It wasn’t long ago that Tonya Jones felt she couldn’t be out and 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’d always have to go away from here. There wasn’t any place local, except inside your own home, that you could be yourself,” Jones said.
But that’s not the case on a sunny Saturday at Pikeville City Park. Jones is sitting in a lawn chair next to her wife, with whom she’s shared 27 years of committed partnership.
The park is vibrant with rainbow flags and alive with the sound of ‘90s dance hits and laughter. Under a pavilion, there’s a spread of cake, pizza and cool beverages. Kids wave rainbow flags and chase each other around the playground. It’s no ordinary cookout — it’s 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 hang-ups. Despite day-to-day homophobia and transphobia, kids at Pride said they benefit from a world of more open, rural LGBTQ communities and resources.
Rachel Daniels is 17 years old and brought her younger sister Isabella. They both identify as queer and say seeing public, open queer love and gender expression makes them feel more confident and ready to be themselves in the world.
“I think maybe kids should know, because I don’t want them to feel scared if they ever do come out to their parents. So I think I think they should know that it’s okay to be part of the LGBTQ community,” Daniels said.
The connections between LGBTQ rights and the other political battles aren’t lost on these rural organizers. Pikeville Pride was founded in response to a 2017 neo-Nazi march. A number of hate groups united in hopes that Pikeville, which is 98% white, would find common cause with them. Some community members organized counter-protests, among them Cara Ellis, now a Pikeville Pride organizer.
“A large group of us came 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. So one of the ideas was Pikeville Pride.”
The group has continued to draw connections between LGBTQ issues and other civil rights battles. In June, the group organized a abortion rights rally after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, with over 250 people in attendance.
And now, they say the need for solidarity is urgent because the ruling could affect other privacy-related rights like same-sex marriage. On the state level, gay and trans advocates say they’ve been under attack, and without federal protections, the tables could turn quickly.
Hostile rhetoric, laws and barriers
At the beginning of 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
Both Kentucky and West Virginia passed similar bills over the past year, but Ohio’s bill pushes the concept to a new level, requiring a physician to examine an athlete’s “internal and external reproductive anatomy” if their sex is disputed.
The bill applies to student athletes in grades 7 through 12, meaning that students as young as 11 years old could be subject to invasive medical inspections.
After the bill passed the House, House Democrats held a news conference condemning it for going too far.
“This extreme legislation, which would require children to have genital exams to place high school sports is nothing short of state-sanctioned sexual abuse,” said Ohio state Rep. Jessica Miranda, of Forest Park.
During the event, Dr. Anita Somani, an OB-GYN with OhioHealth, held up a speculum and explained details of the pelvic exams that young students may be subjected to if their sex was disputed.
“It’s invasive and uncomfortable even for adults who have a trusting relationship with their physician,” she said.
The bill still hasn’t been taken up by the Ohio Senate, which won’t reconvene until November.
Ohio lawmakers are considering two other bills that would restrict LGBTQ rights. One would prohibit 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.
The latter measure has been compared to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill and so-called “anti-critical race theory” bills around the country that limit how teachers talk about race and history in the classroom.
Amid the wave of legislation, LGBTQ people in rural communities already had significant barriers to adequate resources such as healthcare, according to one researcher.
West Virginia University doctoral student Zachary Ramsey published a study in February that detailed several challenges for LGBTQ people seeking healthcare, including fear of discrimination and health insurance plans that don’t cover gender-affirming care.
Ramsey says the recent Supreme Court ruling will only compound problems faced by the community.
“I can only see that increasing that fear of the discrimination, which is going to cause a lot more people to stay in the closet, to not disclose information about themselves, to resort to riskier practices just because they don’t want to seek out proper health care, because they’re afraid of what might happen if they do,” Ramsey said.
Amid challenges, some in rural communities are actively trying to meet the needs of their LGBTQ neighbors.
Meeting the need
Cansler Health is a counseling service with offices in the small western Kentucky cities of Murray and Hopkinsville. The practice accepts clients from all backgrounds, but nurse practitioner and founder J.J. Cansler says she opened it up because of what she saw was a stark need for LGBTQ mental health services.
“I found that there wasn’t enough focus on that particular area of the underserved population – or any focus,” she said.
The practice only has about four employees and has grown to over 500 clients since it opened in January.
April Haneline, another nurse practitioner at the practice, grew up in Murray and identifies as queer. She says she wants to create a more open and accepting community in the small college town.
“It is hard to be here. It is hard to be a queer person in this community. There are things that I still fear as of in my late 40s that I still am not comfortable with,” she said. “But my choice is to be here and to do the work that I think is incredibly valuable for our community.”
Cansler said the practice gave out 200 business cards over the course of 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 she’s monitoring legislation and court rulings that could impact the LGBTQ community.
“There are concerns for the future of what might be outlawed, prohibited in the future that we have already been doing, or that we potentially would want to do in the future like hormone therapy,” Cansler said. “We have licenses to maintain. But outside of legal repercussions, we’re not going to let that change the way we practice.”
In eastern Kentucky, Open Doors Counseling Center expanded from its original brick-and-mortar practice in Lexington to provide LGBTQ counseling services in the mountain city of Prestonsburg.
Kyle May, the center’s director, is from Pikeville and says some clients drive up to two hours for services. He said the political atmosphere is affecting his clients, especially young ones.
“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 an opportunity to talk about gender and sexuality, especially when their parents are trying to avoid those conversations.
“When they have an affirming 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 identify.”
In June, Pride celebrations popped up across the region, from a Pride picnic in Breaks Interstate Park on the Kentucky-Virginia border, to celebrations in Ashland, Harlan, Huntington and Athens, Ohio.
At the festival in Pikeville, organizer Emma Lowe remarked on how peaceful the scene was.
“We were a little concerned that there might be some, like, backlash,” said Lowe, a university librarian who came out as trans in her late 20s. “I haven’t heard a peep from that. So, just very happy to see that my community has been so supportive.”
This is the first time the City of Pikeville publicly advertised a Pride event. The group mostly received positive feedback and is planning a larger event in October.
Lowe said seeing her community, open and in public, dancing and laughing in the center of Pikeville might have felt like a distant dream at one point. But for the moment, all the goings-on in Frankfort, Washington D.C., and in the hearts of people who might wish her ill, felt far away.
“I’m from a very rural area where we have to deal with things like that,” she said. “But just today, I don’t have to experience that.”