In bucolic Southern Appalachia, a region of the country replete with lush mountains and “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” yard signs, queer people must regularly interact with folks who are hostile towards them. Our fellow Southerners gawk at us in the streets, shout homophobic abuses at us from their cars, and discriminate against us in our neighborhoods, at our jobs, etc. Wherever we go, we are trailed by the knowledge of our own vulnerability in conservative Southern culture. Still, many of us wake up every day steadfastly devoted to creating change through community activism. We know better than most that Appalachia and the South plainly need dedicated activists who are willing to confront their communities about white supremacy, transphobic violence, and the daily struggles that LGBTQ people face. The conspicuousness of this need makes our work here feel singularly important; being queer and outspoken against identity-based injustice is a kind of radical affront to the systems of violence that permeate Southern life. When there are still many queer people who consider this part of the country wholly off-limits to them, it feels necessary to walk proudly and openly through our cities, unafraid. If we can live here and stay here, perhaps we can change here.
But being out, proud, and unabashedly queer in the South is difficult and frustrating. It is impossible for queer activists to feel empowered or supported when they must spend so much of their time worrying about their safety, their welfare, and the reactionary bigotry that pervades the sociopolitical climate they exist within. Many Southern queer activists get burnt out after a couple years of hard-won and painfully gradual progress. The constant threat of violence is fatiguing and dehumanizing. The loneliness of trying to build queer community in a place where there’s not many queer people is, likewise, hard to bear. Many of us do not have the financial or social means to leave the South, to start over in a bigger, more progressive city where queer people have already won imposing victories (though anti-queer violence looms everywhere). I do have the means to leave, and sometimes I badly want to, but I am gutted when I think of how more vulnerable members of my community might feel: angry, scared, tired, and trapped.
Straight and cisgender allies who support LGBTQ activism often express their gratitude to me and my activist friends: “Thank you so much for doing this work. It’s so important” they say. I appreciate their sentiments, but I get the feeling that they don’t know how tired and frightened we are. They are quick to condemn anti-queer violence and bigotry generally, but they are not as quick to condemn it in their daily, personal lives. I wonder: how many of them intimately know someone who gawks at me and my friends in the street—someone who misgenders us, insults us, makes fun of us, or votes in a way that disempowers us? I also wonder: how many of them would be willing to confront these friends, family members, and loved ones?
Confrontation is painful—queer activists confront the fear and anger of other people constantly, that’s why we are so tired. Confrontation is necessary to our liberation, and we want to continue doing that work—but, to succeed, we need to feel safe and supported. We need our more powerful, more visible peers to do work themselves confronting and challenging the violence they see in their day-to-day lives: from microaggressions to the most brazen forms of enmity. No doubt, there is a formidable coalition of folks down here who want meaningful change. It is now up to each of us to use what we have and what we know to move beyond passive support and become co-liberators—diverse groups of people fighting alongside one another to create sustainable progress.
RM Barton is a writer and activist living in Roanoke, Virginia. Originally from Maryland, she moved to Southwest Virginia for school some five years ago, and has since become invested in queering southern space. She is the co-lead of The Southwest Virginia LGBTQ History Project and the publisher of The Southwest Virginia LGBTQ History Project Zine, which aims to illuminate queer history through queer art and storytelling. She blogs at rmbartonblog.wordpress.com