Growing up queer in Appalachia

A 2005 sleepover to watch RENT, newly released, on the new format of DVD. My friends and I were inspired by its depiction of the queer NYC artist lifestyle. The queer NYC artists I now live with have a big problem with this movie, which is also fair.

Queer self-knowledge in young Appalachia: a retrospective

The culture of homophobia and advocacy in North Carolina public schools in the 2000s, how it fit in with the broader context of the American LGBT rights movement, and how it compares with the conversation on trans issues and HB2, 10 years later

We were strange children. We were obsessed with androgyny, or unable to imagine ourselves growing up. Sometimes we were just acutely alienated, for seemingly no reason. We were vulnerable, and that made us angry. This, at least, hasn’t changed.

Each of us started out in a vacuum, finding clues only by serendipity: talk shows, offhand comments from parents or teachers. We were drawn to certain stories before we had an inkling why. For me, it was those fantasy novels where a girl has to disguise herself as a boy. For others: “Middlesex." Oscar Wilde. “Ma Vie en Rose”. Webcomics. Fanfiction. Certain online forums. When we ran out of stories, we started searching for more. When we couldn’t find any, many of us wrote our own.

We came of age in rural Appalachia under the Bush administration. Proud of its reputation as a neighborly environment, it was nevertheless overwhelmingly White, Baptist, and working class, with cultural roots deep but not broad — which often meant a deep-seated hostility when it came to the encroachment of outsiders, racial, religious, economic, or otherwise.

Growing up, I was enough of an outsider for other kids. I was quite earnestly called “hippie,” like it was the 1970s, and once even “heathen,” like it was the 1670s. It wasn’t until a few years later that I was called “lesbian” by anything but implication—and, as far as they were concerned, they didn’t need a worse word than that. (Sometimes the bullies know something you don’t.)

This was the era of “that’s so gay" and “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve." It was euphemism and silence, overt harassment, willful misinterpretation of the political rhetoric of the time, e.g., “I’m not homophobic, I’m not afraid of gay people.”

It was playground games called Smear the Queer, and maybe your occasional (charitable!) “lesbians are hot, but gay dudes are gross.” I once saw a classmate get gay-bashed by being called “Clay,” as in Aiken, from American Idol, who wasn’t even out at the time.

In some ways, things changed at light speed. When my sister attended the same middle school eight years later, she told me that all her friends there were into “Glee.” I was shocked. Didn’t that show have a sympathetic, openly gay character? Like, on purpose?

In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to perform legal same-sex marriages. I was in the ninth grade. It has been much noted that, for better or for worse, this particular issue became symbolic of the LGBT rights movement as a whole, but in the case of many sheltered Southern children it was quite literally so.

“Do you believe in gay marriage?” was (and, I suspect, still is in some circles) a code for “Are you super homophobic, or naw?” It was a neutral way to feel out someone’s views; it didn’t always have to get ugly. (And if I was spoiling for a fight, I assumed I was just being righteous.)

When we strange children found each other, we thought it was for a shared love of certain stories—and it was true—but for many of us it wasn’t the whole truth. I’ve heard so many reports of closeted kids’ witch-like ability to detect one another that I know better than to call it a coincidence.

Sometimes, my friends and I would host crossdressing parties. It was the only word we knew for what we were doing: bringing skirts and ties to swap with each other, doing each other’s hair and makeup, then sitting around eating snacks and feeling cool.

The word “transgender” was little-known at the time, at least around there. I was familiar with it, but only for having done quite a bit of research on the subject. One friend came out to me as trans our sophomore year, with a kind of furtive terror that had me half convinced she’d killed a man. Another came out just months after I first described the concept to him. I kept their secrets and snuck them both clothes and books. This was the opposite of the vicious confrontation I felt I was bound for, but it would turn out to be some of the most intimate and soul-growing work I did in those years.

In my entire high school career, I knew of a small handful of gay and bi kids, three binary trans kids, and a whole bunch of us who wouldn’t or couldn’t, by appearance or deed, perform gender the way we were expected to—but all of us were subject to the same kind of harassment, the kind broadly directed at “gays.”

And so we were in solidarity with the out LGBT kids, or considered ourselves somehow parallel but non-intersecting. Some of us came out eventually too, but not until years later—due to self-deception and self-preservation, certainly, but also because the words for how we felt were either inaccessible or simply did not exist yet. In some ways, it was like a microcosm of the urban queer communities that came decades before us—the dichotomy between gender and orientation mutable, the choices before us limited to either denial or invention.

Whatever our reasons were, we considered ourselves allies, and we got political. We had a Gay-Straight Alliance, sort of (the school forced us to broaden our scope and change the name to “Diversity Club”). Most of our activism was small in scale, providing safe spaces or making simple demonstrations of hypocrisy.

One boy was sent to the principal’s office for wearing makeup and forced to wash it off despite his argument that there was nothing against it in the dress code. A friend and I once saw in our health teacher's notes that the safest sex was married, monogamous, and heterosexual; we agreed to walk out of class if he ever said it out loud, but to our mixed relief and disappointment, he never did.

Most Thursday afternoon meetings were not really revolutionary enough for my sensibilities, but once a year the Diversity Club was the center of a firestorm: the Day of Silence, a national student protest held every April. Symbolic of the oppressive silence imposed by homophobic classrooms and hallways, it is criticized in some mainstream activist spaces for being too passive, for literally shutting up LGBT students and their allies. In our school, though, it was a high-stakes gauntlet that brought local free speech debates to the fore.

We had our supporters, but we also had teachers deliberately assigning oral presentations on that day, students throwing us against lockers or wearing homemade T-shirts with slogans like “I didn’t want to talk to you anyway, faggot," or “Exit Only” (with an arrow pointing at the ass).

We were organized. We were silent if we could afford to be, wrote down the names of students who would verbally and physically assault us, and lobbied administrators not to excuse the absences on religious grounds when conservative (or just unprincipled) students stayed home the next day for a counter-demonstration they called “Day of Truth.”

Not only did our actions draw adult protesters to campus, it was also closely documented by scaremonger right-wing websites for people all over the country to weigh in on. A quick Google search of my high school’s name and “Day of Silence” still yields headlines from those years such as: “Silenced on the Day of Silence,” and “AWOL ACLU?” whenever a student was sent home for a homophobic T-shirt, or “Students excused for skipping gay day,” whenever administrators caved on the Day of Truth thing. If the eyes of the nation were on us, we didn’t have a clear idea to what extent, or whose eyes.

In 2004 (again: my freshman year, as well as the year Diversity Club was founded), a handbook for North Carolina conservatives was published, entitled “Homosexual Indoctrination: How Safety Is Used to Promote Homosexuality in Schools.” It named GSAs and Day of Silence as among the biggest threats to family values, using words like “cunning” and “dangerous.”

Frankly, I would have been thrilled to know my enemies considered me dangerous.

Denial is one hell of a drug, though. It wasn’t until I was safely graduated and out of the South that I fell in love and finally admitted to myself that my interest in queer issues was more than just academic. Figuring out my gender took even longer. For me it had always been something personal, abstract, and unnamed. I once mentioned something about it in Diversity Club, for a friend to high-five me with an enthusiastic, “Yeah, genderqueer!”—but even presented with a term that undeniably described my experience, it took at least five more years to internalize it.

In 2008, my very first semester of college, I cajoled my way into an upper-level class on trans and intersex studies (for, you know, some reason). The first thing the professor told us was that this was a very young field of study, and anything she had to teach us could become obsolete in a matter of months. She was right: for example, as the socially and medically acceptable narrative of transness has broadened, “MTF” and “FTM” have fallen out of common parlance in favor of more inclusive terms like “transfeminine” and “transmasculine,” and nonbinary identities have gained a relatively undisputed place under the trans umbrella. That was what it took for me. Some of my other friends took even longer. Some probably still don’t have it worked out.

But of course it wasn’t just nomenclature that kept us in the dark. And it wasn’t just a dearth of role models, although that was certainly the case as well. We dreaded acknowledging that not only were we involved in a crusade for justice, we were among the vulnerable. Living authentically had to mean making a statement, throwing your lot in with a group currently under fire, and that was frightening. It felt like coming home, but it also felt like painting a target on your own back.

In 2012, Amendment 1 was passed in North Carolina, and same-sex marriage, by no means legal at the time, was explicitly outlawed just for good measure. I remember the sympathetic murmurs from my college friends. I remember waving off their condolences, claiming it didn’t affect me personally, but knowing that it sent a clear, cruel message. Of course, Amendment 1 backfired after only a few months when the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals struck it down, effectively legalizing gay marriage there and in several surrounding states.

History repeats itself. Just as America is patting itself on the back for not being homophobic anymore, the so-called “Transgender Tipping Point” (as Time dubbed it in 2014) is in full swing. In many ways, the spotlight is a boon to the community, but it also sheds light on those who are trying to stay hidden. Today, HB2, North Carolina’s infamous “bathroom bill,” feels disturbingly familiar.

Harassment in bathrooms was certainly a problem for my peers when we were in school — I remember one friend asking, "Why can't they have a bathroom just for gay kids?” and I remember laughing just imagining the moral panic. Now it has become the new dog-whistle political issue, just like “gay marriage” before it.

I have a straight, cisgender Christian friend still living in our hometown, who in 2002 was wary about the lesbians on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but who has grown into a kind and positive man. He recently told a story on Facebook about shopping for a purse for Mother’s Day when he was approached by a stranger who demanded to know, “Transgender, are we?” (like he didn’t need a worse word.) I think my friend meant to highlight the absurdity of the situation, but I found it chilling.

The tipping point is a mixed blessing; when people weren’t aware of the concept of transness, they didn’t exactly know what to look for. Before, the word wasn’t reaching the ears of people who needed it, but now it’s used like a slur in the mouths of people who hate what it represents. And this kind of hypervisibility brings a well-documented backlash of violence.

I have every reason to believe this round of miscalculated legislative aggression will hasten its own demise just like before, but that’s hollow comfort. People will die because of HB2. They already have. By others’ hands or their own, as a public spectacle, a threat to the rest of us, or so privately that no one else ever finds out why.

I know that for kids in school today, this is going to be felt acutely. I know that being a child on the front lines of this kind of struggle is a special kind of helplessness that grows a special kind of rage. I can’t help feeling both all over again on their behalf, but to me, it feels more like a flare-up of an old injury.

I visit often, but I never moved back home. In large part I stayed away for the same reason anyone from the rural South does: to find work. That said, I’m not the only person from our small school who came out and moved to New York. There’s a reason it’s a classic.

Lots of us left, or tried to. Some of us have been forced back into the closet. Some were able to stay put and strike a balance, but not nearly enough. I have a very typical queer Southern expatriate chip on my shoulder: furious at what happened to me there, furious at what still happens to my people, furious that anyone else would use their suffering as a rhetorical cudgel to distract from the exact same shit happening in their own backyards. Guilty for leaving them behind.

Obviously there is work to be done everywhere, but the appreciable “gay drain” towards more welcoming areas—absolutely understandable considering the hostility many of us have endured—most certainly deprives our hometowns and slows their progress. It happened to us; overwhelmingly, we had to form new communities for lack of existing ones to join (that we knew of). Our history has been suppressed so thoroughly that it took me years to even find out there had been a different “Diversity Club” immediately before I started high school.

Even so, I suspect this guilt is self-indulgent. It’s clear, based on my conversations with people currently involved in North Carolina public schools, that this generation of student activists is doing amazing work, savvier and more connected than ever. Queer-Straight Alliances are productive, popular, and allowed to be accurately named.

As of this writing, a transgender high schooler suing for bathroom access is on his way to the Supreme Court, and Twitter hashtags like #illgowithyou have made for highly visible allyship. Although modern social media makes it easier to both amplify and attack student effort, we still aren't going to hear about the vast majority of their work: mentorship and solidarity, like victimization, are often quiet and deeply personal.

It’s inspiring to see how far we’ve come, but for my generation it’s been hard not to grieve for the childhoods we could have had. If I'd been born 10 years later, we catch ourselves speculating... Maybe I would have figured myself out earlier. Maybe I wouldn’t have suffered as much; maybe I could have dated in high school; maybe I could have convinced my parents to get me on puberty blockers before my growth spurt. And so on. After my first NYC Pride, even as I ranted about the hypocrisy of banks and police marching in the parade, I was crying uncontrollably into my tingly beef noodles over what it would have meant to me as a teenager.

Today it’s almost impossible to live in the kind of ignorance we were born into. If you live in a city, you can probably find an in-person queer community. If you have access to the right parts of the internet, you can find an imperfect but robust intra-community conversation no matter where you live.

If all you have is the news, it’s scary and demeaning, but still much more informative than it used to be. The barriers to self-knowledge — geography, education, privacy, technology, stigma—are more manageable all the time.

Then again, some things haven’t changed enough. My high school’s GSA still has to account for conservative reactionaries and preempt concerned parents. In a video made only three years ago, members of the club recited an extremely thorough disclaimer into the camera: “Day of Silence is not gay. Day of Silence is not about politics. It doesn’t mean that you support gay marriage, and it doesn’t mean that you are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.”

Meanwhile, I may have left town, but the only boy I ever personally reported for harassment on Day of Silence (striding through the halls bellowing “You’re all going to Hell!"), is still there. I’ve known him since kindergarten. He’s a police officer now.

This election season has been hard on everyone in my little diaspora. Every echo of the chauvinist climate of our adolescence has us panicking, terrified we’re going to lose any growth we’ve made in the last decade — as a politicized community, but also as individuals who remember being isolated, uncertain, and afraid. Strange children. For us, the two are bound up almost too closely to separate.

Logically, I know that kind of progress can’t be so easily undone. I’m sure this cultural ebb and flow is typical. I’m sure we’re just young. This is nothing compared to what our elders have seen. I just hope by the time we’re elders ourselves, our own experiences will seem just as extreme, and just as destined for victory.

Note: this piece was written during the rhetorical hellscape leading up to the 2016 general election. Despite the results, and amidst the protracted battle for North Carolina’s governorship, I still believe everything I’ve written here. Whatever’s coming, things will never go back to the way they were. That’s both a warning and a promise. Please stay safe.