As Matthew Thomas-Reid grew up in the shadows of the Appalachian mountains in North Carolina, the difference between being “queer” and “quar,” as it was pronounced in that thick, Southern dialect, was obvious to him.
“Older folks would look at me and say, ‘boy, you’re quar,’ and I got that my whole life,” he recalled. “It [meant] eccentric, it was different. But you were still family or you were still community.”
Growing up queer in Appalachia had its challenges, and so did returning to his mountain community when he was older, Thomas-Reid said, but now, as a former public school teacher-turned-professor at Appalachia State University in Boone, North Carolina, he recognizes the importance of not just being a voice for the LGBTQ community in the region, but showing up for its young people who need an advocate, or even just to see someone they identify with succeeding in their rural community.
In his contribution to the newly released anthology “Storytelling in Queer Appalachia: Imagining and Writing the Unspeakable Other,” Thomas-Reid reflects on his childhood and his family stories of grappling with both queerness and “quar-ness” of his two uncles. He spoke with 100 Days in Appalachia’s Jesse Wright via Zoom call about his writing, his childhood in Appalachia and the impact that lifting up the voices of LGBTQ authors in rural spaces can have on the next generation.
Listen to the interview below.
The interview below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Jesse Wright: I want to talk a little bit about how you came to be represented in this collection.
Matthew Thomas-Reid: Thank you for the question. And, you know, sometimes, answers like this are really glamorous and interesting. This one is a little less interesting.
But as sometimes happens in the academic world, someone says, “Oh, this sounds like something you’d be interested in.” So I immediately read [the proposal]. And I thought, yes, this is fantastic.
I hadn’t at the time written anything with that sort of intersection of my Appalachian roots. And I kept gravitating to the phonetic pronunciation of queer in the sort of Southern “quar.” And I kept gravitating to it because I remembered that being a word that was used in some really interesting non-specifically weird ways, but also some specifically queer ways growing up.
So I started sort of thinking through that. And then I knew that I wanted to collaborate with some of my undergraduate students and the writing of the piece — I wanted to sort of do some triangulation with it. And we put together a little abstract and sent it out to the folks who were putting the collection together.
And they were really intrigued by the idea of doing some collaborative work with some younger folks and some undergraduate students. So that that was something I think that that really drew them to want to include it in the collection.
JW: You touched on this dialect a little bit between queer and quar. Can you go into a little bit more depth about that distinction between queer and quar? And what those two words represent in a place like Boone, North Carolina?
MTR: Yes. It’s something I grew up with and I knew it as this kind of humorous thing — I mean, as a child, you know, devoid really of sexual expression generally. Or as 7, 8, 9, 10 years old, older folks would look at me and say, “Boy you’re quar,” and I got that my whole life.
There were a number of interesting intersectionalities growing up in the rural foothills of the Appalachians being both queer, neuro-atypical, I stood out in a lot of ways as a child.
But that moniker, quar, it was always said with some kindness. It was always said with some empathy, it was always said with some community.
It was the person that you could kind of humorously smile and rib a little bit, but if anyone else said anything bad they were in trouble, right? It was that there was something very familial about the idea of quar and as I reflect on other stories that I didn’t didn’t get to in that piece.
I remember two older men — and this is probably when I was 12 years old — and they would come to the barn dances on Friday nights at a place called Windsors Crossroads. We would get together and people would bring their instruments and there would be little groups of musicians playing. And these two older men would come — and I say older, they were in their 60s at the time. And they sat together, and often they would hold hands.
And I remember asking questions, you know my 8 or 9-year-old self, what are they doing, but what I would get — I wouldn’t get, you know, anything (like) oh, stay away from them, or they’re this (kind of person). They’re just quar.
But there was something safe about the word, there was something safe about the association. But it would depend on who you talked to.
My father was always like, “Well, they’re good guys. They’re just … they’re friends. They’re just, you know, they just do what they do. But they’re great people. I knew him, I sold him a car 10 years ago,” or something like that.
But then you’d hear other people say, “Oh, I don’t know what’s going on with those two.”
But with quar, it was something, it was odd. It was eccentric, it was different. There might be something going on there, but you were still family, or you were still community. And so there wasn’t that hard-edged “other” in the word quar.
JW: When did you learn that distinction between quar and and what it meant to be queer?
MTR: So it was an actual conversation with my father. And we were in the car. And my mother who is from Burlington, North Carolina, which is is still very southern, but also, she was a flatlander, right?
So, we were having this conversation and he would say quar and she said, “Buddy, don’t say that.”
My father’s name was Buddy — “Buddy, don’t say that, that’s not a good word.”
He said, “Now quar’s just fine. It’s just fine.” And he said, “Yeah, quar just means a little bit different. It’s just a little bit different. But … now he ain’t queer.”
And the voice changed.
I was probably still pre-puberty at this point. I was maybe 10, 11, 12 years old. And I heard that edge in the voice change and, and I also heard growing up the same people who would appreciate the quar would make inappropriate gay jokes. These same folks would say, “I would disown a family member if they were gay.”
And then, of course, there was the shadow of my my uncle Ricky, who I write about in the piece, died in the mid-1990s of circumstances that the family deemed as mysterious, that didn’t want to talk about the fact that he in fact died of AIDS and sort of that that specter sat in the background.
Because the hard-edge word queer didn’t just mean something that was wrong or bad or against the Bible, it meant something that would kill you.
JW: Your piece sort of sets up a dynamic where you’ve got Ricky, who essentially had to leave to express himself. You talk a little bit about his life in Charlotte and tracking down some of the relationships that he had with people and friends and the community there, which is great. I love that little vignette of what life was like for him and the spaces that he fit into in a city like Charlotte.
And then you got your older uncle who fit more into this quar space and this tolerated space, and that those seem to be the two dynamics that you have if you’re from a small town in rural south or rural Appalachia — that those are your two choices.
Do you think that that dynamic still exists? And if not, how do you think it’s changed where we are today?
MTR: I think we’re disrupting it. And I’m very excited.
I happen to now live in another very, very small town, not too far from where I grew up. And I do see those same sort of archetypes — the quar man who’s good to his mom and I see these people all the time, and I clock them — not in rude ways, not in, “Oh, I bet you’re whatever,” but I clock them and I go, OK, so that this is, I’m not going to put a value on this because sometimes they get — these individuals have gotten married, sometimes they’ve not gotten married.
And so, you know, that still exists. And there are still the young folks who are here, [who] as soon as high school is done, they’re out.
But I really am noticing folks who are either doing one of two things — they’re staying and claiming their identity, or they’re coming back.
And this was as a part of my story. I could not wait to get out. I lived in England for five years. And when I finally came back, I felt like well, this is a very short period of time.
I (had broken up) with my partner of five years, and so I needed to come home for a minute, but then I was going to leave again. But then I didn’t leave, and I still haven’t left, really, the region.
And I think that there’s a real power in reclaiming the queer in your hometown, in your home area.
And I’ve noticed this with both my own story, but also some of my colleagues. Some of the hometown queer folks who’ve stayed and who have asserted who are proud about who they are. They have some capital, they have some real cultural capital that they can use.
I remember when I first started teaching, I was teaching in my hometown, and folks knew I was gay, but I was also Ellen’s boy. My mom had been the secretary of the high school for 20 years — everyone knew me.
I had some capital. People saw me in town, they saw me singing in the Presbyterian choir. And, and so I had, while I was very open in my identity, there was a new space that sort of opened up. It was like, “Well, we know you.”
I sort of problematize how they might have viewed me. Maybe they thought I was one of the “good ones.” There’s lots of ways to problematize those relationships. But I did get one thing consistently throughout my career in K-12 — and that was, “You’re one of the first openly gay people we’ve met, one of the first openly gay teachers we’ve met.”
I had a number of students who came out to me across that time, saying, “Just knowing you were there, just knowing you existed, just knowing your life,” helped.
Living here — my husband teaches at the local high school — and also that there are a couple of other folks at the local high school that are out, that are providing those same kinds of role models and those same kinds of disruptions.
And sometimes the disruptions aren’t pleasant. This isn’t this isn’t always good. There’s still a great deal of homophobia. There’s still epithets being shouted in hallways and administrations who are still scared to deal with it.
But I think that there really has been some significant changes. I’m seeing GSAs popping up — Gay Straight Alliances — popping up in schools that I never would have dreamed, would have had Gay Straight Alliances.
I think this is largely due to some of the folks who are breaking and disrupting that tradition. They’re coming back and they’re still being who they are. And I really think that listening to the voices of the queer diaspora, listening to the voices of queer folks who are living in rural areas and has some real value, because a lot of us don’t have the luxuries of sitting in bubbles and just curating a set of a set of friends that are always going to understand pronouns and that are never going to make inappropriate jokes.
I’ve been very fortunate at the university, I have curated mostly that set of friends, but then back out of the hollers I go, okay, I have to still be able to dialogue. I do have choices. I can just say eff you and isolate myself, or I can try to make inroads into the community. And I think there’s actually something pretty radical about that.
JW: What do you think it means to your students, to younger folks in general, to see a collection of stories like this, coming from a place like West Virginia?
MTR: I’m gonna think about it in two ways. And the first way when I teach about diversity and inclusion, I think about “safety for”, “engagement by”, and “understanding of” are the three lenses that I like to use.
And so if I think about this collection in terms of engagement by, I remember when I was a boy, I loved libraries, I loved bookstores, but I loved them because I was actually searching. I was searching for representation, and often didn’t find it.
I mean, yeah, there were a few pieces out there, there was a seminal text on growing up gay in the south. That came out in the 90s. I think Sears did that one. But the stories didn’t really end very well.
I remember whatever stories I encountered. And probably why for a while I just steered clear of gay films and stories because they’re like, okay, who’s gonna die in it? And that’s a really terrible thing to say. But as someone who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, with that sort of looming of age hanging over me, I just didn’t want to. I figured whatever stories were out there, they were probably not going to be happy ones.
So I think about engagement by young queer folks now. And I think that there are these options to read about stories like them, that are real, but that also can be uplifting. They don’t all have horrible endings.
And I think there’s an important value to be able to see yourself included and to be able to see stories that look like yours and to empathize, because we know that the ability to transfer and the ability to see yourself in other work, that increases engagement.
So I think there’s a value there, I think there’s a secondary value when you get that piece — understanding of. The vast majority of the students I teach, because I’m in the college of education — I teach pre-service and in-service teachers and future administrators — and the majority of folks that I teach are straight. They’re scientists, they’re majority white. And many of them, I think, still have this idea, particularly those who are going into elementary education, they have this idea, well, these are not things I need to talk about, or think about. I’m just going to teach the kids because I love them. And I’m just going to treat them all the same, and all of that kind of very sweet-sounding language.
But I think collections like these and narratives like these disrupt the idea that you can go in, yes, even that little rural elementary school back where you grew up, you’re going to find queerness there, whether you’re working with families, whether youre working with queer families, whether you’re working with students, (with a) variety of gender expressions, it’s going to be there, I call these things, these queer moments that you can’t get away from.
It’s not that you should want to get away from them. But one of the things I try to do with my students is teach them to be ready and how will you respond in these moments? How will you work in these situations? And you need to be able to say some of these words out loud, you need to be able to think these ideas out loud.
So I think that there’s a value not just in not just engagement by LGBTQ plus folks in understanding that where whatever context you are, it doesn’t matter how rural it doesn’t matter where you’re at, you’re going to be working with some folks who are going to be different than you and and what will it look like for you to interact in that way?
JW: We’re in a moment now of another cycle of change and upheaval and we’ve made a lot of inroads when it comes to inclusion and diversity and a lot of understanding has happened, but what’s come with it is that you’ve seen a lot of attacks — physical legislative, a lot of reactions. Are you seeing that dynamic? How do you deal with the with the concept that we need to make this change but we’re going to see some opposition
MTR: So to return to one of the lenses of the book — see, I think that’s why quar is a tool of power. And I think that it’s been a subtle tool of power that has been used because as long as you’re just quar, as long as you sort of know your place, as long as you sort of stay in a particular lane, folks will stay in their lanes.
And as soon as you speak the queer, you’ll find that as soon as you become explicit in your activism, in your openness, the others will become explicit in their opposition. And I think the answer is absolutely, yes.
So I mean, obviously, I think some of this has to do with political rhetoric. The Southern Poverty Law Center put out a piece called 10 days later, which talks about the sheer number of hate crimes in the 10 days after President Trump was elected and this is not an not an attempt to bash a person. This is just saying that words matter. And I think that folks are feeling permission. Folks who are feeling permission to speak out their homophobia, also their racism and their sexism. But I think that there’s permission to speak out homophobia in ways that there haven’t used to.
At 40 years old, I’ve experienced more incidents of overt homophobia in the last two years than I had for the first 30 years of my life. And I think that’s absolutely a reaction to visibility. Because if we’re going to stand to be visible, those who are in opposition now have to stand and be visible. And that provides opportunities for dialogue and this is the optimistic side of me.
Because as soon as I know where you stand, I can know where to stand in relation to you. But it also provides opportunities for violence. And that’s the sort of realist in me and that’s the part of me that’s more scared now.
I took part in a Black Lives Matter march two weeks ago here in the small Appalachian town that I live in. And I have not in my 40 years of life felt more afraid than I did that day walking down with two queer friends, my friend of color and walking wearing our Black Lives Matter T-shirts walking through downtown, as I saw people sitting in vehicles with guns ready for us to start rioting. And I saw people staring stony-faced, so a lot of proud deplorable T-shirts. You know, a lot of rebel flags. I saw a lot of real stonyface hatred on a lot of faces. And I’ve lived in the South most of my life and it’s the first time I’ve really started seeing that.
I’m actually at a place now where I feel concerned. I’ve never looked for homophobia. I’ve never assumed homophobia. I’ve never assumed, oh, someone’s treating me this way because of my sexuality. It’s never been a default position.
I’ve had some privilege of not having to do that. Like I said, I was Ellen’s boy. I was known in my community. But up here I find myself after interactions going, “Wait. Was I treated that way for a reason.”
It’s really starting to get in your head, you know, but it feels distinctly different. And I think that it’s continuing to happen. I was at a Democratic Party meeting a few days ago, when a high school student who, incidentally my husband taught, leaned out the car and screamed as loud as she could eff you Democrats, like four times. And I just don’t think that these are things that we’ve been saying. So I think there was a resistance. I hate to use the word resistance in that way, but I think there’s definitely some pushback.
JW: What advice would you have to people who are counseling young people of all kinds in this moment?
MTR: That’s a very difficult question. I think to answer, I’m gonna take it from my perspective as an educator and thinking about it as teachers talking to students.
I’ve always taken the stance that when counseling students about coming out that your personal safety is actually more important than feeling like you’re doing the right thing by coming out.
And I know this sounds counterintuitive. I’m an activist, and I’m very out. And I believe that I also have a lot of privilege that allows me to be out in many ways. I’m also a cisgender Southern male, and engaging is fantastic. But I think we’re putting a major premium on engagement right now. You’ve got to be calling out your family members. You’ve got to be engaging with people on Facebook, you’ve got to be changing ideas. You’ve got to be standing up to folks, you’ve got to be doing this.
And the answer is absolutely yes. But the answer is also [no].
I’ve started seeing this in the last few weeks and months with my friends and I doing activism work, where some of us are putting our bodies in danger or putting bodies on the line in some of our bodies are more vulnerable than others.
Particularly when I’m talking to young queer, transgender, non-conforming folks, especially folks who have other intersectionalities, queer folks of color. Certain bodies are more vulnerable than others. And I have to say it, those of us who have the space to speak and to interact and to do this work, yes, step up and do that work, but recognizing that we can’t make this call of arms be putting people in physical danger.
And recognizing that protecting our young folks. I’ve cautioned folks over the years about things like coming out, about saying I want to stand up to my family. And I’ve also worked with some of these same students when they’ve been kicked out of their houses, in trying to help them when they’re food and housing insecure.
So, I know that is not exactly the answer to your question, but I think, find the spaces where you can affect positive change. But let’s not make especially young folks who are so inspired to do activism, let’s make sure that we’re counseling them to keep themselves safe and look after themselves.
Because this is not something that’s going to end next week, next month or next year. I think that we’re in this moment for a really long time. And there’s activism fatigue. And I know I’m already sort of feeling it, in many ways, and a lot of my friends and colleagues and a lot of young people are. So self care and making sure that yes, we want to speak truth to power. But sometimes speaking truth to power is met with violence and recognizing that [we are] putting ourselves and putting our young people in places of danger.
We have to be very intentional in our direct action.
Matthew Thomas-Reid (he/him/his pronouns) is assistant professor of Educational Foundations and affiliate faculty with Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies at Appalachian State University. Matthew is faculty advisor for GAPP (Gay and Progressive Pedagogy) and is editor of the South Atlantic Philosophy of Education Society Journal. His areas of research include philosophy of education, social justice education and queer pedagogy. His current research projects focus on utilizing LGBTQIA histories and narratives with a view toward ’queering’ pedagogy, praxis, and, most recently, digital literacies.