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A Queer Film Festival In The Middle of Appalachia? Yes, Please.

A Queer Film Festival In The Middle of Appalachia? Yes, Please.

expectations for traveling to Lewisburg, West Virginia for the first-ever
Appalachian Queer Film Festival were mixed. Mostly, I kept my expectations in
check, though, and kept my eye on the prize – when else would I get to check out queer art in a rural town of 3,800 in
the middle of Appalachia?

If we’re
lucky, next year would be the answer. Although they didn’t boast huge
attendance numbers (what first-year fests do?), something incredibly special
happened this past weekend, on the heels of West Virginia becoming one of now
32 states to allow same-sex marriage: “We found out that we are a place
where the words Appalachian and Queer can exist in the same sentence without
consequence,” says festival founder and WV-native Tim Ward. “Not only is it important to give LGBTQ West
Virginians a space to see themselves in film, but also to show the world that
our state and our people are no different than anywhere else.”

Here are just
a few of my favorite moments from the weekend.

“Outside of the state, we hope
people take away that there is a thriving arts community and a thriving queer
community here,” says Ward as we meander along back roads to find my
rental car.
there pushback at all? Yes. Are we any different from any other state? No.
That’s the gist of what we’re trying to say. You don’ have to search far and
wide for tolerance and acceptance. We are putting on a festival with the words
‘Appalachia’ and ‘Queer’ in the title. We’ve had articles written about us on
the statewide level and some of them have included comments that were not very
nice, but I think that would happen in any rural part of New York or even
California. That’s not what makes us unique. What does make us unique is that
we have been received far more generously then anyone on the planning committee
could have anticipated, both from outside of the state and inside. Just the
fact that we got the kind of financial support that we did is proof of that,
and the attention we’ve gotten in the local media as well.” 

“Patriarchy insists that there are
specific duties in gender roles and our society is very much into the
honor-shame system,” admits Reverend and mother of a gay son, Shauna Hyde,
during the panel “Raising an LGBTQ
Kid in Appalachia.” “Either honor our families by being what they want
or shame them. It’s used – like religion – as another weapon. I, as a
clergywoman, am set up on a pedestal and have the privilege of my voice being
heard even if they don’t agree with my voice, but it’s always a struggle. There
are a lot of scripture that lend themselves to talking about [being LGBTQ] –
where Philip meets the Eunich, for one [New Testament, Acts 8:26-40]. It’s what’s
‘wrong’ with American churches today. Somewhere along the way, religion became
a social club of do-gooders and people that had the right to judge other
people. I am told that I’m too socially justice oriented, but I’m not the one who’s on the fringes of
Christianity. Most Christians in my experience cannot really explain their
faith nor the things they don’t have answers for in their faith, so they just
get mad. When you have a limited knowledge base it can become a brick wall.
What happens if you take out a brick? Everything falls. First, we have to make
them not afraid.”

Over beers at the the Irish Pub – one
of only three bars in town, situated on one of two main streets that cross each
other – co-founder and festival programmer Jon Matthews explains their goals:
“We want to expose West Virginians to queer films –
films that generally don’t play in this region. And we want to expose outside
filmmakers to West Virginians. We want to bring in LGBTQ filmmakers and show
them that there are cool, progressive, queer artists and activists living in
Appalachia. We want to show that, even though our state may go red in the
presidential elections, we have a lot of open-minded people here, regardless of
political affiliation.” 

“Why would, well, rather why wouldn’t the ACLU be involved with
AQFF,” I ask West Virginia’s ACLU executive director Jennifer Meinig outside
the Lewis Theater – on the other main street in town.
“That’s the perfect question to
ask, why wouldn’t we be involved?”
she answers. “We support the issue, we support the individuals involved,
it’s a celebration of Appalachia and we aim to promote not only theater, but
queer theater. I love to hear the stories of people that have been involved in
LGBTQ issues for years, and now we have a victory. [As of October 9], we have
marriage equality in West Virginia, and it’s a great first step, but we have
further to go. In West Virginia it’s
still legal to be fired form your job or kicked out of your apartment if your
boss or landlord finds out that you are in a same-sex relationship.
people don’t know that that’s the law, so when we go back to the legislature in
January, we need to change that with the Employment Discrimination and Housing
Act. The Senate has passed the bill, but the House hasn’t. We feel positive
though, and I can’t wait to get in that fight.”

“I just had a conversation with a
local about The Lord,” remarked Nathan Manske, panelist and founder of I’m
From Driftwood, just before the “Queer Film in Activism” panel began.
“As I was getting
coffee and stepping back out on the street, a man asked me if I lived an
‘alternative lifestyle,’ and politely, I replied that I was gay. He told me
that he was confused as to what to call ‘us’ and delved into a longer
conversation comparing the ‘gay sin’ to murder. After a while of my nodding and
letting him speak, he told me that if I wanted to change, that I would be
forgiven by The Lord. But he also told me a story about two lesbians at his
church, who were kicked out of another church. He told me he and his church
would never do that. So despite him comparing the sin of being gay to murdering
someone, I realized that he also wanted me to know that he does have some sort
of compassion towards LGBTQ people. Letting someone tell their story – instead
of talking – is a powerful tool. We all have our stories to be told.”

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