Rae Garringer, 35, describes the rural sheep farm in southeastern West Virginia they grew up on as “one of the most beautiful places” they’ve ever seen. “As a small kid growing up there, it’s just magical to get to play in those woods, those creeks and fields and caves,” says Garringer, who uses nonbinary they/them/their pronouns. But by the time Garringer was in high school, riding the bus for four hours a day started to wear on them. Wanting to get as far away as possible from central Appalachia, Garringer wound up attending a small liberal arts college in western Massachusetts, where they quickly learned they were queer.
Once Garringer graduated in 2007, many of their queer friends were moving to cities with thriving gay scenes and they followed suit. In 2008, Garringer moved to Austin with a girlfriend at the time, then stayed in the city after they broke up. “The first time I went to Texas I was like, ‘People talk shit about Texas but people also talk shit about West Virginia, which probably means I’m gonna like it there,’” says Garringer.
Austin is also where Garringer first met fellow queer folks who’d also grown up in the country—specifically, on the dance floors of Austin’s Rainbow Cattle Company and Rusty Spurs. At the lively country bars, filled with two-steppin’ gay cowboys and boot-scootin’ queers, they had found a chosen family who accepted them and understood that they couldn’t take the country out of them.
But after spending four years in Central Texas, Garringer was “achingly homesick” for the mountains, and returned to West Virginia in 2012. Garringer was happy to be home but felt isolated from queer communities, and longed to connect with other queer people living in rural areas. To make matters more challenging, Garringer couldn’t find any books, media, or material online that related to the experiences of rural LGBTQ+ people. “I had this really intense frustration that it was so hard to find stories of [queer] people living outside of major cities,” Garringer says. “The only stories that were easily accessible were [news] stories of really violent murders of people like Matthew Shepard and Brandon Teena.”
Garringer’s frustration prompted them to create Country Queers, a multimedia oral history project, in 2013. Country Queers documents the diverse experiences of rural and small-town LGBTQ+ people in the United States through audio recordings and photography. Since the project launched, Garringer has recorded more than 65 oral history interviews with queer people living in rural parts of fifteen states, including Texas. The interviewees talk about their upbringing, their identities, and what it’s like being queer in rural areas or small towns. Last month, Country Queers launched a weekly podcast featuring these oral histories that provides an audio platform for these marginalized communities to document and amplify their own histories. It allows queer rural people to be in control of their own narratives and positions them as experts on their own lived experiences.
“Rural areas continually—in national media—get oversimplified and flattened in ways that are really damaging,” Garringer says. “My hope is that the project is shaking up a little bit of that in multiple ways—shaking up how people might think of rural areas and shaking up how people might think about where queerness can thrive.”
Through crowdfunding efforts and through time off from their public school teaching job, Garringer was able to take a summer road trip in 2014 to interview more than thirty queer people living across nonurban areas of the United States. Garringer asked friends and friends of friends if they knew anyone who wanted to be interviewed and was even contacted by a few people through the crowdsourcing site. Garringer eventually was able to connect with strangers from across the country who wanted to tell their stories. In Texas—one of Garringer’s pit stops—they met people including a couple who ran a snow cone stand in Angleton; 42-year-old Sandra from Lake Jackson; Mattie Matthaei, who owns the historic Hotel Ritchey in Alpine; and David Rodriguez.
Garringer recently released a podcast episode featuring their oral history conversation with Rodriguez. Originally from Wharton, Rodriguez was working at a farm in Bastrop when he met Garringer, and now runs a goat’s milk soap business with his husband in Lane City, an unincorporated community in Wharton County.
As a teenager, Rodriguez raised goats as a member of both the FFA and 4-H; he was also out in high school. In the podcast episode, he describes how he was “open in public but not in private” and how his mother kicked him out of the house when he came out to her at seventeen. “She said, ‘You have sixty seconds to get out of the house, and if you don’t I’m going to hit you with this baseball bat,’ and she went and got a baseball bat,” he recounts to Garringer. “So there wasn’t any option of staying at home. So I left and walked, and I have never felt freer than I did that very moment that I walked out of that house.”
Rodriguez says he felt compelled to share his story with the Country Queers project because he wanted to let others know it’s okay to be gay and want to stay in the country. “I felt so alone for so long in rural Texas,” Rodriguez tells Texas Monthly. “I felt like I was the only gay person that wanted to live out here. Other gay people that I knew were waiting to move to Austin, or to Houston or Dallas. Me—I wanted to stay where I lived.”
Rodriguez lives in the country because of the low cost of living, and also because he enjoys ranching and homesteading. He also feels a sense of community where he lives—so much so that he’s running for Wharton county commissioner this November, as a Democrat. If elected, he hopes to improve flooding issues and access to internet connectivity in the region.
“I want to make change,” Rodriguez says. “I want to make it better than what it is, so that’s why I want to stay here. Because I love it and I want to make it better.”
Garringer, who now lives in eastern Kentucky, has similar reasons for staying in central Appalachia. They say the region has suffered from centuries of out-migration, including an exodus of young people, creative people, and people seeking jobs. “There’s a political kind of commitment for me in terms of staying in this place that I care about that is really complicated and really messy,” they say. “But it’s home.”
In addition to the written oral histories on the site and its podcast episodes, the Country Queers project has also moved toward social media to tell stories of rural queer life. Every month the project does Instagram takeovers, in which rural and small-town LGBTQ people share their stories and photos to the page’s following of just over 11,000. This collection—depicting people’s animals, landscapes, and memories—displays the breadth of what it means to be a “country queer,” and how expansive these experiences can be.
“What rural means is so big, varied, and complicated,” Garringer explains. “It looks, sounds, and smells so many different ways. There’s just a great diversity, and I don’t mean that only in terms of race but in terms of identities, culture, landscapes, politics, environments, and histories in rural spaces.”