Welders, Thongs, and Monster Trucks: Inside @QueerAppalachia's Search For Community in the Deep South
Photo credit: Matthew Dean Stewart, Luke Pelletier, Thom Washburn
On a cliff in West Virginia, Mamone lives 30 minutes from the nearest main street. They are isolated from the rest of the world in every way. In this house, in the forest, on top of the cliff, Mamone is the only LGBTQ + person as far as the eye can see. With the flash of the alarm button on an iPhone, Mamone controls an extremely popular Instagram account underground. One day, they may publish a photo of a welder wearing a blue lace string under his work pants. The next day, a monster truck smashed police cars as fireworks shot up into the sky. Mamone's world and the world of @QueerAppalachia is an exquisite, visual anarchy. There is only one rule to be accepted: everyone is accepted. Otherwise fuck you.
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Gina Mamone, who just prefers Mamone, is a 40-year-old with a Mediterranean vowel fry that is as cool as the nickname they prefer. You are also one of the founders of the parent project Queer Appalachia, which was founded in 2016. What started as an art-driven zine developed by the late Bryn Kelly has grown into a part-internet sensation-part-art-collaborative-part-quarterly-publication-part-public service announcement. There are many parts, but the mission is uniform. For Mamone, this is a full-time job that is essential for an often overlooked community. @QueerAppalachia and its publication Electric Dirt try to unite the queer people in Appalachia by capturing the diversity of races, skills, genders, religions and addictions in an area that is widely believed to be straight and white.
I came across @QueerAppalachia a few years ago. For me, the content of Instagram married two worlds that I didn't know as a child in East Tennessee that they could exist side by side. At first, I felt uncomfortable, as is probably the case for many children born in Appalachian Mountains - it enables wrinkles, sexuality and eroticism to live alongside RealTree and Opossums and Dolly Parton. It is the rare culture shock that occurs when two parts of you can coexist without conflict. In part, this cannot happen without creators who do not accept it themselves.
Discussing the interface between queer culture and Appalachia with Mamone is complex, as it means that you may be talking about butt plugs at one moment and a recipe for venison-tater-dead-casserole the next. The diversity is reflected on the popular Instagram page, which has over a quarter of a million followers. This project aims to highlight everything Appalachia has to offer, from Dolly Parton to same-sex couples spanning a John Deere tractor. The fact that it is a series of anomalies makes it so universal because it represents an unspoken population living alive in the depths of isolation. They gather in this digital church and share individual stories that have only recently found a unique internet loom. In the @QueerAppalachia world, you can be a gay, feminine, black, male-presenting farmer who is recovering from an opioid addiction. All that is required of you is to cover the cornbread when you are done gripping a piece.
Below is the conversation Esquire had with Mamone, @QueerAppalachia's creative director.
ESQ: One of the things that drew me to Queer Appalachia is that it really is this merging of identifiers that all seem contradictory, which is half the point in my opinion. How important is this intersectionality to you?
Mamone: That is the point in many ways. It is contradictory. People's first answer is to laugh about it, but in this place where they laugh is people's identity. Growing up in the coal fields of West Virginia, the Bible Belt, we learned these homemade methods and learned really contemporary radical queer politics. It is not a room that has existed for a very long time.
Part of the idea behind our collection of stories is what pride looks like in 2020. I spoke to someone recently about this feeling of quarantine isolation, and they pointed out that this is just the norm for so many rural queer people.
It is. And above all, if you are queer and disabled in rural areas, then this is definitely your reality. I learned that from this project. We see geographic isolation, especially in Appalachian Mountains. There was this COVID graphic that ran like the second week of ... when people were just starting to cancel things in a way they hadn't done before, and it basically showed that the south was lit up and for people who had long journeys. And it was definitely done in a way that shamed these Southerners.
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On the left, red / orange shows where people are still traveling * despite COVID-19. * Right county by county where Trump won in 2016
1) Magat idiots really don't think anything will happen
2) If Trump doesn't kill us, his voters will surely!
2:06 a.m. - April 3, 2020
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I know what you're talking about. I definitely saw that.
[It's a product] of our bullshit infrastructure. I don't know if I would have thought that before this project a few years ago, but if something doesn't make sense or is a little shaky, for whatever reason, whether it's budgets or votes, there are so many Nuances things that can dictate reality. But if it happens under the Mason Dixon, it's because they're ignorant. All these people? You have no choice but to go to a supermarket so far away because they live in a food desert. But nobody was okay to talk about it. They went on very quickly "ignorant people will not stop driving around".
I know that you are a creative director and have been on the project since about 2016. How did you get involved?
I was one of the people who started it. I knew Bryn Kelly. It started as a memorial project. So, Bryn, she killed herself in 2016, but the people who stayed behind in Braunschweig didn't see it as suicide. You definitely saw it as a nuanced murder of what happens when you have AIDS and are chronically poor forever and you have no access to anything you need, from health care to medicine. There were many factors. Bryn would not live a dignified life. I was very lost in the fact that she left us the way she did. And when [Queer Appalachia] was excluded as an option, I said, "Oh, that could be a healthy thing that has to do with my grief. We could do something." I never thought that this would be something beyond us.
You mentioned Bryn, but I know that Amanda Harris was also an integral part of Queer Appalachia. I liked the concept of the language she used for the "migration".
Yes. That was her life's work. Amanda is the bitch who persuaded me to do it. Like "We have to do that. We have to do that." But she called and opened me, and then she left us too. I didn't understand how much suicide there was in the queer community until it came to me in my life, and Amanda and Bryn are definitely part of it. I now have this platform. Instagram alone receives around DM 10,000 per day. We don't even have enough money to pay people to do it ethically. It's just impossible to achieve at all, but so much of it is just rural queers that are isolated, that are alone; that can't be out; for some reason that cannot be - their voice or their mannerisms. They're all just trying to survive with the family, not treating them like family and community.
This project has an incredible niche and is so personal. This is very similar to the art that you bring out.
This is us. We document our community. [Now] we may be curating more than ever just because of the volume. I have a very broad art concept. Everything is art for me. You can't drive me crazy. You can't insult me. And I just started putting it up there and we got so much response that it was more than enough for a dozen zines. For me, the revolutionary thing about the project is that in a time when so many people speak for other people, we have this unique way of speaking for ourselves.
Credit: Matthew Dean Stewart
And that has never been done before for our population. This means that people see images that they have never seen before. We celebrate and do this work in a geographically complicated place - it's a food desert, it's a health desert, and the other side of this health desert coin is a psychiatric desert. We are literally at the mathematically precise point of zero in the opioid epidemic here in West Virginia. This is a very specific mental health pressure cooker that can manifest in so many ways. People can be broken spectacularly. They can be spectacularly addicting.
The emphasis your art curation puts on addiction is incredible because it's really widespread, especially in Appalachian Mountains. And you put so much of your effort and work into raising awareness of harm reduction.
Performative harm reduction is my number one complaint. There are some people who really do amazing inclusive mitigation work, but the more funded it is, the more it is tied to the government. And I can give you some examples of reducing performance damage in my West Virginia community. Like needle laws. Every county in West Virginia has its own needle laws, and they are not the same. And it just so happens that every needle in West Virginia is a crime. So if I want to reduce damage and go out and pass clean needles ... The needles are small. They come in packages of 1,000. If anyone wants to give me a crime for every needle, what the hell?
It goes back to the idea of optics versus access. I have the theory that if you can use a dollar word instead of a five dollar word, you do so because it only gives people access to understand what you are talking about.
Exactly. And for me that is so much of the success of this project that we can reduce something that is strange and confused and really complicated to a meme. There is this meme that I made a few years ago. There were these white students in a library and one copied the other, and I only wrote one Karl Marx and the other Dolly Parton with "9 to 5". Whenever we can take something that is not accessible, like the Marxist canon, and reduce it to a broad concept of lines so that they say, "Oh, I have you." I know who this guy is from now on.
Photo credit: Luke Pelletier
Well, in terms of this approach, I know that Queer Appalachia and the collective have opened your platform unless you have the voice or the knowledge to speak to something. I recently know that this is the case with Black Lives Matter.
We got them in. You have a lot to say. I think as a white person with a huge platform, that gives me a lot of responsibility. We strive to share the platform in reasonable seasons. We do a thing called "No Thanks" every November with an amazing indigenous queer street artist in Kentucky, Otaes, and we basically only buy what they want. They can make art what they want and then they can take over the feed for a week and collect donations for charities that are important to them.
We did Black History Month in a way we have never done before. We literally hired 10 people to give us content on the blog, and the content they gave was basically to support their friends and projects. I think as white people with resources we have to hand them over and step back. I'm learning that.
I cannot tell you how surprised some people are to find out that there are black people in Appalachian Mountains. Do you still find people who are amazed by this revelation?
Yes. Whatever Appalachian joke, the more cut lenses you add, the worse it gets. "Oh, you have teeth in your shoes and you fucked your cousin." But then it's like, "Oh, you're black and you're from there?" It is getting worse and worse. At a time when there is so much talk about Trump country and what Appalachia looks like and who Appalachia is, we are giving a completely different narrative of our Appalachia. It looks very different. We make every effort to highlight all of the radical things that are going on here.
I mean damn it, we're doing COVID tests with sex workers. There are hardly any sex worker contacts here that are not based on Christians. We hope to show that there is more going on here than you think, and there could be more if you want to bring your ass here.
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