Category Archives: West Virginia

A Requiem for Appalachia

How 2016 permanently damaged my relationship to my home, my family, and my roots.


It was the day after the election in 2016, and I was talking to my Mom. “I’m sorry that your candidate lost,” she said, “and I know how sad you must be. But I want you to know that no matter what that we’re still family.”

Coming from my staunchly Republican mother, this was an olive branch, and in better circumstances I might have been more willing to receive it in the spirit with which it was no doubt intended. However, I was (I’m sure) very surly about it. Still, it was a small island of security in a world that suddenly seemed as dangerous as it had when I heard of the murder of Matthew Shepard almost twenty years earlier.

In the days following, however, I continued to stew about this exchange. I harbored suspicions that my parents voted for Trump, but it was one of those cases where I just didn’t want to know. They’d expressed enough skepticism about him that I held onto a faint sliver of hope that they might have voted for Gary Johnson. Needless to say, such hopes were vain (though this wouldn’t be confirmed for some time), but at that point it was easier to pretend that they hadn’t voted for a man so loathsome and so antithetical to the values that I held dear.

Finally, a few days later I told my mom how I really felt. I confessed that, for the first time since I heard about the murder of Matthew Shepard, I was afraid of living in my own country. I don’t normally cry in front of people (though I sob at commercials and movies and books when I’m by myself), but I lost it then. I just…couldn’t hold it back anymore. She seemed to understand exactly where I was coming from, and she even offered to wear rainbow bracelets as a sign that she still very much loved and supported me, her gay son.

At the time, and to some degree in the present, I thought that was a great step forward. I have to admit, though, that some part of me thought (and thinks): well, that sort of gesture means a lot, but it’s not enough.

And it never will be.


I’ve long struggled with this aspect of my relationship with my parents. I’ve been staunchly liberal since before I went to college, and after I came out I became even more so. I was the kind of screaming, hair-on-fire liberal that many people mock, and many, many conversations with my parents (particularly my mom) ended with us screaming at one another. Sometimes, it seems that we’re just too temperamentally similar to ever really be able to discuss stuff like this.

At least, not if we want to continue speaking to one another afterward.

Things were pretty ugly in 2004, when Bush and his “God, guns, and gays” campaign swept him through his re-election. I knew that my parents voted for Bush both times, but the second time really hurt. It hurt to know that my parents, with whom I am very close — I’m an only child, after all — could vote for someone who would take specific actions that would hurt me and the people that I care about. No matter how hard I tried, I simply couldn’t get them to understand how their electoral politics threatened my day-to-day life. It’s not that I ever doubted they loved me; it was just…they didn’t understand how their political choices contradicted their personal feelings for me.

To be quite honest, I’m not entirely sure that I ever got over that completely, and 2016 just brought all of those old emotions and all of that unresolved bitterness out into open again.

Well, sort of in the open anyway.

Unfortunately, it’s very difficult for me to have the types of conversations with my parents that I need to have. I tend to get very emotional about politics — that tends to happen when legislative agendas affect your life on a regular basis — and I don’t always approach differences of ideology with as much tact and patience as I should. This tendency is exacerbated by the fact that I’m a first-gen college student, and this has created something of an intellectual divide between my parents and me. They think I look down on them because they don’t have college degrees, and I find it frustrating that they don’t seem able (or willing) to speak the same language that I do.

The other important thing to remember is that it’s very hard for me not to come across as contemptuous of people with whom I vehemently disagree. I recognize this about myself and do what I can to combat that tendency, but it is increasingly difficult to have meaningful conversations with people who know so little, not because they aren’t intelligent, but because their information diet is so unhealthy. Unfortunately, this makes most such exchanges with my mother extremely emotional.

Recently, I had another of those very emotional conversations, and it went about as well as could be expected. But then, maybe that’s not fair. While there are still a lot of unresolved issues from 2016 (and heading into 2020), we at least agreed to begin opening the channels of communication, not necessarily in an effort to change our vote, but to at least help us understand one another better.

It’s not ideal, but it’s a start.


In the years since 2016 I’ve struggled with a profound sense of alienation. Every time I go back to West Virginia, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m entering a foreign country, one where I’m viewed with suspicion and even outright dislike. I am, after all, all of the things people in working-class areas have been taught to hate: college-educated, queer, in an interracial relationship. Is it any wonder that I feel like a stranger in my own home sometimes?

Indeed, it seems like every time I go home I’m confronted with the blistering reality of just how far people in my state are willing to go in their retreat into ignorance.

These incidents are wide-ranging, but they happen with alarming regularity: the guy at my father’s work who told him that Michelle Obama’s book Becoming was underselling (categorically false by any measure); my friend’s coworkers who claimed that Jordan Peele’s Get Out was racist (the skewed perspective that enables such a belief is staggering); and the revelation that one of the two news stations that my parents and friends frequently watch is owned by Sinclair Media. 

For someone who once harbored dreams of returning to Appalachia to teach after finishing my graduate work, this is tremendously frustrating. How can I ever hope to find a place for myself there, when seemingly everyone bends over backward to drown themselves in ignorance?

It’s hard to accurately put into words the pain I feel each and every time I go home. I can’t shake the sense that most of the people there would be quite content if I didn’t exist. And, while I still feel a peculiar lightness in my chest when I behold the breathtaking beauty of those hills and hollers, those rivers and streams, I can’t shake my awareness of the hatred and intolerance that all too frequently take root there.

And it’s more than just the atmosphere. West Virginia is currently in the throes of the natural gas boom, and it’s like a knife to the heart to see the ways in which the gas companies are destroying my beloved hills and clogging those rural country roads. I kid you not, I see about a hundred trucks a day pass by my parents’ house, a constant reminder of the perils of this industry.

Yes, I realize that these companies frequently bring jobs to the area, but I have to wonder: at what cost?

Some things, it seems to me, are beyond price.


About a year ago, I read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. At first I liked what I was reading, if for no other reason than that it’s still very rare to find a book written by a person from Appalachia that gains nationwide attention. However, I soon realized that the book, while ostensibly a memoir (and hailed by many in the punditry as a sort of Rosetta Stone of how to understand Trump’s America) was actually just a conservative manifesto dressed up as a memoir.

Like Vance, I have a conflicted relationship with my Appalachian roots but, unlike him, I don’t embrace a firmly conservative perspective about what to do about it. In fact, I actively reject it. It is the cynical conservative movement that makes it possible for the West Virginia state government to continue to sell out to fossil fuel companies while defunding education. It’s the cynical conservative members of the state legislature (to say nothing of the governor) who continue to sell their constituents hatred of all kinds while defunding their future and that of their children.

Yet I do agree with Vance in one key respect. 2016 made me confront, for the first time, a truly uncomfortable truth about my fellow Appalachian residents: that their independence can be their own undoing. Thus, while their independent, stubborn streak has frequently been a source of strength in dark times, recently it has taken a distinctly ugly turn. It has slowly become a canker, eating away at the soul of Appalachia. What was once a place that welcomed the stranger had now become a wasteland of hatred, where delegates can joke on television about drowning their hypothetical queer children and Islamophobia is peddled at the state house.

Is it any wonder I hate going home sometimes?


What’s the takeaway from all of this? I’m honestly not sure. NPR has recently done a series of snapshots of situations similar to mine, and while it was validating to see others struggling to find common ground with families and friends who have become strangers, in other ways I find that even more depressing. What it reveals is that the fundamental ties of what bring us together as a country have broken down even further during Trump’s time in office.

There’s no question that the fraying of the social fabric is a real and present danger in this country, and Appalachia is one of those places (I think) where that fraying is most visible. The thing is, though, that people there have to make the conscious choice to do the right thing, to take the higher road, to become a place of welcome rather than retrenchment and resentment. And, while I know there are people there who do exactly that–you’d be surprised just how many queer people there are in West Virginia–sometimes I worry that they are too few to stem the tide.

For me, the aftermath of 2016 has made it impossible — for the foreseeable future — to move back to state that I once called home. I know that might seem silly and naive to a lot of people, but I just don’t have the energy to move back to the state that continues to be one of the bastions of support for Trump. How can I ever hope to feel at home there, when it is so clear that so many of the people I once thought to help have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they don’t want it and are in fact likely to become even angrier should I be foolish enough to offer it?

I don’t know what the future holds, either for myself or for the region I called home, but there are times when I have hope that somehow there will come a time when it will be possible for me to return there without that feeling of loss, despair, and anger. Perhaps in ten years, or twenty, when the Trump fever has broken and things have been returned to a state of quasi-normalcy in the country at large.

Still, I worry that something has been irrevocably lost, something irretrievably broken in these dark times.

I mourn for a world that I’ve lost.

But then, perhaps it wasn’t ever really there.

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Weekly Rant: West Virginia, We Need to Talk

You know, for a while there I’m sure (as The Onion put it) that West Virginia was feeling pretty smug watching the slow-moving disaster in Virginia.

Well, never let anyone think that we can’t hold our own when it comes to looking like huge dumbasses on the national stage.

Cue Eric Porterfield, West Virginia Delegate. His behaviour over the past week has shone a spotlight on why it is that West Virginia struggles to keep its brilliant young people, attract investment, and in general remains a laughingstock to the rest of the country.

In a series of remarks, Porterfield has referred to the LGBT+ Rights Movement as equivalent to the KKK, argued that queer people are a public menace, and suggested that he would drown his children if he happened to find out that they were gay. All with no sense that anything he was saying or doing was harmful, bigoted, and cruel (unsurprisingly, he wore a red MAGA hat during a television interview). When pushed about his implication of drowning his children, he said he was just baiting the libs. Because yes, joking about drowning your gay children is sooo funny. What a great way to show the world how much you lack human compassion!

To me, though, the most upsetting thing about this whole debacle is that it is so unsurprising. When I was a member of the Young Democrats in the aftermath of 2004, I distinctly remember a speaker informing us that Kerry lost the election because of “God, Guns, and Gays.” As a young gay man and proud Democrat, it was one of the most insulting and dispiriting things I had ever heard, and I still feel that betrayal almost a decade and a half later.

Things have only gotten worse since then for queers in West Virginia and, despite the passage of protections at the local level (for which several cities deserve great respect and applause), the climate there is not friendly. Though I once thought about returning to my home after I finished my Ph.D., at this point I don’t think that you could pay me enough to go back there. I much prefer to live in queer-affirming states like NY and MD, thank you very much.

Nor am I the only one. In fact, there’s quite an expat community of queer folk from WV who have left the state, taking their talents with them. After all, who wants to stay in a state that seems so dead-set on alienating every minority group that it can?

West Virginians, I urge you to wake up and smell the coffee. I know that you’ve convinced yourself (or allowed yourself to be convinced) that your ignorance and bigotry are some sort of principled stand in the culture war, but you are literally hurting your loved ones. Every time that you allow a man like Porterfield to keep his seat after these kinds of hateful comments, you send a message to your queer family and friends that your own right to feel insulated from political and cultural change is more important than their literal right to feel safe in their own state.

If nothing else, you should realize that the problems you face–the flight of young people, the dearth of decent job opportunities, and on and on–are only going to get worse when people like Porterfield are the face that you present to the nation at large. No one wants to relocate to a state known for its bigotry, and that most definitely includes young people. How long do you think you can continue on this path?

West Virginia, I know you’re better than this, I really do. I know that there’s love and compassion and earthy wisdom in those hollers and mountains, but for the love of all that’s holy, you’ve got to start showing it and standing up for it. Looking like a bunch of ignorant rednecks isn’t a political statement: it’s a one-way ticket to desolation.

Despite everything, I still think that there is a lot of good in you, but you’re going to have to work really hard to show this to the world. I know you can do it, though.

I have faith in you.

A Love/Hate Letter to West Virginia

Dear West Virginia:

My decision to write this letter was inspired my several things:  by being home visiting Family, the recent decision of the Presbyterian Church to recognize same-sex marriages in states where they are allowed, the great advances made in gay rights across the country, and by my state’s recent birthday.  It caused me to think long and hard about my vexed relationship to my home state, what I love about it and its people, and what I absolutely hate.

There’s no denying that there are lots of things about you, West Virginia, to love.  From delicious pepperoni rolls to people who are often quite warm and welcoming, you have a culture all its own.  You are home to a people who have, for centuries, been exploited by natural resource industries, from lumber to coal to (most recently) natural gas, and the rest of the country has routinely looked down on them, mocking them in popular culture and rendering them the butt of crude jokes.  Yet for all of that, they still greet strangers with genuine warmth, and I love that about you.  There is nothing quite like the heartfelt hospitality of a West Virginia home.  They might not have much, but they are more than willing to share that, even with strangers.

And when it comes to natural beauty, no one (and I mean no one) can beat West Virginia.  Your sprawling mountains, your wooded hillsides that come alive with color in the autumn, your waterfalls, your vibrant wildlife…I simply cannot say enough about how beautiful you are.  And it terrifies me how endangered and fragile that beauty is, as both the coal and the gas industries seem absolutely determined to do everything in their power to spoil and ruin that beauty, and the worst part about it is that they convince your people that the violation of your natural beauty is in their own best interests.

You see, that geography and that history has left some nasty scars, and they are not so easily shaken off.  West Virginia, let’s face it, you need to catch up to the 21st Century.  Your stubborn opposition to any social or cultural movements is staggeringly myopic, and it is costing you your lifeblood.  Year after year, I hear about how anxious you are about all of the young, college-educated people leaving the state.  Do you want to know why these people are leaving?  They are leaving because, increasingly, the people of West Virginia are doing everything they can to fit into those awful stereotypes.  Willful ignorance and retrenchment does not help your cause.  I hate it that I have to constantly explain why it is that the people of my state aren’t rising up in rebellion against the companies that are so blatantly exploiting them.  I hate it that my state still lags behind on the acceptance of various minorities, and that it will probably take nothing short of a SCOTUS ruling striking down bans on same-sex marriage to make you accept same-sex relationships.  But even that will not be enough; you have to change the way you think about people who are different than your expected “norm.”  I hate it that you remain a cultural and social backwater, when you have so much potential to be so much more.

What it comes down to, ultimately, is this.  I understand, West Virginia, that you have a heritage that you want to respect, and I am, to an extent, proud of that heritage.  However, you also have to realize that there is so much that goes into that heritage, not just white, Christian, heterosexual people.  And, just as importantly, you are going to have to start making room in your state for diversity in all of its forms.  If you don’t, you take the risk of alienating yourself from a future that should, in my opinion, include you.  You have a great deal to offer the rest of the country, but they will find it very difficult to take you seriously and welcome you into the vibrant and diverse place this country can be.  That doesn’t mean you have to abandon everything that makes you, you, but you need to find a way to reconcile your past and your future.

Hopefully, you can do that, and make me unequivocally proud to be a West Virginian.

Love/Hate,

T.J.