Grassroots groups help LGBTQ people survive — and thrive — in Appalachia

In the mountainous and relatively conservative Eastern region of the United States, the work of local queer organizations can be lifesaving.
Image: Venus
Venus.Oakley Fugate
By James Michael Nichols

A year ago, Venus Octavian, then 17, was homeless and spending nights next to a dumpster behind a Taco Bell in eastern Kentucky.

Octavian, who prefers they/them pronouns, has spent the better part of life between Kentucky and Tennessee, navigating the Appalachian region of the United States, an area often understood to be a difficult place for LGBTQ people to live. After coming out as nonbinary to their mother, Octavian had to leave home and spend most days until high school graduation seeking shelter in a Walmart. Octavian also relied heavily on community support from a small network of LGBTQ friends and allies.

“I felt like somehow I'd done something wrong,” Octavian told NBC News. “Especially after being kicked out, me and my mom were best friends up until this point. I really felt like I must have somehow done something so horrible that not even my own mother could love me.”

Now 18, Octavian lives in a two-bedroom apartment, though still grappling with the immense barriers to employment that LGBTQ people living in Appalachia — a long mountainous swath of the eastern U.S. stretching from northern Mississippi to southwestern New York — can face on a daily basis.

Octavian’s story is not uncommon for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people growing up in regions of America marked by conservative social views and underscored by a lack of access to LGBTQ-affirming resources commonly found in metropolitan areas.

“One of the first things we think about when it comes to Appalachia is the compounding effects for LGBTQ folks who are living with lower incomes and living in poverty, which is certainly not an uncommon experience for folks in the region,” Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, an advocacy group, told NBC News. “Especially for people living in more rural areas, it's hard to access basic services to begin with, but the additional burden of finding LGBTQ-friendly services creates real challenges.”

In November, the Campaign for Southern Equality released its 2019 Southern LGBTQ Health Survey, and Beach-Ferrara said in Appalachia — where 17 percent of residents live below the poverty line — the survey found particular challenges for LGBTQ respondents around “finding stable employment where you'll be treated fairly, where you'll have some basic protections and where you can show up to be who you truly are.”

“It's a part of America where we see intense levels of need, particularly around that intersection of some of our most basic needs around access to health care, stable employment and housing, and access to services catering to mental health,” she added.

Despite the unique challenges they face, a number of LGBTQ young people living in Appalachia are trying to paint a different picture of how life can be possible and fulfilling in the mountainous region. And for those who do remain, the work of local grassroots organizations can be lifesaving, despite a lack of visibility surrounding their work on the national stage.

The STAY Project

Before Octavian found an apartment, they became involved with the STAY Together Appalachian Youth Project, run by people age 14-30 across Appalachia. As Octavian took the steps to become financially independent and stable, the STAY Project provided a small amount of funds for those first set of bills and became a crucial network of support.

The STAY Project is a 10-year-old organization based in New Market, Tennessee, that is dedicated to helping young people “develop the skills and knowledge that would allow them to contribute to social change efforts” in the region, according to its mission statement. While it’s not specifically an LGBTQ organization, a substantial amount of its leadership and membership identify as queer, largely due to the networks of support LGBTQ people within Appalachia often rely on for both community and survival.

STAY members work together on drawing out their vision for Appalachia at the 2019 STAY Project Summer Institute.Courtesy of Lou Murrey

“There's a specific narrative out there about what Appalachia is, and it often doesn't include young people and queer people and black people and indigenous people,” Lou Murrey, the organization’s coordinator, told NBC News. “We have done some work to kind of fight that narrative, but while also celebrating the complexities of what our actual realities are.”

The STAY Project’s programming is focused on helping young people in the region create better life opportunities for themselves and turn the region into a place where they would want to stay. It also pushes back on the notion that those in marginalized communities can’t have happy and successful lives in Appalachia. But Murrey said the most important component of the group’s work is providing a supportive network for its young members, particularly those who are LGBTQ.

“Having a network across the region is lifesaving,” Murrey said. “The magic of STAY is, really, that we put people in a room together, and they build relationships, and so you have relationships of queer folks from across Appalachia who know each other and can send each other resources.”

Six attendees at the 2019 STAY Project Summer Institute in Southwest Virginia.Courtesy of Lou Murrey

The organization’s biggest endeavor is the annual STAY Summer Institute — a four-day summer camp, of sorts, where attendees can learn everything from transgender-inclusive sex education to Astrology 101 and strategies for low-income homebuying. The institute, which has been held in various towns throughout the region since it debuted in 2011, was Octavian’s first point of entry into the organization.

“STAY has definitely given me a place to feel like I can talk,” Octavian said. “I don't have to apologize for taking up space as a queer person, I don’t have to apologize for making space as a person. I'm only 18 now, so I have 12 years before I age out of STAY. I definitely feel like by that time, I will be in a position that I will feel like, as far as activism goes and as far as the fight for liberation goes, I'm going to feel empowered.”

Tranzmission

Another network-based organization working along the Appalachian region with a heavy focus on Western North Carolina is Tranzmission. Based in Asheville, the group is dedicated to supporting and advocating for transgender and gender-nonconforming people. Its services and programs range from clinics to help trans people legally change their names to cultural competency workshops for health care and business professionals working with trans and nonbinary individuals.

One of Tranzmission’s main focus areas is helping trans and gender-nonconforming people experiencing homelessness. One in five transgender people have faced discrimination while seeking housing in the United States, and over one in 10 have faced eviction due to their gender identity, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. And a number of studies have found LGBTQ youth represent up to 40 percent of all homeless youth in the U.S.

Tranzmission Executive Director Zeke Christopoulos told NBC News that many shelters and organizations providing housing for people in crisis operate through a religious framework in Appalachia, creating barriers for LGBTQ individuals to safely and authentically use those resources. Christopoulos also said that homeless shelters that will house trans people according to their affirmed genders instead of their sex assigned at birth functionally do not exist in Western North Carolina.

“When people are forced to be housed according to what it says on their license or perhaps how people interpret them to be, we know that there is extreme risk for sexual violence and physical violence,” Christopoulos said. “In fact, our community would rather stay in the woods or band together and stay together in one person's vehicle if somebody has one, than attempt to access resources that other people can access without a second thought.”

Tranzmission operates its own network of housing within Western North Carolina for transgender people experiencing homelessness. Some members of the Tranzmission community may open up their own homes, while others vet Airbnb accommodations and then volunteer to rent them out when a community member is in need.

Another popular service offered by Tranzmission is its Name Change Project, which helps participants navigate the often complex process of legally changing their name in North Carolina. The organization has boiled down the process into eight relatively straightforward steps, including obtaining certified birth certificate copies and getting a background check, and someone from the group will even accompany participants to the courthouse to help with paperwork.

“It’s an interesting thing, to change your name and have to navigate laws that were written many times decades ago, or sometimes even centuries ago, that were often put into place around issues that have nothing to do with why we're changing our names now,” said Allison Scott, who formerly worked at Tranzmission and is now the director of policy and programs at the Campaign for Southern Equality.

Scott, who independently changed her name in Western North Carolina in 2014, said trans and gender-nonconforming people are often forced to “dive into systems that weren't made for us and make them work.”

“It’s unfortunate that the people in our community have to go through this very disjointed, overly complex system that was not built to handle trans and nonbinary issues like name change,” Scott said.

Queer Appalachia

One of the more visible groups working out of the Appalachian region dedicated to the LGBTQ experience is Queer Appalachia, a project that started in 2016 as an Instagram account intended to create a pipeline for zine submissions and today has accrued just shy of a quarter million followers. Based out of the coalfields of West Virginia, Queer Appalachia is the brainchild of activist and artist Mamone.

Mamone uses the organization’s Instagram to celebrate Appalachian LGBTQ life through a far-left lens and elevate injustices faced by marginalized communities throughout the region. Over the past several months, for example, the group has drawn attention to the Yellow Finch tree sitters, a protest encampment made up of many LGBTQ people in Elliston, Virginia, intended to stop the production of the Virginia Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Queer Appalachia also amplifies important initiatives from other organizations, such as elevating the Campaign for Southern Equality’s Southern LGBTQ Health Survey, and draws attention to the plights of resource-poor LGBTQ Appalachians by sharing their stories and their PayPal or Venmo information.

“Queer Appalachia has been in a constant state of evolution — from its beginning as an artist and zine collective to the digital rural queer community it is today,” Mamone said. “We celebrate queer identities and voices in Appalachia, the South and other rural places, and are committed to exploring mutual aid, decolonization and intersectionality.”

In recent years, Queer Appalachia has turned the bulk of the organization’s focus toward harm reduction efforts and the escalating opioid epidemic plaguing the area. West Virginia has the highest number of opioid-involved overdose deaths in the country, and the opioid crisis has become an epidemic throughout the region.

“At the heart of what we do, we believe that no one is disposable and that people who use drugs and those that struggle with mental health are deserving of love, support and community,” added Mamone, who is open about their own journey with addiction.

For the past couple of years, Queer Appalachia has helped train a network of volunteers in harm reduction strategies and has deployed them into regions of Appalachia where access to adequate health care can be hard to find and complicated by cultural attitudes about visible queerness. The group started by providing people with Narcan, a lifesaving medication that can treat narcotic overdoses in emergency situations. They now also offer fentanyl test strips, Naloxone, condoms, internal condoms, lube, Plan B, drug disposal bags, clean needles and HIV home test kits — the majority of which are funded through community support and donations.

Queer Appalachia's new mobile unit.Courtesy of Mamone

Most recently, the organization announced a new mobile unit in partnership with Virginia Harm Reduction. The vehicle travels throughout the Appalachian region and helps underresourced LGBTQ individuals receive support and care, no matter where they are.

“For some people having access to talk therapy is harm reduction, or being able to sleep eight hours at night is harm reduction. Only you know what causes you stress and pain and sorrow,” Mamone said. “Harm reduction is meeting people where they are with absolutely no judgments, and understanding that if drugs are involved, you're probably not making really great decisions, right? And you might need some help with that.”

‘Nobody should have to leave home’

Whether it’s helping LGBTQ people thrive or just survive, grassroots groups like The Stay Project, Tranzmission and Queer Appalachia have been crucial to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people looking to attain a sustainable — and enjoyable — quality of life in the region.

“I think that lots of people have different reasons for staying in Appalachia,” Murrey, of The Stay Project, said. “Sometimes it's because they want to be here. Sometimes it’s because they don't have a choice to be here. But nobody should have to leave home.”

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