Before writing his first column, Griffith asked for help from some students. He got them to play an association game using the words "gay" and "Appalachian." The objective was to throw out words that students felt would reflect the ideas and attitudes of their peers.
For "gay," they came up with the following: fag, queer, glitter, homo, immoral, minority, flamer, closet, lesbo, rainbow, AIDS, and metropolitan. "Appalachian," meanwhile, garnered: banjo, redneck, hick, Deliverance, country, hillbilly, conservative, white, slow, bluegrass, and closed-minded.
Then, Griffith asked whether the students thought the two pictures they had painted were compatible. "Several people responded quickly -- 'no'."
Griffith wrote: "I've talked with so many LGBT people here in our mountains, and their stories are powerful. Experiences of abandonment, exclusion, attempted conversion and worthlessness make up a few of the themes from such stories. Also, self-respect, unexpected acceptance and powerful love complete their pictures. ... It is heartbreakingly inspirational, and yet it isn't wished for anyone."
Jordan Palmer/Kentucky Equality Federation
Kentucky Equality Federation President Jordan Palmer says that's exactly why the Storycorps project his organization is collaborating on is so important. "For me it was difficult growing up in rural Kentucky in the early '90s. I was lead singer in a Christian band and went to a Methodist boarding school. I was sent to be 'de-gayed' as if it was a condition. We didn't have gay characters on TV and it wasn't spoken about. I even tried to commit suicide."
But, Palmer says, it's certainly not confined to rural communities -- and not all rural communities are closed-minded. "Usually families here are very tight knit; they pull together to make ends meet. I've actually felt more accepted in small communities than in some bigger towns."
Palmer hopes the oral history project will make people realize LGBT people are contributing members of society. "We have jobs, we pay our taxes. To me it's no different from being born blind. I was born this way and that's the way God intended me to be. It's about tolerance and acceptance. If they hear these stories -- stories of real people who have faced discrimination, harassment and name-calling, they may think twice about opening their mouths and saying something derogatory or negative."
Last week, students at colleges all around the U.S. observed the national Day of Silence to bring attention to anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools. One straight student, at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, had joined others in solidarity, covering their mouths with duct tape as a way of drawing attention to the issue. She wrote: "I have to tell you about how I felt yesterday walking around in silence with duct tape. I felt humiliated at times, and other times proud. You see, everywhere I went, people stared. I felt like a leper, completely stigmatized [by] people. In fact, I was experiencing what the LGBT community has experienced for decades."
To read more on the complicated nature of gender, revisit Hanna Rosin's Atlantic magazine article "A Boy's Life."
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons