After Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear announced Silas House as the new poet laureate of Kentucky, there has been a significant backlash against his appointment from Republicans who claim that House “hates” Kentucky.
The Republican Governors Association called him a “radical” who thinks most Kentuckians are “bigots.” Meanwhile, a gay Republican activist wrote in the Louisville Courier-Journal that he has “no respect for Mr. House, nor should Republican Kentuckians,” arguing that it was Mr. House (as opposed to his own party, which recently passed a slate of anti-LGBTQ laws) which is standing in the way of LGBTQ rights. That’s because House once dared to tell Trump voters to “kiss [his] gay country ass” in a tweet.
I can understand Silas House’s sentiment. Sometimes, to paraphrase my friend and fellow Appalachian Neema Avashia, it is very hard to love a place that does not always love you back. Just like me, Silas House is from Leslie County, Kentucky. He loves his home state, but his home state does not always love him back.
On the one hand, Kentucky truly is the “land of milk and honey” early white settlers described: Verdant forests atop rugged mountains giving way to rolling hills of the richest soil that in turn become the most beautiful wetlands as the muddy waters of the Ohio meander ever closer to the Mississippi. There is hardly an inch of that commonwealth, a name which doubles as a promise, I haven’t tread upon.
Kentucky’s hollows raised me. Its rivers saved me. Its backroads take me home, for better or for worse.
For there is another side to Kentucky. As the only openly gay student in my high school at the dawn of the 21st century, I suffered what I have often described as “a daily crucible of homophobia.” Slurs were hurled, threats were made, and hellfire was preached – all before the morning bell had tolled.
You might be tempted to tell someone to kiss your gay country ass, too. Indeed, if that is the worst thing you say to them, no less than Job would be impressed.
As you drive into Leslie County, you see signs bragging about the accomplished individuals who have called that hidden corner of southeastern Kentucky home: Tim Couch, who played in the NFL; the Osborne Brothers, legendary bluegrass performers; a Miss Basketball from the last century; and, of course, Mary Breckinridge, who revolutionized nurse-midwifery. I often joke that they will never put up a sign claiming me as one of their own. It’s just that – a joke – but it is tinged with a painful truth: no matter how much I accomplish, Leslie County will never claim me.
I know this because they do not claim Silas House. There is no sign proudly proclaiming the county as home of the acclaimed award-winning novelist, even though he has based at least one of his books in a fictionalized version of the county. House is one of the most accomplished sons of Leslie County, but because he does not fit the narrow definition of acceptability, he goes unacknowledged. His name is verboten. Other names, though, are immortalized on a green highway sign.
Perhaps this will change now that he is the commonwealth’s poet laureate. I hope so. House reminds me of the best of Kentucky, of all the reasons why despite the pain it has caused me, I long to move back. He reminds me of Johnny Cummings, who as the first openly gay mayor of Vicco, Kentucky, ushered through a fairness ordinance to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. He reminds me of Georgia Davis Powers, who defied racism and misogyny to become the first Black woman in the state senate. He reminds me of Loretta Lynn, who clawed her way from poverty to the top of the music charts. He reminds me of all of the countless kindhearted and decent people I have met in every corner of the commonwealth who do believe that I belong, who understand that “y’all” means all, and who work every single day to make sure the rest of the commonwealth understands that too.
In that way, even if he once or twice lashed out in righteous anger at the injustice or bigotry our beloved home sometimes allows to overtake the better angels of our nature, House serves as a reminder that Kentucky is still home to a great many good and decent people.
In a year that saw the state legislature attack the LGBTQ community more frequently and aggressively than at any time since the 2004 amendment to ban equal marriage, he reminds me that there is a place for me back home. My relationship with Kentucky may be tortured, but it is one I cherish and want to repair and nurture.
Whether 2023 or 2004, I think many people feel they’re doing the right thing by backing these laws. They don’t stop to consider the folks they may hurt – folks like me – because they don’t know us, or can’t see us, or won’t listen to us. When House calls Trump voters bigots, I get where he is coming from: We still love our Trump voting neighbors, but their votes cause us deep and abiding pain, a pain they do not seem to recognize or comprehend. A pain that lingers, even decades later.
House can change that. He can open hearts and minds throughout the commonwealth. He can remind Kentuckians that LGBTQ people make invaluable contributions to the commonwealth, just as we always have. He can serve as a visible, wholesome, positive role model for LGBTQ youth who desperately need to know not only that there are other kids like them in Kentucky, but that they don’t have to leave to live fulfilling and flourishing lives.
I did not have that growing up, and as a result, I fled the commonwealth after college. Now, after all these years, I am longing to return. Kentucky, however, will need to show me I am welcome back – if not with open arms, at least with open hearts. The appointment of an openly gay poet laureate is a step in that direction. Silas House makes me believe that I can go home again.
Skylar Baker-Jordan is a graduate student in Appalachian studies and lives in Tennessee.