Kenny. 21. Southwest, VA.

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Kenny, 24 – East Kentucky – July 2016

My name is Kendall, I’m 21 years old, I grew up in Wytheville, Virginia which is in the Southwestern region of Virginia, and I’ve recently been living out of Appalachia in the D.C. region.  And now I’ve moved back to Southwest Virginia.  Wytheville is a special place, it’s um, it’s always hard to describe geographically where it is, because it’s a small town, it’s a population about 8 or 9,000 people, which is bigger than a lot of towns in the area.  We’re actually kind of the hub, because we have Walmart, so, um, there’s a lot of people that come to Wytheville to do their shopping, etc.  And it’s still mostly farming and manufacturing community as far as business.  I think the largest employer is some factories.  Gatorade and Pepsi came into the area recently and its brought a lot of jobs to the region.  Um, and Wytheville, is, it still has a small town feel even though there is a larger population than a lot of the communities.  And, it’s not so liberal, but it’s better than some places.  There’s certainly not an active gay community, or an active, really active political community at all.  It’s a lot of elderly people, so people kind of tend to just keep voting for whoever a delegate is and no one really participates in things, so much, at least that I haven’t noticed, which I guess means it’s not vocal enough.  That kinda describes it a little bit.

My Daddy is a lineman for the power company, so he works very hard, and instilled a strong work ethic in my sister and I, and um, and we just really admire him for all the work that he does in the community to help return people’s power.  And my mother is a Kindergarten teacher, so she has also inspired in us a different kind of work ethic, and one that not only you want to be able to check off your boxes, but also to extend a little more and try and be more creative with what you’re doing and try different things.  And I have a sister that’s three years younger than me, and she’s been very important in my life, we’re the best of friends, and we didn’t have a huge extended family.  We only had one cousin, one first cousin up until a few years ago when they were graced with a beautiful surprise baby!  But, so now I have two cousins, but we are pretty close with our extended family.

We’re all originally from Freeze, Va in Grayson County, which is a very small community which used to be a cotton mill community, so it’s very similar to the structure of coal mining, the company owned the town, etc.  But my mother’s side of the family owned the only, one of two I believe, only non company stores in the county.  So that was interesting, and I’d like to learn a lot more history than I know about it.  And then my grandfather on the other side was lucky enough to get out of that, and he went on and helped to build Interstate-77, so he was travelling and working a lot.  But both of my grannies at one time worked at the mill.  But they were able to have outside income, other than the scrip.  So that was, important for them, and um, yeah and my family on my father’s side has a long history of playing bluegrass and old time music, so that’s something that has always been encouraged with me, and I didn’t really find a passion for until the last, probably 4 or 5 years.  I was always interested in music, but not necessarily that genre, until I started to, kind of reevaluate my identity as an Appalachian person.  So that’s a little bit about my family over all.

I identify as a queer person, I identify as a scientist, I identify as a Southwest Virginian and an Appalachian, and all of these things are very important to me.  I really enjoy making my life as integrated as possible, like trying to bring together different sections of my life into what I do.  And I work in science with endangered species, and I’d really like to translate that back to the region.  And get more involved with work going on with local wildlife, and bringing awareness, about the rich diversity we have here in Appalachia as far as ecosystems and species.  And I think that would be very important and also giving back to my community, and…yeah.

[When did you first know you were queer?] Oh!  Um.  Wow.  It’s  kind of been always, but I didn’t really know what it was.  So, I never heard the word gay in my house.  Ever.  There was never any negative, there was never any positive, it just wasn’t talked about.  And ever since I was little I wanted to be a boy because I was like, Oh, I really like girls, and I’d be like watching Pocahontas and I’d be like:  what a dream she is!  I have to be a boy so that I can like, you know be with women.  And I just loved like playing with boys, and doing boy stuff, and rough housing, but at the same time I also had a sensitive side that my mother helped to nurture a lot.  And yeah, in 7th grade, I was thirteen years old before I knew what a homosexual was.  Like as soon as I found out I was like, Oh my god!  This is me!  This is totally me.  But, I was kind of afraid by it, because I was like well I know that this is what I want, but then I had to think like what is everyone else gonna think?  This is totally crazy.  Like, I didn’t hear about it till I was 13, what does that even mean?  And so I started to talk to some of my friends in 7th grade about it, like “So, like what do you think about this?”  Just trying to feel around and see what they would say.  And a lot of them were like “Oh, I don’t care,” or “Oh that’s horrible, the Bible says this or that.”  And some of them would be like “Yeah, I think it’s fine.”  There was just like different answers across the board that I was getting.  And then in 8th grade I finally just started coming out to my friends and to my sister.

But the biggest struggle for me was talking to my parents about it.  And, they ended up finding out through like a note I’d passed and left on my nightstand or something, asking a girl that I really liked if, um, if like she was gay, or you know, just something, I don’t remember what it was.  But, my parents found it and they were absolutely horrified and devastated, and it was like one of the worst experiences of my life, just because I felt like I had let them down, and that it was, like I was awful, I did something wrong.  And so for awhile, I kind of internalized it.  At the same time I was starting to have a relationship with women, and in particular with one girl.  And my sister was also, kind of dating, not really she was still only in middle school, but it was kind of like she’ll have a little boyfriend and Mom and Taylor will sit around and talk about it, and I was like, I wanna talk about it!  I wanna be able to share this with my family because they’re so important to me, but, it was kind of just not spoken of.  And I started attending a youth group, a Baptist youth group, with a lot of um, other people who were starting to come out and identify themselves as gay.  And it was funny because the church was very against it, but it was kind of this weird place where we all just kind of started popping up?  And the minister was very much like, the youth minister, “Oh well we just want everyone to come, and we wanna just have the biggest youth group, and we wanna get together and make change, and…”  So we thought that we were safe and I’d been attending there, maybe 6 months or so.  And then, we started getting confronted, by people, by youth group members, like outside of the youth group, about this, like, “Oh well I heard this, and I think it’s wrong.”  And it started to bother some of us and we were talking about it, and one person decided they would approach the youth minister about it and say “Hey, this is making me very uncomfortable, I just want somebody I can talk to about this.”  And then, the youth minister turned around and started cornering us, and started, like saying, how she could help us, she could help us change.  And it was just totally confusing, because we were in an environment that we thought we could trust, and we thought that we were in a safe place, even though it was never explicitly said that it was, it was just somewhere that we thought was safe and it wasn’t.

So that was a very scary place, because I needed some sort of community, because I was having all these feelings, and I was like 15 years old.  And, you know, it’s a crazy time, in everyone’s life, and I just felt totally unsupported.  And so, I started in High School, I started just acting out, and I started dating these girls that weren’t exactly like on the right side of the tracks, and I started dating older women, and I just kind of went off my track for awhile.  Now I was still totally committed to my school, and I always did well in school, but it was, uh, it was very interesting.  So yeah, I was going through a tough time, and all this while my parents were thinking, “Oh she’s getting involved with church, maybe she’ll get rid of this, maybe this will go away on its own.”  But of course it didn’t!  And I started getting around more queer people and being empowered, especially my best friend Sam.  And we kind of, were having similar struggles in our life, so we got together and we just stayed strong and we started playing music.  We started playing, just like covers and stuff at first, and then more into mountain music and country music.  And it really helped me to stop focusing on my sexual identity, which to me I think is not as big of a deal as most other parts of my life, but it was being forced to be a big deal because of the issues that I was running into with it.  So I kind of refocused, on my Appalachian identity, during that time.  And then also, I was getting older, and I had a car, and I could be more independent.  And so I kinda stopped hanging around with the rough crowd, and started focusing more on music, and me and Sam would do things and yeah, so.

And then I graduated high school, and I went to college, and I had, I started dating this girl my freshman year.  And I thought , wow, like this girl is really wonderful, I just, I can’t do it anymore, I need to talk to my mom about it.  And it was Christmas break or something, and I was in the car with her, and I don’t remember exactly where the conversation was, but I just remember I broke down, and I started crying, and I said “Mom, I can’t do this anymore, I can’t not be honest with you about this part of my life.”  I was like, “I know you guys know about it, but we need to talk about it, I can’t stand it anymore.”  And I was so afraid because she’d reacted so horribly before.  And she just totally apologized for everything that she’d ever said to me about it, and she was like, “Kendall, you know that we love you no matter what, um” Kind of speaking for my father, because my father and I still have never talked about it.  It’s not…we’ve just never talked about it, and um…um…But it’s definitely known.  It’s definitely known.  Because my father…we’ve never really talked about issues because my father’s like, “Oh, I don’t know what to do with y’all girls, I’m just gonna step back.”  You know, but um, and then I just kinda spent the latter part of my high school and my college just working extremely hard to try to make my parents proud of me, so that they could stop focusing on this aspect, and see, like who I am!  Like that’s not…like to me, being queer is definitely a big part of my identity, but other parts are bigger for me.  Like, because it was never really a big deal, and then I figured it out and it became a big deal because it was a problem, and, yeah.  So I was just like, Oh yeah, I like girls, I have blue eyes, um, I play the banjo, whatever.  Um, yeah so, I like totally just refocused my energy, I finished undergrad, I went to China, and now I’m here.

I’m out in all spaces, but my like extended family, and me and my father don’t talk about it.  I’m not out on Facebook, although that doesn’t really matter in the big world, but it’s…that’s also more out of respect for my mother.  She’s requested, like, “you have extended family on there, like they don’t even know you that well, and they would just talk about you, and it’s not necessary.”  And I was like, yeah, like for me that’s not a problem, because I’m not a person who shares a lot of my personal information on the internet anyways, so it’s like not a big deal for me.  I’m absolutely out at work and at school.  No one has ever had a problem with it, in fact during my last work position we were able to apply for some fellowships and grants because I identified as queer, and I’m a woman, and it was for a minority fellowship.  So.  And that was really awesome that they were willing to work with me, because there were very few, queer people at my workplace, it just kinda happened that way, but everyone was very friendly, and they were very excited to try and help me out with that.

[Do you think it was harder to come out in a small town than it would have had you lived in a city?]  Well, I think it would depend on what region it is, because like if I was in Roanoke for example, or Knoxville, like, I don’t really know if the context would be different.  I think it was more just my family’s experience, building up, that made them unprepared to…their lack of knowledge about it, because they grew up in a very small town, with, not extremely religious families, but it was definitely a part.  And I always grew up going to church, and I love church to this day, and I’m still a member and um.  But to them it was just, they didn’t understand, and they were just always…because no one ever has that conversation, you know, its just kind of like “Oh that’s bad.  We don’t need to talk about it.  We don’t know anyone that that affects.  That’s someone else’s problem.”  And then…HERE I AM!!!  So.

Well, I think that overall a big issue is that there’s so many inequalities, like the marriage equality movement is obviously one of the most, the one that most people hear about, but there needs to be equality in the workplace…like in Virginia, you can get fired because you’re gay, and um, someone was telling me about a bill that was passed in Kentucky for religious freedoms, that you can get kicked out of your apartment if their religion says that they don’t agree with gay people living in their house.  And I think that those things…I think just inequality across the board is a big issue.  It’s basic human rights.  We should have them.  Period.  And until we get that, we’re not gonna be able to move forward with anything else.  And people just need to understand that we’re just the same as everyone else, and we all have inequalities, but we deserve the same rights, period.  And I think that definitely translates into Appalachia, because I think that’s where a lot of the… there’s a lot of states within Appalachia, if not all of them, I’m not sure, that have these discriminatory laws.  And also, I think people in rural areas are having a lot more conflicts with religion being used as a tool against homosexuality.  Um, and also, that that’s not the only problem, um, just being small minded in general and not willing to understand someone else’s choices, or someone else’s life, you know.  That just goes for anything in general, not just talking about sexual orientation, talks about like economic situations, career choices, but I think that’s a big issue, is just not being willing to engage in conversations and start discussions.

[When do you feel the most joy as a country queer or just in general?] Well, my number one thing that pops into my head is just when I’m just with my friends, but particularly my queer friends, and we’re all of us partying and having a good time and playing music together and um, just being in a physical place that defines us, whether it be someone’s porch or at High Rocks or at Highlander, especially at STAY, it’s very important.  But, just when I’m like, in a community setting with people my age, doing things that we all love, in a place that we love, that’s when I feel completely empowered, completely happy.  Just pretty much everything that the STAY project embodies, is just like, yes.  I look forward to it all year.

[When do you feel the most proud to be queer and the most proud to be country, is it ever at the same time?]  Yes.  It often is, because… like I said, I’ve been living out of the region for awhile, and I think that’s when I’m the most proud to be country and queer, because a lot of people, don’t understand.  And it was kind of a struggle for me, because I couldn’t really connect with people with those two things, that are very much a part of my identity.  And people didn’t get it, but I would just show them.  I’d be like, “um, yes we’re gonna go to the Waffle House!  And yes we’re gonna listen to Dolly Parton.  And I’m gonna tell you about my family, and we’re gonna go waller in the creek…and”  you know?  Like I try to embody it, and I try to like project that kind of energy, and I try and like force my non country queer friends to participate in all of the wonderful things that me and my friends like to do, and there’s not a one who hasn’t loved it all.  So yeah, I feel most proud when I’m showing other people what it’s all about.

[Did you know of other queers who’d lived in your area before you?  How is that information passed down?]  Well, um, there are actually, I wouldn’t say like a large number of queers in my county area, but everyone knows everyone.  And, it kind of started when Sam and I started to play music together, we would play in a bar, and a lot of them honestly were like Sam’s parents friends, or friends of his brother, or just different people that we would run into, or people that we kinda grew up with, and then we all just kind of connected on that level.  And, yeah, like I think it may have just been when we started playing music, people just started showing up, and we started engaging with people, especially older people because at the time we were like 17, and people were like “Oh I don’t wanna hang out with them or talk to them,” but people got to know us and they were like “Oh they’re fine, whatever.”  So, and we’ve kept those friendships throughout the years, especially, there’s this one fabulous bartender at the bar, not the bar we used to play at, but another one, and he has just taken, especially Sam under his wing, and just tells us stories.  I mean he’s just a powerful human being, I mean he’s seen it all.

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[Did you feel pressure to move to a city?] I didn’t feel pressure from anyone else, because my father looked at me and he said, “Well, Kendall, you can go to any school that you want to…as long as it’s in Virginia, and as long as it’s public.”  So, and that was mostly due to like financial things, because college is ridiculous.  But, I looked at schools all over the state and  honestly I really wanted to go to Hollins University, which is in SW Virginia, it’s a women’s college.  But they didn’t really offer anything academically that I was looking for, so I ended up going to George Mason, which is in the D.C. area.

And I was like, oh, like this can work, this is great, they have everything that I want academically, there’s obviously gonna be a big queer community, it’s in a city, there’s lots of new things to explore.  So I went with that, um, and I really enjoyed my academic experience there.  I loved all my classes in my bachelor’s program, but there wasn’t really a sense of community that I thought I was gonna find there, because there’s just so many people, and there it’s kind of hard to meet other queer people unless you’re going out to bars.  And then we had, we were very fortunate to have a very large LGBTQ resources center, but I went to all the meetings, like in the beginning.  I tried.  I really tried to connect with people, but there was something missing.  Like there were all of these queers but they were kind of like separating each other into like, “Oh, you’re from, Southern Virginia, like, we don’t really connect with you.”  And they would just like do kind of the fake laughs at like things that I would say… like Ah, ha, ha, ha.  And they wouldn’t get it.  And I’m like I need to connect to someone on this level, and so I just kind of stopped going, because it wasn’t so welcoming, and it wasn’t something that I was particularly interested in spending a lot of my time with.  And it was kind of a struggle because I felt like that I needed to be contributing to this community, but there were more things that I had to spend my time with that were actually gonna come out with something…like basically my studies, I just turned to my studies, and focused in on that, because I just, I never really found a welcoming community there.

Well this doesn’t really have anything to do with country, but I do want to tell a funny story about me and my best friend Sam, who are both country queers.  But we have been friends since Sam was born.  Sam’s a year younger than me, but we’ve been, there were kind of gaps where like he’d go off and have new friends and I would, but we were always there, in each other’s lives.  And um, in the 6th grade, Sam got our friend Corey, who’s now my roommate and is also a country queer, to pass me a note in the 6th grade hallway, asking if I would go out with him.  And there were three choices, yes, no, and maybe.   I think there may have been a sharpie provided as well, to select my choice, I could just be like creating this in my own mind with the sharpie.  So, anyway, I was like “Yes!  Of Course!”  Cause I’m like, whatever, I’m like 12 years old, and of course I’m like “Oh!  I have a date!”  But so we go down to the  Millwalk Theater on Main Street in Wytheville, 3 screens.  And we went to go see this cartoon, Home on the Range.  And I get there, and he brought our friend Andrew Smith with him.  And he um, he paid for my ticket, which was very nice, and then we walk into the theater, and our buddy Andrew, like, sits down in between us.  And then, that was fine and we just watched the movie, and we never like made contact.  And then like we just kinda never really talked about it again.  It was very awkward.  Um, so that was my short dating time with Sam.

And then the next year I dated this other boy, and we were together for  maybe like 3 or 4 months, and we never kissed, never held hands, never touched, but we just like loved being around each other, we just had a blast.  And he was into Broadway.  And he actually, was the first person to introduce me to homosexuality, because he had um, two mothers.  And that was the first time that I’d ever even known that was possible.  So we’re at this ski lodge, like going on some trip, and we’re sitting down, and I was like, “Brandon, I need to talk to you about something.  I think that Ryan Wiser,” which, um, she was actually a girl, “is so beautiful.”  And he was like, “Oh my god!  I think that Tyler is so beautiful!”  And then we just came out to each other right there.  And then, so, yeah, that relationship ended quickly, obviously, because we came out to each other.  Um.  And then the next year Sam and Brandon dated.  So, yes, that’s my…I dated two different queer boys and then they ended up dating each other, in the 8th grade.  So, I love that story.

[Is there anything you’d want to say to other LGBTQ folks who are struggling?] I think from my personal experience there’s a lot of different things that are coming at you at once when you grow up in a community like that.  There’s definitely not as much, organizational support out there as there might be in a city.  So you’re kind of on your own, and you kind of have to find a community or create a community, and it can be really scary because you think that you’re the only one, but you’re TOTALLY not.  And I think it’s really important just to stay strong, and um, just keep going and find your community.  And also, I think there’s a lot of pressure that people think that they can’t be queer and country.  They think that they have to go to the bigger cities where there’s a bigger community and able to fit in, and they think, and along with moving to a city, for anyone, it kind of puts pressure on you to like shed your former identity, like country and Appalachian included, to like kind of fit-in in the city, because there’s like a certain type of person in whatever city.  So there’s a lot of pressure to kinda change your ways and adapt to this new lifestyle, but you totally don’t have to.  Like even in my situation where I kinda like had to go to a city for other reasons, it was still hard to keep it in check, and to make sure that I was staying current with issues at home, and making sure that I was proud, at all times of being a country queer, both of those, separate and together.  But, yeah, I think that it’s just important to remember who you are and where you came from, and not to change for anybody, except yourself if you want to.

[Do you imagine yourself living in the country when you’re older as a queer person?]  Absolutely.  [Are there things that you worry about, or that you really look forward to?  But like in terms of thinking about raising a family if that’s something that you want to do, or, are there things that seem like they’d be really difficult about that?]  Well, I think, I haven’t really thought about family stuff.  But I haven’t really worried about it too much, because now that I’m comfortable with who I am and I know that there’s a community, I just don’t even really worry about it.  I think definitely if it were coming down to like marriage and children, then that would be a big decision to make, if by that time that I do that laws haven’t come into place to bring about more equality.  And then of course, I would worry about my children, if they may go through what I went through, or what other children went through.  And I think it would just definitely be another layer that not all other places have.  But, it’s worth it because, like I will never be completely happy living outside of this region.  And so whatever hardships I have to face, I have to face, and that’s fine.


Interviewed on August 11, 2013 at the third annual STAY Project Summer Institute at the Highlander Center in East Tennesee.

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