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#ThisIsAppalachia: Small Town Pride

Walter Davis|May 26, 2020

US 23 runs through the heart of Appalachia. Known as the Country Music Highway. Communities along the road gave us many legends like Loretta Lynn and Ricky Skaggs.

Along US 23 and other Appalachian highways in recent years, LGBTQ Pride events appeared.

LGBTQ folks have always been here but Pride allows visibility. Today, Pride events are celebrated in almost every part of Appalachia.  In October, ACF team members came to Pikeville, Kentucky for its second Pride Festival. We stopped to ask a motorcycle riders gathering if they knew where the Pride event was. They directed us to the City Park nearby where we found five hundred people. Pikeville’s population is around 6700 people.

Groups gave out colorful materials. One did face painting. There was a dog show. The brief opening program paid a respectful tribute to the heritage of the original peoples on these lands. Drag queens engaged the crowd.

There was joy in City Park in Pikeville that Saturday.

Young queer folk in hollers and towns of Appalachia can find safe places in Pride to express themselves openly in beautiful colors.

Why Pride is important in small town Appalachia

Thousands take part in Pride events in Knoxville, Tennessee and in cities beyond these Appalachian hills. But for many, small town Prides offer validation. A young person can experience hope that it will not be necessary to leave home to find welcome.

My husband grew up not far from Pikeville decades ago.  While we were sitting at the ACF table, an elderly woman came up to the booth with a big smile on her face. Through a sign language interpreter, she asked for one of our large Pride rainbow flags. I asked my husband, who signs, to speak to her. Bill discovered that she had attended the Kentucky School for the Deaf, as had Bill’s late sister and brother-in-law. She knew them there decades past. We felt this special moment. This frail lady left joyfully wearing a large rainbow flag.

Pride events are sanctuaries for such moments.

Pride events are part of organizing for real institutional change. Visibility builds power. Friends and families accompany LGBTQ folks to “check-it-out” and become allies. Pride holds the promise that it “It Gets Better” an affirms that no one should have to leave hometowns to find acceptance.

Small town Prides defy stereotypes. They are diverse: young, old and in-between. There are lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender, African American, white, Hispanic, and every other ethnicity. But perhaps the most important point of diversity is that they are neighbors, Appalachian neighbors.

Pride changes communities,

Pikeville joins nearly 20 Kentucky towns and rural communities with Pride festivals. Pride in small towns is evidence that attitudes have changed toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered residents.

NBC News reports that two of the eleven small cities most welcoming to LGBTQ folks are in West Virginia, such as Huntington.  The Human Rights Campaign has called Huntington a “shining beacon of hope.”

Charleston, WV created the city’s first LGBTQ working group to develop anti-bullying policies and LGBTQ-awareness training within the city.  

Rural and small town Prides bring change.