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Being LGBTQ+ in W.Va.

Local members of the LGBTQ+ community shared their experiences being openly queer in a conservative state, the challenges they’ve faced and what Pride Month means to them. 

Meanwhile, a state-level advocate for the LGBTQ+ community discussed what the city of Morgantown and the state of West Virginia as a whole could do better to support LGBTQ+ residents.

‘It isn’t all smiles and rainbows’

 Taylor Schwartz’s experience as an LGBTQ+ individual living in the Morgantown area has been good, but not always. She described her close friends as being liberal or progressive and accepting of Schwartz and her sexuality. She’s been able to find a few safe spaces in the area in which she can be open about her identity, but for the most part, she has tried to hide that part of her life out of fear.

There was an incident in which Schwartz’s neighbors were throwing a loud party and began to yell slurs at her from outside  her apartment door. She asked them to stop, but their harassment only intensified. The neighbors have continued to insult Schwartz with slurs and have started to vandalize her property by stealing and destroying decorations placed outside.

“I fear that when I come back from the summer [the outside of the apartment] will be filled with homophobic vandalism,” she said. Schwartz said she alerted her apartment complex to the problem, but management did nothing.

“During the election, I was told to stay inside, and I even dressed more ‘straight’ out of fear people would want to hurt me because of who I am,” she said.

The vandalism to her personal property isn’t the biggest challenge  Schwartz has faced as an LGBTQ+ individual, however. That would be her family. Schwartz is only out to a few family members out of concern  her extended family might hate her for her sexual orientation. Even family members who have accepted her often unknowingly perpetrate microaggressions against her in the form of questions like, “How do you know you’re [bisexual]?” and statements such as “You’re not [bisexual] until you try it.” 

“[It’s] frustrating because I know I am bi, but my family still doesn’t see me as a ‘true bi’ because I have not yet been with a woman sexually,” Schwartz said.

Being a bisexual Jewish woman, Schwartz has also faced issues with intersectionality. Social media users have told her  she is “not a real Jew” because she is bisexual. There are even anti-Semites lurking within the LGBTQ+ community, according to Schwartz. She said  she feels like she will never be able to truly fit in among either community: “… I am a Jew among bisexuals and a bisexual among Jews.” 

Schwartz fears that if people in her classes or at her job find out about her sexuality, it will result in hatred and discrimination.

To Schwartz, Pride Month means not only celebrating her sexuality and being proud of who she is, but also celebrating LGBTQ+ history and how far the community has come. She said  Pride Month is also a time to think about what we can all do to show more support for the LGBTQ+ community.

“It isn’t all smiles and rainbows. People in the LGBTQ+ community have gone through years of discrimination that we need to be aware of, and even though [same-sex] marriage is legal, there is still more we can do to better support the LGBTQ+ community,” she said.

According to Schwartz, one thing  Morgantown can do to better support its LGBTQ+ residents is listen to LGBTQ+ voices. She said  if a committee of straight, cisgender individuals is making decisions on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community, it isn’t truly taking the needs of the community into consideration, because their voices are not being heard.

“Considering I am white and [cisgender], I am better off than my POC and trans counterparts, who experience far more discrimination than I ever could in a lifetime,” she said.

‘Am I going to experience some form of assault?’

Morgan Johnson, a West Virginia University graduate student worker and teaching assistant for the WVU Center for Women and Gender Studies and volunteer with the WVU LGBTQ+ Center,  said she thinks  the university in particular is accepting of members of the LGBTQ+ community as long as those individuals reach out to use the resources offered by the institution.

Johnson has been openly bisexual since she was a high school student and said  her identity has never been a problem to her family in Florida. She does know a few people who aren’t out to their families and have started to live a double life in Morgantown — there, they are open and honest about themselves, while at home they  conceal a  part of who they are.

“I know a few people who are transgender and are just afraid to even go to [a certain downtown club] because we have had [incidents] where trans people or drag queens or gay people are beat up outside [the club]. I think that’s what mainly worries people in town …  ‘Am I going to experience some form of assault — verbal or physical — from somebody that’s drunk, while I’m drunk walking around town, too?’ ” Johnson said.

Although Johnson has several LGBTQ+ acquaintances who have faced harassment or hate because of their real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity, she herself has not faced any adversity in Morgantown related to her sexual identity.

For Johnson, it was difficult to say what Morgantown could do to better support LGBTQ+ community.

“We have policies, we have these laws, but things still happen. At this rate, it’s about changing people’s opinions, changing their views of things, and that’s difficult,” she said.

She suggested  informational courses could be offered to the public regarding the LGBTQ+ community. Johnson has taken  similar introductory courses at WVU but believes  such material should be made available to non-university residents of Morgantown as well.

‘Where have you all been for the last six years?’

 Morgantown City Councilman for  7th Ward, Barry Wendell, said  Pride Month is a recognition that members of the LGBTQ+ community are proud of who they are.

Wendell doesn’t get as excited about Pride Month as he used to. He referred to himself as “sort of post-gay,” citing his age — 71 — and his 15-year marriage as reasons  he doesn’t feel  he is a part of the mainstream community. Nevertheless, he is glad  Pride Month occurs and  the community receives recognition.

Wendell  served on the city council for four years. His term ends Thursday. He said  he thinks everyone on the city council has tried to ignore his sexual orientation — and maybe that’s a good thing. As far as issues go, it doesn’t usually come up.

When he was first elected to the  council, the Human Rights Commission  had proposed a nondiscrimination ordinance for the city. The council  passed the ordinance, but Wendell wasn’t involved.

 “I think that the Human Rights Commission deliberately didn’t want me involved with that; they were afraid that there would be some blowback,” he said.

Wendell said there was also an instance in which an individual from a local  radio station accused  Morgantown City Council of being “puppets” of Mountaineers for Progress, seemingly  calling out Wendell and his husband. The individual received condemnation from people in the community and word made its way back to Wendell. When Wendell later went on the show and asked the person about the quote, the individual said it did not refer to Wendell.

“That’s what he said, but I think that it was about me, and somebody warned him off,” Wendell said.

Wendell is not  from West Virginia; he and his husband relocated to the area in 2012, when his husband was offered a job as a rabbi at Tree of Life Congregation downtown. The congregation seemed friendly and  Wendell and his husband decided to  research  the area.

Wendell learned  that when the state Legislature passed a bill banning same-sex marriage, four people voted against it. Two of those people — Barbara Fleischauer and Charlene Marshall — were in Morgantown.

“They’re really responsible for us moving here because Joe, my husband, was worried that West Virginia was very anti-gay, which it is. But I said, ‘Morgantown is going to be different because two of the delegates from Morgantown voted against banning same-gender marriage,’ ” he said.

Wendell said  he is now  friends with both Fleischauer and Marshall.

When Wendell and his husband first relocated to Morgantown, they had a difficult time connecting with other members of the LGBTQ+ community in the area. They had previously lived in Los Angeles and belonged to a synagogue there that was almost entirely LGBTQ+. The cultural climate in West Virginia contrasted sharply with what Wendell and his husband were accustomed to. Eventually, Wendell and his husband heard about G2H2 — Gay Guys’ Happy Hour — and decided to give it a shot.

The group meets once a month for drinks and dinner and is where Wendell and his husband first connected with other gay people in Morgantown. Then, Pride Month celebrations began to be organized  and Wendell was shocked by the number of individuals who showed up.

“We were like, ‘Where have you all been for the last six years?’ ” Wendell said.

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