Central Appalachia is hundreds of miles east of western Kentucky, yet its influencers have expanded into Paducah.
Currently on display at the Clemens Fine Arts Center at West Kentucky Community and Technical College is Country Queers, a multimedia project documenting and exploring diversity in rural communities.
Director Todd Birdsong welcomes the conversation-generating exhibit. He told The Sun the activity surrounding the event is noteworthy.
“Still, the exhibit is getting noticed like no other that we have had in the last several years,” he said. “Obviously, there are still issues within our community that need to be addressed, and I think that this exhibit is a way for people to talk about how they feel about LGBTQIA2S+ issues and lifestyles.”
Country Queers is a rural-queer-led, central-Appalachian-based project that aims to preserve, complicate, push back, and connect rural queer and trans people’s history, ideas, narratives, and communities.
Founder and Director Rae Garringer launched the project in 2013. They grew dissatisfied and disappointed with rural queer framing and the lack of access to queer stories in rural America.
At its core, the project is for and by rural queer and trans people, they explained.
“I think it challenges some ideas that rural communities are these monolithic, straight, white, conservative spaces only,” Rae told The Sun.
The multimedia component and social media platform allow the public to freely engage with the project.
The exhibit interacts with the community by sharing photographs, interview transcripts and audio excerpts. The collection spans nine years with 70 subjects participating in oral history interviews, podcast episodes and photography.
It also functions as a public space where intersecting and overlapping common identities.
“I think one of the objectives of the exhibit is to try and get people to examine their own feelings and attitudes towards ‘others’ and people who are different and be able to express their reactions to the show in a civilized and meaningful way,” Birdsong added.
The exhibit’s subjects are from any community in the United States that is considered ‘rural.’ New Mexico, California, Kentucky, Vermont, and North Carolina are some of the spaces ‘rural’ queers navigate.
“One thing that I’ve learned during the past nine years of the project is that the word ‘country’ brings up a lot of different things for a lot of different people,” Rae said.
They noted identity, experience and frame of reference help shape the ‘country’ concept.
“When I get overwhelmed with all of the pieces, I have to remind myself who’s the primary audience,” Rae said.
Besides geographical boundaries demonstrated within the exhibit, underlying identities rural queer and trans people navigate are race, class, age, and religion.
Inspiration and influence were drawn from STAY Together Appalachian Youth Project, Southerners On New Ground, and other activist media and groups.
“It’s far from a walk in the park for rural queer people still, even though a lot has changed,” Rae said.
Project supporters include the Kentucky Foundation for Women.
In 2019, KFW awarded Rae an Art Meets Activism grant and an Artist Enrichment grant, providing funding for operations.
“The AMA grant supports feminist artists and organizations in Kentucky to engage individuals and communities in artmaking that directly advances positive social change,” KFW officials said.
In years past, KFW has assisted local organizations — Maiden Alley Cinema and the Upper Town Heritage Foundation — with grants.
Country Queers is supported by volunteers, Patreon supporters, campaigns, varying donors, and advocacy organizations.
The exhibit runs from March 31 to April 29. It is a free, public event.