I live in West Virginia. I live in a state where it is still legal to fire someone because of their sexual orientation, or evict them from a rental property or a hotel room for the same reason. I live in a state where gay marriage is not legal and, let’s face it, probably won’t be for some time.
But I also live in a state that, during a visit from those Westboro Baptist Church folks, saw gay people and coal miners standing side-by-side in protest; where a “No Place for Hate” campaign was launched and is still being showcased; where two of my best friends – a young, professional gay couple – just welcomed their first child; and where I serve on the board of directors for a successful gay men’s chorale that practices and performs in a local church.
I live in a state where progress is being made.
My first book is about a gay kid growing up in a West Virginia coal town, who feels like he’s the only person to ever do such a thing. I was once that kid, and let me tell you, it’s lonely. I did it in the mid-nineties, before the age of the Internet. My windows to the world were television, books and music. But I didn’t have the aid of Will & Grace or Glee or Modern Family or the tons of other positive depictions of gay life to which kids today are exposed. I was in high school when Ellen came out, but beyond that, most gay characters on television were a joke or a plot device. (Oh look, Roseanne kissed a woman! Oh look, Blanche has a gay brother this week!)
That isn’t to say that kids today have it any easier. If that were true, we wouldn’t see stories like this one, or this one, or this one. These stories break my heart. So when writing my first gay-themed young adult book, I wanted to accomplish two things. First, to tell a story that is true to the Appalachian spirit, a story that treats the setting as a character itself. And secondly, tell a story that, at its heart, is about love. There are so many books out there that focus on the negative side of being a gay kid. I wanted mine to be joyful. Granted, conflict drives novels, and it isn’t devoid of the issues I’m alluding to, but they are not the driving force. I suppose my hope is that someone who lives in a place like the one where I grew up, and who might be going through something similar, can fall into this world that isn’t unlike their own and see someone navigating through it without thinking about killing himself.
The articles I linked to above are often what we see in the media whenever a gay kid is involved: vicious bullying, suicide, kids who see the latter as their only escape from the former. Groups like the Trevor Project, the Human Rights Campaign, the True Colors Fund, and the It Gets Better Project are doing so much good work. And now, so are some people closer to my own backyard.
I’m very proud to share below a short film called Faces of Fairness from Fairness West Virginia, a “civil rights advocacy organization dedicated to fair treatment and civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender West Virginians.” A couple dear friends of mine, Andy and Jerry, are featured, along with several other successful, notable examples of gay life in this beautiful state we all call home.
Shortly after I came out to my family, I had a relative say that I’d always be welcome in her home, and I once had a supervisor say my orientation would never be a factor in my employment with the organization. These comments were made out of love and some semblance of understanding, I know. But I hope someday to live in a world where people don’t feel they need to reassure me of an open door or a job simply based on this one aspect of myself. And I think we’re getting there, little by little.