In the newly published LGBTQ Fiction and Poetry from Appalachia, editors Jeff Mann and Julia Watts have collected works “that give Appalachian queer voices—members of a double minority—an opportunity to be heard at a time when many people in power would prefer to silence or ignore them.” This collection, the first of its kind, gathers original and previously published fiction and poetry from lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer authors from Appalachia. In this conversation, Mann and Watts take a closer look at what growing up queer in Appalachia was like for them and how their identities influenced their reading and writing.
Julia: What was the hardest thing about growing up gay in Appalachia?
Jeff: I suppose it was the sense of isolation. I was super lucky in making some lesbian friends even before I came out, which meant that when I did realize I was gay, I already had a small support system, and that was lifesaving, but I didn’t know any other gay guys. At that point—the mid-seventies—there were no positive gay characters to speak of in movies or on TV, and there certainly wasn’t any internet that might have helped me get a glimpse of gay life outside Appalachian small towns, so I had no role models to pattern myself after. That meant that when I got to college—I started my undergrad degrees at West Virginia University in August 1977—I had to figure out how to be a gay guy among gay guys. Finding the leather community helped with that, and so did the bear community.
Jeff: What was it like for you, growing up in southeastern Kentucky and experiencing same-sex desire? How did you come to terms with those feelings?
Julia: Confusing! I think I was confused for multiple reasons. One was that, like many Appalachians, I grew up in a church that said that just having same-sex desire, let alone acting on those desires, was a sin. The few people in my town who were known to be queer were talked about and basically treated as the butts of jokes, so my feelings didn’t seem safe to talk about. Also contributing to my confusion was that I was sometimes attracted to males, too, and bisexuality was something that was never discussed. I don’t think I really came to terms with my feelings until after I left for college (The University of Tennessee) and started to meet all kinds of different people with all kinds of different identities.
Julia: What was the best thing about growing up gay in Appalachia?
Jeff: I loved the intense queer camaraderie I shared with my lesbian friends, and I loved the mountain landscapes and the mountain food. Still, I took a lot of Appalachian culture for granted until the fall of 1985, when I moved to the Washington, DC, suburbs to teach part-time. I hated living in the suburbs and I hated the noise, crowds, and traffic of the city, so I returned to the mountains “right quick,” as we say, having discovered, in leaving the region, just how much of an Appalachian and a southerner I was.
Jeff: When or where did you find any sort of queer community?
Julia: I think I accidentally jumped ahead to this question! College was an important time for me in terms of finding community. I joined the Lambda Student Union (LGBTQ student organizations had such coded names back then!) and a feminist discussion group. I participated in Knoxville’s early Pride parades and frequented the local gay bars, where I developed my lifelong love for drag queens and the art of drag. I also started reading all the LGBTQ literature I could get my hands on, and I made friends with a lot of open-minded people.
Julia: Did you have any mentors when you were a teenager who made your coming out easier?
Jeff: Luckily, yes. I had a wonderful biology teacher in the tenth grade, Jo Davison, who came out to me and took me under her wing in a major way. Years later, an art teacher I’d had in the seventh grade also came out to me. It meant a great deal to have successful role models like them, especially in a town as small as Hinton, West Virginia, where I grew up.
Jeff: What aspects of Appalachian culture do you appreciate the most? Are there aspects of Appalachian culture you dislike?
Julia: The language, the stories, the stubborn independence, the food . . . I love all these things. A week without soup beans is a very bad week indeed! The aspects of the culture I dislike are not exclusive to Appalachia, but there is a certain xenophobia or fear of outsiders that can go along with living in the hills and hollers. It’s sadly limiting and can lead to prejudice.
Julia: Were there any books you read growing up that helped your understanding of what it means to be gay and/or Appalachian?
Jeff: Oh, yes! While I was still in high school, Jo Davison lent me Patricia Nell Warren’s novel The Front Runner, and that book helped me realize I was gay. Warren’s novel The Fancy Dancer gave me a butch, leather-wearing role model, and her novel The Beauty Queen portrayed a gay couple in a loving BDSM relationship, all of which helped me figure out what kind of gay man I wanted to be. In college, I discovered fiction by John Rechy and the Violet Quill authors—Felice Picano, Andrew Holleran, and Edmund White—and devoured their works.
Jeff: Did, or do, you have any queer role models in public life, mass media, or the literary world?
Julia: Absolutely! Some of them are in our anthology. The first depiction of same-sex love/desire I ever saw in literature was in Lisa Alther’s Kinflicks. My mom had gotten a copy of the paperback, and I sneaked and read it. Reading about two women in love was huge for me, but so was Alther’s sense of humor and sense of place . . . and the fact that she was writing about my region. Later, in the early nineties, I discovered Dorothy Allison’s work: Bastard Out of Carolina first, but then I read Trash and The Women Who Hate Me too. I loved—and love—her fearlessness as a writer and a person.
Julia: Has your writing always been from an Appalachian perspective, or did it take you a while to find your voice?
Jeff: When I was in high school and college, I wasn’t interested in Appalachia or my Appalachian identity. I suppose that was because once I realized I was feeling same-sex desire, I figured the only way to be openly gay would be to leave the region, which felt hostile, thanks to the homophobia of fundamentalist Christianity. Once I left Appalachia, I missed it terribly, as I’ve mentioned earlier, and I returned to the mountains after only one semester in the DC area. Then, I realized I’d have to learn to balance and come to terms with both my gay and my Appalachian identities. Teaching Introduction to Appalachian Studies at Virginia Tech helped, as did reading a lot of Appalachian literature that I’d never bothered with before. Getting to know Maggie Anderson—one of our anthology’s contributors—also helped. She made me realize that you could be gay or lesbian and still make art out of your Appalachian experiences. That was a very, very valuable revelation. Thanks, Maggie!
Jeff: How did you get started writing? Publishing?
Julia: I’ve written since I was a little kid (my parents have some embarrassing evidence of this fact). I didn’t start sending out stuff for publication until I was working on my MA in English at the University of Louisville. I got lots of stories rejected and a couple accepted. After I finished my MA, I decided to try writing a novel, and I fell in love. I loved having the length and leisure to let the characters develop and the story unspool. It took me around a year to write my first novel, Wildwood Flowers, and looking back on the book, I can see a lot wrong with it, but I was learning to write a novel by writing a novel. I sent it to the venerable Naiad Press, the first real publishing house devoted to lesbian writing, and to my shock, they wanted it. I got really lucky.
Julia: Other than working with your fabulous coeditor, what was the best thing about working on this anthology?
Jeff: You were and are fabulous. In my experience, it gets harder and harder to make new friends as you age, but I think I’ve made a valuable new friend in you (and your wonderful novels). Well, I knew that an anthology like this had never existed before and therefore was much needed, so it was great to be part of the process that brought such a collection into the world. Plus, it was a delight to be able to include folks I’ve known and admired for years, like Dorothy Allison, Maggie Anderson, Victor Depta, and Ann Pancake.
Jeff: What’s your latest writing project?
Julia: Well, my latest published novel is Quiver (Three Rooms Press), a young adult novel about a friendship across the culture wars. I’m currently working on another YA novel—currently untitled; titles always come last for me—that is in part about the Appalachian opioid epidemic.
Julia: What advice do you have for LGBTQ kids growing up in Appalachia—especially rural Appalachia—today?
Jeff: Do your best to find a clan of like-minded souls. Learn the history of our community and don’t forget it. Respect your queer elders. Read queer authors and watch queer films. Don’t expect all LGBTQ people to use the same terms and think the same ways as you do. Avoid judgment; avoid groupthink; avoid dogma, even LGBTQ dogma; live and let live. Be proud of your rural background and your mountain roots.
Jeff: What sort of hopes do you have for this anthology?
Julia: High ones, because it’s a great book! I hope it gives LGBTQ Appalachians a sense of community and a deep appreciation of the diversity and quality of LGBTQ literary voices of the region. I also hope that straight Appalachian readers find the collection and learn about the richness of LGBTQ culture right in their own backyards. And of course, I hope that the book finds an appreciative audience beyond the region as well.