Cultivating a Positive Environment for LGBTQ Individuals in Appalachia

Cultivating a Positive Environment for LGBTQ Individuals in Appalachia
Ellen D.B. Riggle
Sharon S. Rostosky

Comments from a Panel Presentation sponsored by the Appalachian Center, University of Kentucky, Friday April 20, 2012

 A Positive View of LGBTQ: Embracing Identity and Cultivating Well-Being is based on a national sample of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer identified individuals.  But the book has its origins in local events and local interviews that we have done (and includes some of those).

Much of our research focuses on what is called minority stress – or the extra stressors that people face because they are stigmatized because of their sexual or gender identity, or their race or ethnicity, or another stigmatized status.

In our research, in addition to national and international online surveys that we conduct, we have interviewed over 100 same-sex couples locally and numerous individuals.  The majority of these couples and individuals either come from Appalachia, have family in Appalachia, or they currently live in Appalachia.  So, the people sharing their stories with us bring Appalachian culture with them (although this is not to say that Appalachian culture is monolithic).

Our book actually got its start right after the 2004 general election when voters in Kentucky passed the marriage restriction amendment to the state constitution.  At the time we were interviewing same-sex couples about the role of spirituality and religiosity in their relationship and lives.  One of the first couple members we talked to after the election talked about the toll that the public debate had taken on his relationship with his family from Eastern Kentucky.  He talked about the conflict it created between him and his family because he wanted their support – after all they invited both he and his partner home for the holidays so he thought they were accepting – but they were supporting the marriage restrictions and saying that same-sex marriages were not “real marriages.” He blamed this in part on his family living in Eastern Kentucky and going to the “hometown church” where the preacher was prejudiced against gay people.  The conflict made him feel alienated from his family of origin and put stress on his relationship with his partner.

So, how do we get from studying that type of minority stress to what I call our “happy book” focused on positive well-being?  There are 2 parts to the road.  One part is that when we talk to these couples, we always come away smiling, because along with the stories of their stresses and challenges, they share with us their insights, their love and commitment to each other, and they often do so with a sense of humor. There is not just resilience, but they have a sense of optimism. Second, we also talk to a lot of young people from this area, including from Eastern Kentucky.  We get two strong messages from these young people:  they want and need visible LGBTQ role models, and they want and need visible allies.

So, we saw the need for research on the positive aspects of LGBTQ lives that re-frames and re-focuses the conversations that we have about LGBTQ identities.  These new conversations are not just about eliminating minority stress or dealing with bad things; we want to focus more broadly on how to actively cultivate well-being and create environments where LGBTQ people and everyone can flourish.

For all youth and adults it is important to have a sense of belonging, closeness with others, and community – these are some of the themes that we talk about in the book.  For LGBTQ and questioning youth in Appalachia, as Mary Gray also talks about in her book (Out in the Country), it is important to have the visible role models and a visible ally community.  I think it is important to us as researchers that we recognize the importance of family and community in rural and Appalachian experience.  These are strong values that can facilitate well-being and we find that LGBTQ people integrate these values with their own identity experiences to create positive growth.

For example, one gay man from Eastern Kentucky told us, “I grew up being taught to treat everyone like I want to be treated (the Golden Rule), to help my neighbors.  Being gay has helped me realize that that really does apply to how I treat everyone.  I am more compassionate towards everyone now.”

In order to create a positive supportive environment for everyone, we need visible allies for LGBTQ people in Appalachian communities.  I think one of the big myths that we have to confront is that Appalachian communities are totally hostile towards LGBTQ people.  That is not true, there are a lot of supporters and we need for them to be visible.  Not only do we want LGBTQ people to not feel alone, we don’t want their allies to feel alone.

I want to read you a quick story from a young person from Eastern Kentucky that illustrates the importance of allies in creating well-being for LGBT youth in Appalachia and creating community:

“My best friend in high school, who was a white heterosexual man, was my go-to for just about anything.  We had a strong connection over several things. … In high school, I was in the beginning stages of confronting my sexuality directly. … It wasn’t until [I was writing a story last year] that I realized he was my first ally.  He told me a few years ago about realizing I was gay (we didn’t really talk about it until college).  He told me he thought to himself one day ‘Is she gay? Yep.  Am I okay with that? Yep.  Alright, moving on.’  That short conversation he had with himself let me know that our friendship was strong and that he was there for me no matter what.”

Let me just end with the basic message of our book – and what everyone here knows – our personal stories have power.  They have power over how we define our own lives and they have power when we share them with others.  Talking with others about the positive aspects of LGBT identities, recognizing the benefits of these identities in our own lives and the life of our communities, is an important part of creating a celebratory culture for everyone in Appalachia.  A strong, visible support ally culture is a part of this celebration of all of our lives.