Meet the Queer Appalachians Using Social Media to Cultivate Community in the Rural South

In a region riddled with geographic isolation, poverty, and drug abuse, an Instagram page is connecting people and changing lives.

A group of queer Appalachians are using social media to foster community and share life-saving resources with LGBTQ people who need them most.

The Queer Appalachia Instagram account launched in 2016 with the goal of celebrating LGBTQ culture in an unlikely place: the rural Appalachian South. It’s an area plagued by geographic isolation, poverty, and opioid abuse, explains Mamone, one of Queer Appalachia’s founders. Those who grow up in Appalachia are told both implicitly and explicitly that there’s nothing of substance in the region, and that they’re destined to settle elsewhere.

“It’s been like that for a super long time,” Mamone, who uses they/them pronouns, tells NewNowNext. “I have this very vivid memory of elementary school where the teacher was writing the ’R’s’ we were going to learn that year. And she cackled wildly because at the end, she added, ’Road to Roanoke,’ which is the largest city about three hours away from where I grew up. All your life, you’re just taught to leave.”

Emily Hilliard for USA Today
Pictured above: Mamone and Kayleigh Phillips of Queer Appalachia

Though Queer Appalachia aims to uplift and inspire, its first iteration was born from tragedy. In 2016, Bryn Kelly, a transgender performer and artist from rural Appalachia, died by suicide. Mamone and Kelly had been friends since the ’90s, when they’d met during Mamone’s time as a college student in the rural South. At the time, Mamone helped run their school’s student-led LGBTQ group—and when Kelly came to the group in desperate need after being kicked out by her parents at age 16, the group took her in with no questions asked.

“We made this decision for us to take care of Bryn,” Mamone says. “And before phones, before the Internet was the Internet, we had an elaborate system [in place]… There were enough of us that we made it work.”

Kelly’s death rocked everyone who knew her, including Mamone, who’d remained her friend after both had moved to Brooklyn. It wasn’t until after her passing that Mamone and their friends from school began to reflect on the magnitude of the system they’d created to care for Kelly and the compassion they’d shown a young person in need. Her loved ones decided to create a memorial zine in her honor, themed around Appalachia’s queer community. The idea was something Kelly and Mamone had always discussed but never actually saw into fruition.

Courtesy of Mamone

“When the idea came up, it was like, ’Oh, we could make that, and I wouldn’t be stewing in this pressure cooker of emotion and thought,'” Mamone recalls. “If you had told us that we’d have $30,000 in individual pre-orders [of the zine], I’m sure we would’ve laughed you out of the room. But as soon as we went online, the community took over.”

The inaugural zine, Electric Dirt: A Celebration of Queer Voices and Identities from Appalachia and the South, was incredibly well-received—so much so that it sold out quickly, and the team found itself with enough submissions from readers to create three dozen more zines. So, Mamone shifted their focus to a submission-based Instagram account.

Today, Queer Appalachia’s Instagram has more than 57,000 followers. A collective of about a dozen people help run the group, including Mamone, who curates the Instagram page. The account highlights members of the local queer community and caters to their concerns, offering shout-outs, political commentary, and unfiltered memes about Appalachian culture.

“We’re excited to be doing something in Appalachian media that’s never been done before,” Mamone says. “I mean, we’re a bunch of queer hillbillies. I’m a novice, and I’m learning as I go.”

Beyond its social media reach, Queer Appalachia also aims to help members of the LGBTQ community in recovery from opioid addiction. It’s an incredibly close-to-home endeavor for Mamone, who personally struggled with opioid abuse and is now in recovery.

When the team created a poll to gauge interest in a recovery-based program, the results were startling: Of 100 participants who reported being in recovery, only four had access to sponsors or 12-step meetings to help them stay sober. And those who could access meetings were often ostracized.

“These meetings are in churches, mostly Pentecostal,” Mamone explains. “If you’re outside the gender binary, these meetings aren’t just bad; they can be dangerous.”

To create a safe, welcoming environment for those in need, the team plans to introduce Queer Appalachia Recovery, an online meeting space specifically designed to cater to the unique concerns of the LGBTQ community. The program will enlist licensed therapists and social workers as administrators and rural queers with five or more years of sobriety as e-sponsors, all of whom will help participants stay on track through virtual meetings and online discussions.

Mamone says the program is slated to launch in August.

Courtesy of Gina Mamone

The group’s community outreach efforts don’t stop there: A portion of all funds raised from sales of Electric Dirt benefit Queer Appalachia’s micro-grant program, which directly supports projects led by queer or trans black people, indigenous folks, and other people of color (QTBIPOC).

At its heart, Queer Appalachia is a celebration of marginalized voices and identities that thrive against all odds. What started as a memorial project has blossomed into a one-of-its-kind hub to share resources, find community, and offer support.

“We’re just figuring it out as we go along,” Mamone says, their voice soft. “And it’s been a very positive thing to do with my grief.”

Brooklyn-based writer and editor. Probably drinking iced coffee or getting tattooed.