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Activism / Identity / LGBTQIA+

Appalachian Stockholm Syndrome: Love & Queerness & Radical Rural Community

"How can you let your friends call you a fagg*t?"

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Written by Ash Mullis.
Art by chrisrittr .

Killing my queer self was killing my physical body. I’m not using metaphor by saying that I began hacking up, twisting out, and shedding years worth of internalized bullshit when I let myself feel the deep, all-consuming pain that it is to release a version of myself that tried her best, but wasn’t meant to live as a ‘woman.’ I love that girl so much. 

It’s so easy for queer folks, whatever that word may mean for you, to get wrapped up in feeling guilty about how their own journey to self-actualization has hurt others, especially those we love. When you interpret aspiration towards aspects of someone else’s identity as love, you reach a point where it’s too exhausting to maintain the facade.

It’s so easy for queer folks, whatever that word may mean for you, to get wrapped up in feeling guilty about how their own journey to self-actualization has hurt others, especially those we love.

Or you misinterpret feelings of love as feelings of friendship and end up kicking yourself years later for ruining your chances with someone that you really did love. 

Or you find someone just as beautifully damaged as you are, but the timing isn’t right. You can’t force someone to realize something about themselves, especially if you aren’t sure of anything yourself, hence, a vicious cycle of breaking each other’s hearts and not understanding why you keep coming back to do it all over again.

I had to keep failing in all areas of my life because it was easier to be a failure than to consider the possibility of being something else. When you don’t have opportunities to celebrate your identity within a mainstream framework of ‘queer culture,’ you have to figure out other ways to celebrate and share your joy.

When you don’t have opportunities to celebrate your identity within a mainstream framework of ‘queer culture,’ you have to figure out other ways to celebrate and share your joy.

I always feel nervous taking anyone from college to my hometown, because I know many of them might think “How can you be around these people? How can you let your friends call you a faggot? How can you say that word? Why are you tolerating all of this hetero- and homonormativity?”

The answer lives in the communal experiences we share as young people who grew up in rural Appalachia. We are cynical and dark and the thought of covering ourselves in pride flags and walking down Main Street past the Robert E Lee House, Washington & Lee University, half a dozen churches, and probably at least one of our old teachers isn’t a liberating thought. Why would you do something if it doesn’t feel true to or representative of your own experience of queerness, especially if you know that it wouldn’t have any real impact in your community?

‘How can you let your friends call you a faggot?’

Many don’t seem to realize that rural queer people and rural cis or straight people have established very special relationships with each other. Although I disagree with things that some of my friends say or have said, I’m still willing to meet them halfway and entertain a judgment-free dialogue. I have had to reframe my own understanding of rural community-building in order to have productive conversations within my community. Nobody has all the answers. 

We must stop assuming a position of inherent moral authority over people who simply haven’t had the same opportunities to learn the same things we have. How can you expect someone who wakes up at 3:30 AM and goes to work before school in the morning to agree or relate with you on everything?

We must stop assuming a position of inherent moral authority over people who simply haven’t had the same opportunities to learn the same things we have.

It’s disheartening to hear the way many mainstream queer circles talk about people like this. How are you so sure you’re that much better?

When I think about queer figures from my hometown, I think about my former boss, an older ‘butch’ lesbian born and bred in Appalachia with more love for life and her fellow humans than just about anyone I know. She’s like a sister to me.

I think about the only friend I made the semester my parents sent me to private school after trying to kill myself. At the time, she was a soft spoken musician who called herself ‘bisexual’ and is now a fellow trans sister with deep roots in Appalachia. She has been a huge source of strength and refuge for my feelings of displacement in mainstream queer culture. 

I think about my ‘work mom,’ another older ‘butch’ lesbian. Country as hell, queer as hell, and again, filled with more compassion and genuine desire for community than many of my own peers. This woman has so many birthday parties to attend, it’s unreal. 

I think about my middle and high school Latin teachers, because, yes, we have cool stuff like incredible Latin teachers in rural Appalachia. They live on the same street and one of their sons, a year younger than myself, killed himself a few years ago. Although we grew up together, we were never close, yet I always felt drawn to him and now I can’t help but wonder what could have been. He was a special person and his mom had a huge impact on me. The other has a supremely impressive queer son at Yale who graduated high school with my little brother. Unfortunately, his father has been slandered by far-right extremists in our local media simply for being the high school’s sponsor for ‘Gay Straight Alliance’ club. Now, one of the only spaces for the queer kids of Appalachia may disappears because of how polarized and divided we have become. 

Everyone has their shit, and everyone goes through their own journey to deal with it. Just because the context of someone else’s journey doesn’t fit your own doesn’t mean that you should shut out the potential for human connection. 

Just because the context of someone else’s journey doesn’t fit your own doesn’t mean that you should shut out the potential for human connection.

Appalachian vernacular and the ‘mountain people’ trope has been stigmatized as being indicative of stupidity; However, have we ever stopped to consider that we might not be able to truly understand someone’s words even if we are ‘hearing them?’ 

For example, I’ve introduced college friends to friends from home and have been in situations where my college friend couldn’t understand what my other friend was saying because of their ‘accent.’ This has always been funny to me because I don’t think of it as an accent, but rather, a language. I can ‘speak’ that language even without a strong Appalachian accent.

There is a truly unique culture within my generation of Appalachian youth. The way we communicate with each other is based around the understanding that all of us are damaged regardless of sexuality, gender, race, ability, immigrant status, etc. Something about living in a repressive, rural environment that is externally characterized as hick, redneck, backwards, etc. creates this strong feeling of solidarity that transcends the social boundaries of normative youth cultures.

Something about living in a repressive, rural environment that is externally characterized as hick, redneck, backwards, etc. creates this strong feeling of solidarity that transcends the social boundaries of normative youth cultures.

I’m queer and rural. I’m queer and I fucking love my rowdy, dumbass friends who will stay up all night just to see the insane beauty of the sun peeking in over two of the oldest mountain ranges on Earth. I don’t mean just my ‘queer’ friends, but I’m talking about everybody. There is something really special and beautiful about a group of so many different souls coming together for one moment in time. 

Growing up in that region, you develop an almost spiritual connection to the land because of its incredible beauty. Your entire childhood is spent in the most beautiful playground with equally beautiful playmates. Friends become more than people you grew up with; You are all indoctrinated members of your own specialized church. I love my friends from home in a way that is indescribable. No matter what they might say that I disagree with, I can still find a million and one reasons to choose to love each and every one of them.

No matter what they might say that I disagree with, I can still find a million and one reasons to choose to love each and every one of them.

Being around my queer friends from home is like a whole new level of family and a whole new level of friendship. I often feel that many of my friendships from home have been ‘queered’ in some way and it’s the best thing in the world. We have been there with each other from the beginning, like the very beginning. Many of us didn’t accept ourselves as queer until college, and some of us still haven’t fully ‘come out,’ so we have this beautiful foundation that is built on an unspoken sense of community that was forged out of necessity, not out of choice. 

Many of us didn’t accept ourselves as queer until college, and some of us still haven’t fully ‘come out,’ so we have this beautiful foundation that is built on an unspoken sense of community that was forged out of necessity, not out of choice.

And that’s why we often call each other faggots, because that’s what we are in the context of rural Appalachia, and that’s what we have been our whole lives. And we fucking love it.


About the Author

Ash Mullis is Ashlynne Mullis.

Follow on IG: @#AshMullis | Follow on Twitter: @


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