by (Gina) Mamone
I’m of a generation that was trained to leave. I have a clear memory of elementary school, second grade. On the first day of school the teacher was writing the R’s that we were going to learn that year in her classroom. She added an extra one on the end: “reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic and the Road to Roanoke.”
I was taught that there was nothing for me in the coalfields of West Virginia. We were taught to leave, creating a phenomenon known as Brain Drain. I went to big cities to find community and culture. I did. As a result most of my adult life I’ve lived in Brooklyn, loving every minute of it.
No one was as surprised as me when I chose to move home to the coalfields of WV. I also didn’t feel like I had a choice, my aging parents needed support navigating health issues and I found myself in the same situation. I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder a few years before—it’s pretty common if you grew up in coal slurry like I did. My mobility and independence felt almost nonexistent. The timing seemed right to help them and see if my immune system would do better if I didn’t live within 5 miles of 12 million people.
Queer Appalachia started as a memorial project/ zine. A lifelong friend and colaborator, Bryn Kelly killed herself not long after my move. Bryn was one of the few people I spoke to daily after the move home. Bryn was an HIV + trans woman that grew up on the WV/OH border and had been in my life for over two decades. The Electric Dirt zine was her creation, something she had talked about making for decades. After Bryn’s death, Amanda Harris pitched the idea to me. It felt like an opportunity to do something, to make something rather than being lost in my grief. Several months into the project Amanda killed herself.
So much death attached to this project has taught me there are no geographic solutions for rural queers.
As soon as calls for zine submissions went out, we were overrun with content. That’s how the Instagram became submission-based. We are living at a very unique time in history, exactly one decade into the existence of the iPhone, which makes so much accessible. Up until now the people that got to choose who and who wasn’t documented from their own culture and community acted as gatekeepers—people with access to higher education: historians, folklorist, archivist, academics etc. At Queer Appalachia the under-documented and undocumented document themselves. It’s simple and revolutionary, a marriage of community and accessible technology, rural broadband be damned!
When I signed up for this project on the phone with Amanda, I thought I was going to make a zine with a stapler and a glue stick in the floor. When we closed down pre-orders, we had over $30,000 of individual pre-orders. There have been queer people in Appalachia since there have been people in Appalachia. There just hadn’t been many opportunities for them to connect with each other, the technology wasn’t accessible enough, until now.
Three years into this project, we’ve never experienced any plateauing—we have always been growing steadily. It’s a testament to the breadth of community in our hills and hollers. When I first signed up for the project’s online handles, I could barely find a handful of times on the Internet where the words queer and Appalachia have been brought together before. Three years into the project, I could name over 100. I can’t wait to see what kind of representation this community has in a decade. I can’t even fathom the art, culture and community that will no longer be just surviving, but thriving.
Queer Appalachia, which began in response to tragedy and despair, became the first rural queer digital community to exist, connecting almost a quarter of a million regional queers that call home below the Mason-Dixon daily. Every day the Queer Appalachia collective works to create Community, Culture and Content in Appalachia and the south.
All profits from our zine/merch sales are invested back into the queer Appalachian community through QA’s community micro-grant program. Grants ranging from $250-$2000 are invested in hopes of changing our queer Appalachian cultural landscape together. By directly investing in grassroots community efforts we hope that there will be more everything, more community, art, culture, healthcare, safety, bathrooms, etc. We’re not gonna stop until Appalachia feels like the home it is for us.
We have given money to regional queer music festivals like Asheville North Carolina’s Pansey Fest, rural art installations, numerous black reclamation projects and reparations work, regional queer farming conferences, self-defense classes, art supplies and sponsor historic regional institutions like the WV Mine Wars Museum, art shows, concerts, and various community events.
QA focuses on the intersection of praxis and community in the buckle of the Bible Belt in Trump’s America. This leads us to do important work because Appalachia’s nonprofit ecosystem is one sided and heavy handed. The reality of coal’s mono economy in our community seeds and perpetuates a culture that forces people to move away. It’s so much of an issue we have a name for it, Brain Drain.
If you don’t want to work in the coal/fossil fuel industry there are not many any opportunities here. That’s been the reality for a long time since the country was first introduced to Appalachia in images of LBJ and Kennedy coming through the region. We have been not only the definition but the gold standard of poverty porn. Appalachia and its people have always been portrayed as less fortunate, poor and very different from the rest of the world through a lens of unparalleled hardship and isolation.
Decades of this have rendered two things: 1) negative stereotypes 2) a large expensive nonprofit industry. Addiction, isolating geography, intergenerational poverty, food deserts, healthcare deserts, mental healthcare deserts, leading the country in the worst in education, literacy, test scores—this could be an infinite list. These growing problems show how Appalachia has fallen short when held up to the rest of the country. Appalachia’s extensive nonprofit sector has created very black-and-white communities—you’re either part of the problem with coal or you have a savior complex and the only people doing real work in the nonprofit world. There is no middle ground or compromise.
Billions of dollars come into Appalachia in the form of grants and endowments to fund the work of these nonprofits. Looking at the numbers, the amount of money that comes into the community that these nonprofits are supposed to serve feels just as criminal as the coal industry. With the amount of red tape and metaphorical hoops to access these resources, it seems like the process is more about the process than getting emergency resources to a desperate community.
For example, the opioid epidemic cost the state of West Virginia $8.8 billion a year but there’s only one needle exchange in the entire state. If QA does a harm reduction popup we double the available needle exchanges in the state that day. When I see millions coming into state nonprofits, a zine collective should not be able to literally double services.
A significant amount of funding is not making it to the communities that these nonprofits serve. Conferences, publishing, merch, social media campaigns… there’s always a reason to spend the money on these things. Do they help a nonprofits mission as much as literally doing the work of the mission?
As fall turned to winter in Appalachia in 2018, a Community micro grant application came in to our website unlike anything we had ever gotten before. The grant was for winter coats for a group of Queer, Transgender and Intersex People of Color (QTIPOC) friends that formed a chosen family helping each other survive in the isolating geography of rural Appalachia. They were only asking for coats, one each. With their application they sent in a video of them attempting to access their local union mission clothing closet.
The video didn’t really show anything, the phone was down by someone’s legs pointed at a wall. It wasn’t about the images, but what I heard. I heard someone who was a professional Christian for a living explain why they were not a part of the community that their ministry served. I’ve learned so much about my civic community through this project.
I see the same things over and over again in the images that people send in for our community curated Instagram to the stories. These themes are 1) family that doesn’t treat you like family 2) community is not treating them like community, literally voting our rights and safety away in front of our faces, and 3) Christians that don’t treat you or interact with you in a Christian type of way. So often in rural communities the only accessible clothing help, food pantries and even mental health resources come from religious institutions. Queer Appalachians are excluded from their definitions of community and are refused the help they desperately need.
It seemed like we could fundraise for this on our social media. I put up a post on our Instagram thinking that we should be able to take care of this rather quickly and would not need to use grant funds. Nothing could have prepared me for what came next. I didn’t expect to get hundreds of messages from folks having trouble accessing clothing resources in their community, wanting to know if they were eligible for assistance too. I heard horror stories of people waiting in lines overnight for coats only to be told they can only access clothing that corresponds to the gender marker on their state issued government identification card. A stud/identified QTIPOC was told they could only have a woman’s coat.
Personal account after personal account came in, all of the requests seem to fit into two categories: 1) Christians not allowing the queer community to access resources with dignity and 2) poverty—how expensive it is to be poor. Rural public transportation is a joke. Sometimes it takes an hour and a half to get to work, sometimes 2 1/2 hours. The only consistent guaranteed was that losing their job was not an option. So they pile on as many layers as they can and are prepared to stand outside in the middle of winter for as long as it takes, waiting. We had a coat drive that lasted for months. My garage was turned into a sorting center. I had to borrow trucks to go to our P.O. Box. And why? Because “Christian” charities can’t be bothered to be charitable.
Our lives and work center at Ground Zero of the opioid epidemic. Our harm reduction work has let us know that the resources that are in Appalachia for straight people navigating addiction/using safely are not available to the queer community. In fact, if you identify/present outside of gender binary in any way, it’s probably not safe for you to attend a 12-step meeting. If you’re trans and non passing, gender queer, non binary etc., it’s physically dangerous for you to go to those spaces. At the same time, Appalachia is a mental health care desert, full of working class people grinding out blue-collar minimum-wage jobs with hardly any insurance. The only free resources are those 12-step community groups. If a queer person wants to quit using and you’re not independently wealthy there are very few resources for you.
Our harm reduction work has given us an unparalleled access to queer Appalachian addicts/folks using. This past year we have collected the very first data on queer addiction in Appalachia. We will be publishing the data collected with West Virginia University Press in a book called Opioid Aesthetics coming out in 2020. This past year several of us in the collective have gone through the necessary training in our states to be able to hand out Narcan and teach harm reduction workshops. This has allowed us to start having harm reduction pop-ups where we give away 100% free Narcan, fentanyl test strips, Plan B, new needles, shooting kits, cookers, home HIV kits, sharps containers, RX chemical disposal kits, condoms, female condoms, dental dams, lube, tampons and pads.
When talking about harm reduction work in Appalachia, it’s easy to focus on narcan, fentanyl test strips, needles. Those are important, but when it comes to queer Appalachians HIV/AIDS-related deaths, we have the youngest highest death rate in the country. Often rural queers postpone testing because they fear even being tested could be seen as “red flags” in their small community. So many rural queers in the region call places home that don’t have anti-discrimination/protection laws. They could lose a job or be evicted at any time for no reason. Not everyone can be “out.” Queer Appalachia being able to mail home HIV test kits discreetly to anyone who asks 100% free is an unparalleled resource that will literally save lives in our community.
The fact that a volunteer zine collective can double services being offered on a county/state/federal government level is mind-boggling to me. When I look at the people around me who do this work with me, it’s people that have accepted the government is the biggest company store. The green pieces of paper in our pockets are just contemporary script, just like the coal company script they used to pay our ancestors. The company store has been rebranded in patriotism and religion. We pay politicians’ salary to act in our best interest, but it seems like after Standing Rock, Zuccotti park, the MVP Tree Sits, it’s like they can’t even pretend like they care about us anymore.
If we want things to change in our communities, we need to be willing to do it ourselves or we will be waiting a very long time.
(Gina) Mamone, creative director at Queer Appalachia, is a maker living in the coalfields of West Virginia. Through the project’s collective social media, they communicate with over 250K rural queers and allies who call home below the Mason-Dixon daily. Mamone has recently been in collaboration with Nan Goldin’s PAIN project, bringing a rural lens to their opioid work, which focuses on accountability and reparations from the Sackler Family. Mamone’s #whichsideareyouon is currently showing at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Gallery in Washington DC. #whichsideareyouon is a contemporary manifesto which examines the intersectional fallout of race, class, ability, privilege, sustainability and ecology of Appalachia’s opioid epidemic. From the boardrooms of the Sackler family’s Perdue Pharmaceuticals to the offices of our elected officials: why are Appalachians always disposable?