Growing Up Gay in Appalachia: Whit Forrester, Defining Fairness

The thought of growing up gay in rural Eastern Kentucky would make many Louisvillians cringe. But how much of that reaction is rooted in stereotypes we hold about rural Kentucky? Whit Forrester spent some of his childhood in Leburn, Kentucky—a town in Knott County, with a population of around eight hundred people. Whit says when people hear he's from Appalachia, they think, “barefoot, pregnant, in a trailer, and you know how to change a propane tank.”

Whit Forrester spoke with WFPL’s Phillip M. Bailey and Laura Ellis about growing up gay in Appalachia.

This audio portion of this conversation contains descriptions of situations that may make some listeners uncomfortable and may not be appropriate for younger listeners.

On Labels

“I think that there's a strength, and sometimes also a weakness, in immediately identifying into a categorization, whether it is one that you've chosen yourself or one that society's given you. So sometimes when people are like, 'How would you describe yourself?' I can rattle off, 'Oh, I'm a queer, Scotch-Irish, Appalachian individual, cisgendered…' you know, I have all the words to sort of line up who I am, if that's what we're getting at. But sometimes it seems like you can close down a conversation that would have been more open before that.

When we're using just those identity words, a lot of times that's like a shortcut around a conversation. I would rather be like, this is what I enjoy doing sexually, and this is how I identify gender-wise, and these are my experiences. It becomes a conversation. And I think that's kind of what we need. “

On Class Divisions within the LGBTQ Community

“People who are closer to power feel like they can actually get it. So when you're talking about a straight-acting white guy who wants to lobby for gay issues, it's going to be his gay issues. So marriage. Sure. Why not. But simultaneously, hunger is a gay issue. Domestic violence is a gay issue. You can go down the line. Everything is a gay issue.

And that's kind of where I think that a lot of the white activist community kind of messes up, is that those folks–people who are identifying as white–they can't be leaders. I don't think that they should be the ones calling shots, or doing this community organizing. Which doesn't mean that you just run out and find a person of color, or find a queer street kid, and be like, 'You're a leader now! Hop on up, let's show you how to do this.' But I do think that that needs to be really centralized in the conversation, that your best intentions are just basically paving the road to hell.”

On Activism

“People are in these various level of activism, whether it's lobbying, working in non-profit sectors, working in bike collectives, teaching young trans kids how to make a dress out of a sheet. All those are necessary components of what we're building. And I think that another issue is that we don't really know what we're building. We're just trying to build something different. 

Again, people with great intentions want to know what to do. They want to do something. We have this idea of what activism looks like. For me,  what's been really important in my own development and my own support structures have been cooperative institutions. A lot of times I wish that there were more conversations about that, so that folks weren't just given the opportunity to give money or go to fundraisers, but there were places to put your body. Whether it's like at the local volunteer co-op… something. Not your money. Your body.”

Laura Ellis

Laura is the producer of Strange Fruit, a weekly talk show focusing on race and gender, and produces other news & feature programming.

@funambulator

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