural West Mississippi that doesn’t have access to the internet except in the library,” Burford said. “What we’re doing now is we’re digitizing things like sermons from queer affirming ministers, things that we know that if put it out into the universe … people will get a very high impact from actually experiencing them.”

IHP has numerous repositories where members of the public can rifle through some of the 30 collections the project has created so far. Sullivan said the benefit of a largely physical collection is that it gives interested parties an incentive to see the relevant materials in person. In the fall, IHP plans to upload a directory to search the available collections and find where particular artifacts can be viewed.

An example of a piece of the IHP archives. Photo: Courtesy IHP

“We’re both really invested in this idea of the power of the material,” Sullivan said. “Seeing folks go through [the archive] and actually hold and touch the materials is a powerful moment for identity recognition, as well as movement and community building.”

But it’s not just the long-term history of LGBTQ Southerners IHP is diligently working to collect, it’s also history that’s being made today, like the first Birmingham Black Pride event held in 2018. 

Tony Christon-Walker, an organizer who also serves as director of prevention and community services at AIDS Alabama, said Birmingham Black Pride took more than a decade to organize and came after his community felt shunned by the region’s larger Central Alabama Pride. Now, his event is focused on illustrating the cultural priorities and intersectional differences between members of the LGBTQ community at large. This coming year, Christon-Walker said his event will include a comedy show and an educational summit. 

“We have more issues to worry about than just being gay,” he said. “We have poverty issues we have to worry about. We have discrimination from our churches, there’s violence in our community, and the HIV problem that our community is facing.”

Documenting and contextualizing that inner-community tension is one of the many challenges IHP hopes to tackle, Sullivan said. She also hopes to continue the non-profit’s work of convincing people in the community, especially older members, that their stories have value and are worth preserving.

“We spend a great deal of our time convincing people that their work, even if it’s just small, local community based, is important,” Sullivan said. “It’s critically important, not just for the community here, but in the bigger, grander narrative of queer history.”

Tiffany Stevens (@tiffanymstevens) is an independent journalist living in Southwest Virginia. Their work focuses on the media, the LGBT community and Appalachia.

Editor’s Note: This story initially identified Sullivan and Burford as employees of the University of Alabama. IHP is an independent 501c3 and the university serves as its fiscal sponsor for the Mellon Foundation and an academic partner. 

Queer Appalachia

‘We’re Going To Do It No Matter What’: Appalachian Queer Film Festival Is Back, With Plans To Stay

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Jon Matthews, who co-founded the Appalachian Queer Film Festival in 2015, sits with the audience for the event’s opening night. Photo: Emily Allen/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

When civil rights attorney-turned-filmmaker Jon Matthews agreed to start a film festival with his friend Tim Ward, Matthews said the title alone was the selling point. 

“He’s like, ‘It’s Appalachian Queer Film Festival,’” Matthews said. “I’m, like, ‘Done. You’ve got me. Sold.’ … I never heard anything like those two words in the same sentence before, ‘Appalachian and queer.’”

He recalled the festival’s origin story from the Floralee Hark Cohen Theater, an intimate room underneath the Taylor Books coffee shop in downtown Charleston, where the 2019 Appalachian Queer Film Festival (AGFF) took place last weekend. 

Matthews and Ward, who live in Los Angeles and New York respectively, are both West Virginia natives. Several of the films they chose to show this year involved directors from and stories set in Appalachia, or rural America. 

“We want to bring good film here, but we also like to bring people from out of state here to show them like, ‘Hey, we don’t meet all the stereotypes that you might have in your head,’” Matthews said. “We’re much more open-minded … And we love good cinema.”

The first AQFF took place in 2015, at the Lewis Theater in Lewisburg, Greenbrier County. The two curators had secured a grant from the Greenbrier County Community Foundation, which had received $6,700 to help with the festival, from the West Virginia Humanities Council. 

The AQFF received honorable mentions from national news outlets, including Vice and the Huffington Post.

“To The Stars,” directed by Ashland, Kentucky, native Martha Stephens, was the first film of the 2019 Appalachian Queer Film Festival at the Floralee Hark Cohen Theater in Charleston. Photo: Emily Allen/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

In 2016, Matthews and Ward’s work was acknowledged by a different type of publication — a study on wasteful spending in West Virginia by the Cardinal Institute, a conservative lobbying group funded by the Koch Brothers. 

The report, “Wild and Wasteful West Virginia,” said the festival was using state dollars to show films that “many taxpayers would find objectionable.”

Among its list of wasteful spending in festivals, the study also called attention to grants supporting the West Virginia Strawberry Festival, the State Fair of West Virginia and the Mountain State Forest Festival. 

The West Virginia Humanities Council decided against rewarding the AQFF a second grant in 2016. According to Erin Riebe, grants administrator for the West Virginia Humanities Council, the decision had nothing to do with the study. 

Rather, Riebe said, the AQFF’s second application didn’t meet the council’s requirements for humanities content. 

“A small festival like that, you know, it kind of really hurts,” Matthews said. “So, we took a hiatus because of that grant being taken away, and really regrouped after that. We’ve taken this time to kind of find our legs again.”

After viewing “To The Stars” during the first night of the 2019 Appalachian Queer Film Festival in Charleston, viewers got to ask Director Martha Stephens, an Ashland, Kentucky, native about the movie. Photo: Emily Allen/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Today, the AQFF receives support from local nonprofits, businesses and the West Virginia International Film Festival. Regardless of this year’s turnout and cost, Matthews said he’s looking forward to having an Appalachian Queer Film Festival next year, and for years to come. 

“We’re going to do it no matter what,” Matthews said. “Even if just two people show up, we’re still going to do it, because we feel like this is important. So many people come up to us, and say the fact that this thing exists is important to them. They’re like, ‘I had trouble even saying who I was, and now there’s a film festival that represents that, and it kind of carries that banner for me.’”

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member. 

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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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

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.

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