EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is taken from the recently published book Bible Belt Queers, a collection of essays, poetry, and visual art by 70 LGBTQIA artists living in or from the Bible Belt about their relationship to the places they call home.
When I was a kid I used to walk out alone in the woods at night. When I started to get scared, I would breathe in the trees. At first their shadows would seem menacing, but I would connect with them and know that they were there to protect me, not to hurt me. When I did that, I knew that I would be safe. From the moment I learned to let the trees protect me, I felt like nothing in the woods would ever hurt me. For most of my childhood the woods became my safe place where I always felt happy and at peace.
My childhood on the mountain could almost be seen as idyllic. Our family never had lots of money, but we always had what we needed. The four of us ate a home-cooked dinner together every night and went for a walk in the woods afterwards, sometimes going down to the field by the creek for a family game of soccer. I had free run of our property, and although my parents didn’t know it I gave myself free run of the neighbors’ properties as well. I loved nothing more than being out in the woods, and by the time I was ten I knew every inch of forest within two miles. Our family was eccentric but tightly-knit, and Rooster Ridge became our own little universe.
My father and all of our family friends were musicians, and we spent a lot of time with other musicians and their families listening to them play. Their main genre was traditional Appalachian folk music, with plenty of other styles thrown in for good measure. My mom wasn’t a musician (although she is now), but she was a storyteller who often got booked to tell folktales while my dad played music. When he wasn’t playing music, my dad built instruments for a living – at least until money got too tight and he had to get a job at a nearby cabinet shop. As a kid I learned how to play a few instruments as well as some rudimentary woodworking skills, and I loved everything about all of it.
When I was nine years old, my father had cancer for the first time. He recovered, then was diagnosed and recovered again. When I was thirteen he was diagnosed a third time, and when I was 14, he died in the same hospital that I was born in. After Dad died, my mother moved my sister and me to a house in a nearby town. I was heartbroken. Dad and I had always shared a special kinship with our love of music, woodworking, and being outdoors. Not only had I lost my father who I loved dearly, I also lost our home on Rooster Ridge, the place that had defined my entire childhood and reminded me of him more than anything.
Not long after Dad died I started realizing that I was queer. I had always dressed like a boy and enjoyed “boy things,” and I even played in a boys’ soccer league and asked my parents repeatedly if I could join the Boy Scouts. I’d gotten made fun of surprisingly little through elementary school, but when I was still wearing boxer briefs in middle school the other kids started to notice that I was different and let me know that it was wrong. In high school I had been trying to dress as feminine as possible to avoid the name-calling and the stares, and I was determined to prove that I was normal and heterosexual like everyone else.
My parents were very accepting and even had gay friends, but I didn’t really know what queerness was until I was probably 11 or 12. It was never a topic that we discussed. When we watched “Rent” at family movie night, I finally discovered exactly what queerness was. It wasn’t just that I was a little strange – there was a whole new and exciting world out there of people who were deviant just like me. That new world excited me because it made me feel less lonesome, but it also scared me because it seemed like something that only existed in cities like New York. I didn’t want to admit it at the time, but I knew that I was part of it. I just didn’t want to be – especially when it felt so far away. So I tucked it in the back of my mind for a few years until I could no longer deny the feelings that I had.
I was lucky compared to most LGBTQ people where I grew up. My family was fairly progressive, and they had never taught me to be fearful or hateful. But we lived in a conservative, religious area, and I grew up hearing from friends, friends’ parents, religious figures, and local media about how bad queerness was. When I started coming out to myself, I kept telling myself that my deep sadness and denial wasn’t that I had an issue with queerness – it was just that I wanted it to be someone else’s problem. I had been bullied so many times for my masculine appearance that I wanted to be straight just to prove everyone wrong about me. But it was me, and eventually I learned to embrace it.
The summer before I left for college I came out of the closet after a year or two of trying to hide it. I had been out to my close friends for a few months, but I had been captain of the women’s soccer team, which was so religious that we (illegally) said a prayer before every game. I didn’t want the other girls to feel like I was looking at them in the locker room or try to take me to church and save my soul, which enough people had already tried to do without even knowing I was gay. I finally came out publicly a few minutes after my high school graduation by shaving my head right in front of the school. After that I just assumed that everyone in town knew and stopped acting as if it was any kind of secret.
Once I realized I was queer, I felt like I was in a place where I had no future. I was alone. It didn’t feel like there were any opportunities for dating, for love, or even just for not being the only person in the room who looked like me. I’d heard so much hate spewed towards LGBTQ people that I felt I couldn’t go anywhere without having to look over my shoulder or at best getting sideways glances.
Although I’ve always been attached to the woods, it felt like I’d already lost them when we moved into town. And once I cut my hair short and started dressing how I truly felt comfortable, I got nervous being in the woods by myself. A lot of people out there have guns, and I was worried someone was going to have an issue with me in the wrong place at the wrong time. When it came to choosing the community I already had and moving somewhere that I wasn’t always the odd one out, the choice was simple.
Moving to New York from rural Virginia was an experience like no other. At first all of the buildings and sounds and lights scared me. I got lost constantly. I resorted to my old strategy for learning a new patch of woods and went on long walks by myself, being sure to note landmarks and what direction I came from so I could find my way back. Once in a fit of malaise I just got on the train and I rode for hours, getting off to switch to a different train whenever it felt right. Eventually I learned my way around, and now I know the streets and subways better than many of my friends who grew up here. I’ve gotten used to the number of people, and also discovered that living in Brooklyn or Queens is much less stressful than Manhattan.
In this city I’ve always felt the need to explain myself and where I come from. People are shocked when they find out about our woodstove and lack of TV during my childhood, especially when I tell them that I was perfectly happy with the way things were. But often when I try to tell somebody about any of it, they just give me a blank look, like they’re trying to understand but have no frame of reference to create a picture. Sometimes I’ll make jokes about it just to get some type of reaction, but then when someone laughs at them I always feel a twinge of shame because they’re laughing at me rather than with me. That, too, makes me feel lonely, like I’m from somewhere so foreign that it’s impossible to even comprehend except as the butt of a joke.
After my first year in New York, I started to notice that when I went back home to visit it was getting harder to talk to people. Thick accents became a challenge for me. People didn’t know much about New York past perhaps a family vacation to Times Square, and between being gay and living in the big city they just couldn’t picture what my life must look like. Over the years, conversations about my life have waned and we stick to topics that everyone knows like small town drama, music, what everyone I went to school with is up to now. The longer I stay up in the city, the wider that gap gets, and the worse it makes me feel.
Many people in New York assume that I’m from a place so backwards that I must have no choice but to hate it. It’s true that I had many negative experiences as an LGBTQ person there. But to be honest, I’ve also had lots of good experiences as an LGBTQ person there, and I’ve had plenty of bad ones in New York. I moved here so young and so shortly after coming out of the closet that it’s sometimes difficult to sort out what’s real and what’s not, because I simply don’t have much comparison. There are definitely better laws in New York, but that doesn’t always equal better treatment. Sometimes I wonder if it’s really any worse back home than it is here, or if I’ve just been following a narrative I’ve been fed my whole life about how backwards rural areas are and how progressive and perfect cities are.
The duality between the big-city and the country versions of myself has led to an internal battle that’s been raging for years. It feels like I can’t be as safe, protected, and surrounded by beautiful queers if I’m living in Appalachia, but if I’m in New York, I’m missing the mountains and culture and all of the things that bring me back home. I’ve missed so many gatherings now that when I do show up people don’t even recognize me. I’ve been unsuccessfully trying to find balance and wondering if there really is a way to be the proud queer nonbinary person that I am while still playing Appalachian Mountain dulcimer in an old time jam. I’m not sure yet what the answer is, but I do know that New York isn’t the place where I’ll find out.
One of my first thoughts after the 2016 election was that I needed to move back to the mountains. I think that I can do some good there, probably more good than I can do here. There are strong pockets of resistance that are growing in Appalachia, and I think the place I will be most useful is building those pockets. It’s much different to build resistance in the place that you’re from than the place where you’re a transplant, and it feels like it would be much more natural for me to do it at home.
Organizations like Queer Appalachia and the Stay Together Appalachian Youth (STAY) project, as well as online communities like Weird Appalachia, make me feel like maybe I wouldn’t be so alone back there after all. Now I see conventions and gatherings posted online that I would love to attend if I was closer. Even seeing all of the queers from the rural South posting on personal s looking for love and friendship make me feel like I might be able to date and lead a life full of love there. They demonstrate that it’s possible to be queer and Appalachian and maybe even happy and full of resistance. I think that I may not have seen it as a teenager, but there are other people who have felt the same way that I have and decided to stay and fight instead of running away.
When I came here, I thought that New York would always be my home. I was ready to leave everything behind me and start a new life for myself. I wanted to burn my whole life down and start something new. I’d been hanging on by a thread for a long time, and I saw escape as my only option.
But now, after six years here, I am discovering that there are a multitude of other options. My roots run much deeper than I ever thought they did. This city still doesn’t feel like home, and I don’t think that it ever will.
I’m ready to go back to the mountains and see what kind of life I can build there. I want a life where I can be as queer as I want to be and have love and fight for justice while drinking moonshine and playing old time on a Saturday night. I want to collect all the scattered pieces of me and try to fit them into one place, into one time. I’d like to believe that we live in a world where this is possible, and I am going to find out if I’m right.
Lucy Parks is from Rockingham County, Virginia. They recently left New York after nearly seven years to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, and they haven’t looked back since. Lucy loves writing, trees, and fighting to make the world a better place.