By all marks, I meet Hank Williams Jr.’s Southern standards in his famous song “A Country Boy Can Survive.”
I have “a shotgun, a rifle and a four wheel drive.” My family roots in Texas and Appalachia extend beyond both my and my parents’ lifetimes. In some ways, I am typical of the stereotypes that surround both Southerners and Appalachians. On any given day pre-pandemic, I could be found mudding with friends, shooting skeet with a 12 gauge, or dressed in overalls and my Pawpaw’s Stetson.
Beneath my stereotypically masculine exterior, though, I also hold a queer identity that is too often viewed as impossible for someone who looks, talks, and behaves like me: asexuality.
Asexuality, or the lack of sexual attraction, is among the most misunderstood and least represented sexual orientations. Asexual people exist in large numbers nearly everywhere, and their experiences with asexuality are far from uniform, since asexuality exists on a spectrum.
Some asexual people engage in homo, hetero, pan, or bi-romantic relationships, which are commonly defined as relationships centered around romantic rather than sexual attraction. Asexuality is not the same as abstinence, and it is not a physical or mental disorder. Asexual people are not, and never will be, broken.
I have always been asexual, but I didn’t start to identify with that label until my senior year of high school. Like many people, I had never heard the term “asexuality,” and because of my upbringing, I was under the false belief that all humans experience sexual attraction of some sort. Initially, I thought that I must have been bisexual, because the thought of sex with a woman was as unappealing as the thought of sex with a man. Because I was equally off-put by all sexes, in my mind, that meant that I had to be bisexual. My realization of my own sexuality came as a result of two very different, unlikely places: internet forums and a deserted beach outside of Clayton, Georgia.
Immediately upon discovering asexual-centric resources in online forums, I felt an immense amount of relief. Prior to learning about asexuality, I felt as if my feelings were illegitimate and that my desires, or lack thereof, were a symptom of some physical, emotional, or social deficiency. The discovery of people that felt like I did provided much-needed self-validation and gave me tools to describe myself to the world. But it was only while camping on a beach of the Chattooga River that I finally accepted myself.
After returning from the North Georgia mountain town of Clayton in the summer of 2019, my friends and I sat around our campfire on the riverbank discussing the town. Perhaps inevitably, conversation soon turned to girls. In what I am sure was somewhat problematic language, my teenage friends began to remark on how attractive all of the women we met in Georgia were. Unable to relate to their discussion, I could only pretend to understand what they meant. While I was struggling to define my sexual desires, my peers were pursuing sexual partners and promoting their successes as trophies of their masculinity – part of what it means to mature in a Southern community in Appalachia. It didn’t matter how many “typical” facets of masculinity I exhibited because without exhibiting successful sexual pursuits, I could never truly embody “manhood” as they define it.
Detrimental ideas surrounding what it means to be a man are as American as apple pie, and as a result, often create harmful spaces for women, queer folks and other underrepresented groups. Although I recognize the toxic nature of these concepts, I often struggle to detach myself from them. For example, I can count on one hand the number of times that I have cried in front of anyone in the last five years of my life, despite my support of vulnerability exhibited by others. This brand of toxic masculinity is not unique to Appalachia, the South, or any other region; however, in the Mountain South, these expectations are actively creating young men that glorify violence, further sexual conflict and support physical, cultural and political spaces of intolerance and discrimination.
For many queer people, these toxic expectations can leave them feeling as if a fundamental part of their existence is flawed. For asexuals, this toxicity often manifests in a lack of societal recognition. This feeling of “sexual invisibility” is often seen as a “privilege” that asexuals retain, but, while asexuals certainly do not experience much of the outward discrimination other queer folks face, invisibility is far from a privilege. Living in a world that refuses to acknowledge one of the most basic parts of your humanity can be incredibly draining. I don’t want to exist as “straight passing.” I want to exist as asexual. This invisibility doesn’t avoid oppression – it just internalizes it.
I love the people, culture and beauty of the hills where I grew up. It pains me to see the media continue to perpetuate the notion that Appalachia is a “lost cause,” destined to rot away into ignorance and oppression. Too often, these outsiders attempt to speak on behalf of people like me, and as a result, cast the whole region into a damaging mold of white heteronormativity.
I believe in Appalachia, and I believe in the South. I believe in my family, friends and community. However, I also believe that in order to progress as a region, Appalachia and the wider South have to be willing to change.
While new political policies are absolutely necessary, for many people, this change may start at home. Change can be explaining the gay pride flag to your Nana or dismantling white privilege over an open tackle box. It can be discussing consent around a campfire or organizing a small-town protest. Changing Appalachia means taking to the streets, and the supper table. It means holding both your politician and your Pawpaw accountable for what they say and how they vote.
My mountains aren’t just home to straight white men. They’re home to LGBTQIA+ folks, people of color and other marginalized groups that constantly feel misrepresented, misunderstood and discriminated against. My experience with asexuality is just one symptom of the wider social structures that breed toxic masculinity. The mountain South must commit to challenging these cultural expectations, because our hollers have to be friendly to everyone – with no exceptions.
Recently, while in Tennessee, I learned of an old folk tale that says that when God created the universe, they separated heaven and earth by exactly 3 feet of space. If that’s true, then I believe that the space above Appalachia is just a little bit thinner. After all, there’s a reason that John Denver called Appalachia “almost heaven.”
We’re not quite there yet, but with a lot of work, I believe that one day we could come damn close.
Christian Shushok is 19 years old and from Blacksburg, Virginia. He is an organizer with the Appalachian Youth Climate Coalition. Currently, he is a first year student at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.