Few comments demonstrate such concentrated bigotry as the ones that came out of the West Virginia legislature in 2019. It began in February, when Republican Delegate Eric Porterfield of Mercer County made remarks comparing “the LGBT” to the Ku Klux Klan, adding that he would see if his children could “swim” if he suspected they were gay or lesbian. If that wasn’t enough, when called out by his constituents and others on social media, Porterfield stated, “These vicious monsters [LGBTQ people] are proving that they are the most bigoted and discriminatory people in America.”
Four months later, during annual Pride celebrations across the state, Republican state Sen. Mike Azinger of Wood County penned an op-ed in the Sunday edition of the local paper titled “The Shame of LGBTQ Pride,” in which he claimed that “The LGBQT movement is not about happiness and tolerance, but about indoctrination and a forced acceptance of a perverted and non-biblical view of sexuality.”
These sentiments were later praised by the state chairperson of the West Virginia Republican Party, Melody Potter.
With comments like these, you would imagine West Virginia would be the last place an LGBTQ person would choose to live—but think again. West Virginia is home to many LGBTQ organizations and resources, including a nationally recognized LGBTQ center at West Virginia University. According to the Williams Institute, West Virginia is estimated to be home to the highest percentage of transgender teens between the ages of 13 and 17 in the country. Although scientists are still unclear about the reasons for this, the data presents a compelling case for LGBTQ justice in the Mountain State.
West Virginia has a complicated history. The counties that eventually comprised it seceded from Virginia at the beginning of the Civil War, and the new state was admitted to the Union on June 20, 1863. This perhaps set the course for the state of West Virginia’s complex future.
The political landscape of West Virginia has changed pretty dramatically over the past two decades. Bill Clinton won West Virginia by 13 points in the ‘90s, but, by stark contrast, Donald Trump won by a whopping 40-plus percentage points in 2016.
“The only perspective that I can give is that everyone needs a type of hope,” said Danielle Walker, Democratic West Virginia state Delegate. “When you have a family whose economic base has gone to nothing because of the opioid crisis and addiction has taken over their neighborhoods; when someone is there giving them hope, they will remember that person’s name.”
For years, West Virginia has wrestled to maintain relevance in a rapidly changing economic landscape. The reigning industry for decades—coal—has experienced a sharp decline across the country in production and employment, while many other industries, including steel and manufacturing, have all but left the state, leaving communities to fend for themselves. Automation has replaced many human hands in industrial labor, including in the coal sector, which has caused some economic instability in the state. New workplace technologies have also created some social tensions in the changing ideological landscape.
When 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton remarked that she would “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” what was heard by the families with a generational investment in coal was, You are becoming irrelevant.
In many ways, West Virginia is experiencing an identity crisis. Many residents fear a post-industry Appalachia—something unthinkable for those who have known industry all their lives. In turn, this economic evolution parallels a simultaneous social evolution in the state. As a result of persistent attacks on the community, LGBTQ West Virginians have taken center stage, causing some moderate and conservative evangelicals to find their identities challenged in the face of progress.
In a case reminiscent of nationally recognized Virginia student Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy who used the boys’ restroom in his high school and sued the school board for the right to continue to do so, West Virginia student Michael Critchfield of Harrison County was allegedly harassed by Assistant Principal Lee Livengood for using the high school boys’ restroom. Critchfield, 16, who recounted being asked to “prove he was a boy” by using the urinal, has become the face of transgender rights in West Virginia, taking on the school board in a lawsuit filed in August outlining his ordeal.
This incident highlights the incredible divide between those who understand the transgender experience in the context of a binary world, and those who do not. Across the country, the overwhelming trend is moving toward LGBTQ acceptance, but unfortunately, West Virginia has struggled to match the progress of many other states.
According to the organization Freedom For All Americans, part of a national bipartisan campaign to secure full nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people nationwide, in “20 states and the District of Columbia, state law protects people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations.” Unfortunately, West Virginia isn’t one of them.
As of September 2019, 12 municipalities in West Virginia have voted to institute local housing and workplace protections in the form of nondiscrimination ordinances (NDO). These ordinances typically specify that, under the municipal code, no person can be fired or evicted based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Charleston, the state capital, was first to pass workplace and housing protections for the LGBTQ community in 2007.
However, this does not mean that passing an ordinance is easy work. LGBTQ activist Jeanne Peters from Parkersburg, a town which has twice attempted to pass an NDO but failed, finds that West Virginia has some growing to do. “My friends and I have a saying: In Parkersburg, you can be married on Sunday, fired on Monday, and evicted on Tuesday.”
According to the Williams Institute at UCLA in 2017, while 70% of people in the state actually support workplace protections for LGBTQ people, only 5% of workplaces in West Virginia have local laws outlining protections for sexual orientation and gender identity.
According to mayoral candidate and transgender woman Danielle Stewart of Beckley, West Virginia, “So many LGBTQ people from West Virginia have left the state because they were either forced or felt they had to.” Stewart adds that, although some LGBTQ people are leaving, many have become more vocal as a result of the passage of a local NDO in January 2019.“We have a large LGBT community—but everyone had been run underground. When we passed the ordinance, all of these individuals that had been out there not making the connections finally could. We are starting to develop a really strong group down here.”
This concept of a hidden community of LGBTQ people is not new. For decades, LGBTQ people across the country have been kept in the shadows and on the edges of society. During the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and ‘90s, the LGBTQ community was ridiculed and ignored, which many argue led to the expedited deaths of those living with the syndrome. The power of creating an environment for LGBTQ people to participate fully in their communities with full legal protections against discrimination cannot be underestimated.
Although cities across the state have taken stances to protect their communities, the state legislature has yet to act on any piece of meaningful legislation to protect the LGBTQ community on a statewide scale. In 2018, nine bills were created to protect LGBTQ people in West Virginia, but not one even made it to committee, let alone to a vote.
Despite the losses, the LGBTQ community and its allies remain focused on the future. “I think this is the strongest community and the most well-organized community I have seen in my 43 years,” said state Delegate Danielle Walker.
We may not know how long it will be until LGBTQ people gain full economic, social, and political equality in the state, but we can be sure there is a staunch and persistent effort forging ahead. The state motto of West Virginia is “Wild and Wonderful”; its people, politics, and perspectives are often both.
Rosemary Ketchum is a mental health professional in Wheeling, West Virginia. Ketchum, a transgender woman, speaks to audiences across the Mountain State about civil rights and social justice with a specialty in LGBTQ issues. Ketchum, 25, serves on the Wheeling Human Rights Commission and as a board member of the ACLU of West Virginia. Ketchum is a first-time candidate for public office running for Wheeling City Council – Ward 3.