May 2019

Home Grown: Critical Queer Activism in Appalachia and the South

Emphasis on organizing along lines of difference as a collective has caused organizations in the South and Appalachia to experience violent backlash.

by Heather Brydie Harris

Radical queer activism, often linked to social movements taking place in the 1960s and 1970s in metropolitan cities on the Northeastern and Western coasts, has a long and compelling history outside of these areas. While there remains connective tissues that form abstract relations between queer movement work in places like New York City and San Francisco and the South and Appalachia, the latter regions have formed distinct organizational forms, tactics, and practices, that are derived from the places, spaces, and people who have formed them. 

Exploitation of natural resources – both derived from the earth and from human labor, and the diverse ethnoscapes that have taken shape both from human migration, and from gross human abuses, including enslavement, have informed activist strategies in these regions. These conditions have created a social justice culture that is at once vibrant, radical, and robust, as well as side-lined from the hegemonic memory and present awareness. This is due, in part, to historians favoring of neoliberal “successes” (specifically single issue and reactionary laws, such as same gender marriage, or the passing of hate crime legislation) over multi-issue, grassroots, radical, interracial and queer led social justice-based coalitions that are concerned with root causes. The latter has come to be the basis of many Appalachian and Southern organizations; moreover, with a frightening rise in hate crimes across the United States within the past three years, social justice organizations within rural, Appalachian, and Southern locations have had increasing work to do to combat individual, as well as institutional and structural, forms of violence that are taking place in these areas.  

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing two long time social justice organizers in Louisville, KY who have both played active roles at the Highlander Center and beyond. Carol Kraemer, former Organizational Manager at the Fairness Campaign, and Yer Girlfriend band member, who has also been active in SURJ Louisville, and Pam McMichael, retired Executive Director at Highlander for 12 years and founding co-Director of Southerners On New Ground have both helped shape the climate of radical queer activism in the Southern and Appalachian regions of the US.

Pam McMichael describes SONG, Highlander, and other social justice organizations in the South, as being based on a “we’re in this together” ideology that attempts to move forward without leaving anyone behind.[i] This ideology translates into practice by viewing all oppressive systems as connected while placing individuals stories and analysis as critical to the organizing work.[ii] Similarly, Carol Kraemer understands queer justice work as part and parcel to economic and racial justice organizing. This emphasis on organizing along lines of difference as a collective has caused organizations in the South and Appalachia to experience violent backlash.

This past March the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee, became the target of a violent backlash due to their long history of social justice activism that centers, participatory action research,  popular education, and mutual aid among communities from Appalachia and the South. During the early morning on Friday the 29th a fire, which is believed to have been intentionally set, burned down the main administrative building at the Highlander Center. During the investigation, a white power symbol was found in the parking lot at Highlander. No lives were lost or injured in the fire; however, many were shaken, including the hundreds of people who have been touched directly by Highlander’s presence and perseverance throughout its nearly ninety years of existence. This was not the first attack on Highlander. Throughout the organizations lifespan, Highlander has been the target of violent actions and threats that have ranged from redbaiting, to individual, and state sanctioned acts of violence, committed against both property and people, including removal of licensure and land.

Image 1: Highlander Folk School marker, courtesy of author.

While hate crimes have never been low in the United States, hate crime reporting has been increasing steadily over the past three years, and continues to rise. The arson attack at Highlander took place during a month when Black churches were being burned down, families were being ripped apart in detention centers, videos were going viral on social media of police brutalizing Black and children of color at school, and the list could go on.

Although there is nothing redemptive in the loss of life, destruction of records, or suffering of Black, Brown, queer, poor, or disabled bodies in the South and Appalachia, the social justice traditions that have risen up are transformed by it, and the very place and space in which it is being done. Just as formations of Southern Blackness gave rise to E. Patrick Johnson’s conception of quare[iii], racial and gendered dimensions, economic realities, and cultural forms gave rise to queer, or quare, organizing that is distinctly Southern, Appalachian, queer, race-centered, and multi-issue in a way that speaks true for, and echoes, the lives of the people of these regions. In the third part of Johnson’s definition of quare he writes, “One who thinks and feels and acts (and, sometimes, “acts up”); committed to struggle against all forms of oppression – racial, gender, class, religious, etc.”[iv] This definition of quare captures a theory in the flesh[v], a theory that is embodied and practiced based on the dimensions of our own physical and environmental circumstances.

Pam McMichael, when prompted to do a word association when thinking of Highlander offered the words: “Simple and complicated. Beautiful. Powerful. Hard. Expectation. History. Future. Love. Smoky Mountains on your horizon. Did I say sunrises and sunsets? Foggy mornings. A place people call home who haven’t even been there. A place people connect for decades. An important place because of people. It’s always about people.”[vi] Pam described Highlander as being like an infinity symbol, those who come to Highlander take something back to their communities, and others from that community return and give back to Highlander, and the cycle continues.[vii] This site of popular education, where people come to learn from one another, share the situations impacting their communities, and work toward collective social change, has become a bastion of both hope and home for many in the region.

Carol Kraemer, reflecting on why people have wanted to take Highlander down over the decades said, “It was a dangerous thing to have a place where black and white folks could come together and build a movement. That was dangerous.”[viii] Highlander has become a place where Civil Rights icons, labor organizers from Appalachia, masculine of center queer women, and radical faeries can gather, become community, and work collectively toward shared ends. These efforts, often in the form of cultural organizing, and coupled with art, performance, music and song, becomes attune to what José Muñoz called disidentification.[ix] Disidentification is a way that people, particularly queer people of color, negotiate the dominant culture through enacting performance and performative expressions that are architectonic and world making. Disidentification is not against or for majority cultures values, rather, it queers the norms associated with hegemonic values and uses them within performance, to create new worlds.

While Highlander is not a queer organization per se (nor is it not), those who make Highlander the space it is are participating in what Dean Spade calls critical queer and trans politics.[x] This politic is in opposition with single issue gay and lesbian politics that are focused on inclusion and rights; rather, a critical queer and trans politic looks for solutions to systemic problems which have their roots buried deep in racism, classism, sexism, homophobia and ableism. While logics based in inclusion and rights are often the basis of organizations associated with large metropolitan networks and task forces, many of these organizations, although not all, are prone to using the same mechanisms of change that the systems utilize to enact violence. As Audre Lorde said, “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable.”[xi]

The queer organizing that is done at Highlander and throughout Appalachia and the South, which is aligned with a critical queer and trans politic stemming from theories in the flesh and realities of both place and space, have created ideological frameworks that are not tied to specific structures and human constructions, like buildings which may burn. They are carried through the embodied praxis of the people. It is this performed embodiment of a critical queer home-grown activism that is architectonic – worldmaking, while disidentifying with dominant tools used by systems designed to constrict.

Image 2: Fog settlers over the Appalachian mountains, courtesy of author.

It is not despite the queer expressions, epistemologies, and performances that places like Highlander flourish, it is because of queer voices singing together, radical faeries in full face singing “Aint You Got A Right,” and butch hands teaching and building chairs out of pallets.[xii] Queer activism understands our bodies as sites of resistance. It acknowledges the way both the real forms, but also the fictions of our beings, code and contour space. It acknowledges that the way we take up space as well as where and how we take it up becomes either in submission to, opposition of, or in disidentification with the constriction of state normalizing logics on our identities and lives.

Critical queer Southern and Appalachian activism that comes from the people who live here is a refusal to concede with normalizing logics and dominant ideologies which mal-distribute resources (including the fictional but fully felt social resources of whiteness, cisness, and heterosexuality, and even urbanity). Queer gender performance as a part of cultural organizing, and an “in the flesh” approach to systemic injustice, offers a queering, or quaring, of social change efforts, moving it beyond recognition, inclusion, and rights, and toward collective transformation predicated on collective privileging of intersectional activism that seeks to root out systemic injustice. This worldmaking is what happens when the world is designed intentionally together and for one another.

Heather Brydie Harris is a second year PhD student in Pan-African Studies at the University of Louisville. Brydie’s research is at the intersection of Black Quare and Womanist theology. They hold degrees in Social Justice & Ethics (MA) and Women and Gender Studies (BA). Brydie is a Black, genderqueer, non-binary femme, poet and scholar-activist. Their interests and research are based in the Black queer experience through the framework of womanist and queer theology via transcontinental social justice imaginaries and Afrofuturistic thought and align themselves with the latest iteration of the Black freedom movement: Black Lives Matter, as well as indigenous communities around the globe.

Further Reading

[i] Pam McMichael, “Highlander Interview.” Interview by Heather Brydie Harris. (University of Louisville, March 4, 2019).

[ii] Ibid.

[iii]E. Patrick Johnson, ““Quare” Studies, Or (Almost) Everything I Know I Learned From My Grandmother”, in Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology, eds. E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 125.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Cherríe Moraga, “Theory in the Flesh”, in This Bridge Called Our Backs: Writings by Radical Women of Color, eds. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. (Suny Press, 2015).

[vi] Pam McMichael, “Highlander Interview.” Interview by Heather Brydie Harris. (University of Louisville, March 4, 2019).

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Carol Kraemer, “Southern Activism Interview.” Interview by Heather Brydie Harris. (University of Louisville, February 18, 2019).

[ix] José Muñoz, Disidentification: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994).

[x] Dean Spade, Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).

[xi] Audre Lorde, Undersong: Chosen Poems Old and New. (London: Virago, 1993).

[xii] Carol Kraemer, “Southern Activism Interview.” Interview by Heather Brydie Harris. (University of Louisville, February 18, 2019).

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