Small town pride celebrations emerge – and show LGBTQ life in America thrives outside of cities


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(THE CONVERSATION) LGBTQ people in rural areas and small towns are often overlooked in the larger conversation surrounding queer life and culture. Even with these omissions, pride celebrations in these places sweep the nation, often meeting initial resistance.

As a Central Appalachian transgender person and doctoral student studying rural transgender media activism, I sometimes find myself confusing metropolitan and queer, although I know this reduces the complexity of transgender and queer lives. The day I reluctantly went to Pikeville Pride in eastern Kentucky, I was doing just that.

Do not mistake yourself ; I love myself and am proud of LGBTQ people who work towards self-respect and celebrate who they are and what pride stands for. The origin of Pride is a commemoration of the Stonewall riots in New York. In June 1969, LGBTQ people fought back against laws that prevented them from coming together. That said, I did miss the pride events – the commercialized type I knew in big cities – and somehow figured a rural or small town pride would be similar.

This was not the case.

Pride in Pikeville

Before deciding to attend Pikeville Pride in October 2019, I did not understand the difficulties faced by those who wanted to host Pride in the central Appalachians and the role of white supremacist and nationalist organizations in this struggle.

Pikeville is a town of about 7,750 residents in eastern Kentucky. About 400 people attended the first Pikeville Pride event in 2018 and over 500 attended the one I attended.

Pikeville Pride took place in a downtown park. Nonprofit groups and local activists set up booths. Free pizzas and rainbow-colored cupcakes were offered as bands and drag queens performed on the central stage. Women of different ages were stationed at the Free Mom Hugs table and actively asked attendees if they wanted a hug.

Tonya Jones, one of the founders of Pikeville Pride, said she did not launch the event in response to the white nationalist rally held in downtown Pikeville in 2017, although others founders invoke it as a reason. Instead of responding to the rally, Jones wanted to create a more welcoming space in the city.

When I attended, there was no sign of white nationalists or protesters of any kind. Jones said only two protesters attended the first year.

That wasn’t quite the case in Johnson City, Tennessee, a small town about a two-hour drive. In the same year that Pikeville Pride began, white nationalists threatened TriPride, the first Pride event to include Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol. In the end, 20 protesters attended, according to Jason Willis, president and founding member of the board of directors of TriPride. In the second year, the number dropped to 10 or 12, many of which stayed in a designated area.

Willis knew the event would attract protesters. “There will always be people who won’t agree with this,” Willis said. “When white nationalist online gossip happens … well, it’s a different ball game.”

Due to the organization of white nationalists on social media, federal and state law enforcement has become involved, Willis says. About 200 police officers showed up at the first event – and a helicopter flew over the surrounding area. But the supporters outnumbered the demonstrators by far.

The pride festivals in the Appalachians aren’t the only ones happening in small American towns. Others have occurred in places as far away as Window Rock, Arizona; Pocatello, Idaho; Starkville, Mississippi; and Stockholm, Wisconsin.

“I think they’re happening because people feel like they can pull them off,” Willis said. “These prides in small towns will continue to emerge. We had Black Lives Matter and Women’s Walks. Not that they are the same, but you can organize these cultural gatherings in small towns. We see it.

Impact of rural pride

Prides in small towns are as important, if not more so, to queer culture in America than the metropolitan events that take place in June.

In her 1995 article “Get Thee to a Big City,” anthropologist Kath Weston spoke about what she called “the gay imagination,” the idea that queer people couldn’t be themselves or themselves. find a community until they left their small town for a big city. where other homosexuals exist.

Jack Halberstam, an expert in gender studies and English, expanded this concept with the phrase “metronormativity,” in which the journey of queer people from small towns to big cities is a rite of passage.

Essentially, cities are allowed to be queer spaces while queer rural life is ignored, even plaintive or rejected, according to Scott Herring, an academic who studies women, sexuality and gender.

As Herring puts it, “the rural (take your pick: Idaho, North Carolina, small town in America, hick) is cast aside, disowned, denied and rejected in favor of metropolitan sexual cultures such as New York, San Francisco. or Buffalo. In each, the rural becomes an insult, which has proliferated into an admittedly rich idiom. “

These lines are reflected in mainstream news and storytelling. On television, queer characters who have left small towns appear regularly, ranging from Titus Andromedon of Chickasaw County, Mississippi, in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” to “Search Party” character Elliott from a fictional holler in West Virginia. . Their past is part of the joke.

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But the feeling of belonging is not a matter of laughing. At Pikeville, Jones knows firsthand what their pride has done for his wife for 27 years.

“She never felt comfortable here until Pride,” Jones said. “She never felt she could be opened. We also have children in foster care, and many of those children are in foster care because of their coming out. We want to show them that they can start a family and that it doesn’t have to be a blood relationship. “

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