I do understand the inclination to wave off a large part of an electorate and to close up ranks. Over the past 10 years, my husband and I have gradually moved farther away from home, first to a college town straddling the line between Appalachia and the Bluegrass and, last year, to one of the two blue islands in the wide red sea of our state. The city of Lexington is a place of diversity, horse farms, and lots of Appalachian refugees like me, who are eager for a life in a more progressive place, but within an easy drive of our homeland.
I miss hearing the dialect of my people in Eastern Kentucky, being called “honey” by strangers, and how the mist creeps over the ridge in the evenings. I long to be close to the history of my family: the creeks where they have waded, the hills where they have worked and loved.
As much as I am homesick while living in the city, though, I appreciate being in a place that flies rainbow flags on Main Street during the annual Pride celebration and possesses a beautiful Black Lives Matter mural downtown. The city has a diverse immigrant population and takes a principled stand on equality for all of its citizens.
Injustice and discrimination happen here, like anywhere else, but many of us on the ground work at the grassroots level to nudge the place toward more progressive thought and action. For example, the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust has bought more than 50,000 acres of threatened land to save it from devastation and let it grow wild; among the major leaders of Southern Crossroads, an organization working toward a multiracial alliance of poor and working-class people throughout the South, are two working-class Kentuckians, and the group will be focusing on voter engagement in the state beginning this year; over the past three decades, Kentucky Refugee Ministries has welcomed and helped resettle more than 16,000 refugees in the Commonwealth.
Although I could easily find sanctuary in my blue oasis and ignore the many Kentuckians who voted against people like me, I must also remind myself that sweeping generalizations simply fuel cultural fires. Pride events are popping up all over the state, including in the small town of Morehead, better known for being the hometown of Kim Davis, the former county clerk who became an icon to many evangelicals after she refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. Thousands of rural Kentuckians turned out to march for justice for Breonna Taylor, raising their voices against police brutality and racial injustice.
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Yes, the majority of voters in Kentucky are fervent supporters of Trump and McConnell. In Laurel County, where I grew up, 22,040 votes—78 percent—were cast for McConnell. Yet, when I saw the name-calling on social media about our responsibility for the demise of the nation, my mind flew to the 17 percent—4,883 souls—back home who cast ballots against him. They made a principled stand against enormous peer pressure that people outside the region cannot possibly understand. Some who voted against McConnell and Trump were even accused of being “traitors” and “murderers.” As a gay man, I left home to feel safer and more comfortable. I think of the 4,883 there who are fighting back, and I am thankful for each one.