Queer Resilience in the Appalachian Mountains

by LB Prevette

It feels redundant to even use queer and resilience in the same sentence. Resilience is woven into the very fibers of queer community. We walk through a world that wasn’t made for us, at times using language that hasn’t yet evolved enough to communicate how we feel.

I grew up in a trailer on a chicken farm in the middle of nowhere. Town was a twenty minute drive away, and town meant a Wal-Mart that closed at 9 p.m. My road wasn’t paved until I was nearly in my teens and my Dad used to shake his head in disgust any time a car would drive by too fast, stirring up too much dust.

My home is in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and our home sat in the middle of a rolling hayfield. Our background noise was the constant cluck of chickens and the summer lullaby of cicadas and tree frogs. I was always in love with not just the land, 

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but our community. Farmers know that you can do everything right and still fail. Sometimes it doesn’t rain, sometimes it rains too much. Wells can run dry and creeks can run over their banks. It was a community that operated under the assumption that everybody had tried their best and if they needed help, of course you were going to go help. That mindset has never left me.

Growing up, I went to church at least three times a week. Though my family was never what I would call devout, church was the center of social life. I thought of Sunday service as having two distinct sections: joy and fear. Service would start with joy. We sang hymns and caterwauled to the heavens. The preacher would tell us all to “turn and fellowship with one another” as we shook hands and said hello to our neighbors in the pews behind us.

Then came fear. The pastor would begin his sermon. I can’t remember ever hearing the red text (Jesus’ direct words are printed in red in the Old King James’ bible I grew up reading) as part of a sermon in my childhood. We kept to the Old Testament and the condemnation. The pastor was known for his “kicking leg,” which he raised high as he told of the fire and brimstone that awaited sinners. That awaited me. My neighbors, my family, my world at that age, all nodded along in agreement. I began to realize that there were terms and conditions to the love given within my community.

By the end of high school, my sexuality was the big open secret that caused a sneer when I walked by both my classmates and my neighbors. My family didn’t talk about it, hoping that if they ignored the obvious, it would eventually stop being true. I kept my head down. My girlfriend and I stayed as undercover as we could, and I spent my spare time hiding in the hills, daydreaming about the day I’d have my own farm. My dad, however, was resolute that I would not be staying in this town. We’d be working in the chicken houses together and as we picked up the eggs he’d say,  “Laura Beth, make sure you go to school. I don’t want you working like this the rest of your life.” So, I swallowed the idea. Being a lesbian made it easier. Of course, all the kids with potential were supposed to leave, but gay kids had to leave, no matter what. We heard it from every direction. The folks here didn’t want us around. And our powerful queer communities in the cities didn’t want to come here to save us.

***

 The spring that I was wrestling with the thought of leaving brought Merlefest. Every April our community college is adorned with tents and concert stages for the largest bluegrass festival on the East Coast. By then I was old enough to hang out at the campgrounds when the music had ended. I was at a bonfire with friends after the Avett Brothers set. The night turned chilly and I left to get a jacket from my car. I rounded a corner, and suddenly I heard someone say, “You fucking dyke.” That was the last thing I remember before a branch came swinging to split open my face.

I woke up alone, god knows how long later, covered in mud and blood. This wasn’t my home—that had been made clear. I wasn’t welcome here. No matter how much love I had for this community, it was unrequited. I left for college the following fall and began to learn how to exist in my own skin. I was open and out and free. I had friends, I had girlfriends, and most importantly I had hope for what my life was going to be. But life always has a way of calling you home.

 

***

I was nineteen when my father died. I dropped out of college and returned home with my jaw set, ready to face the demons I was trying to outrun.

But I was surprised. Of course, the community didn’t support me as a lesbian, but they loved me as Kris’s daughter. And when my father passed away, the rest didn’t matter. The people of my town still showed up with desserts and hugs and helped us pick up eggs on the farm. They made sure we were taken care of and that we didn’t have to feed ourselves in the weeks following, because we couldn’t.

That was the community I had once loved so much.  One full of people who, regardless of whether they agree with who you are or how you live your life, support you, are really good cheerleaders, and always take care of you. You know who your neighbors are and you know they’ll show up when you’re in need.

 

***

In the years following I wound my way out west. There I became more involved in queer community. I was happy and vibrant, but it all hit me one night as I stood in the LGBT group where we worked with the youth. There were more adults there than kids. All I could think about was home. I decided to move home in that moment, but a part of me still fought it tooth and nail. I was still convinced that the only path to success was staying in a city and chasing a dream of financial stability. In the months to come I spent more time defining success for myself. I had not been able to stop thinking about all the kids still back home like me. Home needed me more than the city ever could.  And so I did it. I moved back home to the foothills of Appalachia to try and be the adult I had always needed.

It was there that I met a miracle lesbian, Megan Barnett. Megan recognized the need to empower young adult voices and had just created a community action group for young adults in Wilkes County called Forward Wilkes, a nonpartisan community action group focused on increasing civic engagement, spurring economic development, and actively engaging the youth of Wilkes County.  Megan was able to build trust and connections within our town. We were overjoyed at the community that had been created.

But Megan and I wanted to do more. From there our proudest achievement, HangOUT, was born. HangOUT is a partnership with St. Paul’s episcopal church where we host events for queer youth to come be in fellowship. Children in Appalachia who are LGBT can face discrimination from their own families to the point of homelessness. If you’re homeless in rural Appalachia, the resources you would need to get back on your feet are faith-based. Faith is the cornerstone of most organizations that provide necessary resources to my neighbors in need. With HangOUT, we were able to create open and affirming spaces where kids know they can be fully seen as themselves and still part of the faith community, if they want to be: both of those identities can co-exist.

Some Hangout events would have only two or three youth arrive. Some weeks we would fill the room wall to wall. HangOUT became an event that we looked to not only as a chance to serve our community, but as a way to hear stories and connect with our neighbors that don’t often get the opportunity to share their stories. At one HangOUT, a youth was attending for the first time. We keep name tags with pronouns at the door for attendees to fill out. This kid stared at the nametags, but never reached to grab one. I asked them their name and they just looked up at me with wide eyes of panic. They were wearing a pretty funky pair of glasses and I said, “Is it ok if I just call you Specs? Because your glasses are great.” They nodded with a downcast smile. Specs came back to the next HangOUT. They walked right up to the stack of nametags, grabbed one, circled their pronouns, and proudly wrote “Max.” “Hey, Max,” I said as they passed by. Later they told me it was the first time an adult had ever called them by their real name.

***

 

At the same time Megan was dreaming up and founding Forward Wilkes, I had decided to run for County Commissioner. The incumbent had recently been exposed as part of deep financial malfeasance within our transportation authority, a service that is vitally important to our most vulnerable community members. There’s no public transit here. Not even Uber. And he was running without a democratic challenger.

 I had no dreams that I would win, but I knew I wanted to fight. My campaign gained momentum and started to grab the attention of folks from outside Appalachia. Then the New York Times’ David Brooks came to Wilkes as part of an initiative through The Aspen Institute called Weave: The Social Fabric project. They came to listen, and for the first time, somebody let  us tell our own stories.

I didn’t win my election, but I did win the attention of those folks. Since then I’ve been fortunate to tell the story of my town across the country. To challenge the stereotype of Appalachia. To talk about this community of great people who dream big and follow through. Who lead through service. Who lead with love. It is a shame that it has taken this long for Appalachia to be seen for who she really is, a community grounded in love for her neighbors.

***

 

I straddle two worlds. And I love them both. Most folks would say to live in one would be to deny the other, but there is a toll that is taken on your soul when you deny any part of your truth. If you can’t be yourself in your day to day life, find a place, whether that be online or in a trusted confidante, where you can be yourself. All of yourself. Even if those ideas seem in conflict. You need a place to be honest. A place to heal.

And if you can come out, come out. The fear and anxiety that kept me up all night was never worth it. I was afraid of the opinions of people that didn’t matter. And because I didn’t have anybody that I let in to my truth, I didn’t have anywhere to go when I was face-to-face with violence. I instead had a secret that I carried for nearly a decade. The weight of that pain influenced every decision until I finally set it free.

Choosing to come home meant that I no longer belonged to anybody. The queer community laughs at my accent and manners, while the folks back home raise eyebrows and shake their heads as I walk down the street hand in hand with my partner. And that’s okay. For right now I may live in a liminal space—both wholly queer and wholly Appalachian. But one day, these won’t be mutually exclusive ideas. One day folks will see us. Folks will know that these identities can, and do, coexist.

For too long the queer community has been represented solely through metronormativity. The absence of rural queer life in the media leaves folks having to choose: Which community defines me? Which community am I allowed to love? When the real answer is both. Small towns create the opportunity to connect as people. To see and know each other not as monoliths representing a subculture, but as a person who has experienced love and pain, just like you have. That connection is where real change happens. One person at a time.

Laura Beth Prevette (LB) (she/her) returned to her Appalachian home after studying on the West Coast. Since 2012 she has been working in her hometown to create meaningful change by breaking down social barriers and creating an inclusive community. LB is a Fellow of the inaugural class of the Civil Society Fellowship, aggressive friend, and doting dog mom.