Where we find ourselves

Rural LGBTQ+ Americans in the legislative crosshairs

Published May 12, 2024 5:45AM (EDT)

Holding a transgender flag (Getty Images/Vladimir Vladimirov)
Holding a transgender flag (Getty Images/Vladimir Vladimirov)

In 2024, the number of anti-LGBTQIA+ bills put forward in the United States has far surpassed the number put forward in any previous year; five hundred and fifty pieces of legislation were proposed in less than three months. The laws range from drag bans to bathroom bills to healthcare restrictions. One hundred and thirty-seven of the bills are focused on denying or curtailing access to gender-affirming healthcare and my home state of West Virginia is carrying a disproportionately hefty load. Twenty-nine of these are West Virginia House and Senate bills. 

It is not only the quantity of current legislation that is making me reflect at this moment, but also the fact that less than two weeks from now, I will be publishing a novel, "Shae," with a central character who is a young trans woman living in a slightly fictionalized version of my hometown. When I began writing "Shae" in 2017, I had no idea that by the time it was published, the gender-affirming healthcare that one of the main characters receives would be out of reach for real-life West Virginian youths. I now find myself looking around and asking how we got here and what we can do to fight back.

When I say “we” I mean everyone in the LGBTQIA+ community and our allies but I also mean it in a more specific way. I mean “we” as in LGBTQIA+ folks living in rural spaces. In 2015 I moved back to my hometown of Alderson, West Virginia. When I left in 2003, I was still in the closet. When I returned, I was not. I spent my first year back in West Virginia exploring how my little corner of Appalachia had changed for LGBTQIA+ youth. In 2019, I wrote an essay for “Oxford American” about Kris Arbuckle, a young trans man who had very recently graduated from the same high school I attended. All around me, I saw good reason for hope and optimism. 

There was a queer film festival in the county seat, an LGBTQIA+ club at the high school, Arbuckle was living openly in my hometown, he had taken his girlfriend to prom and was supported by his teachers. And then there was the passage of a local ordinance that affirmed the rights of individuals to use the bathroom that best fit their own identity. Things all seemed to be moving in the right direction, perhaps a bit slowly, but they were moving, nonetheless. Nine years later, I called Arbuckle just as the West Virginia Senate began committee work on some of the most sweeping anti-trans bills to date and the House of Delegates in Tennessee, where Arbuckle now lives, introduced the Youth Health Protection Act which would criminalize all gender-affirming healthcare. 

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When I get Arbuckle on the phone, he is giving his stepdaughter a bath and I can hear her chirpy voice in the background over the running water. He and his fiancée both work for a plumbing company, Kris is the office manager, and his fiancée works in the field. He says his life is good right now, but he misses West Virginia and sometimes doesn’t feel safe in Knoxville. 

“We've gotten some comments,” he says, referring to himself and his fiancée. “We've gotten, you know, some stares, but we've also gotten a lot of support. Like this lady, after someone was kind of rude to us and, you know, she walked up and she was like, I really commend you all doing what you do and having the cool and the calm to deal with it instead of blowing up.” Arbuckle is always ready to bend toward optimism, but I can hear the worry in his voice. “In general, though, I feel less safe here than I did back home. I mean, there's so many more people in the queer community here but it seems like I was safer in a small rural town than I ever would be in a college town or city for that matter, which is insane to think. The thing of it is though, the more people there are the easier it is for the hateful people to say whatever they want to say and then hide. And I think that's the difference in a small town, people tend to be more honest and direct. Here, people take whatever they see on TV, or the internet, or whatever and then they see somebody out in a restaurant or bar and then they say hateful things without even thinking twice about it because they don’t even think you are human, and they’ll never see you again, so they don’t have to deal with the consequences. But in small towns, you're not just a faceless nonperson, people know your family going way back. When someone knows you, it solidifies more that you're a human. And that sounds ridiculous, right, but it’s basic.” 

"When I began writing 'Shae' in 2017, I had no idea that by the time it was published, the gender-affirming healthcare that one of the main characters receives would be out of reach for real-life West Virginian youths."

I ask Arbuckle about his thoughts on how things have shifted culturally and legislatively since we last spoke and he agrees that things seemed much more optimistic back in 2015. “There was so much hope,” he says, but now, “people in the company I work for get worried for me. But I don't think these new laws even have anything to do with the community in question anymore. Like, I think we're just being used as a distraction for something more and that's the unfortunate part that people are getting attacked for the government to distract, to do something shady behind whatever smokescreen they wanna use. And as I've gotten older the more it just seems like a ploy and it goes through these cycles every few years and you pick a marginalized group to pick on and they just exploit people's fears and biases to create a smoke screen. They act like these bills are to protect children, but they don’t care about children they just know that will get people riled up.”

Kris is not the first person to notice that the focus on children really motivates constituents on the far right. In June of 2023, Michael Barbaro interviewed Adam Nagourney about how trans kids became a rallying cry for the G.O.P. and Nagourney traced the kid-focused rhetoric back to Anita Bryant and Save Our Children. “This is nothing new,” Nagourney said. “The idea of conservatives who oppose gay rights, speaking generally, framing the issue around children has been going on at least since the 1970s.” And Barbaro responded, “You’re saying this approach by conservatives of focusing on kids worked early on in fighting gay rights. So it stands to reason that it would work against trans rights.”

Nagourney also links the new onslaught of anti-trans legislation to the (relatively) new visibility of trans folks in America and the political shift after the legalization of gay marriage, “you start seeing these same organizations that had been lobbying for gay marriage turn their attention to laws that would protect trans people […] And at the same time, we’re seeing more changes culturally in society in terms of transgender visibility.” 

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Caitlyn Jenner’s “Vanity Fair” cover shot was released on June 1, 2015. On June 26th, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all state bans on same-sex marriage and legalized it in all fifty states. Activists on the left were not the only ones linking trans rights and the Court’s decision. The Right was ready to pivot as well. 

To anyone with knowledge of LGBTQIA+ communities, Jenner’s photoshoot was not a shock. Queer and trans folks have, of course, lived in the United States for hundreds of years, even in rural places. In southern West Virginia, there is documentation of trans men living in Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties as early as 1868. It is the publicity that is new. As Helen Lewis Lindsley said, “Of course, sex has been all things in all periods…But on the whole, the farm enjoyed sex more, respected it more, and discussed it less…Sex was like groceries…most of the people stored their supplies at home.” But the ‘keep it at home’ attitude manifests in isolation. Even if mainstream publicity, like Jenner’s photoshoot, has at least partially led to this new legislation, Lindsley’s “discuss it less” attitude is certainly not the solution. 

Sometimes I wish I had more of Kris’s natural optimism. “It might be two steps forward and three steps back but, hey, when you look at it overall for a long enough time, it’s progress,” he says. And he’s not wrong. But I also can’t help but think about historical periods like Weimar Germany and how progress for queer communities can revert so drastically. Maybe Kris’s observations about small towns are what we should be focused on, how we can make a real impact in a place where people know us. Maybe we need to focus more on local elections, local network building, and affirmation through art and documentation. We — queer and trans rural Americans — are here and we have been here, and we will always be here.

By Mesha Maren

Mesha Maren is the author of the novels "Sugar Run", "Perpetual West", and "Shae" (May 2024, Algonquin Books).

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