Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Being gay in Appalachia: one of many stories to be part of national oral-history project

Later this month Shannon Ratliff (top) and Tyler Watts (bottom), will participate in an oral history project focusing on sexual orientation in rural Kentucky. Beginning April 21 the Kentucky Equality Federation will hold sessions with StoryCorps, a national, nonprofit oral-history project that has gathered stories on a wide array of topics, Dori Hjalmarson of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. "I think it not only gives us a chance to tell our story, it gives us that documentation. It has to do with our struggles and hopes," said Will Taylor, a 26-year-old gay resident of Harlan. (Herald-Leader photo by David Perry)

Ratliff, a Hindman native, told Hjalmarson she did not know she was a lesbian while growing up in Knott County, but her close group of friends from high school have almost all come out as gay or lesbian since. "It was very tight-lipped," she said. "They all came out one at a time. We never discussed being gay. We never talked about anything queer at all. We met as straight people." Ratliff said she began to understand her identity after attending Eastern Kentucky University, which she calls a haven of opportunity for people from the mountains who are at all "different." She added, "The mountains are ... beautiful, and there's still just so much culture; they're comforting, protective. And they're also very isolating."

Taylor had a different experience coming out in Harlan, and told Hjalmarson it was easier than he thought. He said he felt more secure being himself there than in a larger city where he didn't know anyone else. "I thought at first that it was going to be really bad. When I came out, I just came out and told everybody. The first person I told was my dad," Taylor said. "He lit a cigarette, sat there about a minute or two, and then he gave me the speech: 'We still love you, that doesn't change.'" (Read more)

StoryCorps will hold interviews at Veterans Memorial Park in Whitesburg  from April 21 through May 14 and at the Farmers Market Pavilion in Lexington from May 19 through June 25.

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