There are far more people in Appalachia then those same three Trump voters in a diner you've been hearing about for the past two years. You just need to know where to look.
Might I suggest the Instagram account Queer Appalachia, the hands-down best place to find biblically inspired PreP gowns, goth Easter iconography, J.D. Vance memes, anti-pipeline vibrator cookie cutters, opossum nativity scenes, and queer and trans people living in the heart of the Bible Belt.
Founded just two years ago, Queer Appalachia has since built a fan base of 48,500 followers. While the account was initially created to celebrate queer Appalachian culture, it's evolved to become something much greater, grander, and bustier.
At Queer Appalachia, you come for the memes and stay for the community-based services.
West Virginia isn't exactly known for its abundance of digital queer media publications. "What we do with Appalachian media — the way we blend our followers — has never been done in the region," Gina Mamone, one of the founders of the account, told Mashable.
Queer Appalachians follow the account for news. So does the LGBTQ community on both coasts, some of whom are members of the queer Appalachian diaspora, some not. Even Christian conservatives from the region follow the account.
"They complain about every post but they also never leave," Mamone says.
The account was born out of grief. Two years ago, Bryn Kelly, an legendarily gifted trans performer and writer from Appalachia, committed suicide. The tragedy sent shockwaves through the LGBTQ community, even among people who didn't know Bryn directly. Bryn's friends wanted to do something to commemorate her death. Mamone says that a queer Appalachian zine was something Bryn and their friends had always joked about — think "oral sex tips from shape note singers"— but had never tried to create.
After Kelly's passing, these friends decided to finally publish the zine. They apparently received so many submissions in the first week they had enough material for "three dozen zines," says Mamone, and "that's how the Instagram became submission based." Because of the cost and labor involved in distribution, print just wasn't a viable vehicle. They decided to take Bryn's dreams online.
Local, Farm-to-Instagram Memes
Right now, there are more than a dozen people behind the account, with "folks peppered from Pennsylvania, Ohio, and all the way to Florida." Mamone receives hundreds of submissions a day, only some of which are dick pics. They publish as much of it as they can, assuming it (1) is on brand (2) doesn't violate Instagram's guidelines and won't get them shut down. Mamone works primarily on the Instagram account, while others work on the site or helping to distribute the newly published zine.
The account serves as a platform for queer Appalachia, delivering the kind of first-hand accounts and incisive cultural commentary — not to mention real voices from real people — that you hear in the national news, uh, never.
Take their approach to the tiny home v. trailer debate, and what it signifies about the American class system and regional hierarchies.
When you're in a place that's so chronically poor, Mamone explains, "People go on the internet. They see how the rest of the world lives. Every interaction with the media tells you that you're lacking in some way."
Queer Appalachia hopes to serve as a corrective to some of these inarticulated disparities. The account puts into memes what is often experienced subconsciously — the idea, for example, that Appalachian tiny homes (trailers) are "less worthy" — and places it on the internet for the world to see. Whether they're mocking J.D. Vance for his regressive individualism or slamming manufacturers for exploiting the area's regional history to sell pans, the theme is the same: This region isn't less than. There's so much to be proud of, even if the rest of the world doesn't quite get it.
There's also plenty on the account that's specific to the queer community in Appalachia, which you wouldn't know existed if you only ever read post-election autopsies of the region. There's a living, authentic community out there, they remind us. You don't need to travel to Brooklyn to find the queers. You just have to go on Instagram.
For a region that's become synonymous with homophobia and transphobia, the account provides a daily dose of uplift. Queer culture and love thrives, the account proclaims, no matter how much you try to subjugate it.
Still, makers of the account aren't able to gloss over the region's spectacular challenges in the name of regional pride. Resistance makes for great memes. But many queer and trans folks in the region battle with isolation, poverty, opioid abuse, violence, and fear; struggles LGBTQ folks in metropolitan areas also face, but often not to the same degree.
Mamone, who grew up in West Virginia, lived in Brooklyn for many years working at a record label and has since returned home for family reasons. As a member of the LGBTQ community themselves, they experience the region's limitations and fears intimately:
"I don’t feel safe where I live. I’m always calculating the risk of how late is it, how much gas is left in the tank, how much cash do I have in case my card doesn’t work … it’s absolutely terrifying. The other side of that coin is not leaving the house for days, that’s not good either. It’s not a matter of if they will say something, it’s a matter of if they will only say something. I understand that I live where people want to hurt me just based on how I look."
This anxiety is represented in the account, but Queer Appalachia tends to land on the side of humor — the best, most affordable form of resistance around when your political power supply is limited.
This project celebrates & documents a part of this country where everything from colloquial consciousness to what’s on the radio, to your actual blood relatives tell you 24/7/365 “that no one is going to be there for you like family”. As we come out to ourselves & the world, attempting to embrace who we are...some of us find that our family no longer treats us like family. Family can be a loaded word dripping with raw baggage for some. I saw this meme today, it made me want to acknowledge this and let you that we read all your emails & letters sent to the PO Box. Thank you for taking the time to share your nuanced truths about how & why you call this dirt home. #ruralqueer life can be pretty isolating without family things added to it. The brain & the heart are extraordinary, we get to choose who we treat like family. #chosenfamily is pretty magical, i’m not telling you to ignore your family feels, just remember you got more family than the folks you share blood with. This seems as good a time as any to mention, we will be doing an all day #holidayhang on Dec25th again this year. Our first year we had a nativity contest with over 25 entries and this past year we had a #postapalooza with over a 1000 post in our stories. I don’t know what we’re going to do this year, what are your suggestions? I promise we will do something that will take us all day, If you find yourself alone or need a break from the world on your phone, you can hang out with us! #queerappalachia #queersouth #electricdirt
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Every time a major holiday like Christmas rolls around (typically the most isolating time of year for the LGBTQ community), Queer Appalachia floods the zone with hilariously raw memes, doing whatever they can to help their fellow members laugh and feel validated.
"You might not have family, so you need to be on your phone with some community," Mamone says. "We did a shareathon in our story collection [this Christmas]. I didn't even spend Christmas with my family. I spent it with this family, giving it content."
Community Meme Organizing
While violence has always been a threat to the LGBTQ community, the opioid epidemic has hit queer and trans Appalachians, including QTPOC Appalachians, particularly hard. Mamone estimates that up to 80% of queer and trans Appalachians are immediately affected by the opioid epidemic — either they're struggling with an addiction, or someone they love is.
"If you’re a rural queer person trying to stay clean at Ground Zero of the opioid epidemic, more than likely your birth family is not in the picture and part of the reason you’re looking to escape your reality," Mamone says. "Your immediate friend group and larger regional community is isolating/ostracizing and alienating you because of your behavior. The free resources in your community like 12-step meetings and sponsors are not welcoming to you & often end up just becoming something else that makes us relapse and want to escape."
In 2017, Queer Appalachia surveyed their followers in recovery for opioid addiction. The results were crushing. Of the 100 followers in recovery who participated in the survey, only four had access to sponsors. Most sponsors were unwilling to serve the queer and trans community, survey participants said, and the few that did only made themselves available for brief sessions before 12-step meetings (which largely take place in conservative Christian churches). Some trans and non-binary participants reported being asked for their "real name" upon entering a meeting, while others feared physical violence.
"The point of 12-step meetings is for people to support and grow with each other," Mamone says. "What happens if people in those meetings don’t want to touch you?"
To address the need, Queer Appalachia is starting Queer Appalachia Recovery, a telehealth program managed through the account. This means setting up an online meeting space for people struggling with addiction, contracting with a licensed therapist and a licensed social worker to structure services, and recruiting sponsors who are willing to provide online support, as well as travel to their sponsee's home (within a 4-hour drive) at least once a month.
"What happens if people in those meetings don’t want to touch you?"
It's a DIY solution to a nationwide epidemic, and it all started with memes.
Queer Appalachia is also involved in other fights, regional and national. The account showcases fellow Appalachians fighting pipelines by fundraising with vibrator cookie cutters. They recently published a print zine to fund their community microgrant program, which delivers small sums of money to individuals living in extreme poverty. They make a point to highlight queer Appalachians running for local government. When Queer Appalachia has breaking local news, they share it to their 48,500 followers:
"There have been times this year that we have beat the national media to press, on digital platforms! We've scooped the Associated Press!" Mamone reports. "All of this led to a hashtag that we started, #ruralresistance... With every march that happens, the WV Teacher Strike or the Mountain Valley Pipeline treesitters, more and more people are finding ways to contribute to the #ruralresistance narrative with direct action in the region. Other groups and organizations in the region are starting to use the term in their own advertising and curriculums."
One Instagram account can only go so far, but Queer Appalachia is doing everything they can to touch as many people as possible — trans Muslim Appalachians, queer mayoral candidates, black gay farmers, lesbian hillbillies, and allies on the coasts — and build something beautiful, raucous, and real.
"These queer [Appalachian] kids need to know about people who got out and did things," Mamone says. "And that it's okay for them to stay! Stay home and build things. Or not. Whatever they want to do, it's okay. They're okay."
No matter what they see out their window, they're never alone here.