My Appalachia: Coming Home in a Changing America

By on Monday, December 5th, 2016 at 9:04 am

It’s April and I’m on the road jumping across the country promoting my debut book, a story collection about the residents of an economically-challenged small town in West Virginia. A large number of the stories in the book focus on the sometimes hidden and sometimes exposed lives of the gay men who live in the little town. It was an interesting concept for me—to juxtapose the lives of those stuck economically against the lives of those stunted emotionally. I modeled the setting on my hometown, a once prosperous place built with the big money of coal, timber, and railroad barons who built mansions that towered over the boomtown downtown. In the book, everyone’s clamoring—to stay, to leave, for a reprieve. In the book, and in real life, there’s this beautiful past to which everyone clings. It’s the past where the downtown streets were filled with the friendly faces of people with things to buy, where the future seemed bright and open.

On the road so far, I’ve been to California and New York and New Jersey, and in those places, the people hear me read my stories like folktales or mythologies. In the audience, their city eyes say There’s a lesson here. Appalachia is Babylon after the fall. Appalachia is a third-world country. Appalachia, as the headlines like to put it, is TRUMP COUNTRY, USA. Sometimes an urban transplant or two come up to me after my readings—from rural Ohio, Pennsylvania, or even upstate New York—and they say, “That was my world. You’ve told my story. I, too, had to run away to the city.” I appreciate their words and their zeal. I understand them. And I did run to the city, as a gay man, as a leftist, as someone who wanted more.

As April wanes, I grow nervous. I call Brooklyn home now, but the next leg of my trip takes me through a swatch of the old homeland—from Pittsburgh and D.C. to Eastern Kentucky and yes, of course, the small towns of West Virginia. In particular, I’m nervous about the reading in Elkins, population 7,000—my hometown. I still maintain a lot of connections to the place, but I had a complicated departure. My family didn’t take the gay thing so well, and for years, our relationship was nearly non-existent. I’m scarred, in a way, when I think about home. I sometimes let myself think too much about the fire and brimstone of the church instead of the soul-cleansing solitude of the mountains. I too often remember the creeping poverty instead of the friends and teachers who lifted me up and out.

I spend the months leading up to the Appalachian leg of my tour stewing about whether or not I’m going to read any of the gay-themed stories in the collection. I’m wondering if the audiences there can handle the explicit mention of gay relationships, of physical same-sex contact. I wonder if they’re going to walk out on me, if they’re going to shout me off of the stage. The thing about West Virginians is that they’re impressively loyal. I know that quite a few people from my past will show up; I also know that some of those who do show will be the ones who might not appreciate artistic portrayals of LGBTQ individuals.

Decorum back home is a two-way street, in many ways. We’re all taught to intuit what irks our friends and neighbors and then never speak of those things in their company: a blissful silence in which we stew with a smile, or the often parodied meaning behind the phrase, “Bless your heart.” It’s our way of keeping the peace.

I go back and forth for weeks, but I ultimately decide to read the gay stories. I tell myself not to be scared, that the kind of people who come out to a literary event will surely be evolved enough not to scream or rush me off the stage. I’m not joking when I say I have visions of guns in the back of my head during these readings. Once, during a darker time, my father told me he would drive to New York and shoot me if I, a man, deemed to marry my partner, another man. I did marry my partner, and I was relieved when I made it through the day of my wedding ceremony unscathed.

I fashion myself a different kind of evangelist. I’m coming to spread my own version of the good word. And in the readings across my home state, the ones leading up to the one in my hometown, I’m greeted by warm faces and then applause. I’m struck in particular by the gaggle of gray-haired ladies approach me at the end of each of the readings. They say, “Thank you. I’ll buy one book for myself and one for my gay brother/nephew/grandson.”

I’m relieved and I’m hopeful. As the election year heats up and Donald Trump interjects his hyper-charged rhetoric into our system, I look out to the mountains of so-called Trump Country, USA and say to myself, “It’s going to be ok. There’s still decency in this world.”

***

The pundits argue over what went wrong for the Democrats. There was a fundamental breakdown, they say, in our understanding of “white working class voters.” I try not to laugh when they use this phrase, over and over. It’s the kind of careful, uncomfortable terminology that suggests a doctor/patient relationship. Today it’s the dissectable “white working class” and yesterday it was the monolithic “African American vote.”

They’re talking about my parents, my family members, my childhood neighbors—the mechanics, the machinists, the construction workers, the hotel cleaners. In spite of or because our reputation as backwoods horror film extras, we West Virginians know something about stereotyping. We all grew up fighting to be viewed as individuals with potential, despite the constant stream of messaging that suggested then and continues to suggest today that we’d never amount to much more than trailer park amateur chemists. I’m not trying to sugar coat the current state of my home region, which is largely white, more poor than ever, and increasingly drug-addled. But where there are pockets of devastated lives, there are also entire neighborhoods still blissfully in tact.

I write all of these things with a caveat: I haven’t lived in West Virginia since I was eighteen years old, though I try to go back and visit frequently. When I graduated high school, I ran to New England and then I ran from there to New York. I’ve been trying to remember what it was like back then when I left, during the Bush years. I remember thinking then, perhaps as many are thinking now, I need to leave this little town, this little region, this little state and go and find my people. It was the worst kind of choice a body has to make—to abandon the world you’ve known your whole life. It wasn’t that I thought as a gay man I couldn’t survive back there. I was tough enough to survive, but I had grown tired of surviving. I began to understand—even at the young age of 18—that survival wasn’t enough. I wanted to know what it felt like to thrive.

***

It’s the end of April. Friday, April 22nd: the day of my hometown reading. I’ve just wrapped up stops in Pittsburgh and three small West Virginia towns. I’m energized by the love I’ve received on the road, but I’m also dealing with an unexpected crisis. My father has been sick for years with kidney disease and all the subsequent things that come with a body slowly shutting down. There have been heart attacks—major and minor—and heart surgeries. The last surgery he had some three months ago didn’t take. He’s been in a rehab facility, and we’ve all been hoping for the best though we know the odds are slim. What happens is the strangest twist of fate I’ve experienced in my adult life. The doctors say they can do no more. They send my father home to hospice—to die—that Friday, the exact day of my hometown reading.

We haven’t spoken much in the past years, not since the threats he made about my wedding. He wasn’t anti-gay in the way that most people think. He was concerned about appearances. He wanted me to be happy (and said as much almost every time I saw him), but he also wanted me to keep my “lifestyle” private. He was concerned about the potential reactions from his siblings, his friends, and the townspeople if I were oh-so-publically married. Again, he subscribed to that small-town courtesy, that ruffle-no-feathers decorum. In his mind, it was a clear and simple compromise. By the time my partner and I settled on a wedding date, I was beyond one-sided compromises. When I explained exactly that to my father and my family, the result was nearly four years of silence—the price of each of us sticking to our principles.

So I’m reunited with my family in West Virginia during the launch of my debut book. It’s one of the highest highs of my life and then the coin flips. In an odd way, it’s a blessing that they send him home just then. I do my hometown reading, which goes surprisingly well in spite of the stress of my father’s return. I celebrate my reading, I have the homecoming I had hoped for, and then the next day I switch gears. I’m off to my childhood house to help my mother and sisters take care of my father as he’s preparing for death. The scenario is set for the necessary closure, and for that, I’m thankful. It’s a sad occasion, yes, but our family comes together. I don’t think we’ve all been in the same room in over four years.

I’m emotional, but I’m also calm—there’s work to do, drugs to administer. The doctors say my father has a week or two left. He receives a steady stream of visitors, many of whom I know but haven’t seen in years. We take the visitors into his room one by one. He’s barely conscious, and he grabs their hands until he falls asleep again. Then we all adjourn to the living room for nervous chatter, rest, and catching up. As we sit and talk, we watch his oxygen tube from the corner of our eyes, because he has a nasty habit of ripping it out during his sleep.

During one of those afternoons, an older man walks in that I’ve never met. He’s apparently an ancient friend of my father’s from back when my father ran his first bar. I’ve heard his name mentioned once or twice. My mother looks both comforted and astonished to see him.

He’s got the appearance of a good ‘ole boy, with a war cap on his head, a pair of loose jeans, and a t-shirt with stars and stripes. He has the kind of thick accent that causes even me, a native son, to pause in an attempt to decipher his words. In the bedroom, he grabs my father’s hand and just stands there for a moment. My father looks at the man and utters an unintelligible word or two (at this point, that’s all he can get out). The man squeezes my father’s hand and tells him that he loves him and something about how much their long friendship has meant to him. He cracks a nervous joke or two, and then he walks out of the room. I watch him tear up when he leaves. My whole house is on the verge of bawling, watching this old country boy cry. It’s an image that would still stir me, if it weren’t for what came next.

The man calms down. He’s sitting on our couch in the living room chatting with me and a neighbor. The neighbor mentions the election. The man says something quick and pointed. I can’t decipher it all, but what I catch is quite clear. He says, “Obama that n*****.” He says, “Hillary that crook, that bitch.” He repeats these phrases in different ways. Something about jobs. Something about corruption. He and my neighbor are righteously laughing, despite the presence of my father’s prone, dying body just one room away. I feel hot and sick. The man looks at me, maybe at my dropped jaw. He gives me that look that I had tried so hard to forget since I moved away. It comes back so quickly. The look says, “I dare you faggot. Say something.”

And so there I am, grieving over the impending death of my father, trying to make sense of what the end of a life means—what a life means, really. I’m trying to remain joyful about my little book of gay stories and keep the world in perspective. My family has come back together again and my stories have been well received and I really am believing that the world is tilting toward the light of day, toward justice. And then a racist, a homophobe, and a misogynist looks me in the eye while my father is dying in the other room and dares me to speak.

And the saddest part is that I can’t or I don’t. I say nothing. I stand up and walk away.

***

I have a dear friend in the city, M., who is from my hometown. She’s lived in New York for longer than I have, but I suspect a little part of her would like to return to being a small-town girl if it weren’t for her circumstances. See, she married a tattooed brown boy from the Bronx. They like to joke about the similarities between the people from poor, rural parts of Appalachia and the people from the poor, urban sections of the Bronx. They joke, of course, but they’re not always joking. There is something deeply familiar between our two groups of people, and when we get together, we tend to notice it. We’re all fiercely loyal to our friends and family. We work hard and strive, despite our humble beginnings. And we’ve been fighting for what we believe in since the day we were born. M. and her man were two peas in a pod from the day they met.

M. says she daydreams about moving back home with him. On one trip back, she took him to the local chapter of the American Legion where her father was once the president. I asked how it went. She was surprised by how the vets took to him. She said they gave him some strange looks at first, but then they warmed up to him. They were all best friends by the end of the night.

M. and I laugh together, imagining a world in which we both move back to our little town in West Virginia, her with her brown Bronx man and me with my gay, Jewish man. When we’re out at a bar, we ask each of them, would you ever do it?

They laugh nervously. And then they stop laughing. “No,” they both say.

M’s man says something about the way people look at him there, from the moment he crosses the state line.

***

I’ve been hibernating since the election, unsure of what to say or how to be. I’m scared for myself, of course, because the people Trump wants to put into positions of power, including his Vice President, Pence himself, have a horribly anti-gay record. And I fear for my friends who meet any of the criteria that makes one Trump’s enemy. It’s a long list: women, people of color, Muslims, and so on.

I also don’t know what to say exactly about my old home that I miss and love. My home county, which was once a reliably Democratic bastion, went for Trump by more than seventy percent. Given the way small towns work, I probably personally know half the people there who voted for Trump.

I know from living in Appalachia, from growing up in West Virginia, how important it is to fight stereotypes of our people. There are so many wonderful people who are doing original and amazing things, who are taking care of one another, and who are fighting for a future that is inclusive and economically and environmentally secure. The writers and readers I’ve met from my home state have welcomed me back with open arms. The teachers I had pushed me, a child of a housecleaner and a construction worker, into the Ivy League. I won’t soon forget the people I met on book tour, especially those old women who each bought two copies of my book. And even this week, there are signs of hope circulating on social media. In Huntington, West Virginia, the sidewalk outside the local mosque is decorated in chalk. The pastel words read, “You are welcome. You are loved.” We need to see these images.

I want to find it unfathomable that the people who voted for Trump could truly support the things he has said. And to be clear, this is a man who has said that he will force Muslims to sign a registry and that he hopes to round up and deport immigrants. He has bragged about sexually assaulting women. He has associated himself with white supremacists and is in the process of promoting these individuals to positions of power. I want to find it unfathomable that my friends back home could support such a figure, that they can and do support such hurtful ideologies.

But then I think of the mayor of Clay, West Virginia who just this week called Michelle Obama an “ape in heels.”

I think of that man in my living room, about the words he said as my father was dying in the next room.

“Obama that n*****.”

“Hillary that crook, that bitch.”

He was a friend of my family’s. I guess that makes him my friend.

I don’t want to believe that the people I grew up with, that were once my neighbors, could be capable of saying such things. I want to hope that if the people I knew heard such horrible words that they would call out the perpetrator. But then I remember how I felt when the racist looked me in the eye and dared me to speak. And then I remember how when I was growing up a phrase like that was more common that any of us would like to admit.

I don’t claim to understand fully why Trump got elected. I know that many of the people back home are suffering economically in ways that few of us “coastal elites” can understand. But I’m scared—yes scared—by what the election of a demagogue means for the future of our country. As I was writing this essay a friend asked me, if I went to West Virginia on book tour now, would I still read the gay stories?

I’d ask in return, do you know what it’s like to live with a badge of difference? Have you ever had a person size you up with their eyes, dare you to speak?

Yes, I’d still read the gay stories today. But I’m not sure about tomorrow.

***

This essay is part of our ongoing essays series focused on responding to the 2016 Presidential election.

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