Guest essay: Appalachia was always beautifully queer

by Ash Orr

Across West Virginia, the public debate around being queer or transgender is being framed as a “social contagion.” If that’s the case, I will echo Andrew Hozier-Byrne (Hozier), “I was born sick, but I love it.”

Growing up as a closeted queer and transgender person, the idea of physical spaces embracing both “queer” and “West Virginian” seemed like an improbable dream. I was told that I couldn’t embrace both my queer and my connection to the mountains, that I wouldn’t be safe in West Virginia, much less thrive.

Initially, I internalized the notion; it wasn’t until I openly embraced my identity as both transgender and queer that I started meeting fellow transgender West Virginians whose stories revealed that being transgender in rural Appalachia is nothing new. When our politicians portray our community as a recent emergence, they disregard the truth that gender nonconforming peoples have been part of our society for countless generations — that our hollers have always been beautifully queer. The absence of historical context can lead to decisions that have detrimental consequences for our community.

In 2017, Canadian artist Lucas LaRochelle launched Queering the Map, an interactive project where people globally can share their LGBTQI+ experiences and memories. This map inspired me to embark on a personal journey, focusing on Appalachia. From Alabama’s dense forests to West Virginia’s hollers, the region was filled with heartfelt and idyllic markers, reading like letters between nameless lovers and Appalachia itself.

Simultaneously, as I scrolled through the Looking at Appalachia photography project, I was inundated with the juxtaposition of charm and unexpected beauty in seemingly ordinary settings.

These photographs highlighted how easy it is to fall in love in the middle of a wildflower patch deep in the holler, cherish the sound of your grandmother calling you in for dinner and the feeling of relief upon seeing the “Welcome to West Virginia, Wild and Wonderful” sign on a desolate highway.

Engaging with these two projects concurrently felt like an affirmation of my existence and love as a queer and transgender person in West Virginia. My appreciation for these artists and their ability to capture the queer essence and transgender history of our unique corner of the world, allowing the rest of the world to tune in, is undying. It’s hard to describe the feeling of truly being seen, when you’re able to come together with those who understand the complexity between queerness, transness and rurality. Telling these personal stories disrupts narratives that we are unable to reach our full potential without running from the hills, or worse, that we don’t exist at all.

Here, in the heart of West Virginia, we are reflecting on the progress we’ve made and searching for ways to sow the seeds of a stronger and more resilient community. LGBTQI+ history wields the ability to influence the current sense of belonging. In rural areas, our history serves as a means to not only comprehend the past but also to envision a different present. These narratives reassure the transgender community that we are not isolated, that we are not the pioneers in our struggles and that we unequivocally belong in Appalachia.

Ash Orr (he/they) is a transgender organizer and press manager from the beautiful state of West Virginia. He also serves as a National Storyteller for Planned Parenthood, leveraging his personal experiences with abortion care and gender-affirming health care to help dispel the societal stigmas surrounding these topics.