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In Appalachia, LGBTQ+ people are working to create welcoming spaces for their communities

An LGBTQ+ Pride flag flies above a home.
More young people in rural areas are pushing back against anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric in politics, says scholar Beck Banks.

Young LGBTQ+ people are working to make parts of central Appalachia more hospitable to members of the queer community, according to a scholar of transgender media and rural places.

Community-building through Pride events, art and mobilizing against anti-LGBTQ+ legislation are helping to make some small towns more welcoming, said Beck Banks, who studies queer and transgender art emerging from activism spaces in central Appalachia, including eastern Kentucky and Ohio.

Beck Banks, who is an assistant professor at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina, where they moved this summer after almost 15 years of living in larger cities like New York City and Philadelphia. Banks said they’ve seen a more visible queer community in central Appalachia in the past few years.

LPM’s Divya Karthikeyan spoke to Banks about some of the ways LGBTQ+ people experience rural places in Appalachia. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

It seems like LGBTQ+ people in small towns and rural America are often ignored in this larger conversation surrounding queer life and culture. We're also seeing people in small towns talk about, write about, mobilize around being queer and existing as queer in their small towns and rural spaces. Talk to me about what you're exactly observing. 

There has been something that's been really baked into the United States – if you're queer, you've got to go to a city and there are so many thriving places. And they don't mean just any city. They mean certain cities, and we do have migration patterns. People who go to Atlanta from the South, people who go up to New York – when I lived in New York, most of the people I hung out with were from Georgia. That's just kind of a thing that occurs because of the mass number, not the percentage, but it’s just about, can we get more people into one space.

You're originally from eastern Tennessee and spent many years in larger cities like New York and Philadelphia before returning to the central Appalachia region. Tell me more about why you made that decision. 

I got really obsessed with studying what was happening with queer people, because, I actually, saw more space for me once I left, just because of the way that people were mobilizing. I saw a good community space formed. The number of prides that have happened, the number of just like queer centers, it's really been amazing to watch those occur over the past few years.

And a lot of it is, I mean, it's a reaction to the state of what's happening in politics.

We're also talking about queer people's choices to leave or stay in the middle of anti-LGBTQ legislation, rhetoric, rising extremism and threats. How do you view that in the context of people who are trying to create communities that they can live in, in rural Kentucky, rural America?

There are unfortunately too many politicians who have gotten into gaslighting…into creating like these villainous caricatures, which actually are young people who are able to talk more about themselves in a more articulate manner.

If some of those politicians turned some of that kind of thoughtfulness that younger people who are identifying more as queer, understanding their gender better, understanding their sexuality more, I think if those politicians were to turn that inward for themselves, they might be able to name things more about who they are – whether it be queer, whether it be a certain type of supremacist, there is a lot that people are overlooking. And I'm just very happy that younger generations are getting the opportunity to be able to understand themselves better in this way.

Against the backdrop of all this legislation targeting LGBTQ+ people, we’re also seeing Gen Z being open about their identity and gender expression. How is that translating in terms of community building?

I have seen a lot of people who are like, “It's not just enough to identify. I need to engage in the world.” And that's how you get like short documentaries, pieces of art that come out, you get people who are more politically engaged, which is definitely something we're seeing with Gen Z.

It's just like, “Hey, I recognize that it's not just enough to identify a certain way, I've got to protect the people around me, I've got to protect other people who are doing this.” And that there has been a lot of community formation that has happened within that. And I am a huge proponent of that. If you find yourself identifying as queer if you're a marginalized person, getting more involved with other people who are working on something to make the world better is a great way to understand yourself faster. And that just seems to be one of the things that's being enacted right now.

Divya is LPM's Race & Equity Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.

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