Greenbrier County, West Virginia | Photos by Meg Elizabeth Ward
West Virginia in Transition
By Mesha Maren
For Kris and me, a ten-year age gap meant radically different experiences as queer youth in our rural county
The town of Alderson, West Virginia, is split by a smooth brown river that straddles the county line and winds between Muddy Creek and Flat Mountain to create the Greenbrier Valley. On an unseasonably warm afternoon in the middle of November 2015, I drove over the bridge and into the Monroe County half of town. Take the first left over the railroad tracks, the directions said, then something about the third house down on the right. I hadn’t read the message very carefully—this was, after all, my hometown, a community of around a thousand people, the place where my parents met, the place where I spent nearly every day of my life until I was seventeen. I knew this town inside and out, I thought, but then again I hadn’t lived here for twelve years.
I drove past the filigreed façades of empty buildings, relics from the timber boom a hundred years ago, and up over the railroad tracks, but there were no houses here, just an abandoned hardware store and laundromat. I got out of my car and peeked around the back of the four-story brick building; nothing there but a cluster of skinny black cats. I felt the foolishness of this moment settle sickly in my stomach. Lost in Alderson—a completely improbable situation. What am I doing here anyhow? I watched one of the black cats bat at its reflection in a gasoline-rainbowed puddle. It was a question I’d been asking myself more often than I liked since moving back to West Virginia.
I’d gotten in touch with Kris on Facebook through a friend of a friend. Lately, driving the familiar backroads, I had been stirred by memories of how it felt to be young and queer (and closeted) in West Virginia in the nineties and early two-thousands and I wanted to connect with the current generation of rural LGBTQ youth to see what life was like for them today. I remembered lying low in the back seat of the bus, nose in a book, listening to the kids around me talking about “that lesbian doctor in town.” Fucking pussy-licker, an older kid said. That’s why my dad told my mom we can’t go there no more. And something had leapt inside me. I’d never paid much attention to the local lady doctor when I passed her at the grocery store or laundromat; now I wanted to get a better look. I was maybe nine, not even old enough to fully understand my own desires, but I knew without knowing that this conversation had something to do with the way I felt around certain girls. And I could sense the palpable hatred that wreathed that word lesbian.
Upon returning to my hometown, though, some twenty-odd years after that bus ride, I kept seeing signs that perhaps, even in rural Appalachia, the times had changed. There was an advertisement on Facebook for a local queer film festival, an Appalachian photo essay that included an image of two teenage girls publicly kissing, an Instagram account dedicated to queer Appalachians interested in creating their own zine, and talk in the county seat of an LGBTQ protection ordinance. I myself never came out until after I left West Virginia, and now that I was back home my queerness was fairly invisible. I was married to a man, and most of my neighbors and coworkers at the local community college where I taught had no idea that before I fell in love with my husband I had dated only women. It was a privilege that I felt uneasy about and I couldn’t help but wonder what life would have been like for me if I had never left West Virginia. I couldn’t help but wonder if I would have felt comfortable moving back home if my partner were a woman. I reached out to a friend, the only publicly out lesbian I knew in the area, to ask her what she thought life was like for rural LGBTQ youth these days. She told me I should talk to a guy named Kris, and so here I was, lost in my own hometown, looking for him.
My phone vibrated in my back pocket.
“Hey,” a deep voice said, “you havin’ a hard time findin’ my place?”
Kris and I had never actually spoken on the phone, only messaged through Facebook.
“Uh, yeah,” I admitted.
“Turn around. I’m waving at you.”
I looked behind me. Squinting, I could make out two figures down on the opposite end of the railroad tracks.
“See?” Kris asked. “That’s me, the big guy standing beside the girl with the purple hair.”
Kris greeted me out in front of his house, a once-white clapboard darkened by coal dust from passing CSX trains. A rust-colored pit bull stood by his side and the grassless yard was strewn with chewed up bits of red and blue t-shirts. Kris was twenty years old, about my height, 5'7'' maybe, with short brown hair and dark brown eyes that were warm but strong, insistent on direct eye contact. He smiled. I was unsure if we should shake hands or what, but the awkward moment was broken when a second pit bull threw herself against the chain-link fence, her swollen teats poking through the wire mesh. “Come on inside,” Kris said. “Don’t mind Fee, she’s real sweet.”
He apologized for not walking down to meet me at my car and pointed to his feet. “I’ve got a rule,” he said. “On my day off work I don’t get out of my flip-flops and sweats, but I can’t walk down the tracks too well in these.”
“No, no, that’s okay,” I said. “I think I just didn’t read your directions very well.”
“I never know how to explain to folks how to get here. You said you grew up in Alderson though?”
I cringed. “Yeah, like five miles from here. I went to Greenbrier East.”
“Me too.” He smiled. “You just moved back recently?”
I nodded and told him how, after graduate school, my husband and I decided to return to my family’s thirteen acres on top of Muddy Creek Mountain so we could caretake the farm, teach at the local technical college, and write novels. I didn’t tell him about how I felt like a fake, my queer identity shielded by my years away and my love for this place tainted by the knowledge that I might not be so eager to return if I were bringing a woman home.
The inside of Kris’s house was dark; wood paneled walls, a couch with dog-chewed cushions, an overflowing ashtray, and a big flat-screen TV. I sat on the end of the couch and balanced my notebook awkwardly on my knees.
“You don’t mind if I smoke?” Kris asked and settled onto the couch, at ease and seemingly eager to talk. The purple-haired girl walked into the room and flashed me a smile. Up close, I noticed her hair was more magenta and cut asymmetrically so that it obscured one eye and half of her face. “This is Cheyenne,” Kris said and patted the couch cushion beside him for her to sit. “You can talk to her, too, she’s part of the community.”
Cheyenne lit a cigarette and inhaled slowly. “Try being sixteen and pregnant but having a girlfriend and coming out as gay to your Mennonite family.” She flicked her hair out of her eyes and leaned toward me. “That’s who I was living with after my parents split, my Mennonite grandparents. And then I had to come out to them ’cause I went to prom with a girl, over at Greenbrier West.”
Kris laughed. “Yeah, you had a little bit of a different experience than me.”
“Well, yeah, you were like captain of the gay club and we didn’t have that then,” Cheyenne said. It would be a recurring theme in our conversation that day, how our relatively marginal age differences revealed gulfs between our coming out experiences. Cheyenne was only five years older than Kris, but there seemed to be a significant contrast in the ways that they experienced being gay in high school, and at thirty-one, my stories were practically archaic.
“Hey,” I said, “at least you could find a girl to go to prom with.” They both laughed. “When I was in school here in like the early two-thousands, I could barely even find any other girls who were into girls.”
I remembered the long fluorescent hallways of middle school and my fear of walking those halls alone, the older boys who would hide in the stairwells and follow you, smash you up against a locker. I was heading into the bathroom one day when I heard the explosion of voices, a scramble of sounds, and then an older teacher’s scream ringing out: “Filthy, disgusting!” My third-period history teacher came tearing out into the hallway, dragging two girls by their necks. The taller girl bucked against the teacher’s grip. “Get your hands off me.” They were both goth girls I’d admired from afar for their I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitudes, huge JNCO jeans, Skinny Puppy and Tool t-shirts. Their lips were painted black, the shorter girl’s makeup smudged just a little. The history teacher marched them toward the principal’s office and by the end of the day everyone knew they’d been suspended for making out. When I heard word of their suspension the shock leapt straight to my pelvis, my stomach flickering as I recalled the smudged lipstick. I had known that I couldn’t be the only girl in the whole world who wanted to kiss other girls, but I certainly hadn’t known there were other girls like that, here, in my own school.
“My mom still doesn’t know that I’m trans,” Kris said. “Or, maybe she does know, but not from me. We don’t talk anymore anyways, she just sends me messages through my dad.”
“And I’m pansexual,” Cheyenne chirped. “But most people don’t know what that means.”
“What’s it mean for you?” I asked.
Cheyenne flipped her hair out of her eyes. “Bi is like you’re straight but you get drunk and make out with girls. Pansexual is like I fall in love with people and it doesn’t matter if they have a dick or a pussy. What about you?”
“I end up using the word ‘queer,’” I said. “I mean, I was a lesbian forever and then I fell in love with a man.”
“Yeah.” Cheyenne laughed. “That’ll fuck you up when you think you just like girls, huh?”
“I had a hard time leaving ‘lesbian’ behind, too,” Kris said. “All my role models were lesbians. The good thing around here though is that people mostly just take you for who you are, like the labels don’t matter so much.”
“’Cause people don’t even know what you mean,” Cheyenne said.
Kris shrugged. I noticed that they did that a lot, held the same situation up and surveyed from different positions: people don’t even try to understand the language you use for your identity vs. things are just more fluid here, labels don’t matter as much as individuals. Kris was determined to stay optimistic. He was on his third cigarette, leaned back and sharing his couch cushion with Fee, who was voraciously attacking her fleas. Golden sunlight slanted through the wooden blinds and striped across our faces. The air was full of dog hair and cigarette smoke and the joyful, easy vibe of a twenty-year-old’s day off from work.
Kris and Cheyenne and their housemate, Shane, whom Cheyenne was dating, all worked at a place called Stuart’s Hot Dawgs & Smokehouse, a restaurant outside of town that I’d never heard of before. Stuart’s seemed to be the only stable point in their lives at the moment. None of them were sure how much longer they could live in the house—the rental agreement was a verbal handshake between the landlord and a friend of theirs who had since moved out. None of them had a vehicle and often they had to walk the two and a half miles downriver to work, but at least they all had jobs and free meals at Stuart’s.
“Whatever happens, I’m just trying to enjoy life right now, not just survive but really enjoy it,” Kris said. “There’s so many possibilities these days.”
The three of us talked on and on that day, sharing stories, comparing histories. It was the first time I’d had a conversation about identity so openly in West Virginia. It sparked a real happiness in me to think that I was there in the same town where I had forged my first thoughts about my own queerness amongst the echoes of fucking pussy-licker, filthy, disgusting, but this time I was having a discussion about the nuances of shifting self-identification. During the years that I was away, I connected on Facebook with a few old friends and acquaintances who had come out but none of us lived in West Virginia anymore. I messaged with a man who was my closest neighbor growing up. In the years since I had last seen him, he had separated from his wife and moved to Florida and was living happily with his boyfriend. We reminisced about playing with Barbie dolls together and laughed at the idea that we had ever pretended that we were straight. It was entirely different, though, talking about my sexuality in West Virginia—in Greenbrier County—with Cheyenne and Kris.
Kris comes from the eastern end of Greenbrier County where the valley spreads out into wide green pastures of good soil and old money. Acre upon acre of flat, well-irrigated bottomland, three-story brick houses with white columns, and not a trailer in sight—the kind of place where etiquette classes are still popular enough to merit a storefront advertisement. The land there has been coveted since the white man first set eyes on this part of the country. During colonial days, Lewisburg—the county seat where Kris’s father and grandfather’s insurance business is located—was the final outpost of British law; beyond there: total wilderness. Kris’s family, the Arbuckles, has owned the same acreage of farmland for one hundred and fifty years, since the earliest days of West Virginia statehood. More than half the county is insured by Kris’s family and when I asked him how it felt to transition in a place where he had virtually no anonymity, he shocked me by saying he felt protected and safe. In such a close-knit community he is not just some freak, he is an Arbuckle, and therefore has history and an inherent value. He said he’d been called “it”—as in “what do you think it is, a girl or a boy?”—by old-timers watching him buy a Coke at the gas station, but if he could find a way to mention his last name everything changed.
I asked about his family’s response to his transition. He was only a few months into it and still regularly having to remind those close to him of the pronouns he preferred. “But really I’ve always been male,” he said. “For twenty years I pretended to be female. I tried it and I didn’t like it. My dad’s having a hard time not thinking of me as his ‘little girl’ anymore but that’s ridiculous because I was never like that, even before, when I was a girl. I’ve always been one of the men, hanging out and going hunting with my dad and Pawpaw. My grandmother always favored my sister because she was ‘girly.’ She tried to get me to take those classes on how to be a girl or whatever.” His grandparents had heard through the grapevine when he came out as a lesbian in high school, and they were not very supportive. He didn’t feel like he needed to tell them about his transition. “Pawpaw’s been through a lot,” Kris said. “There’s stuff he’s gone through, stuff I’ve never had to go through, and I’ve gone through stuff he’s never had to, so, you know.”
Kris and his sister were raised almost equally by his paternal grandparents as by his mom and dad. His parents met and married while they were in the military. They bounced around between bases for a while until moving back to West Virginia when Kris was in kindergarten. His parents split up soon after that, but Kris’s memories of his childhood seem almost idyllic. He liked his new stepmom a lot and shared his time between the two families. He was great at sports and joined all the varsity teams, and he excelled in JROTC and happily attended Edgewood Presbyterian Church with the rest of his family. Then in 2010 he entered Greenbrier East High School and fell in love.
In retrospect, Kris said that his first great love, an older girl who was troubled, was maybe not the best person for him to be dating as a ninth-grader, but at the time he was head over heels and saw no reason not to share this spectacular love with his family. He explained to me that he was closest to his dad, so he decided to tell him first. The TV was tuned to sports—a Browns game probably—and Kris was in one armchair, his dad in the other, a comfortable, companionable silence between them. Kris looked over at this man beside him, a person he had always thought of as his hero, the man who taught him everything he knew about love and trust and respect, about the importance of the Good Lord’s words: Love Thy Neighbor and go to church on Sunday and try to live a good life. This man whom Kris had also overheard proudly referring to himself as a homophobe. Kris took a deep breath. “Dad,” he said, “I need to tell you something.”
His dad called it a sin and said that anyway Kris was way too young to know that he was a lesbian. His mom said something similar. Too young, they all repeated, you can’t know. Kris grieved heavily. Up until that point, his family had loved and supported everything he had ever done. He felt wildly confused by their reactions, and worse, at school, news of his relationship, which he had kept secret for fear of bullying, spread like wildfire. One of his friends (who much later came out as gay himself) publicly and grotesquely outed him. Kris panicked. He loved his girlfriend, but he couldn’t handle this. He took another deep breath and walked back into the closet. He announced to his family that they were right, he had been mistaken and too young to know.
“Yeah, I slammed that door shut,” he recalled, “and said like never mind, I’m just gonna play with my sparkles by myself in here.”
I came out to my own family after reading Jeanette Winterson’s novel Written on the Body. I’d found a used copy at a library book sale and read it in two days. Then I reread it. The attraction that Winterson described mirrored my own emotions in ways I had never experienced before. Winterson made lesbian love look so beautiful that I didn’t want to hide anymore. I’d been lying, calling the girl I was having sex with, the girl I was in love with, my “best friend” to my family, but that felt cowardly after I read Written on the Body. I told my parents I wanted to talk with them. My mom started weeping as soon as I said “lesbian.” “Your life is just gonna be so hard,” she said. “People are gonna treat you so badly.” My dad comforted her. I stood awkwardly to the side. It wasn’t a terrible coming out by any stretch of the imagination. My parents didn’t ridicule me or turn me out. They just seemed confused and sad. After that moment, I didn’t talk about it or bring any girls home until my second serious relationship, years later.
Kris kept his relationship and his emotions private, too, after his conversation with his dad, but by his sophomore year he was feeling more confident and his love for his girlfriend had not changed. He came out again, this time more quietly. He simply stopped hiding, and when a friend at school approached him about an effort to start a Gay-Straight Alliance club he agreed to help. Students at Greenbrier East had tried three previous times to form a Gay-Straight Alliance, Kris said, but they had never succeeded in finding a teacher to sponsor the club. Without a sponsor’s signature the club was rejected by the principal over and over.
When I attended Greenbrier East, from 1999 to 2001, there was definitely no talk of any gay clubs. The only potentially gay people I knew were the two girls, Shelby and Allison, from middle school who had been suspended for kissing in the bathroom. (Some names in this article have been changed.) I joined the drama class so I could have an excuse to be near them. They didn’t seem to be girlfriends anymore though; in fact they didn’t even seem to be friends. When Shelby, the one with a black bob haircut, was cast as Juliet, I asked the drama teacher if I could be her understudy. Practicing to play the same character as Shelby wasn’t quite the same as kissing her, but it was better than nothing. When Juliet wasn’t required on stage we sat together. By that point Allison had dropped the drama class, maybe dropped out of school altogether. Shelby was quiet and mostly talked about music, how no good bands ever came to West Virginia and her mom threw away all of her Marilyn Manson CDs. When the drama teacher told Shelby that she needed a different pair of shoes for the performance, I jumped at my chance and offered to lend her some. After the final show, we walked together to her car so she could change out of my sandals and give them back. I remember walking a little behind her, watching the bats dip and dive in the parking lot lights. With each step I told myself I would say something: tell her that I liked her or at least ask if she and Allison had dated. She took the fake-leather sandals off and stood barefoot on the cement, holding them out to me. “You should just keep them,” I said instead of I like you or you’re cute or are you gay? She pressed them into my hands. “No, that’s okay,” she said. “They pinch my feet anyways.” And that was it, the end. When school started again the next fall we were in different classes and she seemed to have a boyfriend and we never spoke again.
In the summer of 2013, Kris met a group of UCLA students and professors at a touring drag show hosted by an independent theatre in Lewisburg. He shared with them how difficult it had been to try and form the alliance at school, and they offered to help contact lawyers. Armed with out-of-state support, Kris went directly to the principal, who was convinced to work with the students to find a teacher willing to sponsor the club. The teacher, Michael Vincent, had been a student at Greenbrier East himself and was glad to see things changing there.
A few days after my conversation with Kris, I went to the school to see if I could talk to anyone affiliated with the club. As I drove up the long lane to the yellowing brick building, I felt my heart begin to speed up and my stomach tense. I had not been back since my time there and somehow, irrationally, I felt that I could get trapped there, pulled back into my former, closeted self. I thought of Kris closing the door on his own sexuality after his first attempt at coming out. I squashed my fears down and walked inside, and the hallways were mercifully empty. In the main office a friendly secretary told me that no one was available that day but I could leave a note. I later connected with Vincent over email. He was initially reluctant to be interviewed or have his name included in my story, but he eventually came around and sent me a heartfelt statement about the Gay-Straight Alliance and life at school for LGBTQ youth:
I have worked in public education for 12 years, and with adolescents for longer than that. As an advocate for LGBT rights in public education, I do believe that we have made progress and are heading in a positive direction. That being said, there is still much work to be done and areas to improve. I currently work in the high school that I attended as a student over 20 years ago, and I can say definitely that things have gotten better in that time. In general, students themselves are much more accepting and open than they used to be. LGBT issues have permeated mainstream pop culture. Gay, lesbian, and even transgender characters are more and more common in TV, movies, and other media. I think this has helped normalize LGBT issues for young people that have grown up in this culture. I often find that young people are more comfortable discussing these types of things than my peers. But that doesn’t mean that LGBT students are accepted across the board. I sponsor a Gay-Straight Alliance club at my high school. When these students have talked about their concerns around issues of acceptance, they discuss issues outside of school more than anything else. Some of them have come out to their families and been accepted. Some of them feel they can never tell their families who they really are. Some have been ostracized by their families. But for the most part they seem to feel fairly accepted at school. They know there are those at school who don’t accept them, but they mostly feel they can be who they want to be at school even when they can’t at home. That’s not to say there aren’t still issues for these students in public education. There certainly are. It is not uncommon to hear LGBT slurs used in the hallways and not just against gay and lesbian students. Calling someone “gay” or “fag” is still a common insult to throw around. And there are certainly students who don’t feel comfortable discussing LGBT issues. Most students seem to know to keep their own negative, biased comments to themselves these days, but that stuff still exists. We live in a rural Appalachian area. There are certainly some close-minded discriminatory beliefs out there in pockets of the community that have not changed in regards to LGBT students and adults. I do believe that as a society we are changing and moving in a positive direction, but the change is slow and there is pushback from those who don’t believe change should occur. I feel hopeful with the direction things are going. Schools are a microcosm of society, and I see many young people every day who are accepting and open with each other. It gives me hope for society as a whole.
Reading Vincent’s email, I felt a surge of hope, too. It was an affirmation of what Kris had already told me, how school could sometimes be a sanctuary and a place to explore instead of the echo chamber of homophobia I remembered it being.
“They told us we could have thirty in the club,” Kris said, leaning back into the couch cushions and smiling as he reminisced about the first club meeting. “Thirty-five kids showed up and none of them were turned away. And then they voted me as the first club president.” He seemed almost embarrassed by how well things had gone. “It wasn’t like I was the one who made it happen, I mean, other people had been working really hard for it for a long time. But I guess I’m just good, you know, with talking to people and making connections.”
Still, the divide was stark. “Wow,” Cheyenne said, “we didn’t have nothing like that when I was in school. I wish! God.”
“What do you want me to do?” Kris said quickly. “Apologize for when I was born?”
Cheyenne laughed, but this idea of “apologize for when I was born” seemed central to something that Kris was trying to figure out, namely why things had been so “easy.” He said that a television reporter had recently approached him to do an interview about how hard life is for him as a trans guy in West Virginia, but Kris didn’t feel like he had anything to say to him. “I love this place and these are my people,” he says. “But it was like I was supposed to have an awful life and hate it here.”
Despite being shamed by his parents and publicly outed at school, Kris felt lucky; he had never been physically threatened and no one blinked an eye when he took his girlfriend to the senior prom. He was open about not really understanding why or how things had gone so smoothly. He knew it had something to do with the people who came before him, those older friends of his who tried to take their girlfriends or boyfriends to the prom and were refused, who tried to start a club and were blocked. He talked constantly about loving and respecting his brothers and sisters in the gay community: an older lesbian he met through work, a lesbian Episcopal priest that he knew, a gay doctor friend.
I can relate to Kris’s love for his chosen family and the role they play in his life. In southern West Virginia there are no publicly advertised gay meeting places, like bars or clubs, so finding another gay person or even an ally is a special occasion. Connections are made fast and deep here. For young people like Kris and Cheyenne who have rarely traveled outside the county, family ties, both biological and chosen, are extremely important. Kris talked about one of the few times he had left West Virginia. He took a train to D.C. to see his godfather, and on the way home he ended up sitting next to a stranger who also happened to be headed to White Sulphur Springs. Kris was shocked and immediately felt a strong connection, the spark of meeting another West Virginian out there in the big world. He compared this experience to meeting another gay person in West Virginia. “Just being from West Virginia we’re already on the outside,” he said, “already from an outsider community.” Meeting another gay West Virginian doesn’t feel random, it feels fated. In my experience, in places where there are larger queer communities, this link of shared experience can sometimes be so commonplace as to seem insignificant, but here it is often the lifeline that helps folks make it through another day. I remember how one summer when I was visiting family in West Virginia I met a queer woman who had grown up in the next county over and who also lived out of state. After speaking only once, our bond felt stronger than many other friendships I’d had during my time living in Asheville, where I could freely go to lesbian bars and gay pride events. For months afterward we wrote letters and talked openly about how we wished we’d known each other in high school, what a relief it would have been to have gay friends. She wrote about how she dreamt of moving back to West Virginia but she didn’t want to do it until she could drive back into town on a motorcycle with a steady girlfriend clinging to her back. She found it impossible to believe that she could meet a woman to date back home.
“I just met Kris’s new girlfriend like last week,” Cheyenne explained, “but I’m like so close to her. It’s like we knew each other already. She’s pansexual, too. And like her and Kris and Shane is all I got right now. I love them so much.”
When biological families reject young rural queers, they build their own families. It was through his “brother” Jordan that Kris first heard about transgenderism. He’d known Jordan as the cool older senior lesbian when he was a “baby dyke” freshman in high school, as he put it. They had fallen out of touch for a few years, but after Kris graduated Jordan messaged him and explained that he was transitioning and asked Kris to refer to him using male pronouns. Kris was a little confused—as far as he knew, you were straight or gay or lesbian. He didn’t really understand what Jordan was talking about. He started Googling and asking Jordan questions, and it began to make sense. A year later he began asking his closest friends to experiment with using different pronouns to refer to him. He tried “ze,” “they,” and “he.” He liked “he.” It felt good, great actually, like exactly what he should have been called all along.
Kris’s public transition with friends, coworkers, and family had been gradual, partially by choice but also out of necessity. Testosterone was expensive and his health insurance didn’t cover it. He took half a milliliter every two weeks when he could afford it, which was not consistently. It had been a year and a half since he had fully embraced his identity as trans, and Kris explained that he saw it all as a process. He said that as long as someone wasn’t purposefully using the wrong pronoun to be mean or spiteful he didn’t care. A little something flashed in his eyes when he said it, but his voice was chipper. All afternoon as we talked he’d been almost overwhelmingly upbeat and positive. Now a little darkness leaked through, but he seemed to push it back.
“I could go around angry all the time if I wanted to, talk about how marginalized I was as a gay woman and now as a trans guy. I could hate on people for calling me the wrong thing but what’s that gonna do? I’ve got friends who are angry about it all the time, but I choose to be happy and enjoy life.” He glanced over at Cheyenne. “I mean, I know when people call me ‘she’ most of the time they don’t mean it.”
“Ugh, I’m sorry.” Cheyenne pulled her knees up and tucked her head down behind them. “I mess up all the time,” she said.
Kris laughed. “Hey, it’s—” his voice was cut off by the shuddering roar of a passing coal train that shook the whole house, rocking the TV.
Out the window the coal cars passed in dark streaks against the shadowed hillside, not more than ten feet from the living room where we sat. The grinding of metal on metal was a fully physical sound. I noticed that the sun had sunk behind the sharp ridge of Flat Mountain and suddenly realized how long we’d been sitting there talking. Cheyenne stood up and stretched. “It’s almost time for Shane to get off work,” she shouted. “I’m gonna shower.”
A moment later she poked her head out of the bathroom. “Hey, Kris, does that lady have a car?”
I sat up a little straighter on the couch. “Me?” I said.
“Yes, I’ve got a car.”
“Can we go pick up Shane?” she asked.
I had nothing to do at home besides grade papers, and I was happy to avoid that, so we all headed across the tracks to my car and they pointed me downriver. I thought I’d never seen Stuart’s Hot Dawgs before, never even knew it existed, but as we drove out of Alderson’s Rockwellesque downtown and around the bend, a lighted sign glittered through a copse of locust trees—COLD FOOD, UGLY WOMEN, WARM BEER—and I was struck by memories. The bar was not called Stuart’s Hot Dawgs back in my day but it most certainly did exist—stories about it proliferated. No hard alcohol can be served within the town limits of Alderson, only gas station beer. But just two miles downriver, stilted up on the bank, is a good-times-galore hangout with video lottery, alcohol, karaoke, and belt sander races. When I was in middle school there were stories of girls raped while using the bathroom and drunk boyfriends who went out to pee and toppled to their deaths in the rapids below. There was also something incredibly alluring about the place; in the summer, little tent camps sprang up on the banks beside the bar and you could see half-naked kids running around and women smoking and chatting on plastic lawn chairs in the shallow brown water. For me, staring out the window of my parents’ passing car, there was something envy-inducing about the outsider culture, the way they built their own community and celebrated their very own rituals there on the outskirts of town.
On this particular Wednesday evening the building was nearly empty, only half a dozen men up at the bar, lit by a string of Christmas lights and smelling of fry oil and river muck. Shane was sitting with a middle-aged guy with a bottle-blond mullet, who turned out to be Stuart, and a group of bearded dudes who all looked over their shoulders as Kris and Cheyenne and I entered. One man was wearing a HERITAGE NOT HATE t-shirt, the others various forms of camo. I couldn’t tell if these dudes were friends with Shane and Stuart or just happened to be drinking at the bar near them. Either way, their stares unnerved me, and I realized that in the comfort of Kris’s living room, overflowing with his good cheer and the unseasonable warmth of the November sun, I was lulled into an everything-is-right-with-the-world attitude. Now that the sun had set—and, yes, I was judging entirely by looks—I had serious doubts that these camo-Confederate dudes would think that everything was alright about a bunch of queers rolling up in their bar. I’d asked Kris if his boss and coworkers knew he was born a woman, and he’d kinda shrugged and said maybe people thought of him as a tomboy; he wasn’t really sure and had never said anything to them about pronouns. He certainly passed as male, but when he was hired he must have had to show some paperwork or a driver’s license at least. He seemed not to think that it was a big deal. I had pictured him as a fry cook at a wholesome family-style diner, but in the bar it felt a little more dangerous. I couldn’t help but think of the horrific bar fight from Boys Don’t Cry.
I asked for the bathroom and was pointed past the video lottery room and down a narrow hall plastered with photos from various hotdog-eating contests. When I reached the end I was faced with two doors. One said BUNS, with a painting of a fluffy, golden-brown, slightly open bun, the other said DAWGS, with a skinny red hotdog grinning and dancing a jig. This was a place of bawdy humor, built around an outsider status and a sense of pride in making church-going folks uncomfortable. In a way, it made sense to me that Kris had gravitated here because it was already outside of the mainstream norms. It made sense that this community would be more likely to embrace him. They seemed to have already built their own chosen family, away from the Christian mores of the town. But as I looked from the Bun to the Dawg, I wondered where in all this did Kris really fit?
By November the warm spell had ended and all the leaves were down from the trees. I tried to force myself to do more than just sit by the woodstove, grading papers and revising my novel. I had connected with a fellow West Virginian named Mamone who ran the Instagram account Queer Appalachia and was working on making a zine about the experience of being queer in a rural area. They too had recently moved back to Appalachia. We messaged on Instagram, but they lived almost two hours south of Alderson and we hadn’t met up in real life. In real life, I didn’t have many people to hang out with besides my husband. I wanted to reconnect with the few childhood friends who were still living in the area, but it was awkward after so much time away. At the grocery store in Lewisburg I ran into a woman named Andrea who was in my class in middle and high school and now lived two towns away. We talked about how we needed to get out more and made a plan to walk together each week, for exercise and socializing, two things we both agreed we could use more of.
As we made our way along a river trail, past bone-white sycamores and thick-limbed hickories, shots rang through the trees. It was the middle of hunting season and while the shots from the adjoining property often made my husband jump, I was mostly immune to the ricochet of rifle-fire amongst the hardwood trees. Andrea asked what I’d been up to lately, and I mentioned my interviews with Kris and my hopes that I would find other young trans or queer folks to talk to. She nodded and we kept walking. The Greenbrier River lapped high against the bank with a sucking, gurgling sound. In the summer it was a beauty—clear and clean, a joy for fishing and swimming and canoeing—but every five years or so it erupted and spilled brown fury across all the low-lying towns, Caldwell, Ronceverte, Alderson, Pence Springs. When it got this high we all silently watched it, clocked the muddy roil against the painted marks on the trunks of the trees.
On the way back to our cars I asked Andrea how her family was doing, her mom and dad and brother, Ryan. She slowed her pace and when she looked at me her face had a touch of something unfamiliar in it. “They’re doing pretty good,” she said and looked down at her feet and then back up. “Ryan is—well, I don’t tell a lot of people about this but I feel like I can tell you—Ryan’s transitioning, she’s Cassie now.”
I stopped walking, stunned. I felt suddenly silly for blabbering on about interviewing young trans people in West Virginia and assuming that this had nothing to do with Andrea, assuming in fact that she would probably think it was a cool and slightly exotic project. I had hardly talked to anyone in West Virginia about my reporting; I had kept it as something very separate from my daily life, my job at the college and my chats with my neighbors about the weather and groceries. I had kept it separate in the same way that I kept my Appalachian identity and my queer identity separate for so many years. Now I realized that while this division was something I did out of self-protection, it was also a result of shortsightedness, a rash assumption on my part that no one from my past life here could relate to the queer part of me. I was relieved to be proven wrong.
“Oh, wow,” I said. “I had no idea.”
“Yeah.” Andrea nodded. “We didn’t know either until recently. I mean, she came out as gay first and in the beginning she only told me and my husband, and then she came out to my mom and dad. And then about six months later she came out as trans. Mom is super supportive, but Dad’s had a hard time with it.”
“Is she in college?” I asked.
Andrea shook her head. “She’s still living with Mom and Dad. She was taking classes at New River but now she’s not anymore.”
I was stunned again. New River was the small technical school where I taught English 101. When Andrea said Cassie was transitioning I immediately imagined her off at a university, learning about herself from her new social group and coming out to her family and probably distancing herself from them, perhaps never coming back to West Virginia, but, no, she was living in her childhood bedroom in her parents’ house on the back of her grandparents’ property.
“Maybe she’d talk with you, for your project,” Andrea said. “I’ll ask her. I don’t know, she doesn’t go out much at all, mostly she’s just on her computer all day. We haven’t even told my grandparents yet. Mom’s been helping her petition for a legal name change and we keep hoping she’ll at least take online classes once she’s got her name changed. And we’re really hoping that the ordinance in Lewisburg goes through.”
I asked her about the ordinance. I’d heard my coworkers whispering about the liberals who want to let men use the bathroom with women, but I hadn’t researched it yet. Andrea explained that Ordinance 254 was a measure to prohibit discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations based on sexual orientation and gender identity. More than two hundred people showed up at City Hall for the initial hearing, she said, and so they had moved the venue for the final vote to the medical school campus where more constituents could fit.
“The funny thing is, Cassie isn’t very interested in it.” Andrea smiled. “She’s not into a political movement, she’s just a girl who wants to hang out online, she wants a boyfriend. But Mom and I have been going to all the organizing meetings.”
Dark was setting in now, and the leafless trees took on sharp shadows. Andrea and I headed toward our cars. As I sat waiting for my Subaru’s engine to warm up, I watched the river lick by in the cold dusk and thought about Cassie, alone in her bedroom as another winter day drew to a close, and Kris, just downriver, cooking crawdads and french fries with his chosen family. I thought about my original question, my reason for talking to Kris in the first place: Had things changed here for LGBTQ youth? There were tangible yeses: the push for an ordinance, the Gay-Straight Alliance and the email from the high school teacher, his words about the school being a relatively safe space. Even just the existence of the internet had affected lives here and brought about dating apps and Instagram, where one could find something like @queerappalachia. Mamone, who is ten years older than me, had shared their experiences growing up queer in the coal fields, how their parents sent them to a conversion camp in Virginia where the leaders forced the kids to eat ipecac-laced food and then watch gay porn so that they would get physically sick and then associate that experience with gay sex. They sat in plastic chairs in a concrete room, vomiting on themselves while desire flickered across the walls. Neither Kris’s nor Cassie’s family was interested in sending them to such a camp, but that seemed like a small measuring stick for progress.
February 1 was a gray and windy day—an easy day to stay home—but by 6:30 P.M. the parking lot of the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine in Lewisburg was overflowing with traffic. It was the evening of the final city council special session meeting for Ordinance 254—an amendment to the city’s existing Human Rights Commission policy which Mayor John Manchester noted would “prohibit discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations, which are described as human rights and civil rights of all persons without regard to race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, age, blindness, handicap, sexual orientation and gender identity.”
There was a current in the air, a feeling of almost-joy brimming up against almost-anger as, unbeknownst to one another, Kris and Andrea followed the crowd of several hundred toward the brick building. Uniformed police officers lined the sidewalks and Andrea watched as an old schoolmate was directed to the far line and another acquaintance was pointed toward the near one. She paused in confusion and a police officer approached: “Against? For? Yes? No?” Everything would be split from the parking lot on into the building, the Nays and the Yeas lined up in separate queues to be seated in separate areas of the alumni hall. If it were not already apparent that the proposal was deeply dividing this community, then this moment served as an undeniable visual reminder: four hundred southern West Virginians divided almost equally in their support and opposition.
Kris had come without his parents though he had requested that they attend in solidarity with him. His girlfriend, Zella, was at his side, but his father and stepmother were back at their house, unable to feel okay about supporting an ordinance that their friends told them would allow a man to use the bathroom right alongside a woman.
Andrea and her mother, Brenda, were in just the opposite situation. They shuffled forward together in the Yes line while Cassie and her father, Gary, sat at home. Gary was fairly certain Cassie’s ideas were a passing fad, probably something from the internet, from all those anime movies and online friends; he had been too soft on his boy—his only son—he babied him too much and now it had come to this. Brenda was firm in her support though. She felt confused at first, but she had spent hours researching transgenderism. Cassie’s suicide attempt a year ago galvanized her conviction. “I can’t worry about your feelings right now,” she told Gary when he said this was all wrong and sick. “I’ve got to try and keep her alive.” She turned away as Gary called her back: “What am I supposed to do with my boy though? Bury him?” Brenda looked him in the eyes and said, “Yes.” The idea of this transition had come easier for her. She’d taken Cassie to a psychologist, an endocrinologist, and a laser hair removal clinic. Now, she said, she even dreamt of Cassie as female and never really mixed up her pronouns.
Inside the osteopathic school, winter coats were shed and the colors came out. The Yes side of the room was mostly dressed in blue (Zella wore a Smurf-colored wig) and their signs stated: YES ORDINANCE 254 EQUAL RIGHTS FOR ALL. The No group favored red and white and most of them wore t-shirts with giant letters spelling out: KEEP MEN OUT OF WOMEN’S RESTROOMS. On the backs of the shirts were stop sign emblems stamped with the words ORD 254 STOP VOTE NO.
Each side was allowed to speak in turn, in two-minute bursts, for hours, until 11:30 P.M., at which point fifty community members had voiced their opposition and thirty-nine their support. There was a Vietnam vet on the Yes side who said he fought in the war so everyone could have equal rights and several No preachers who called out the state of moral decrepitude we had all sunken into. “This ordinance is just defending the rights of Sodomites,” said Clarence Daniels. “And you know, Lewisburg is a lot like Sodom actually. But the Bible says the righteous in authority shall make Christ rejoice.” One after another they rose and approached the microphone and spoke. No, Yes, No. “God is perfect,” said Denver Blake. “For one to say that I am not satisfied with the way God made me is wrong.” What, he asked, would Jesus think?
Andrea spoke, but she did not mention her sister at home. Brenda said she supported trans kids, but she did not talk explicitly about her own child. A woman from Ballengee said she hated to see West Virginia turn politically correct. A lesbian Episcopal priest asked the city council to see this as a question of equality and freedom, but Kris noticed that no trans people had spoken, only allies.
They needed to know we live here too, Kris told me later when he recalled the meeting. We exist and they need to see us, to face us. He had told two trans friends that he planned to talk that night and they were both baffled by his desire to stick out his own neck, but he knew he had to do it. Across the skinny aisle, dressed in a No t-shirt, was a kid who went to middle school with him, a kid he had always shielded from the bullies on the bus. I protected you. He turned to watch his parents’ neighbors, whose driveway he has shoveled clean from more than one snowstorm, stand at the front of the room and speak of sin. Kris had read the Bible and it was manipulations of the holy word that particularly irked him. He wanted the trans community to speak loudly and clearly for themselves, and so he stood up and walked under the bright lights and up the aisle past the red-backed chairs that split into so much oppositional emotion until he reached the microphone. The room was silent.
Kris took a deep breath. “I live in this community,” he said. “I’ve lived here all my life. I go to church here every Sunday. And I am a trans man. If we don’t have ordinances like this one to help young people feel safe in West Virginia, we will leave.”
His words rang out with the multivalent threat contained in that word leave. West Virginia needs its young people. The population is both aging and decreasing rapidly. The number of deaths outweigh the number of births, and the out-migration has been steep since the 1950s. The population increased somewhat during the 1970s, when my parents moved to the area—a time when young back-to-the-land folks sought refuge in the natural abundance of the mountain state—but that increase halted in 1980 and the numbers have fallen ever since. And it is not just a matter of statistics. Leaving has a very particular cultural meaning for West Virginians, a meaning rooted in both the “Hillbilly Highway”—the path that many Appalachians took in search of work in cities like Detroit, particularly in the 1950s and ’60s—and the “Road to Roanoke”—the escape route to the south which, in some areas of the state, was added to school lessons as a fourth R: Reading, wRiting, aRithmetic, and the Road to Roanoke. When I was a kid I witnessed each summer the pilgrimages back home for school or family reunions and a chance to lay eyes on the family land once again; always there was the repeated sentiment, “I wish we’d never had to leave.” I remember my dad telling a joke that went “Why does Saint Peter hate West Virginians? Because they get to Heaven and then they’re always begging to go back home.” This emotional dislocation was perhaps best expressed in Hazel Dickens’s lyrics from the time of the Hillbilly Highway. She wrote: “West Virginia, oh my home / West Virginia’s where I belong / In the dead of the night, in the still and the quiet / I slip away, like a bird in flight / Back to those hills, the place that I call home.”
Kris’s threat to leave was a loaded one. No West Virginian makes that decision lightly, and to be the cause of someone’s leaving is a terrible thing. I personally knew the weight of missing home. During all my years away, even as I enjoyed the freedom of living in a community where I felt completely comfortable talking about my sexuality, I kept my eye on returning to West Virginia. I had never found a place that felt as good to me, both in terms of the natural beauty and also the sense of a close-knit community—that feeling of being a part of something unique and true. Ever since I left I’d had a hope that someday I could return and my queer self and my Appalachian self wouldn’t have to be so split.
An orange-lava sun set behind the leafless hills as Kris and I drove south on Highway 64 toward the state border. Nine months had passed since the night he spoke to that crowd, but when I asked him about it he was still filled with so much palpable gratitude for the fact that, after five hours of community feedback (from eighty-nine speakers plus over seven hundred emails and phone messages), the city council unanimously voted yes. I congratulated him on his bravery, for standing up there and speaking to that huge room, and as I did so I couldn’t help but also think of Cassie, in her little room, at home that night with her frightened father. Cassie who, though I’d emailed her several times, had never responded; Cassie who, though she was geographically so close to Kris, was living such a different Appalachian transgender experience, more isolated, yes, but also so intensely supported by her mother and sister in ways that Kris was not.
“How have things been going with your parents?” I asked, and Kris told me that while his dad and stepmom still didn’t use male pronouns when they referred to him, the last time he went over to their house his dad complimented his facial hair and told him it would grow in faster if he shaved it every day.
“That was his way of telling me he accepts me,” Kris said and then he motioned to the right. “Take the next exit.”
I was dropping him off at his girlfriend’s college dorm, two hours south of Lewisburg, so he could spend time with her before he started his new job as a snowboard instructor at Snowshoe Resort.
“Are you sad to leave Stuart’s Hot Dawgs?” I asked him. I thought of Cheyenne, who Kris said was still living in Alderson and working part-time at the bar.
“Yeah,” he said, but he added that Zella was so glad he was not working there anymore. She had been on edge ever since Trump’s election, and then last week this guy came in, a Friday night regular, and called Kris over to his table. “Hey, is Allen working tonight?” he asked, referring to Kris’s African-American coworker. “No,” Kris said, and the man looked relieved and explained that he was there celebrating his initiation into the KKK, but, he said, he really liked Allen and he didn’t want it to be weird. Kris texted this story to Zella and she freaked out. Does he know you’re trans? she replied, and Kris remembered outing himself to that room of five hundred people. Are you safe? He texted back, I think so but I don’t know.
“It’s time for something new,” he said to me now, and he was referring to his snowboard instructor job and also a cross-country trip he and Zella were planning for the following summer.
“You excited to leave West Virginia?” I asked.
“Hell yes!” he said but then he immediately circled back. “Not like I can’t wait to get away though, not like that. I love it here, but like I wanna experience more.”
More than three years have passed since I first met Kris and, while I still don’t have any concrete answers to my original question of whether LGBTQ youth can thrive in Appalachia, there are hopeful signs—OutSouth, a new oral history project at the University of Kentucky that celebrates the experiences of LGBTQ Appalachians, and the zine that Queer Appalachia put out, Electric Dirt, a project that fosters a beautiful online community for rural queers. And according to a recent UCLA study, West Virginia has the highest per capita rate in the nation of teens who identify as transgender—a result that baffled even the researchers who said simply and fittingly, “West Virginia is a mystery.”
In early 2019, two new headlines caught my eye. The Common Council of Beckley approved a nondiscrimination ordinance similar to Lewisburg’s, becoming the thirteenth city in the state with such protections. Beckley is a much larger and far more conservative community, where city leaders had attempted to enact an ordinance in 2014 but failed. The victory felt like evidence that times really are changing. And yet, an article in Clarkburg’s Exponent Telegram told the story of a transgender teen who was bullied by an assistant principal last November. According to the ACLU, a student at Liberty High School, Michael Critchfield, who identifies as male, went into a boys’ restroom after class one day. While he was using the facilities, assistant principal Lee Livengood entered and began to question Critchfield on why he was using the restroom. The student responded that he was a boy and that the restroom was empty when he went in. The article detailed how Livengood “challenged (the student) to ‘come out here and use the urinal’ if he was really a boy” and blocked the exit as he “continued to berate” Critchfield loudly enough for classmates to hear from the hallway and cafeteria. Critchfield and his family contacted the school administration and the ACLU and in his statement Critchfield said, “At the end of the day, all I want is to feel welcome and safe in my school. Mr. Livengood’s behavior in the bathroom that day was terrifying, and no student deserves that kind of treatment. I’m telling my story so that high school doesn’t have to be a scary place for kids like me.”
When I read Critchfield’s words I thought immediately of Kris and also of how these two events—the ordinance in Beckley and the abuse of Critchfield—perfectly encapsulate the one-step-forward-two-steps-back progress in West Virginia. I reach out to Kris and we catch up again on a Sunday morning in late January as I’m driving from West Virginia down to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I now work, and Kris is getting ready to leave the campground in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, where he now lives with Zella, to look for work. He is currently between jobs but is feeling really good about where his life is at and happy with how his identity has morphed and expanded.
“I did my five-year plan in four years,” he says, laughing, and recalling how when we met he had been eager to travel and unsettled about his relationship with his family. Both of these elements of his life, as well as his gender identity, have changed significantly since I last saw him in 2017. He tells me about his work at Snowshoe, his travels with Zella after she stopped going to college, and their eventual relocation to Pigeon Forge, where his mom works as a manager of a campground. “She took us in,” Kris says, “after we were kicked out of the house we were living in in Alderson. She didn’t even know Zella but she took us in and we were living all three of us in a twenty-four-foot trailer.” Kris explains how his relationship to his mom grew and changed as they talked more and he realized that what he had seen as her inability to accept his gender identity was more of a fear she had of how the world would treat him. “It was my fault too,” he says. “I didn’t know how to talk about who I was.” He tells me he stopped taking T during his time at the ski resort because he couldn’t afford it and since then he has not begun taking it again. “I don’t own a gender now,” he says. “I tell people all the time that I’m just Kris.”
I love how he keeps using the word “own” as in “I don’t own any pronouns right now” and “I don’t own a gender.” It makes so much sense to me, the use of this word “own,” how it automatically makes gender and pronouns into something outside of one’s self, an add-on; just like anything else you might own, like a pair of sneakers or a car, the things you own can become markers of your identity but they are not you. “I am whatever I am when I am it,” Kris explains, quoting Andrea Gibson’s poem “Andrew”: “No, I’m not gay. No, I’m not straight, and I’m sure as hell not bisexual, damn it! I am whatever I am when I am it, loving whoever you are when the stars shine and whoever you’ll be when the sun rises.” Kris says this is the best way to describe himself. It is a process, not a destination, he seems to be saying, and the thought resonates after we hang up, as I drive and take in the surrounding landscape and think of the process that is change for LGBTQ youth in West Virginia. There are no firm markers that we have arrived, but there is measurable change. I look at the ridges upon ridges in my rearview mirror and think of a quote I’ve always associated with my own see-saw relationship to this mountain state, a quote from one of the earliest pioneers, who upon first encountering West Virginia wrote, “It was a pleasing tho’ dreadful sight to see mountains and hills as if piled one upon another.”
I look out at the mountains around me—around Kris—and I see how simultaneous it all is, the way these ridges and hollows both cradle and cleave.
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