On a cloudy March evening, Roxy von Teddy stands in front of what used to be the altar of a Disciples of Christ Church in downtown Athens, Ohio. The former church is now home to the Southeast Ohio History Center, which purchased the building in 2017, but vestiges of the church remain.
Several rows of silver organ pipes form a centerpiece behind von Teddy, who is dressed in red flare-bottom pants and a matching halter-top. She’s the emcee of this spring evening drag show in Appalachian Ohio.
“I should go to church more often,” she says after the show’s opening number, which included a boisterous crowd sing-a-long to Shania Twain’s “Man, I feel Like a Woman.”
Von Teddy takes the mic between numbers to remind the crowd of the show’s purpose: to raise money for an emergency fund for college-age members of the LGBTQ community in Athens, home of Ohio University.
“We are a community, and we have to take care of each other,” she says.
The emergency fund is managed by the United Campus Ministry Center (UCM). Founded in the 1950s by the Presbyterian Church as a campus ministry serving students at OU, several other faith groups including United Methodists, Quakers and Unitarian Universalists have partnered with the organization over the years. In 1968, that partnership was incorporated as UCM.
The UCM Center sits a few blocks away from the Southeast Ohio History Center, the host of the drag fundraiser, on North College Avenue in Athens, a tree-lined street across from Ohio University’s campus. Two doors down is First United Methodist Church, and several fraternities and sororities also occupy houses on the block.
The center is a place for college-age students of faith to feel connected to their congregations back home. UCM has welcomed members of the LGBTQ community since 1968, giving students of faith a safe place to be themselves.
“Before there was an LGBTQ Center on campus, UCM was the place people gathered,” said current director Mickey Hart.
But even as UCM openly advocates for and supports the LGBTQ community in Athens, its existence coincides with a decades long, often bitter debate on human sexuality among the nation’s mainline Protestant denominations. Several have gone through painful splits as a result.
Conservative groups within the Presbyterian Church USA and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America left in 2012 and 2010 to form new, smaller denominations. And the United Methodist Church, the country’s second-largest Protestant denomination, is in the middle of what some call a “nasty divorce” over LGBTQ inclusion.
For allies of faith who support the LGBTQ community, it can be a complicated landscape to navigate. Church splits are painful, personal relationships have suffered, and in rural Appalachian towns, such divisions can fracture entire communities.
In addition to local congregations, UCM in Athens lists two regional religious governing bodies as supporters of its work: the East Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church and the Presbytery of the Scioto Valley. The conference and presbytery are responsible for supporting the clergy and congregations within their boundaries, and for ensuring that they follow the broader polity – or governing structure – of their respective denominations.
Meanwhile, questions around LGBTQ equality – including whether LGBTQ individuals can become ordained clergy – continue to plague the same mainline denominations that support UCM.
Those same divisions have spilled over into American politics. Legislation around LGBTQ rights in Appalachia, and the rest of the country, have come into sharp relief in recent months. Forty-eight bills have been passed into law this year across the country targeting the LGBTQ community, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Ten such bills are now law in the Appalachian south.
Rocking the Boat is Risky
How and when faith leaders support LGBTQ rights or speak out against legislative attacks on those rights is fraught with a history of bitter arguments over internal church polity and a desire to keep the peace. And in rural communities, people of faith sometimes stay silent because they fear being ostracized.
“People in church may also be the person who teaches their kids at school, or their employer, or even the person their husband plays golf with,” said the Rev. Robert Musick, campus chaplain at the University of Pikeville in Pikeville, Kentucky.
Musick, an Episcopalian priest, who also teaches religion courses at the university, says that clergy also sometimes hesitate to openly support the LGBTQ community because, “people don’t want to rock the boat,” he said
Local churches not only pay clergy salaries, but also often provide their housing and retirement benefits. Speaking out on social issues means risking their livelihood and uprooting their families, he explained.
In small towns in Appalachia, Musick says that clergy also risk something else: their prominent place as spiritual leaders in their communities.
“There’s quite a status that comes with being the pastor of a church,” he said. “The wrath of the community can really come down on you.”
But as an Episcopalian priest, Musick says he is fortunate. The Episcopal Church has a history of support and inclusion of the LGBTQ community. The denomination consecrated the Rev. Gene Robinson bishop in 2003, the first time an openly gay man rose to that office in any Christian denomination in the United States.
Additionally, the University of Pikeville pays Musick’s salary, not a local church. And he enjoys the support of his current bishop.
“That makes a huge difference in terms of my ministry,” he said.
In April of 2017, Musick was in the streets of downtown Pikeville during a rally and confrontation between white supremacist groups and anti-fascist counter protestors.
The following year, a group of local volunteers organized Pikeville Pride, a nonprofit that works to support the LGBTQ community in Pike County and the surrounding area.
“The idea was to show up as a community, and to let people in the area know that this [Pikeville] is a welcoming space,” said Cara Ellis, who serves as the organization’s volunteer executive director. The group has sponsored several gatherings, including a Pride Prom in 2019.
When asked if there were allies of faith who support the group, Ellis hesitated. “Lots of our people have been traumatized by religious groups,” she said. But Musick, she noted, has been a consistent helpful presence, engaging with people who show up to protest the group’s public activities.
“He keeps them occupied so we can enjoy our events without worrying,” she said.
Allies like Musick are critical during what has been a tumultuous time for the LGBTQ community in Kentucky and throughout Appalachia. This spring, a drag show in Prestonsburg, Kentucky, was canceled because the owner of the event venue received death threats.
Just weeks later, on March 29, students from all over Kentucky rallied at the state capitol in Frankfort to protest SB150. The bill – now law after Kentucky legislators voted to overturn Governor Andy Bashear’s veto – bans gender-affirming care for transgender teens. It also allows teachers in public schools to refrain from using a student’s preferred pronouns.
The day after the rally in Frankfort, Musick acknowledged the work of Pikeville Pride with a Twitter post.
“So thankful for @PikevillePride and their work of truth, love, and community building…we are so much better because of you,” he wrote.
Musick was not alone in his public facing support of the group. The Rt. Rev. Mark Van Koevering, bishop of the Lexington Episcopal diocese, also responded by issuing a pastoral letter to 6,000 church members scattered in 36 Episcopalian churches around central and eastern Kentucky.
In the Episcopal tradition, pastoral letters are written to address “points of Christian doctrine, worship, or manners” to the local churches under a bishop’s spiritual leadership.
“In recent weeks, the Kentucky legislature has taken actions that have produced hardship, anxiety, exhaustion, and fear for many across the Commonwealth,” van Koevering wrote.
The bishop cited cuts in economic aid for the poor, along with SB150 and the failure of legislators to address gun violence as sources of great pain for the people of Kentucky.
“In our polarized society, honest debate of issues is extremely difficult, but what is beyond doubt is that many feel hurt, desperate, afraid, and alone.”
Balancing Denominational Leadership and Public Support
Van Koevering’s pastoral letter hasn’t appeared in any media coverage of the protests of SB150 in Frankfort. That’s partly because Christian leaders at the denominational level are concerned with carrying out the broader polity and ministry of their respective organizations rather than garnering media attention.
The Episcopal Diocese of Lexington’s intended audience was local church members, not the general public so the letter was sent to churches via email and published on the diocese’s website.
“Our job is to enforce the process, not the person,” said the Rev. Ed Thompson, who serves as head Presbyter for the West Virginia Presbytery. Presbyters are the equivalent of a bishop in the Presbyterian Church, USA (PCUSA).
In other words, as long as an individual or local church follows denominational rules, the Presbytery doesn’t intervene in their work or in any stance the church takes. Conversely, Thompson doesn’t issue official public statements of support on social issues either, because it’s not his job.
But Thompson also acknowledges the challenges facing local congregations, many of whom have members who fall on opposing sides of issues like abortion and LGBTQ equity.
“We have a lot of purple congregations,” he said, alluding to the conservative, progressive and centrist people in local church pews. Alienating or excluding people based on their stance on culture war issues “just divides them further,” he said.
Creating Community, One Relationship at a Time
In his pastoral letter, Bishop van Koevering recalled the early Christian church, which he said, welcomed “the least, the hurting, the vulnerable, and the forgotten.” And that hospitality, he said, “goes beyond safe refuge and compassionate care, it also invites us into the Good News of God’s acceptance and love.”
Nicholas Weston Hites, who attends St. James Episcopal Church in Prestonsburg, Kentucky, took those words to heart, reaching out through his Twitter account in solidarity with the LGBTQ community in eastern Kentucky.
“If you desire a safe and affirming place to experience the love of Christ, St. James Episcopal Church welcomes you to Holy Eucharist at 10:00am,” he wrote. Pikeville Pride retweeted Hite’s message, noting that they often receive messages asking for “safe and affirming places of worship.”
“Knowing we have this resource in our region means a lot to us,” they added.
The brief Twitter exchange may not seem like much. But at a time of heightened tensions in the region and across the country around public stances of support for LGBTQ rights, it is meaningful.
As Pikeville Pride director Ellis put it: “We’ll take all the help we can get.”