Written by: Kara Kundert
As a queer person living in southeastern West Virginia, Rachel Garringer found herself frustrated. The world seemed to think that LGBT people only lived in cities. Beyond that, society was telling her that to be queer and living in the country must mean that she was socially rejected and unsafe. But that wasn't the life that she knew. Having grown up in Appalachia and having come out while at college in Massachusetts, she realized after four years of self-imposed country exile in Austin, Texas that living in the country was an intrinsic part of her queer identity.
She couldn't see her story or her experience reflected anywhere. She knew there must be other country queers like herself living across the United States, LGBT folk who would never be happy or comfortable in the city but were no less queer for it, and she figured that they must have stories to share.
So in 2013, she started an online project to document these people and their experiences. She wanted to see if there were other people like her and how their experiences related to her own. She wanted to see how identities of class, race, nationality, age, ability, and gender affected how these country queers lived. She wanted to find older role models and younger mentees. But most importantly, she wanted to see how country queers like herself were doing more than just surviving and making do in rural areas. In all their beautiful resiliency and diversity, she wanted to see them thrive.
Via audio recordings, transcriptions, and photographs, she and other volunteers have been traveling across the country collecting these stories and painting a picture of the rural LGBT experience in America. So far, the project has documented the stories of 45 country queers living in 14 different states, and it's only just beginning. Below are some samples of the stories published to the site:
“From all the research that I’ve done in terms of two spirit people in reservation communities and all the different elders that I’ve talked to – who are very traditional – I’ve come to make the determination that culturally – that behavior was accepted within the community, because they had a function.
There was a spiritual function, there was a community function, and there’s a lot of what we talk about that: we don’t disown our people, we don’t disown our families, and everybody has a purpose…are some of the basic teachings that we have within our culture.
So within the culture itself these people are given responsibilities. They might not fit the responsibilities that straight people have such as procreation, providing for the family…but in terms of the way they operated within the community there was a purpose for them.”
“He leaned his arm on the window of my pick up truck and he was like, “Sugar, let me tell you something. You can either go back in the closet.” Which I was appalled to hear my Dad use the phrase back in the closet, I was like how do you even know that? You’re like seventy years old. He was like, “Sugar, you can either go back in the closet, or you can go in there balls to the wall, and you can say ‘THIS is my girlfriend, dammit, and if you don’t like it: That’s tough!!!”
And I was like “Did you just say balls?” Like I was so horrified that my dad had just said that to me.
He was like, “Them’s your choices. I’m goin back inside. See y’all in a minute.””
“I identify as a country queer, and… I think because it – it took me a long time to get here, as I’m sure it does for many people, of melding, or finding the balance, or – marriage [laughs] – between those two things. Because they’re not always something that we’re taught or told or validated, that they can co-exist. And they can.
That varies from how that works and what that looks like from person to person, but – for me, it was finding that comfort again in myself. Like…knowing that I like being in the country, I like throwing hatchets, I like doing things that don’t involve a lot of other people, and I get to do it by myself, and be out in the woods.”