Q&A: Travis Rountree on the history of the LGBTQ+ community in WNC

PAST MEETS PRESENT: Since 2019, Travis Rountree, assistant professor of English at Western Carolina University, has worked to help archive the history of Western North Carolina's LGBTQ+ community. Photo by Bryan Miler

When discussing his sexuality, Travis Rountree describes himself as a late bloomer. He was 26 years old when he came out in 2008. At the time, he was living in Boone, working on his master’s degree in English at Appalachian State University.

His decision to come out helped him find his queer community, Rountree says, and has continued to influence his academic research at Western Carolina University, where he now serves as assistant professor of English.

Since 2019, Rountree has been working closely with Sarah Steiner, WCU’s head of research and instruction services at Hunter Library. At the time, Steiner was in the early stages of launching an archival collection dedicated to the region’s LGBTQ+ history.

“We have such a rich, varied and inclusive queer community here in the mountains,” Steiner says. “I wanted to find small ways to highlight some of the people who’d lived here their whole lives and to trace the personal stories that have arisen in this unique rural environment.”

Funding for the project came through just as COVID-19 shut down classes. Instead of in-person interviews with members of the local LGBTQ+ community, Rountree’s students led virtual discussions over Zoom. Soon thereafter, in October 2020, the archive joined forces with the LGBTQIA+ Archive of Western North Carolina at UNC Asheville.

Along with his work on the archive, Rountree is the president of Sylva Pride, serves on the board of Blue Ridge Pride and is vice president of the Appalachian Studies Association.

Xpress recently spoke with Rountree about his research, personal history and what we can all learn from his archival work.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Xpress: What drew you to research queer folks in Appalachia?

Rountree: When I came out, I was just looking for people in the region. In Boone, there were very few queer folks. I was doing dissertation research, and my partner was a big queer theory person, and he was from Appalachian Kentucky.

We wrote a book chapter together for Storytelling in Queer Appalachia. Our book chapter was about being run out of a restaurant in Hillsville, Va., by a motorcycle gang. One of the guys at the bar asked us straight-up, “Are y’all homos?” And I was like, that’s the name of our chapter right there.

At one of our first presentations on this chapter, we had all these young folks who were queer. And they were crying — like weeping — and saying, “Oh my gosh, we didn’t know that there were queer people in Appalachia.”

How do you find sources to interview for your archive?

Someone will tell us that we need to research this publication or that we need to interview this person. And then that person will tell us about another person. That’s how we heard about a group here in Western North Carolina in the 1980s that was called Out in the Mountains. It was all closeted faculty and staff [at WCU], basically. They would get together and have parties to celebrate their identity. But I had no idea about that until we started interviewing a lot of the folks that were here in the ’80s. It’s really interesting.

Are there subjects you’re still looking to add to the archive? 

We need to push on getting more people of color in the archive, folks who were here in the ’80s. We need to start collecting those names. And I would really like to start working with the Qualla Boundary a bit more, collecting Cherokee voices, because they’re absolutely there.

What surprises you in this research?

There was always a history here. It just hasn’t been told yet, and we haven’t been listening for it. That’s surprised me — learning how folks were successful and lived here, even closeted in this community.

The other thing that surprised me is that our students are out, proud and ready to holler about it. They do not hold back in interviews or any kind of work that we do. Their little flags are flying, big time. And I love that. I’m impressed by that. That really gives me hope.

Another reason for the work that I do is to blaze a path for the next generation. They are going to widen that path and do a lot more with it.

Would you share a story about one of the people that you’ve featured in the archive?

I interviewed Kaleb Xander Lynch, who is a local trans man in Jackson County. After he transitioned, he was in the line at the Bojangles here. This woman in line asked him, “Aren’t you that person that had the sex change?” And he replied, “Aren’t you the person that needs to mind her business?”

I like that story because he’s sassy as hell. He’s not afraid to give it back, which shows the sort of small community nature of Jackson County. That woman was someone he would see every day.

People are becoming a bit more accepting here, but that stuff still definitely happens. And I mean, we see a lot of political rhetoric around here too. But there’s been a lot more room for queer folks here. And that means I’m doing my job right as a professor and as a social activist.

What’s one of your favorite stories about introducing people to an LGBTQ+ archive?

When I was previously teaching at the University of Louisville, I worked with another LGBTQ+ archive, the Williams-Nichols Archive. I brought my class to the collection, and the archivist brought out all the stuff — The Bears [a self-assumed nickname for hairy and brawny gay men] of Louisville cookbook from 1996 and a vest from Mr. Leather 2017 [a competition for the leather community].

My students’ eyes were opened. That was the moment that I was like, ‘This is amazing.’ And it’s funny because in that moment, it switched. The students sort of felt like the queer ones, right? They had that moment of discomfort, but also, ‘Oh, what’s this community that I didn’t know about? That’s here in Louisville?’

With my work with Pride, what surprises me are the folks who have come up to me and have been so grateful to have a moment where they can be out and proud of who they are. We should call that emotional work in academia. That makes me feel good. But also, it’s like I’m doing the work that I should be doing. A lot of this is interwoven. The archive influences Pride, and Pride influences the archive. And that also influences what we do in the community.

What do you think the average person can learn from the history of queer people in the South?

The history of who we are, how far we go back and also where we’re going. You can look at the more canonized stuff like Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and Dorothy Allison and all the big names that we know and love. But there’s also other undercurrents that were written about at that time, in newspapers and magazines and stuff like that. Queer future theory is a big thing in research and scholarship now, too. But looking at the past to go forward is critically important as well.

Editor’s note: This article was updated on Jan. 15. 


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