My name’s Elandria, I’m now 34 years old, and I live in Knoxville, Tennessee. What is it like where I live? So, I feel like, I live in a city that thinks of itself as a town. I live at the nexus of Appalachia and the South. Knoxville’s the largest city in Appalachia. Knoxville is, well the county, which is where I grew up, is a mostly white county, um, with some people of color in it. But, I went to school in a pretty diverse school for most of it. I went to high school not in a diverse school. Um. I live in a place that is dominated by University of Tennessee football, and that is what brings everybody together, um, is UT football, or some other football of some kind. I grew up in front of the Weigel’s farm. And so, the Weigel’s farm, is dominates, is who, like most of the gas stations are Weigel’s. I live in a place that, um, Pilot Oil runs a lot of things. And Pilot is like the largest gas, like, what do you call it, gas station company in the United States, and so they control everything. And where Tennessee Valley Authority dominates.
And so you have a couple of big: University of TN, Tennessee Valley Authority, Oak Ridge where people make atomic bombs…you have a couple of big industries where everybody works through. And then people have odd jobs and do service industry, cause we’re right next to Sevier County [Home to Dollywood] and the Smoky Mountains. And so where I live is beautiful, the national parks are amazing, and it’s great. I also live in a place that has one of the oldest gay bars in the South, The Carousel, and so um, we are in the top 10 list of the friendliest gay small, medium, cities in the country. In large part because of the women’s basketball team, and Gatlinburg, and um, because there’s the University of TN here as well. So that’s where I live.
I was born here, I left, I came back! I was born here. I was born in University of TN hospital. And then, grew up in Powell, TN, um, which I wasn’t there much because my mom was a teacher and so I went wherever she was at. But then I went to high school in Powell. Um, as a young black person, Powell sucked! In many ways. And I spent most of my time there doing organizing work around Confederate Flags, trying to get rid of Confederate Flags from places, trying to stop race fights and all that. Um, but they were good people, I mean I feel like, because Powell was so intense the people that I met there, that I’m friends with, I’m really good friends with now. So I’ve made some of the best friends of my life, out of Powell. Growing up was intense, because, so we were also, Knoxville’s also a really big party town because of the University, and because of the football team was doing so well, and the basketball team, and all the teams were doing so good. And, there was lots of partying! Um, and so that’s what I remember the most actually, about being in middle school, high school, and college, is the intense amount of partying done. And that was where people could you know, just like lay their, like you know like just chill out. And so the thing that I think the most about growing up here, and being in school, is, so there were these two places, one was called Laura Lindies that on Thursday nights was like the club to go to. And Thursday nights was called the closet. Um and it was a place where like everybody gathered, and it didn’t matter, but it was clearly called the closet, so everybody knew a closet was a place where all the queer folks would go and hang out and party, but it also was like the best club in town, and so everybody came. And so it didn’t matter if you were like, you know, doing your thing, that’s where everything happened. And so I feel like that’s the one thing that Knoxville always has that’s different than every other place I’ve ever been to, is that nobody only hangs out with one type of people.
Right? It’s like you’ll go to like, we, my brother and I just had a birthday party, we were at the park, and there were all kinds of people at this birthday party, it’s not like, and I think that’s what’s made being where we live so unique. Is it’s not small enough where you feel like you have, you have to close in and only hang with like a certain type of people. And it’s also not big enough to where, especially if you’re from here, that you can just like let go of all the people that you grew up with. Um, so you’re almost in many ways forced to have to work to have like friends that are cross race, you’re forced to have friends that are everything, and so like my friend group is all races of people, but also all sexualities. Which is different than a lot of places where people only have lesbian friends, or they only have gay boy friends, or they only have trans friends. But I’m like, nope, I have friends that are all those categories, and all different races of those categories, and we all hang out together. Which, is a, it’s beautiful and its one of the things I appreciate the most. And I also grew up Unitarian Universalist, um, in Knoxville, which meant that when I was, I mean we were like in the 6th grade and our friend’s dad was transitioning, from F to M, no from M to F, when we were kids. And so, and having that conversation about what that means, what’s going on, meant that I was like, and then we went through like about your sexuality class, when I was a kid. So like, we were watching films of like everybody’s sexuality is ok. So it was like, alright, we got gay sex, we got lesbian sex, we got hetero sex, we got all sex…Here we go, baby! And so, it was like from an early age, I was taught that whatever you are…sexuality is a spectrum, just like gender is a spectrum, and you don’t have to indentify one way or another.
There are a couple things that stick out to me really bad, it’s like so, my parents even though that was them, like I wanted, like I love basketball, it was all I actually really liked for a long time. And so my dad was a little freaked out about me playing on the basketball team because the coach was lesbian, and he was like, “Oh my God, no!” And so like, he was like it was like a fight to play sports, even though he wanted me to play it was like a fight with him. Because he was like, “I already have a daughter who doesn’t want to be a girl.” And so literally I was not a girl in my life, until I like had a period and I thought I was internally bleeding, and I was like, “I need to go to the hospital immediately!” I was in Miami with my cousins, and they were like, “You are not dying, you are having a period.” And I was like, “No we don’t have these!” Um, and so gender was always one of those complicated things where I was like, “I want to be a boy, I do not want to be a girl, girls SUCK! And I want to play football and basketball and enjoy my life.” And I have a twin brother. And so there were decisions made, at different points in my life, around what does it mean to, what does gender look like in terms of expression, and in terms of what you have to be to make it, and um, so that’s my growing up. There’s so much more that I could say, but that’s a lot.
Sexuality wise, I identify as pan-sexual, um, do you want me to say what that means? Does everyone know? [Sure, go for it] Ok, so I identify as pansexual, which for me means, I date: some dudes, some women, and trans folk, mostly trans men. But, yes, but I’m pretty picky! But that’s how I identify, is as a pan-sexual. And then um, I don’t really identify, I mean the thing is gender stuff for me is complicated. I’d rather not do either one. I mean I also live in a place where I don’t feel like having a conversation about it all the time. And so, like there’s a whole group of people that I do work with, and they’re in the Brown Boy Project, and we talk a lot about what it means to like be in the middle, to for us ourselves to be in whatever presentation we’re in, is because, we want, there’s something bigger, we have other things that need to be moved, and the primary conversation doesn’t need to be about gender. Like it needs to be about other things. And so, yeah, I don’t know if I identify as a girl. But, you know, that’s how I present. It’s easiest, for me, to do what I need to do.
When did I first know I was queer? That is so complicated. I don’t actually know if I know the answer to that! Like I think I knew, because I grew up with everything knowing for always, like, I mean, it all happened in the 7th grade. And before then, like I clearly did not want to be a girl. Like I clearly knew there was something, like I think everybody in my family was like…cause I mean it was just too…what it was. And so, obviously though, it was like, I don’t want to be in this body. That’s been there since I was like a kid, like 3rd grade, maybe even 2nd grade, not wanting the frilly dress, actually that was like… Actually I remember clearly being in Kindergarten, and so me and this girl, Ebony, were put in these like tutu things, cause our moms wanted us to be ballerinas, and we were like “Hell. No.” And so we like ran around terrorizing all of the girls in ballet class, so that we could get out of ballet. And I completely forgot about it until I ran into Ebony at the Carousel, when we were like, when I was like 22. She was like, “Do you remember us terrorizing all of those little girls in Ballet? So we could both get the planet out of Ballet?” I was like, “OH! that’s so right! That was hilarious! We were like NO!” And so it was pretty early, I was like this is not my steelo, and then, I think over time I knew I was somewhere in the spectrum. But I was like, eh, until I find someone that I actually want to talk to, mmm. And I think that most of the girls that I’m attracted to are more butch, and are mostly not white and so I think that wasn’t in Knoxville, and so I think that also was a part of it. So it was like whenever I would go out of town, I’d be like, Oh, you’re hot, and then I’m like, Ok I don’t live here, I’m going back home, You don’t exist, in my little area, and so we’re not gonna worry about that. So that’s, so it would come out when I would go to UU camps and a couple other places, but then I would come back home and it’s like, oh, you don’t exist again. And so I don’t know if that answered the question at all, but…
[What was your coming out experience like] …Gradual? Uh. And I mean, it wasn’t even, I don’t even know if it was necessarily and experience, until like, I mean I don’t know if it was an experience. I mean there were times when my mom has said stuff, and I’m like, what are you talking about lady? And just like, just confront her with it. But, I mean it wasn’t really like, it just happened, because everyone I was around it didn’t matter. That’s the, I mean, like it would matter for certain people, but other things sometimes mattered more, or, in some ways we were buffered. I think about it now and in some ways having the group of friends that I had buffered all of it, because there wasn’t, for any kind of identity you might have it was buffered. Yeah, I don’t actually, I mean, yeah I don’t actually, I think that’s where my story is so different from most people’s, cause there wasn’t like a particular moment where I can go, this was the time I told every single person in my family. It was just like they, it was like a process where you’re having a conversation, it comes up, you keep moving, and then me and my cousins start going at it, like at my cousin’s wedding. But I mean like, you know, but it’s not like it’s like one particular moment where this is the story and this is where it all played out. I mean I think for my family, my parents, I think the most complicated thing is like having, because they agreed that…my parents were always in favor of gay rights, they were always in favor, when it came to me it was a little complicated, even though they firmly put me in a program that made me feel like it was fine. So I think it’s where the rubber hit the road, and my mom was like, “Hold on, what does this mean? Really? Hold up. I don’t understand.” And I think it would have been one thing if I hadn’t dated men before, and if I hadn’t like been with a guy that I probably would have married. I think it would have been easier for her if I’d just been like women all the way. Or like the pan..the thing, she’s like, “Oh these people, are trans, I think, I don’t understand.” I mean, I think like, trans for her is so complicated, and then she’s just doesn’t, even though friends of mine, she’s like, “I don’t. Really? Yes? He? Right? You’re he? Wonderful.” And then she’s like “They’re not a he? But I thought you told me they were he?” And that’s where, she’s like, “I don’t understand though, they were he’s? So how’d that? They’re? Hmm.” So that’s where I think it’s become, um, an interesting process.
I feel like I grew up in…I feel like Powell is not the city, but it’s close, and my entire family lives in….So my dad’s family is from Cedar Town, Florida, which is rural, um, they’re farming people. And so I feel like I grew up in a blend.
I think actually, one of the largest struggles to me is how to talk about race and class in queer community. That’s huge. Um, because I think people don’t want, I think there’s like large swaths of the queer community that doesn’t want to deal with it at all. Which is why, I think marriage was great, people took off, and you’re like now what? Are we really gonna deal with other things that people need? Like bullying, around stuff around prisons, around what does it mean to have…around economics knowing that a lot most poorest people are people who are differently-abled and queer, combined. Um, I think we’re still at a place where people think queer means white. And we’re still fighting, that is not a white man’s disease. Like it’s something that has happened in all of our communities. People have been queer in the communities forever, like that’s like normal. I think that’s still like huge. I think that. I think that almost every issue that impacts everybody are like the biggest issues that queer people face, because queer people have every other thing in back of them, right? I think that’s the one thing that I’ve appreciated about my work for like the last six years, actually for maybe the whole time, is like, you’re able to work with queer organizations, but you’re also able to work with queer people within other organizations that are doing work around educational justice, and are doing work around juvenile incarceration, and are doing work around housing and transportation, because all those issues that people face. Queer people face, because queer people are people. But they face them harsher sometimes. And so I think, if we’re in an economic crisis, if the country is dealing with an economic recession? The biggest issue queer people face is the economic recession. Because at the end of the day, everyone needs a job. So, that’s what I believe. I think there’s a different, there’s a bent on it, around like what does it mean to be queer and dealing with these issues, and how it impacts queer people that it does not impact hetero people. Um, that to me is one thing. But that’s my personal opinion.
But so I think in rural areas…I actually think it’s different in rural areas than in urban, cause I would say that’s true for urban. In rural areas, people are still fighting for survival. Actually, no that’s not true, that can be urban when somebody just got murdered a couple weeks ago for being trans, a trans man just got murdered, and a trans female just got murdered a month ago in New Orleans. Um, both black of course. Um, and like the kid got murdered in Miami, right? Tazered? Like a week ago. And so I think, like that is maybe the biggest fear still? Right? Like what does it mean for people to be murdered because of their identity? And they way they express? Um, that to me is huge.
I think in rural spaces? Communities are small. You know, and I think it’s hard to figure out how to find a relationship. How to maintain. How do you deal with your family? I was just talking to a friend of mine the other day, you know like, trying to stay home while her family is trippin out. Beyond measure. And it’s like you wanna stay connected, but it’s tough, and it’s like every minute is like yearning to get out and go, so you don’t have to deal with the foolishness. And so it’s like weighing. And then I think, um, but I also think, you know, how do you maintain stability? And how do you have a family? However family means to you? Right? And how do you have a job, that you’re actually successful in your life in whatever that means? I think it’s harder in rural areas than in cities. And in many ways it’s because, most people in rural areas are from those rural areas. And so it’s not just about like you, it’s about your family, it’s about their family’s community, and people and their lovely mouths waggin. And that I think is different than like, cause if you move to another place, you’re like almost an anonymous bug, like you’re life starts from when you got there. It’s like when you’re at home, it’s like I was at this thing and it’s like I ran into like the church, Baptist Church that I grew up in, that I left in the fourth grade. But Reverend Skinner was like “Hey where you been?!” I haven’t seen that man since I was like, little, I mean but it’s like, but then he’s going back to your life story of when you were like in kindergarten and so it’s like you never left. It’s like to them you’re still that little 5 year old girl that they remember, and they’re like, so that’s like the box you’re in. So I think that’s the biggest, I think that’s actually the hardest thing about being in a rural area that you’re from. Is that people will always, people will remember you, and they’ll remember your family, and you’re always connected back in. And small town gossip. That to me is the hardest thing I think. And churches, did we talk about churches? I’m sure lots of people talk about churches.
I don’t actually know if I identify as a country queer. Like I don’t, I mean…….like I feel like I identify as someone who is from a small zone, I feel like I identify as someone who is tied to the land, I feel like I , I mean..Country is complicated. And it’s partly based upon my own internalization…I mean, let’s just go there, right? So it’s like, it took me, I hated East Tennessee. My entire life. Hated it. So my family’s from Florida. They’re not from some like the big busting metropolis, I mean like now some of them live there, but they’re from rural Florida, and that was fine with me. When I think about country, when I think country, I think East Tennessee and it took me 23 years to be fine with East Tennessee. Now I’m ok, but it took a long long time. I mean, I couldn’t identify as an urbanite, so I guess that’s the other option of urbanite is country, small town. Um. You know what I mean I feel like. Here’s actually I realized how I feel. I feel like because I’m able to straddle everything, and I am just as comfortable going into the country bar and doing the thing and just having a good ass time, as I am sitting at the football game, as I am being at the gay bar in the city. Like all of it is fine. And I think that that is what it means for me to be a country queer, is that like you don’t, you can’t leave your folk at the door. You can’t act like you grew up with people that weren’t like the people that are acting all kinds of crazy in all kinds of ways. Um, and it’s different!
It’s not like, I mean, I go to New York all the time, and there’s definitely a difference. I can’t handle New York but for so long, and I’m like, I got to go. And, what being queer means in New York, is not what it means for me. And so I do think, like now I’m very happy with it. I wasn’t for a very long time. But I’m happy now. I’m very happy now, and I think, um, one thing that I feel like is really important is for other people to feel happy and rooted and who they are. Um, and from whence they came, and to be really thankful.
I mean, once, I mean I’ll never forget having this conversation with my dad, and my parents, we’re, I’m really close to my whole family. And, cause we were talking about all, a whole bunch of stuff, and pushing back, and at some point he was like “you know what?” He’s like, he’s like “I had a cousin from every single one of my family that was queer.” He was like, well he wouldn’t have said queer cause black people don’t use that, black people mostly use same gender loving. Um, and gay, no they don’t actually use gay they use same gender loving. Um so he’s like, you know, he’s like, he’s like, “I have four cousins, gay men, gay women.” He’s like “everybody knew it, everybody knew their partners. They were at every family reunion, they were hanging out, they were everywhere.” He was like, “and it wasn’t actually an issue but it was never talked about. They were just there.” He was like, “and nobody got kicked out the home. Everybody was just there.” He’s like, so now, I have a younger cousin, who’s also another one of a twin, I’m a twin, and he was like outside of Pensacola, and now is in L.A. and is like ok, this is a little much, and we were having a conversation about what it means to be ok in your skin. And what it means to like, but he is fine, he’s like “you know, my family was always extra supportive, and the ones that aren’t, they don’t say nothin!” And so I think that’s the one thing I think about my family is like there’s never, there’s been like moments of stupidity. But like throughout there’s never been a huge, anything. Their just like you are who you are, we’re not gonna change you, clearly you’re not going anywhere, and we don’t do that, that’s not the Williams’. And so I think that’s helped.
That’s the interesting thing, about what it means to still be…I mean I also think it’s different being here also means that like I’ve basically decided that I like sometimes have relationships and other times don’t have them, because who I’m attracted to mostly isn’t walking around East Tennessee. And that to me is also what it means. Like there are times when I’m like ok, if I want a relationship do I actually have to get up and move? Do I have to always be relegated to the long distance relationship? Um, and that’s not, I mean, there’s good long distance relationships out there, and there’s good folk, but it can get real challenging to find somebody. Especially as a black queer person in a mostly white down, that doesn’t mostly date white people, it gets tough. And that’s the part where I think is tough. But, you know? It’s a beautiful thing. I love where I’m at. I’m happy I get to see all my family, and that for me is what matters.
I mean, I feel like, ok, so here’s what I think about what it means for me to be queer, cause I wonder about myself, like why are there things that I do, and things that I don’t do? Right? So to me it’s like such a natural part of who I am, that it’s like, it just is. Like I think when I’m the most happy is when I get to see young people that are happy in their skin, cause I work with young people mostly for a reason, right, and so, when I see young people like just happy in who they are, it’s the happiest I am to be queer. That like I am helping create a process to where people can come in and flippin be. The happiest I am is when I see friend groups, because I’ve worked with young people for so long, that the friend groups are completely mixed up and people are not all queer over here, all hetero over here, all black over here, all white…but when people are like friends and they’re all blended together, and they’re able to like, even if that’s not their only group they’re in, but they’re able to do that? That’s when I’m happy. Because I’m like, something is an identity, it’s not all of who you are, it’s part of your identity. And that’s what makes me like flippin thrilled. I mean like at youth camp this year, like, watching Se’miyah do Body Party and do a whole like I mean drag thing to body party as like a trans woman at youth camp? While this 11 year old boy is like, uh? Was like amazing! It’s like yay! And people able to see like what it means to be queer if you’re from South Carolina, or if you’re from New York, well not new York, cause Se’miyah’s not from New York, but she’s from like New Orleans. You know and it’s like and to see like, all these groups from Miami, and to see all these folk like blend up together, from small towns, really big cities in the South. And to be like this is what it means in all the different aspects of it? That’s what makes me like super psyched.
I think, and to see like, young people, like my nieces and nephews and have a conversation withthem and like trying to like tease out, yes I know this is what your hockey coach says but we are not goin there! And they’re like, “Oh. That’s you! No. We don’t believe in that.” So I think it’s like, having, watching that, that’s what makes me most proud.
I think, um, what makes me most proud to be country, or…whatever I am, um. Oh gosh….When small towns win at stuff that makes me happy. When people from small towns do good I’m like Wooo! That’s psyched, that’s exciting. Um. Yeah I don’t know? I mean I think it’s just like when people are like happy to be where they’re from. You know and carry that back with them. Actually what makes me most happy is when people go back home. Like when people like go to like Atlanta and then they’re like, you know what I think I’m gonna go back to Tuskegee. That’s what makes me super happy. When folk are like, you know what? I can actually have what I need, and I got what I needed and I can now go back home and root in and change where I’m from. That makes me, that like makes my day. And what makes me happy too, is to like be home. Like to walk around and randomly like see somebody, that I haven’t seen since I was like in high school. That like makes me happy, I mean that’s not proud, but it makes me happy cause it wouldn’t be like that other places, even though I see people I know everywhere, it wouldn’t be like that other places.
I realize the thing that like made me the happiest was like, my brother and I had our birthday party, and every single person at that party, except for like the youth that came with me, were all people I’d known since I was in like between the kinder…between 0…and the newest people were when I was in like my freshman year of college. Everybody else, I’m 34 now! Everybody else I’ve known forever. And I was like I am at a party with people that I’ve known for 15, 10, 34, 30 years. And I mean, and we’re all having the best time ever. And that was like the happiest thing, cause I was like, who woulda thunk? That we would all still be here. And people came back, and like I saw a friend I hadn’t seen in years. And everybody’s got kids, or they’re like partnered, or married, or whatever in the world they’re doing. Some of, most of em are. And I think that’s what makes me proud to be where I’m from. Is that like you don’t get that other places. And to actually have all of us like get over ourselves. Cause I feel like people have had to grow and shift and change a lot, in 30 years, a lot. Um, for, yeah. For us to all be in the same space and be happy? Yeah. That was good.
[Have you ever felt pressure to move to a big city?] Yeah I left. Yeah, I mean, well now, so it’s a combination, right? So I left. I mean I was in, I went to college in, here. And then I, but I had done internships in D.C. I mean like, I was like, it’s time to roll. So I’ve left, I’ve lived in D.C., I lived in St. Paul Minnesota, I lived in New York for 3 ½ years, I lived in Orlando…but I also have, um, I mean, I have epilepsy. And so, I also could not drive for 3 ½ years. So I had to move to a place where they actually had public transportation. And that to me is a challenge. Because of differing ability things, I needed to move, to a place that I could actually get around without a car. And so I had, was like forced in many ways both to move to um Minnesota and to New York. Because I couldn’t stay down, I couldn’t stay down South, I couldn’t stay in a rural area anymore. Because, without a car you can’t go nowhere.
But I also needed, it wasn’t necessarily that I needed to go to a big…yes it was. I needed to go to a city. I was like, it’s time to go, like I wanted to see what big city life was gonna be like. And I still have to go every, like every so often. Because like, if you don’t like, if you go away from New York and you’re gone for three, like, like I didn’t go to New York for like 2 ½ years, and I went back and I thought I was gonna kill somebody. So like, New York’s one of those places that like, if you like it, you need to go ahead and get up there every six months, so that you’re not like, so that you’re like more acclimated. Because it’s like you stand in one place, and you see more people in like an hour than you’ve seen in like 3 years? That’s a problem.
Knoxville’s weird. Knoxville’s like definitely not a big city. Like I think for people who don’t live here, Knoxville is a city. Right? But really, it’s not. Knoxville’s a town. Because any time everyone’s related, it’s a town. Like everybody here’s related. Except for like the people who move from outside. So it’s like there’s like the place where like everybody’s from, then there’s like the out…there’re the people, the transplants. And all the transplants live in the same place. And then all the people that are from here live in the same place. And so where I’m at all the people that are from here live here. It’s the same people, ain’t gone nowhere. So, I feel like dating here is hard. I think it’s very hard. But I think it’s not just because. So if I was a good Knoxville-ian, and was not progressive…actually forget that, and was not radical, in every way, I would have someone to date. So it actually is not about necessarily, oh yeah almost all of my friends here that are queer have, well no that’s not true, my friend Eric cannot find anyone to date either, because we have needs other people can’t meet. So if you’re not lookin for somebody that’s like super, that’s like intellectual, that reads a book, that likes sports and likes to read, and likes maybe, I don’t know, hell, let’s go to a play! Woooo! Who knew? A museum?! What the hell’s a museum? Oh my god! We like those things. So if you don’t need some…if you need somebody that’s like that? They can straddle the both worlds? If you don’t need that then you’re good to go. But like I need both of those. That’s actually what makes dating in Knoxville hard. And dating in Powell hard and dating in Florida hard, dating anywhere hard. Um, it’s the combination of stuff. Um, that’s what I realized. It’s like actually the combination of things that makes it hard to date, because we’re such a conservative…It’s so conservative. The queer people here are conservative, I mean they have like the Log Cabin Republicans, so it’s like, yeah. The black people aren’t, but they’re, that doesn’t mean that they like plays or art or museums or any of that either. And so I think that’s where it gets complicated.
The baby thing? My brother told me at 19 we were having kids. And I said, Really? Cause I wasn’t pregnant. So I’ve had kids since I was 19 years old, and I have four nieces and nephews, and nine god children…I am GOOD to GO! I am great! So on that front, I am in a different, I am good. Everyone around me has babies, I don’t need any babies! Um, I might adopt one day, or I might be a foster mama, but other than that? I am in great shape. I mean everybody, everybody got too many babies around me! So yes, I do not have a baby urge.
I mean, I feel the most joy when I’m at a football game, or a basketball game, screaming! I mean I feel the most joy when I’m dancing! I love to dance. I mean I feel the most joy when I see my nephew, like scream “Aunt Elandria, I haven’t seen you! I missed you! I missed you!” I feel the most joy like watching my triplet cousins who are my god kids, like in college, like WHAT?! I mean I feel the most joy in all kinds of situations. I mean right now I feel the most joy when I see friends I haven’t seen in like 10 years cause I don’t see anybody anymore. No, and I mean, like I realize I also feel this extreme amount of joy of like I work at a place where I have people who work where I work are queer. And we’re in like rural East Tennessee. And half the people who work here are queer. And so I’m like, I mean, I have a very different work environment…so like I feel every day, as like a country queer. Cause that’s where I’m at, that’s whose here. And it’s a beautiful thing to be able to work in a place where people can be who they are in those ways, doing the work they do.
I mean, I think, I think where for me it gets funny is not around maybe the intersections of country and queer, but at the intersection of like…I mean some people, some groups of people are queer and some people, actually some of them don’t actually even know how the hell they identify, they’re probably more like me. Um, actually no they’re not, I don’t know. People that are all different whatever. I think the most hilarious thing is the intersections around like what people care about and don’t. So like I have a whole group of friends that are queer, that don’t care about, they don’t do nothing social justice oriented, at ALL. They are like, I’m a fashion photographer. Like so my best friend that I live with now, Aaron, he is a fashion photographer and a hair dresser. Not that he doesn’t care about the other stuff. He’s happy to post stuff on his Facebook. He’s happy to be in dialogue about it. He is not trying to go out and march for nobody, it’s too hot! That means you sweat. He’s like Indian and Italian mixed up. Originally from California, mom left him in a trashcan. His mom, that we call his mom now, got him out, and has taken care of him his entire life. And is like the most amazing lady in the history of the planet. And they moved around so that his dad would not like kill him. And he is like fucking brilliant at what he does, and he has been like here. And his sister now lives in like, on the border of Kentucky and Tennessee. And he is doing his thing. He looks completely different from all the rest of his family. Clearly. And he is like a whole different beast. And you know like we sit there, like today, I left, I was getting ready, like I got to go deal with this…we end up having this conversation about Oprah Winfrey’s hair on the cover of this magazine, and what he wants to do for my photo shoot, because right now he’s into photo shoots. And so like, and so that to me is where the intersections of hilariousness come through. When it’s like everyone in my life is like I’m a teacher, I work at C-Ray, I…and they’re not like, so I think that’s like the beauty of being also in a small town or in the country. Is that like the people around you are not doing the same thing you’re doing. Like your, my friend group is doing a whole bunch of different things. I have like my movement family, yes I have them. And then I have the rest of them, that are like, look, I work at a call center. We’re gonna have fun. And so I think that’s where it like, that’s where it gets funny. Is that people are just like trying to live their lives, and it’s like you can’t get so all like wrapped up in anything, because you’re like, ok, yeah, and back to normal people’s lives. Back to the normal peoples. But I think it’s also like fun, like I do think being in Knoxville is different it’s not a big city, it’s not like Atlanta, or Detroit or New York. But it does mean, like I will never forget when RuPaul came through. And it was like the most amazing thing ever, I mean like so incredible, we were like OH MY GOD THAT’S RUPAUL!!! But like occasionally we’ll get the most amazing dj’s that will come through. And like, what it means, so like at one point there were five gay clubs in Knoxville…like what?! I was like oh my god. I think there’s still, like four?! Is that right? There’s four! And so it’s like oh my gosh what does it mean to have four?! And at that point there was five. Oh and then oh, Lindsey’s, so then there was like 6, and so that meant that every single night of the week you could go to a different bar, and then there was like a whole other club that was super like everybody went to on Saturday nights. And so then there was like this rotational thing, and so it’s like, and you didn’t have to go to the same place every night, and you didn’t. And like that in itself meant that like there was a whole thriving scene that has always existed here.
And so I feel like, the thing that I think about Knoxville, this is what I was saying earlier, about what Knoxville is to me. Knoxville is a place that a lot of people that are queer from more rural areas come. So like most of my friends are from like Hazard County, Kentucky. They’re from Bell County, they’re from like Virginia. They’re from all over Appalachia, and they’ve like come on into Knoxville, because it’s like the place to come. So most of the friends I have that are queer that aren’t from Knoxville, are all from other rural areas in Appalachia. And so that makes the queer scene here very unique, because it’s not an urban scene, it’s more of a city scene, but it has a completely different feel to it, because they’re all from like rural spaces. So there’s not like a whole bunch of people who are like we’re gonna brand, like the New York City scene! It’s like, nah! We’re gonna sit here in our flannels, drinking our beer, and then we’ll see the young ones dancing all in college, but we’re gonna be here, and the beer. So, it’s like a very interesting, and so that to me makes it fun. Makes it a lot of fun.
[Is there anything you want to tell other queer people who are struggling, or who aren’t, young or old?] That the irony of the whole thing is that little thing where the guy was like, it gets better. The sad part is, he’s right. Like that’s the one, it sounds like a sad clichéd thing to say to somebody, but like, you know it is true though. In the end, it does get better. I mean the thing that I feel like…I don’t think there’s anything wrong with moving, as long as you’re moving for the right reasons. Like, I’m like, hell, everybody should leave! I don’t think there’s anything wrong with leaving, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with staying. I think you just have to be happy. And I think that, if you want to go be a fashion designer? You need to leave your small town. You got to go! You’re not gonna make it. You gotsta go! You need to go ahead and go somewhere. But if you’re trying to be a farmer than you need to stay, you need to stay home! Right, so that’s where it all comes down to like what are you trying to do with your life?! Like my biggest thing is find your passion. Find people in your life that love you. Like let all the people, even, it doesn’t matter what their identity is, if they are bad for you, let them go. Find friends of all types. Right? Cause you will be amazed, like if people are going through stuff? It doesn’t matter if they’re going through exactly the same thing you’re going through.
Like my friend group, I did not realize this, until at one point we were all in a car. And we were all like hanging out, we were driving. And it got like really cold and we all of our muscles did this…all of our muscles locked up. Everybody. And I’m looking around like why is everybody looking like raggedy? Like why is everybody lookin so bad? Then I realized we all had different differing abilities, we all had chronic illnesses. Every last one of us. Lupus, epilepsy, sickle cell, muscular dystrophy…all of us had things. In that time period, I’ve had five friends to pass away, in five years. (long pause)
All under 35. They’re all gone. No, now it’s six, I’m sorry, six of them are gone. In six years, six are gone, six years. And, some were queer, some weren’t. All from this area, except for one. But we lived life to the ultimate fullest because we were all sick. All of us lived life to the fullest, cause every day was a struggle. And so all of us, it wasn’t realized…later on we were like, we didn’t just come together because we were like…we didn’t actually even know we all had different chronic illnesses, until we all in the car were like, what the hell? What’s goin on witch’you? And we all figured it out, but we all understood like what it meant to like get up and just have to like barrel through, and no time for excuses, no time for whatever, cause if you don’t move, you’re not gonna move again. Um, and I feel like you have to find your folk, that hold and guide and carry you through, and are more interested in your success, than they are in you hanging out with them. And are more interested in you doing your thing than they are in like, oh but you’re not being my friend right now, oh but you’re not hangin with me, oh I got this depressing thing I wanna tell you…Let it go. And that’s the thing is what I believe the most. Is that you have to find people that push you, um, to be better than you ever thought you could be. And that’s what I’ve found. Um, and that’s what I think I would tell people. Is to like go…if you’re in the South go hang out with SONG (Southerners On New Ground), if you’re not, that’s not your thing, find another group of people that you can hang out with that really support queer people in the region, or wherever you’re at.
And care about something other than just being queer. Shit! I mean that’s the biggest thing. Hell, there’s an economic crisis goin on, do something about that! I mean really, that’s gonna help you out! So that to me is really what I care about, that’s what I would say. That’s what I think I would say. And just love yourself. Love you. And find a group to belong to, that helps you figure out how to love yourself. That’s it.