We’re Just Hillbillies and also, Queer

For some of us, you can take the homo out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the homo, and like a flock of geese in fall we eventually find our way back home. -Waves Magazines

As the ramp-up to the 2020 election loomed overhead, oppressive, hot, and undeniably humid, inevitably the pull to invoke the mythical concept of the “working white class” became, AGAIN, a strategy for both major parties. This imagined monolithic constituency is often described as ignored, under-employed, former heavy manufacturing workers in the Rust Belt or the ignored, under-employed coal and forestry workers in Appalachia.

While the existence of such a constituency can be countered on a number of fronts, it is, we, The Queerbillies™ and all our intersecting identities, that best illustrate this myth and the appeal of becoming adjacent to it.

The “working-class” is pretty much all of us. While polling data suggest that most US responders describe themselves as middle class, the truth of it is that most of us live well below the middle-income range that the Pew Research Center uses. When looking at income and socioeconomic status data, there’s a slight increase in wealth for families between 2015 (the first year the percentage of American families in this bracket fell below 50%) and 2018 (back up to 52%).

However, this doesn’t tell the whole story, or any story, really. Numbers don’t mean a hill o’ beans if no one is willing to tell you about the people that are those numbers. Middle-income brackets vary wildly from state to state, but even in Alabama that middle-income bracket tops at >$78,000 dollars. The “lower class” bracket is $25,000. So…that puts the “working class” somewhere in between? How is a group, which in 2016 became The Most Important™ hot-take, defined if it isn’t even…defined?

Statistics being what they are and nuance difficult to ascertain and Google degrees conferred every second, the assumption might be made that between the working-class and the working-poor a slight majority could be found. We are all struggling to get by, working multiple jobs, paying exorbitant student loan debt, and dealing with a political and social climate that exacerbates mental health concerns and physical safety fears from those most vulnerable. Vulnerable queers, who statistically find themselves at the bottom of all aspects of socioeconomic measures. Measures exacerbated again by intersections of race, ethnicity, and disability.

While I had really hoped I had wordified “queerbilly” all on my own like Shakespeare and shit, the first use of “queerbilly” is on Urban Dictionary. Posted by one Cody Hawkins and one Joe Davis on May 20, 2008, they helpfully define queerbilly as, “Homosexual Redneck. The act of being a Homosexual (sic) and being a Redneck (sic) at the same time.” Seems legit.

But there’s also another, more…fabulous way we might talk about ourselves as gay mountaineers. “Fab-yoo-la-ch-ian.” “Fabulachian” is generally credited to the Racheal Granger article, “Country Queers in Central Appalachia” for Southern Cultures. “We’re fabulous, and we’re Appalachians, so we’re fabulachians!”

Let’s be real clear, though. These two terms are not synonymous. And no shadetree to Racheal, they just don’t mean the same. One has a clear working-class suggestion, while the other has a distinctly upper middle-class, white, Will and Grace affect. It’s counterfeit. Well, it’s that way, for me. I’m 100% sure there are plenty of fabulachians who’d love to say different.

And that’s exactly my point.

Queerbillies are working-class queers of any number of racial and gender identities. However, a particular set of strategies is used by white Queerbillies to survive in a very conservative area of the country. An area of the country often described as a microcosm of the wider United States. After recently moving a little deeper into the mountains I love and identifying as a Queerbilly myself, I find these strategies both pragmatic and absolutely ridiculous in the fight for queer rights.

In my queer household, we watch football. Football in the Southern mountains is an important cultural touchstone. Regardless of your team, how they played this season or your hatred for the Alabama Crimson Tide, the ritual of Saturday football is a critical part of the community within which Southerners and Southern Appalachians are located. It is against this backdrop that I make a case for the ways queer folk and queerbillies in particular practice assimilation or liberation as strategies in a traditional Appalachian social structure.

My girlfriend and I watched the semi-final championship game at our friends Lola and Max’s home, along with a few other guests. Jake, a married, heteronormative, white, cisgender man, along with Jane and Jeff, a married white couple were the others in attendance. Jane was the quintessential picture of a sweet Southern wife. Cute as a button in her Clemson University maternity shirt, she patiently endured the male entitlement of both Jeff and Jake. Jeff, a police officer, was drinking while Jake intermittently made comments about Jane’s “pregnancy brain” and her lack of intelligence being okay because “she’s real pretty, y’all”. White male supremacy was not just on display on the huge television screen, it was a play in three acts right there in our friends’ home.

My girlfriend and I are new to the area where she and Lola work together at a veterinary clinic in emergency animal care. We are grateful to have found another lesbian couple near our new home, but we are still getting to know them. I am still learning how to exist in a space where even the queers are quite conservative, a consideration I’d not given much thought to previously. I am well aware of the racist and misogynistic undertones of white gay male spaces, but the country racism and sexism of my childhood seems out of place in a lesbian home. The idea that “queerness” was not a political position, but still a slur that causes discomfort even in those of the generation after me became a starting point for observations.

I moved to Anderson, SC from Decatur, GA. Using this change in location, I attempt an understanding of Appalachian identity and ideals from a queer perspective. My immersion in a new and different location that is both familiar as a country queer, but has marked out the ways that social mores and politics are quite different and not quite what I expected to find in searching for queer community. It’s been an interesting mix of homecoming and horrorshow. I’m originally from Douglasville, GA, which used to be a small town. I was raised Southern Baptist and have had the full indoctrination of anti-gay, anti-woman, Jesus Camp evangelical experience. As an adult, I’ve moved closer and closer to urban areas where I could find a community that shares my values. In Decatur, I was able to come into my queerness in my own time. This has given me space and opportunity to let that queerness fully develop, which has included a loving embrace of my rural roots, my hillbilly identity, and my continued radicalization and decolonization. It’s been a long time since I lived in a small town, but it does feel like coming home. Up to the mountains, down to the working class and close neighbors, I grew up around.

Country, rural, hillbilly queers have a number of cultural and institutional constraints, restraints, and supports to navigate. As a person who identified as straight most of my life, exposure and social connection to the queer community was largely through a few personal friendships. I did not understand that queerness is both a personal identity and a radical and revolutionary positionality in direct opposition to heteronormativity, white supremacy, and male entitlement. Here, queerness is not the same as gayness or lesbian-ness or trans-ness. Queerness is a political stance outside of specific sexual orientations or gender identities. As I find myself in a new environment, maybe I don’t know that much at all about the vast array of queerness as expressed by those living that identity. I was not prepared for the realization that, like white, cis, straight women, white, cis, gay women will align themselves with whiteness and toxic masculinity as both survival techniques and as the logical outgrowth of an upbringing in rural Appalachian values, norms, and institutional socialization.

This realization brings me back to my example, the SEC game watch and back to Jake, the literal embodiment of white, cis-gendered, heterosexual male entitlement. His comments about his wife and the women he worked with, while completely forgettable, were also a recognizable performance of entitlement. I found it difficult to understand the support and participate in this man’s behavior by women I viewed as queer. Laughter filled the room as jokes at the expense of women came rapid-fire. Clenching my jaw and fists, I found that if I mentioned a remark others were making might be racist or sexist, I was met with the type of reaction I expect from the internet and the regular participation in what Kincheloe calls the “fraternity of whiteness”. This induction into camaraderie comes at a price. A need to align oneself not just with whiteness and white supremacy, but with outright disregard and hostility towards Black folks and other people of color. Any critique of racist or sexist behavior was met with incredulity. Rather than finding the perpetuation of oppressive ideas to be the issue, it was understood that my opposition to these norms was the deviant behavior. My perceived rejection of this fraternal initiation was viewed as unnatural and transgressive. My refusal caused offense and my frustration was met with confusion by the others.

This snapshot is reflective of more than a single moment and is deeply grounded in my observations of friendships, social norms, and guest behavior within my local community. I’ve also found it to be particularly telling sociologically as an indication of how theories of queerness, belonging, identity, and as always, white male supremacy work in a rural, Appalachian space. Relationships with the white men in our lives can be helpful, tactics of survival, especially in areas where queerness is a physical, emotional, and economic liability. This is the foundation of a Gramscian application. Assimilation as a protective undertaking in opposition to liberation strategies. Because liberation is time and resource consuming and its completion is unattainable in a lifetime, assimilation is the path of least resistance for a rural queer.

I do not think assimilation or adjacency to dominant power structures will save marginalized people. These tactics are pragmatic, self-serving, and short-sighted. When it comes down to brass tacks, the marginalized will always be outsiders. Current events show this to be true as United States citizens find themselves detained in concentration camps, transgender Americans fear expulsion of the military (an imperialist institution on its own), and those fighting for the rights of these groups see their racial and class privilege as far less useful than when garnered to support the status quo.

“Without community, there is no liberation.” Audre Lorde

Queerbilly, sociologist, mom, partner, social justice hillbilly. Let’s have a hootenanny!