For the last week in May, I drove from my home in the mountains of Appalachia to my former home on the shores of Lake Michigan – Chicago. Six hundred miles and a world away from my small Southern town. I was reminded of why I loved living in one of the truly great world cities and how much freedom that allows.
This was a fact I was reminded of as I walked the streets of Boystown, Chicago’s gay village, passed the Legacy Walk celebrating LGBTQ history, and the bars and clubs teeming with acceptance and affirmation. I spent hours (not to mention more than a hundred dollars) at one of the few LGBTQ bookstores left in the country. The local Starbucks had a gay pride flag flying.
You won’t see that in Caryville, Tennessee – where I now live. Instead, as I crossed the Ohio River from Illinois to Kentucky, I was greeted by a humongous Confederate battle flag, as though the South was determined to remind me that I was leaving my country and entering another, one that – despite my being from it, and my family being from it – I am not always welcome and do not always belong.
Two things happened in Chicago to drive home that point. First, I met up with an acquaintance of mine who was visiting Chicago from London. A Black British man, he has traveled extensively throughout the United States but admitted to always sticking to urban centers. “Looking like this,” he said, gesturing to his dreadlocks and dark skin, “I would not be safe in a place like Kentucky.”
I wanted to scream to him that he was silly. That of course he would be safe. But I couldn’t. A Black gay man with dreadlocks and a foreign accent in Leslie County, Kentucky – where I’m from – would, at least, elicit some gawking. I could not, in good faith, tell him that he would be entirely welcome. After all, I’m a white man from there and I don’t even feel wholly welcome when I return.
This bears out in the data. Rural Americans are more skeptical of structural racism and more likely to believe the system is fair with regards to race. They are more likely to have a negative view of immigrants. Feeling that LGBTQ people are an urban phenomenon, they often view us as a threat to their very identity. Rural youth report higher incidences of homophobia than their urban counterparts.
Yet this does not capture the full picture of rural America, either. I was traveling with my friend’s 14-year-old child, a nonbinary transmasculine teen whose family last year moved them from Chicago to rural Kentucky. Their relatives in the city – whom I count among my best friends, and with whom we stayed – were understandably nervous about sending their LGBTQ loved one, especially one so young, to the Jackson Purchase.
The child seems to be thriving, though. They insist they love their town and their friends. There’s the teenage angst and ennui I’d expect from any 14-year-old, but overall, I found a happy and well-adjusted youth simply trying to be a teenager.
That it is easier now than it was 20 years ago makes me happy. Still, there is more we can do. Back in 2012, tiny Vicco, Kentucky – population 393 in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky – passed a fairness ordinance that banned discrimination against LGBT people. “We want everyone to be treated fair and just,” retired coal miner and Vicco city commissioner Claude Branson, Jr. told the New York Times the following year.
Sadly, however, very few rural communities have adopted fairness ordinances. In my home state of Kentucky, only 31% of the state’s population is protected from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In North Dakota, South Carolina, and Utah that number is 0%. Arkansas and Tennessee each have state laws banning local communities from passing local fairness ordinances.
Enacting fairness ordinances like the one Vicco enacted are part of that tradition and signal to the world that our communities are welcoming, inclusive, and fair. That Vicco was profiled in the New York Times shows just how far such a simple act can go to challenge the prevailing narrative of rural communities as backwards, closed-minded, and intolerant.
Likewise, I applaud the CMA Fest for banning Confederate iconography in an understanding that it is alienating to many people, especially people of color for whom the Confederate battle flag represents the subjugation and enslavement of their ancestors. If country music is the soundtrack of rural America, as is often claimed, one of the genre’s biggest festivals acknowledging the pain these symbols cause goes a long way of helping rural communities seem more accepting and open.
After all, that Confederate flag inspires very different feelings in a Black person from London, England, than it does a white person from London, Kentucky. Rural communities have to ask if clinging to that flag, or to other divisive symbols – giant crosses on the interstate, MAGA flags, open carry of firearms – is worth the pain it causes not only those who might visit, but those who live here. To many of us, these are innocuous cultural symbols we may not even think about. To anyone who isn’t Christian, or doesn’t support Trump, or is afraid of guns because they didn’t grow up around them or were traumatized by them, these are threating symbols meant to indicate they are unwelcome.
Walking through Chicago, I felt a weight off my shoulders that I had not felt since I moved back South in 2018. I didn’t worry about pulling out my women’s pocketbook, or about wearing makeup or feminine clothing – something I do in Tennessee, but always with one eye over my shoulder, just in case. I don’t regret moving back to rural Appalachia. But I realized what I gave up when I did.
I’m not asking every small town in America to turn into Boystown. Rural America does not need to radically change to be more inclusive. It simply needs to try. A few small actions could go a long way to reassuring folks that when we say y’all, we truly do mean all.
Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Independent, Newsweek, Business Insider, and elsewhere. He is contributing editor for community engagement at 100 Days in Appalachia and currently lives in East Tennessee.