OPINION: A More Robust “Tale of Queer Appalachia”

A Response to Emma Copley Eisenberg’s “The Tale of Queer Appalachia” in the Washington Post Magazine’s August 2 issue

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Walter Davis and Taysha DeVaughan, regional organizers of the Appalachian Community Fund at 2019 Pikeville (KY) Pride
Walter Davis and Taysha DeVaughan, regional organizers of the Appalachian Community Fund at 2019 Pikeville (KY) Pride

Emma Copley Eisenberg’s “The Tale of Queer Appalachia” exposes various financial practices of an LGBTQ-identified organization named Queer Appalachia (QA). We expect that QA will reply to the Washington Post article.

I currently work for the Appalachian Community Fund (ACF) in Knoxville, Tennessee, and have been involved in LGBTQ organizing for almost 50 years. Appalachia is home with my husband, who grew up in Leslie County, Kentucky. We have worked for LGBTQ equality in Appalachia and the South since before it was treated seriously in mainstream media and funders.

It is good to see the Washington Post attempting to look at sexual orientation and sexual identity through an “Appalachian lens.” The Post article could have taken the opportunity to inform donors how to make informed choices in giving.

I share Eisenberg’s displeasure at demeaning portrayals of Appalachian people in general. When it comes to LGBTQ residents, it may be as she writes, glimpses of “Appalachian queerness are especially rare.” That being the case, presenting a broader picture of being queer in Appalachia could have served Post readers.

Let me take this opportunity to provide a glimpse of the positive activities done by Appalachian LGBTQ people with limited resources. The story of queer Appalachia is one of changing times.

The word “queer” no longer creates the objection that it once did. As a 74-year-old man, I like many others learned to move beyond the harm bigots had inflicted with that word.  As you know in your own newspaper practices, words and actions have evolved in a relatively short period of time.

A year ago, could one imagine “white supremacy” being a part of the lexicon of everyday philanthropy and journalism? Would we have assumed that Black Lives Matter would receive support in primarily white zip codes? Support of Black Lives Matter (BLM) appeared in Hazard, Kentucky, and other Appalachian communities.

Philanthropy and communities are responding. Certainly not all institutions are at the same point in thinking, but the difference since the George Floyd killing is obvious. The Washington Post weighs heavily in narratives as a respected journal of record for emerging historic changes. It is important to cover the changes underway now.

Social change advocates in Appalachia do not avoid analysis. It is essential to our work. Today, many foundations funding in Appalachia are struggling to be responsive and responsible in challenging white supremacy and homophobia and transphobia and other biases. At the same time, the biases against the people of Appalachia also need to be examined.

Appalachian Community Fund is an example of homegrown philanthropy living up to its slogan “Change, not Charity.”  ACF encourages the development of solutions from the ground up, because “every fire begins with a spark and every forest a seed” — lasting, large-scale, change is only possible when it starts with the people on the ground.

ACF was founded in 1987 to provide new resources to groups working for progressive social change in Central Appalachia (East Tennessee, Eastern Kentucky, Southwest Virginia and West Virginia), and to be a sustainable resource base for community organizing and social change work in this region. Since inception, it has awarded close to $7 million to more than 300 organizations working for justice. Financial support is provided to help address systemic problems of poverty, racism, and social inequity in their own communities and neighborhoods. Appalachia is still a place with scarce resources for LGBTQ organizing.

Positive stories of being queer in Appalachia

Fundamentally, I believe LGBTQ residents in Appalachia should not have to leave their hometowns to find a welcoming environment. For many, small town Prides offer validation. A young person can experience hope that it will not be necessary to leave home to find welcome. The importance of small-town prides is featured in ACF’s #ThisIsAppalachia series.

Walter Davis and Taysha DeVaughan, regional organizers of the Appalachian Community Fund at 2019 Pikeville (KY) Pride
Walter Davis and Taysha DeVaughan, regional organizers of the Appalachian Community Fund at 2019 Pikeville (KY) Pride

The Washington Post article began with a social services and jobs fair in Pikeville, Kentucky. A powerful addition to this story would be that Pikeville held its second Pride event last fall. 500 people took part in a downtown city park. It was a beautiful day in Pikeville. It was an Appalachian Pride.

Wheeling and Parkersburg, West Virginia support thriving Pride groups. Further south there are strong communities in Charleston and Huntington, WV.  Other communities across West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky might surprise you in their energy.

Traveling further south in 2019 you could experience TriPride in East Tennessee, with 15,000 people in Kingsport, Tennessee, marching and celebrating in a festival. Up and down the Central Appalachian Mountains from the West Virginia panhandles to Chattanooga and Asheville, Pride is very much alive. Pride events, social clubs and action groups have contributed to a new vibrancy in local communities.

In the largest city in Central Appalachia, Knoxville, Tennessee, has seen a Pride culture created where community engagement is strong. In 2019, Knox Pride attracted 60,000. Cultural activities in the area including dances, picnics, plays and concerts, as well as parades and festivals, reveal a growing, visible community. Music is headlined most notably by the Knoxville Gay Men’s Chorus, which in turn is nurturing other forms of LGBTQ artistic expression throughout the region.  Covid-19 has made it more difficult, but Pride survives.

There are also more informal networks of generosity within the Appalachian LGBTQ communities and from allies. A growing number of churches are welcoming. In Wheeling, West Virginia, Rosemary Ketchum has been elected to the city council as West Virginia’s first transgender official. The LGBTQ Victory Fund notes that Ketchum is “one of just 27 out trans elected officials in the entire nation.”

What all this means is Pride isn’t just a day in a park or a parade. Prides build
communities and offer places for allies to be involved.

There is a positive story of Queer Appalachia, not of failure but as an emerging force. The metamorphosis is underway.  The real story is not about one organization that may or may not fall short of it promised goals. The real story is a rising community that is coming into its own and is not turning back.

If you want to give to LGBTQ organizing in Central Appalachia, ACF can share with you the best practices for deciding where to put your funds. It doesn’t have to be ACF. We want you to believe in where you put those assets. We can help you think about where you can put funds to do the most good.

ACF’s commitment to effective, people-driven progress is bolstered by firm Appalachian roots. Beyond honoring Appalachian culture and heritage, the approach to change-making fundamentally reflects the spirit of Appalachia: gritty and resourceful with a well-developed instinct for problem-solving.

Drop me a line ([email protected]) and we will share information on effective community-based giving in Appalachia.

Walter Davis is Associate and Regional Organizer with the Appalachian Community Fund. He was co-author of Care and Caring: The Affordable Care Act, Health Coverage and LGBT Tennesseans (Tennessee Health Care Campaign).

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