The drive from Frederick, Maryland to Roanoke, Virginia is a nearly straight shot down I-81, bypassing Morgantown, Harrisonburg, and dozens of sleepy cow fields. South of Harrisonburg, the landscape starts to swell. Rolling mounds and knolls grow into the lush, muscled ridges of The Blue Ridge Mountains—a sight unforgettable, even for someone who was born in the shadow of the Rockies. In late summer of 2012, I witnessed this transformation en route to my first semester of college. Seeing the mountains rise above the highway—formidable and unfamiliar—I felt that everything was becoming possible. I was starting something new, and, for the first time, I was starting on my own. There was no precedence for my arrival, and no expectation.
This wasn’t the first time I longed for new beginnings. For me, trauma has always taken up physical space. I struggle to drive by the road in my hometown where I was sexually assaulted, as if the memory is still alive in one of the old farm houses that line its twists and turns. When I walk into my childhood bedroom, the years I spent in a depressed fugue feel embodied there, like apparitions sulking in the corner. To be liberated from these spaces often feels, deceptively, like deliverance from the hurt I experienced in them. So, when I moved several hundred miles away for college, I expected the distance to heal me. And, for several months, it seemed to work. The friends I made knew nothing about my past. Nowhere I stepped foot felt haunted or heavy. I was, at last, free.
Feeling disentangled from my past inspired me to take a closer look at my identity. If I wasn’t the culmination of old traumas trapped in familiar places, who was I? As college students do, I began to fixate on self-discovery. But, unlike many of my private school peers, I didn’t “find myself” drinking wine on the El Camino or backpacking through New Zealand. Instead, I began another kind of journey: acknowledging repressed queer desire. And, just like that, the liberation I had savored on my arrival was weighted by a growing anxiety. What now?
Realizing that I was a queer complicated what it meant to be free. On my rather homogenous campus, I didn’t yet feel ready to come out—even as the want to do so grew more and more pressing. I had no community of queer friends, and I regularly encountered homophobia, transphobia, and bigotry. I met men who told me about how much they loved watching lesbian porn and then asked me, sordidly, if I liked kissing girls. I met other women who feared proximity to lesbians. I met countless people who leveled misogynistic insults at feminine men, transfeminine people, gender nonconforming students and faculty, and women who called themselves feminists. And though I was typically outspoken and unabashed about my sexual politics in class, knowing many of my classmates thought this way convinced me that it was best to keep the personal out of the political. Increasingly, the new home that had seemed so open and possible at first felt closed and inflexible. Once again, I was haunted. But this feeling had no external space to belong to—it came with me everywhere, and I couldn’t displace it.
Ultimately, it took years to claim a home for myself in Roanoke. I graduated from college, I joined activist groups to connect with other queer people, and I delved deep into my region’s local LGBTQ history. Through exploring queer ideas of place and embodiment in Southwest Virginia, I developed an appreciation for how I—a queer women living in the 21st century—fit into a broader historical narrative about identity, community, and liberation. I walked in Roanoke’s Highland Park and thought about the queer people from decades past who used this green space as a meeting point—for conversation, for romance, for gay sex. I stood in the gravel parking lot on the side of my house and looked out on the vacant field behind it, where, more than fifty years ago, Roanoke’s first gay bar “The Trade Winds” was established as a covert space for drinking, dancing, and drag shows. I thought about Old Southwest, the inner-city historic neighborhood where I rent my house, and the numerous gay activist groups who turned these hilly streets into a bonafide “gayborhood” back in the 1970s. With this legacy before me and a dedicated community of modern queer residents beside me, I have grown to love Roanoke—not despite my queerness, but because of it. After spending hundreds of hours searching for a subversive undercurrent in the Appalachian Mountains, I found the smoke of a queer liberation movement smoldering right beneath my nose.
The time and effort it took to find this community makes it difficult to imagine leaving Roanoke anytime soon. Really, I’m scared to leave. In cities and towns across the U.S and the world, large swaths of the population remain hostile to queer people and queer politics. Even supposed safe spaces—urban hubs and metropolitan progressive enclaves—remain vulnerable to anti-queer violence. Yet, I am in my early twenties, and the potential danger of exploration does not deter my drive to explore. In fact, next fall I’m moving once again—this time to start graduate school in Indiana. Anyone who’s thrown themselves into the tide of academia knows well that, when it comes to geography, most grad students and PhDs find themselves anywhere there’s a job or ample funding opportunities; this could mean in the middle of New York City (unlikely), or (more realistically) in the stark center of a midwestern corn field. The latter is where I’m headed come August: Indiana, also known as Mike Pence’s home state and a stronghold for the moral majority—not the first choice of locale for an unabashed sodomite, to say the least.
As I prepare to relocate, I must ask myself more than the usual logistical questions. I wonder how safe I will feel as a queer person walking around my new campus or on the streets of my new town. Will I have allies to help me navigate instances of bigotry? Will people gawk at my hairy body? Will my transfeminine lover be welcomed by new friends and colleagues? Will we be threatened by neo-fascists groups, such as the one that hung up white supremacist flyers around Purdue’s campus in 2016?
To me, these are new anxieties—ones I’ve had to navigate since coming out and realizing that anti-queer antagonism can make even the most open public space feel like a battle ground. In more conservative and rural areas of the country, this antagonism is bolstered by a permissive culture that often forgives and even defends violence against any group that challenges heteronormative, white supremacist hegemony. The thought of carving another affirming, safe, and supportive home into this tapestry of obstacles makes me feel angry and exhausted. When I was a child, I imagined myself being able to move anywhere and fit in with the dominant character of the town, the people, the institution. In hindsight, I know that this was a privileged assumption. I overlooked how my whiteness and my middle class upbringing entitled me to a sense of safety and belonging that non-white Americans, queer Americans, and impoverished Americans are routinely deprived of. Now, I see how the “dominant character” of most places relegates a shamefully large portion of the population to the margins, while ignoring the most vulnerable among us altogether.
Still, having already labored to find/build a queer community in Southwest Virginia, I know that this work is possible, important, and necessary. I know I will likely have to bash against the inflexible frame of wherever I end up to make myself fit, but I also know that I am not the first. Everywhere—from Indiana to The Blue Ridge Mountains—there have long been other queer people fighting much harder than I’ve had to fight to create space for my arrival. These queer people—often poor, isolated, and variously marginalized—laid the foundations that make it possible for me and my queer family to aspire to live safely and openly wherever we go. I owe it to this history to keep fighting, to be confrontational and steadfast, to take up space and create what has not already been built. In Roanoke, I met people who made this endless work seem like a radical act of love. It will be heartbreaking to leave, but, wherever I go, I carry with me their storied seeds of rebellion.
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