Sam. 20. Southwest VA. August 2013.



To listen to an excerpt of the audio click here:  

It is August 10th the year of our Lord 2013.  I’m Sam.  I’m 20 years old, and I’m from Wytheville, Virginia in Southwest Virginia, and I attend Berea College in Kentucky, so that’s where I live now.  Wytheville is a small town at the junction of I-81 and I-77 and that’s why most people know it, and it’s grown rapidly in my lifetime.  Right when you get off the Wytheville exit, there’s a big Wal-Mart shopping plaza with Lowes and all these other chain stores and a strip mall type thing, and I remember when that was the Crowgey Farm.  So the Wytheville that I grew up in is pretty different than the Wytheville we have now.  There’s a Gatorade plant has moved in because the water on Reed Creek is good, and that’s brought a lot of jobs and a lot more people to the area, so I grew up in what felt like a much smaller Wytheville.

On the banks of the New River in Wythe County, Virginia.

My Daddy started out teaching English in high school for years so he could coach football, that’s what he wanted to do.  And he’s a tremendously thoughtful, well read, articulate person.  My daddy has a poise about himself and his words that I always felt was really uncommon, and I always really admired that in him.  He’s worked for years as a signal maintainer at Norfolk and Southern Railroad and so I always felt like the working class part of my raising was from my Daddy.  He was the son of a lawyer, but they didn’t live like they were well to do, they didn’t act like they were well to do really.  But, he has this deep ingrained blue collar working man humility about him that I always really admired, and that’s kind of what I absorbed from my dad.  He’s a natural story teller, he’s hilarious, and he just, he gave me the love for the spoken word.

And then my mom is an English teacher, also, and she’s done that for many years.  She calls herself a hippie with makeup, which I think is a really good way of describing her.  Because socially she’s very inclusive, loving, effervescent, fun lady, you know, and so that’s sort of the hippie side, this embracing quality about her which everybody notices, and then the makeup- you know, she’s from a small town!  She believes in presenting herself well, and she jokes about being just a little materialistic.  So the hippie with makeup, that’s my mama.

I identify as a gay male, and I remember having feelings that I could not understand, or I couldn’t categorize, when I was very young, like elementary school age.  When I would see like, a male actor in a movie that I thought was really good looking, or that I was drawn to for some reason, that I couldn’t comprehend yet, and I didn’t know at all what that meant.  It was very frustrating to me, because the rest of my world I felt like I could wrap my brain around.  Most of the other things in my life at that point I could understand.  But this pull that I was having toward attractive male images that I saw, I didn’t understand at all what that was, or what it meant.  And when I was in middle school, one of my classmates who I didn’t always know real well, but I came to know better when I was in 8th grade, he knew he was gay.  And he was interested in having the little relationships that people have at that age.  He was comfortable enough in himself to be going for that.  He knew that I was gay, and I really didn’t at that point.  So then, we started talking and he would say, “Well, you know, there’s this thing that I’ve learned about myself,” and he would just present it.   And then I would get to thinking and slowly I started piecing it together: this is who I am, this is a part of who I am.  And then I started to realize that those feelings of being different that I’ve had my whole life might have stemmed from there.  And so it all started falling into place a little better.   And then, as you know, around that time, more and more people started having that realization too.  I feel like middle school is like a crucible, you know, it’s sort of testing fire, and people either bend or break.  And so a lot of my friends started to kind of come out as well, one by one.  And so then I realized we had this little tight knit queer community and we all liked each other pretty much.  So then we carried each other all the way through high school.

I first came out to my friends, the ones that I’m very close to, and never once had a truly uncomfortable experience with that.  They were always well aware and had known, so it wasn’t like I was telling them this big shocking thing.  They’d pretty well put it together by then.  But, I learned that some of them were hesitant to believe it at first, but they didn’t show it.  I had a lot of straight male friends in high school, and some of them would say things like, “Well, I mean, you just haven’t found the right woman yet.”  And that kind of stuff started peeking up, and then we would address it and I would say, “That’s not the way it is.”  I would call them out on it, alone or socially.  It didn’t matter.  And they were always receptive to that kind of talk.

So then I came out to my mother first.  I’d wanted to for a long time, and I knew that she knew.  She was starting to say things like…wonderful things, things that few people are blessed with, like we were riding in the car one day and I remember her saying, “You know if one of my sons discovered that they were gay and wanted to tell me that, I would absolutely embrace them and think of them no differently.”  I remember her saying that in almost those same terms, and I would just shake my head and look at the floor ‘cause I wasn’t ready to tell her yet.  I went down in her bathroom.  She was curling her hair, and I just walked in there and sat down on the washing machine which is over in the corner and said, “Well, mom, I’m gay.”  And then fumbled through another sentence or something and she said, “Oh honey!  Did you just wanna tell me that?”  And she smiled.  I mean she beamed, ‘cause she was so glad it was out in the open and it didn’t have to be skirted around anymore.  I remember her reassuring me, and saying “You know, you know how I feel about you and that’s not gonna change, it’s not gonna be any different.”  Which is a tremendously reassuring thing, and I mean I just shook for a day it felt like, just with that weight being off my shoulders.

Sam and his wonderful mother.

Sam and his wonderful mother.

I have an older brother.  He’s six years older than me.   He was sitting at the kitchen table and I went straight in there and told him and he said, “Of course we know that.”  So that welcome was warm and they’ve remained that way and they’ve gotten progressively more supportive all the time.  I frequently get emails or messages from them if they read an article about gay rights issues or something that they think I’m interested in, they’ll send it to me.  And they’ve started to… it’s entered their humor more.  So that’s when you can tell they’re really comfortable with it.

I waited longer to come out to my dad, because I just…that side of the family didn’t…sex just wasn’t talked about.  Period.  And I’ve always been a little private about things like that, I just didn’t think it was necessary yet, it hadn’t come to that point.  And then, when I got to seeing the first boy I ever loved seriously, and I knew it was gonna last awhile, and my dad was on Facebook!  So it was gonna come to light.  It was gonna be known.  So I called him from college my freshman year and I told him.  His first response was, “of course I love you no different.”  Very affirming.  And then he started to say that he was worried, because “there are risks associated with this lifestyle,” that’s what he said.  And I said, “Well, Dad, I don’t appreciate the term lifestyle and this is why,” and so we started to negotiate and talk about it, and I figured out what he meant.  Which was that he wanted me to be safe, which he may not have told that to my straight older brother, but I appreciated that notion, that he wanted to protect me if he could.  That was still out of love and I knew that.  We still don’t talk as much about that part of my life.  We just don’t, you know, it’s not comfortable for either of us so we don’t talk about it much, but I’m not scared to.  And he’s met boyfriends I’ve had since then and been very, so good to them.

I’m not out to my grandparents.  I haven’t told them, I haven’t verbalized it to them.  Because I think it would shake up the foundations of what they know too violently.  It would be this sudden kind of rupture.  I mean it would just kind of hurl a lot of things up in the air that have been planted for them their whole lives…that they expected since the day I was born and they held me for the first time, you know that I was gonna grow up and marry a woman and have children.  That’s what they thought.  It would give them great religious concerns, but their love for me would not shift one iota, it would not move, and I know that.  But, it’s just not somewhere that we need to go, I don’t need to sit down and tell them that, because I think they know.  But, telling them would be too extreme, so I don’t.

I had an experience where I felt like my grandmother knew for the first time that I was gay.  I was playing a gig somewhere, and my grandmother has been the greatest supporter of my music that I ever could have asked for.  She’s a singer herself and sings gospel music and directs the children’s choir at church and all of that, and she told me from the time I was little tiny that I had a pretty voice and that I should really pursue it, that I should share it. And so, she was the foundation of me taking up music, period.  She comes to hear me anytime that I’m playing locally and I play in her kitchen all the time.  So one time she came to this little local gig that I had in a bar, and I wanted to sing a song I had written that mentions explicitly, I mean…it just talks about the struggles of loving country boys!  And it says, there’s a line that talks about, you know, me kissing another man, and I thought to myself, I’d already started playing the song before I even thought about that reference . . . ‘cause the song was broader to me, I didn’t think, “Oh, I shouldn’t share that ‘cause it’s got those lines in it,” I wasn’t thinking about outing myself, but then I got to the verse that was gonna out me and I thought, “I can’t change the words on the spot, and why would I?”  So I just sung it.

And I remember them both, my grandfather and my grandmother, both scanning the ground.  It was immediate.  It was like…what immediately registered with me was “Oh, there’s some kind of shame going on,” ‘cause there’s people that we know from the community sitting all around them.  But, I mean, it’s in a bar.  So it’s not like everyone’s honed in on listening to me either.  And I thought, “well they’re ashamed for some reason and they know and that’s it, and I’ve made them uncomfortable for some reason,” that’s what I thought initially, but I don’t know that.  They could have been taken by the beauty of the song, or the way I was singing it, or proud of me.  There’s a number of things that can make somebody express that:  just looking at the ground.  Looking at the ground is looking at the ground.  So I don’t know for sure if they were ashamed, or if they caught, they noticed.  I feel like they did.

[Do you think being from a small town made it harder to come out?]  Yes.  I do.  Because there wasn’t an open community of gay people around that I had as models coming up.  For instance, if my parents had had friends that were same sex couples, that would have instilled this whole different awareness in me that this existed in the world, and that it was ok, and that people grew up and grew old together in same sex relationships, which I didn’t get that in a small town because everything was behind closed doors.  As I became more aware and started coming home in the summers from college, I learned that all these people I had known growing up were queer, that there was this whole community, but it was underground.  So, I’d had support in high school, which I’m really really lucky for and thankful for, and I wasn’t bullied in high school which is you know an unexpected blessing in the area we live in, and I was out in high school to my classmates.  You know, there’s nobody in my graduating class that didn’t know I was gay, and none of them gave me much trouble, ever.  So I had a great experience in an area that it could have been much worse, and there’s a lot to be done in making queer people feel at home in the area where I was raised.

[What do you think is the largest issue facing rural LGBTQ people?]  The initial obvious one is that lack of open community.  The second is lack of a history.  You don’t get told about, well there was a same sex couple and they lived in such and such area of the county and they lived there for a long time together and they farmed or they did this, and you know you don’t have that kind of history in stories that you get in your family where we’re from, that that’s part of your birthright, the stories about your family and that you get in the music and the socializing, the visiting, you get that history in all these different places that makes you feel rooted there.  Whereas when you discover you’re queer, I think a lot of people’s immediate response is to think, suddenly I feel like I don’t belong here when my whole life I felt I did.  Just that tension, between having to reconcile your queer identity with your heritage, which can seem contrary at times, like two things that can’t go together.  But, I’ve found that those two things go together beautifully, and that I’ve been able to embrace that.

I had to be in a place where both of those could be celebrated with others first, and for me that was at Berea College, because I made some friends who are country queers.  And we started thinking, well we’re Fabulous and we’re Appalachians, so we’re Fabulachians.  And so that all came together and we clung to that word and used it, and used it, and used it, and used it when we first combined it, because it set something right in ourselves.  It announced that we were fully human.  That we were whole.  So that’s how I found it, was by connecting with other queer people from the same culture.

The Down Home Divas:  Sam (L) and Ethan (R) at Berea College.

The Down Home Divas.  

I have a tremendous appreciation for, and I feel a real zest in being around other country queers, and just like a lot of the people that I really admire are country queers.  So when I’m around them it’s like I’m totally tuned in, that I’m totally on their wavelength.  And there’s something about their defiance and their ability to not let the setbacks of their situation hold them down.  Like their ability to thrive in a culture that sometimes completely embraces them and sometimes is very hostile, in a silent sneaky terrible way.  Their ability to thrive in that environment creates a sense of humor and a way of being that fascinates me.

I have a rainbow banjo strap that I put on my banjo a couple years ago.  And I put it on there, and I had some gigs coming up where I was gonna play in front of people, and I thought, and I almost took it off and replaced it with just a normal leather strap before one gig, Cause I thought this is a bunch of older folks and I don’t want to, I was performing with someone else, and I don’t want to make the person I’m singing with feel uncomfortable, and I don’t want to make the audience feel uncomfortable either cause that distracts from the music, which is the holiest thing to me, that they hear the music.  I approached the person that I was gonna be singing with and I said, “Do you think that that banjo strap is too gay?” and he said, “There’s no such thing as too gay, it’s like having too much money.”  And I was in stitches laughing, you know, doubled over, and I thought I’m never taking this strap off here now.  I haven’t since.  So I feel most proud to be a country queer in a way, when I put my rainbow banjo strap on and I go sing in front of people because I get to present my culture and the thing that I think is most beautiful about it, our music, our songs and also in a sneaky way reveal something else about my culture, that there have always been queer people where I’m from and all over the world.

I had a really affirming good experience coming out to my musical mentors too, which was just as daunting and just as important as coming out to my family, because the people that taught me to play and sing are every bit as much my parents as the ones that birthed me, the older mentors anyway, and my peers that I make music with, we all have a big impact on each other and there’s a real community centered around traditional music where I’m from.  It’s a tight knit community where everybody knows everybody, and so I started edging into more and more openness with that.  And when I told the fellow that taught me to play the banjo, one of my foremost mentors, the one that really brought me into that world of music and gave me that gift of a life in mountain music, he was not surprised when I told him I was gay and he was not upset in any way and didn’t think that I should hide it.  Not that I was gonna run around telling everybody at every single fiddler’s convention at home, you know but I walked there in a different way after that.  And then one of my ballad singing mentors that taught me a lot of old songs from her family that go back generations and generations was completely…she was not just indifferent about the fact that I was gay, she was excited about the fact that I was gay, so she was, it opened this whole ‘nother door in our relationship where we were closer, because I told her that and then it was more fun from then on out!  And I realized that she just has a soft spot for gay men in general, so that has been good.

Protesting for LGBTQ equality in Kentucky.

Protesting for LGBTQ equality in Kentucky.

I want to tell the story somehow of queer people making country music, because, this is an arguable statement, but I think you can say that there are more queer people in the arts than there are straight people.  I mean, when you’re marginalized in some way I think you turn to the arts, and if you’re marginalized as an Appalachian and you’re marginalized as a queer person, how can you not turn to art?    I mean, it’s no wonder that so many of the country singers and musicians I admire are queer, because how could they not turn to it?  It’s such a comforting music, it’s such a healing music, so I wanna tell that story somehow.  It’s not quite time.  The audience for our music is in some circles still very, very conservative, and there’s a lot of people scared of losing work because they come out, like musicians, that would be a very real threat to them, losing gigs because they came out, you know just flat out less money in the bank account because they came out.  So, I’m looking forward to bringing that story forward through some kind of documentary work in the next decade or so.  I hope for that.  And I hope that the time will be right, hope the climate will be right by then.

The sense of humor of these older country queers that I’ve been around is fantastic, and that sense of humor only comes through living this life that they’ve lived, and having to bite their tongue a lot, and have ignorant things said to them, by sweet old church women or little old farmers that just don’t get it, and then having to find a way to smile and look at that person and say, “I love you and this is hilarious that we are in this awkward of a position” and then to overcome that.

[Do you feel pressure to move to a city?] Yes, for two reasons, because I’m studying folklore and I will likely end up in some kind of teaching position if I end up taking a steady job, and that will probably take me to a university in a city, Well three reasons all together, because then as a musician if I wanted to travel and tour it would make a lot more sense for me to be in a centrally located city.  And then also as a queer person, I would be able to find a whole new level of community, I mean just numbers, just a sheer overwhelming amount of gay people in the city, you know.

But, I don’t think that any of those are the right move for me, and I will fight to live rurally.  Because on one hand on a very dramatic note, I feel a duty to be a queer example in the community that I was raised in for young queer people who are coming up.  For me to be present in that way, and to be there for them in a way that I didn’t have.  I feel that duty.  And also, because I feel like if I run away to the city it’ll take something from my music, and that I need to be as immersed in this culture as I possibly can because so much of it is being erased, and that I need to be close to my people in that way, and be listening to them, while our elders are still here.  And then also as an aspiring folklorist I feel the need to live rurally, because that listening I was just talking about as a musician, I also want to have a tape recorder there and to be setting that down for other people eventually.  Learning the songs and putting them in my body, the songs and the stories and the way of life, and also putting it on some kind of tape or paper too, and I think I’m gonna have to live rurally and be immersed in it to do that well.

Fiddling at I Love Mountains Day, organized by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.

Fiddling at I Love Mountains Day, organized by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.

I want to teach people to play the banjo or the fiddle or the guitar or to sing, in the way that I did, which is one person sitting down knee to knee with, you know, typically an older person sitting down knee to knee with a younger person and showing them the songs and the tunes.  And that is the way I feel like it should be done, and that’s the way I feel like the music really can save a person, and can strengthen a person, is when it’s done in that way, that passing down.  I wanna do that when I’m older, and there’s this stigma, that all older gay men who spend time with younger men are pedophiles.  That’s a nationwide thing, that’s not particularly prevalent in Appalachia more than anywhere else, I don’t think.  But, in rural areas there’s so much talk, so much gossip, that is a hallmark of rural living, sad to say.  And that’s not all bad, but I would be a little intimidated by teaching lessons to young men if I was an older gay man living openly with a partner or something, you know I would be a little shook up by that, at least at first.  Unless a lot of things changed, or unless I could find strength in myself to be brave enough to live in the face of that stigma.

This is a challenge I present to myself, as well as with everyone else, all the other country queers in the mountains, and I would say, be brave, and to take strength in each other, and to learn our history, to seek it out, to learn about the queer history of their communities, which is there, the surface needs to be scratched.  And then I would say, take that next step that you’re a little fearful of and live as openly as you possibly can, because, even though it’s a sacrifice, it breaks barriers, and younger, future generations will be thankful for that.  And we’ve got to do it, it’s time, it’s been time.

Interviewed on August 10, 2013 during the third annual STAY Project Summer Institute at the Highlander Center in East Tennessee.