an interview with Rachel Garringer
Country Queers is an ongoing multimedia oral history project documenting the diverse experiences of rural, small town, and country LGBTQ+ folks in the U.S. – across intersecting layers of identity such as race, class, age, ability, gender identity, and religion. It was wonderful to connect with Rachel Garringer, the founder, director and photographer of Country Queers, and to chat about this incredible project.
Cordella Magazine: What was your experience like growing up in a small town? What are examples of joys and challenges you experienced as a youth in a rural landscape?
Rachel Garringer: I actually grew up about an hour outside of a small town - at the time it had a population of around 3,000. I spent most of my time on the farm where we lived from when I was 7 until I graduated high school. It’s a stunning valley farm high up in the Allegheny Mountains of southeastern West Virginia. And that land is one of the most important things to me in my life, to this day.
Joys of growing up there included bottle feeding lambs in the spring, and spending hours outside with all the other animals we had: donkeys and llamas and goats and pigs and cats and dogs and a wonderfully stubborn kind pony named Ocea. I really loved hay-making as a kid when we could ride on the back of the wagon, swaying with the turns in the road - and then the barn loft would be overpowered with the sweet smell all through the winter and spring. I spent a lot of time alone in the woods, and playing in the creeks. Daydreaming and listening, watching and walking.
Challenges? I rode the bus for four hours a day in high school. I grew up in Central Appalachia where young folks who can often leave and never come back, and young folks who can’t often get bogged down in the despair of a place in deep economic crisis with a full-on drug epidemic raging. I didn’t know a single out queer person until I left the state of West Virginia. There was a neo-Nazi compound in the county where I grew up. People said nasty racist and homophobic things on the bus. Families are complicated. Depression is real. Being a young person anywhere can be brutal.
CM: What are examples of stories you’ve collected for your project that you’ve found the most inspiring? The most harrowing?
RG: It’s so hard to pick just a few. Every single interview has been such an amazing learning experience, and such a gift. One of the earliest interviews I did was with a then-78-year-old former nun in Western Massachusetts (read the interview here). Her stories of how she found queer community in the pre-gay-rights-movement countryside, of her partner she’s been with for over 30 years (and her advice on how to make relationships last), and her love of horses and her home community that she still lived in, was so inspiring. I just cried and cried as I drove away from that interview cause I’d never talked to a queer elder before, and I realized how much we’re robbed of when we don't have access to relationships with them. And so often, we don’t.
I interviewed a gay couple in their 50’s in Oklahoma, who described the terror of coming out in the midst of the AIDS crisis in a way that I’ll never forget. One of them told the story of his long-time former partner who died of AIDS. The way his partner’s family didn’t even call to tell him he was close to dying, the way they treated him at the funeral. They described going to the gay bar in those days for community memorials for their friends and lovers who had died, because families wouldn’t allow them at the funerals. It was just awful. I also interviewed a queer woman in Prince Edward County, Virginia who told the story of her mother going to live in Baltimore with her aunt after Brown vs. Board of Education passed because the county chose to close all of its public schools rather than de-segregate them. Prince Edward County public schools were closed from 1959-1964 in order to deny Black students access to education. We’ve got all sorts of ugly histories to reckon with as rural people, especially those of us who are white.
CM: Based on what you’ve learned through your interviews, what are examples of practical things that need to change to help queer folks feel safe and welcome in small town America?
RG: Lots of rural queer folks struggle to navigate religious values in their hometowns and families. Queer youth in rural places often lack support at home and at school in some serious ways. Conversations around gender-identity are only just beginning - and not going the smoothest - in a lot of small towns. Rural and small town raised queer and trans people of color (qtpoc) I’ve interviewed have all described the added exhaustion that comes from navigating deep racism in addition to homophobia and transphobia.
I think the questions around how to support rural queers are the same as those we struggle with nationally at this moment. How are we pushing conversations and helping create safe spaces for trans and gender-non-conforming youth? How are we addressing racism and layers of oppression impacting qtpoc from within and without the queer community? And how do queer people retain a relationship to faith and spirituality, when so often faith communities want to deny us entrance?
CM: What are your hopes for your project? How do you see it growing?
RG: I hope someday to have more time to dedicate to it! Country Queers has been a “free”time project ever since it started in 2013, and I constantly feel drawn to give more energy to it, that I frankly just don’t have with full time work + part-time work + the rest of life’s responsibilities. I’m exploring the idea of a podcast, but not ready to commit. I’ve always wanted to put together a book of rural queer stories since the project started. But, both of those options will depend on finding funding and time. For now, the Instagram takeovers are so fun. And with the help of some amazing volunteers across the U.S. and Canada, we’re slowly plugging away at transcribing the interviews gathered so far.
CM: Are there particular states you are interested in collecting stories from? What would your ideal interview-collecting road trip look like?
RG: I did a big interview-gathering trip funded by a Kickstarter campaign in 2014. I interviewed 30 people in 6 states, and drove 7,000 miles in a month. I went to Mississippi, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Kansas. It was absolutely incredible. It was also exhausting, really expensive, rough on my old car, and totally not sustainable.
That trip led to a lot of reflection about the project. My current goal is to focus more on the mountain south - both because it’s more realistic financially and logistically, but also because I strongly believe in the importance of people working in the communities where they are from, communities they are committed to, communities they understand and care about. There’s so much media produced about rural places by people with no connection to them. I find it less compelling (and much more ethically-messy) than that produced by people with a deeply rooted relationship to a place.
That said, whenever I do travel to a new place, I try to do at least one Country Queers interview if I’m able. I’ll probably keep doing that, maybe forever. It’s one of my favorite things in the world - to record people telling their stories.
CM: On your website, you mention that this project was born out of your extreme sense of isolation as a queer person living in a small town. Has gathering and sharing the stories thus far been effective at alleviating this isolation? Is there anything that you’ve discovered that you could do to further help your cause?
RG: It has and it hasn’t. First of all, there were almost no stories of rural queer life on the internet when I started Country Queers in 2013. Now there are a lot more. It’s a different landscape than it was in terms of what kinds of stories we have access to in 2018 versus 2013. So I definitely think there’s a lot more rural queer visibility these days than when I started doing this work, and that’s valuable to all of us.
I definitely have benefited greatly from getting to meet rural and small town LGBTQ+ folks in person over the past five years in many states. It helps me to know their names and faces and stories. It helps me to keep in touch with some of the folks I’ve interviewed, to read our stories online. But there are ways in which I’m still super isolated from queer community based on the geography and economy of where I live. I continue to choose Central Appalachia over everything else, because these mountains are more important to me than anything else and have given me so much that I have to stay here and give back. But it isn’t always the easiest place to be, whether you’re queer or not.
CM: One thing a city can offer that a small town foreseeably can’t is a real, face-to-face experience of queer community. Having lived in Western Mass. and Austin, what do you miss most about face-to-face queer community? Anything you don’t miss?
RG: I miss the gay country bar where I was a regular in Austin. I miss two-stepping with gay cowboys and high-belted mullet-wearing Texas dykes. I miss the possibility of meeting someone new and cute, of getting a number, of going on dates. (Lord, can someone start a country queers dating app please? We need it! Timbr? OkFarmQueers? HollerLuv?). I miss costumes and drag-balls and dancing and riding my bike everywhere.
I don’t miss the scene-y-ness. The social dynamics of insular-city-queer-scenes make me SO anxious. I also feel like there can be a lot of performance in social justice spaces in cities - especially white anti-racist circles. You prove yourself by using all the jargony language, by reading the in-books, by being at the “right” events. I value shared political analysis, community and language, but not when it means we lose the ability to have real honest conversations with people across identities and experiences and beliefs - or when it means that only certain work is valued as the kind that creates radical change. I never want to lose the ability to respect and listen to people I deeply disagree with. Living in the rural south means you HAVE to be able to do that. Living in liberal bubbles in cities means sometimes you don’t.
CM: In your interviews, have you discovered any broad trends affecting the American queer community that you hadn’t been aware of previously? Any surprises?
RG: I get this question a lot. I actually have a really hard time taking the 50-ish interviews I’ve done and finding broad trends. Each story is so unique and our experiences vary so much from state to state, even county to county, and especially across other intersecting layers of identity in addition to our queerness. Honestly, one of the only questions I’ve gotten an almost unanimous answer to is “How do you date/find sex or love in rural places as a queer person?” Everyone I’ve interviewed, except for one, has said something like “I don’t know!!! Does somebody know? Can someone tell me if you do know?”
CM: What gives you inspiration and purpose on a day to day basis, living in your small town? What makes you excited to wake up in the morning, what was missing for you living in a larger city?
RG: The mountains. The naked ridgelines in the winter, the curtains of fuschia when the redbuds bloom in the spring. The lush soft green of these hills in the summer, their fire in fall. The sound of the creek outside my bedroom window. Giving my ducks fresh water in the morning and watching their absolute joy as they bathe in it. Hiking up the logging road behind my house with my dog at the end of the day. Kudzu eating old houses whole. The sound of the train whistle coming up over the ridge. The way people remember histories on this land going back generations. The desire to help fill some of the absence of stories and voices we need to remember in our rural communities, but have intentionally silenced. Dreaming about this year’s garden. Swimming in the river and creek. Comparing tomato yields. And always, always, always scheming about how to work part-time so I’ll have more time to write, to raise goats, to dedicate to a piece of land I love, to listen.