Rural Pride rallies provide safe spaces for the LGBTQ community
Not too long ago, Tonya Jones felt she couldn’t be proud in her eastern Kentucky hometown of Pikeville. She used to drive three hours to Lexington for any semblance of an LGBTQ-friendly community.
“You should always get out of here. There was no local place, except inside your own home, where you could be yourself,” Jones said.
But that’s not the case on a sunny Saturday at Pikeville City Park. Jones sits on a lawn chair next to his wife, with whom she shares 27 years of committed partnership.
The park is buzzing with rainbow flags and buzzing with the sound of 90s dance hits and laughter. Under one pavilion is an array of cakes, pizzas and cold drinks. Children wave rainbow flags and chase each other around the playground. This is no ordinary barbecue – this is the city’s third Pride festival, organized by volunteers.
Jones says she spent much of her youth hearing people call her wife a “roommate” or a “friend.” But at Pikeville Pride, at least some of today’s kids don’t have to deal with those blocks. Despite everyday homophobia and transphobia, children at Pride said they benefited from a world of more open rural LGBTQ communities and resources.
Rachel Daniels is 17 and brought along her younger sister Isabella. They both identify as queer and say seeing public and open queer gender love and expression makes them more confident and ready to be themselves in the world.
“I think maybe kids should know, because I don’t want them to be scared if they come out to their parents. So I think they should know it’s okay to do part of the LGBTQ community,” Daniels said.
The connections between LGBTQ rights and other political battles are not lost on these rural organizers. Pikeville Pride was founded in response to a 2017 neo-Nazi march. A number of hate groups united in the hope that Pikeville, which is 98% white, would find common cause with them. Some community members staged counter-protests, including Cara Ellis, now a Pikeville Pride organizer.
“A great group of us got together,” Ellis said. “After the moment with the rally, we were going to try to move the conversation forward, like how to take this really negative traumatic thing that happened and make it a positive thing. So one of the ideas was Pikeville Pride.
The group continued to make connections between LGBTQ issues and other civil rights battles. In June, the group held a rally for abortion rights after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wadewith more than 250 people present.
And now they say the need for solidarity is urgent because the ruling could affect other privacy rights like same-sex marriage. At the state level, gay and trans advocates say they have come under attack, and without federal protections the tables could turn quickly.
Hostile Rhetoric, Laws and Barriers
In early June, the Ohio House of Representatives passed the so-called “Save Women’s Sports Act,” which would ban trans girls from competing on girls’ school sports teams.
Kentucky and West Virginia passed similar bills in the past year, but Ohio’s bill takes the concept to a new level, requiring a doctor to examine “the internal reproductive anatomy and external” of an athlete if their gender is disputed.
The bill applies to student-athletes in grades 7 through 12, meaning students as young as 11 could face invasive medical inspections.
After the bill passed the House, House Democrats held a press conference condemning it for going too far.
“This extreme legislation, which would require children to undergo genital exams to play sports in high school, is nothing less than state-sanctioned sexual abuse,” the state’s representative said. Ohio, Jessica Miranda, of Forest Park.
During the event, Dr. Anita Somani, OB-GYN at OhioHealth, held up a speculum and explained details of the pelvic exams that young college students may undergo if their gender is disputed.
“It’s invasive and uncomfortable even for adults who have a trusting relationship with their doctor,” she said.
The bill has still not been taken up by the Ohio Senate, which will not meet until November.
Ohio lawmakers are considering two other bills that would restrict LGBTQ rights. One would ban gender-affirming medical care for minors, another would ban schools from teaching subjects deemed age-inappropriate, including discussion of race, nationality, racism, sex and gender .
This latest measure has been compared to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill and so-called “anti-critical race theory” bills across the country that limit how teachers talk about race and gender. history in the classroom.
Amid the wave of legislation, LGBTQ people in rural communities already had significant barriers to adequate resources such as health care, according to one researcher.
Zachary Ramsey, a doctoral student at the University of West Virginia, published a study in February that detailed several challenges for LGBTQ people seeking health care, including fear of discrimination and health insurance plans that do not not cover gender-affirming care.
Ramsey says the recent Supreme Court ruling will only compound the problems faced by the community.
“I can only see the increase in this fear of discrimination, which is going to cause a lot more people to stay in the closet, to withhold information about themselves, to resort to riskier practices just because they don’t want to seek proper health care because they’re afraid of what might happen if they do,” Ramsey said.
Amid the challenges, some rural communities are actively trying to meet the needs of their LGBTQ neighbors.
Answer to need
Cansler Health is a counseling service with offices in the small western Kentucky towns of Murray and Hopkinsville. The practice accepts clients from all walks of life, but nurse practitioner and founder JJ Cansler says she opened it because of what she saw as a dire need for LGBTQ mental health services.
“I found there wasn’t enough focus on this particular area of the underserved population — or any of the goals,” she said.
The practice has only about four employees and has served more than 500 clients since opening in January.
April Haneline, another practice nurse practitioner, grew up in Murray and identifies as gay. She says she wants to create a more open and tolerant community in the small college town.
“It’s hard to be here. It’s hard to be a queer person in this community. There are things I still fear in my late 40s that I’m still not comfortable with. “, she said. “But my choice is to be here and do the work that I think is incredibly valuable to our community.”
Cansler said the firm handed out 200 business cards during Murray’s Pride festivities in June – only the third time the city has held such an event. She said she expects her practice to continue to grow and to monitor legislation and court rulings that may impact the LGBTQ community.
“There are concerns for the future of what might be banned, banned in the future that we’ve already done, or potentially want to do in the future like hormone therapy,” Cansler said. “We have licenses to maintain. But outside of the legal repercussions, we’re not going to let that change the way we practice.
In eastern Kentucky, Open Doors Counseling Center has grown from its original practice in Lexington to provide LGBTQ counseling services in the mountain town of Prestonsburg.
Kyle May, the center’s manager, is from Pikeville and says some clients drive up to two hours to get services. He said the political atmosphere affected his clients, especially young people.
“There’s a lot of stress related to political issues because, you know, it could affect them in all parts of their lives,” he said.
May said it’s important to give young people the chance to talk about gender and sexuality, especially when their parents try to avoid those conversations.
“When they have an affirmative environment to be able to explore that,” he said. “They can talk openly and feel like they can, you know, try to figure out how to relate.”
Find a community
In June, Pride celebrations erupted across the region, from a Pride picnic at Breaks Interstate Park on the Kentucky-Virginia border, to celebrations in Ashland, Harlan, Huntington and Athens, Ohio.
At the Pikeville festival, organizer Emma Lowe commented on how peaceful the scene was.
“We were a little worried there might be some backlash,” said Lowe, a college librarian who came out as trans in her late 20s. “I haven’t heard of that. So just very happy to see that my community has been so supportive.
This is the first time the Town of Pikeville has publicly announced a Pride event. The group has received mostly positive feedback and is planning a bigger event in October.
Lowe said seeing his community, open and in public, dancing and laughing in the center of Pikeville might have seemed like a distant dream at one time. But for now, all the events in Frankfort, Washington DC, and in the hearts of people who might wish him ill, seemed far away.
“I come from a very rural area where we have to deal with things like that,” she said. “But just today, I don’t have to go through that.”