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.

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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.