Of Kith and Kin in Pomeroy, Ohio

Jim Burroway

February 9th, 2013

Pomeroy, Ohio is located on the Ohio River, in the Appalachian southeast part of the state, about midway between Huntington, WV and Marrieta, OH. It’s the part of the state that is as red and conservative as they come. It’s also not far from where I grew up, and the familiar name in the headlines caught my notice:

Pomeroy Mayor Resigns Over Comments About Gay Officer
The mayor of a small southeastern Ohio town is resigning over accusations she made derogatory comments about a gay police officer.

The president of council for the village of Pomeroy said Mayor Mary McAngus submitted a letter of resignation on Saturday. The police chief told village council McAngus repeatedly used slurs about a gay officer in front of other officers and dispatchers. The chief warned council any such comments could expose the village to a lawsuit.

This certainly caught me by surprise. I know the culture there, and a story about a small village rallying around a gay part-time police officer seemed very uncharacteristic of the area. But it turns out the Gallapolis Daily Tribune has been on this story for several days, and reported these details:

“Unfortunately, allegations have been made by several officers and dispatchers in reference to Mayor Mary McAngus’s continued behavior and vulgar language used against a gay officer in our department,” (Police chief Mark) Proffitt stated.

“Officers have provided me with statements that they were made uncomfortable during interviews with the use of [the term] ‘queer’ by the Mayor,” said Proffitt. “She also called an officer into her office and informed him that another officer was ‘queer’ and used the word many times. She then asked if [the officer called in] was gay, and he became uncomfortable and left. Another officer responded to the mayor that he has a family member who is gay and did not feel someone of her stature (mayor) should talk like that about an employee.”

Now it all makes sense. This wasn’t just a story about a village rallying around a gay police officer, nor was it just a story about employment discrimination and the threat of a lawsuit. It was about both of those two things, but also about something else which might have been just enough to push this thing over the edge.

Appalachia is an area that doesn’t deal well in abstracts. Everything is literal, especially the Bible,  and attitudes are as hard as concrete. You can talk about abstract ideas like fairness and equality until you’re blue in the face, and it won’t mean much to someone who is confronted daily with a host of cold, hard realities.

But one of those realities is family, and kith- and kinship take on a much greater importance in Appalachia than in most other areas of the country. And since the calendar reads 2013 in this tiny river town (Population: 1,852) just like everywhere else, it now appears that you can’t swing a dead slur without hitting a gay person. And in Appalachia, when someone says something that comes across as an attack on family, well, those are fighting words. Coming out is a powerful thing everywhere, but the particular dynamics of Appalachian culture can have a way of amplifying that power. And so its not much of a surprise to me that McAngus lost that fight. She was fighting against an apparently well-liked police officer, a well-liked police officer’s partner, and other people who had gay family members who were, naturally, going to stand by them. She didn’t stand a chance.

That’s not to say that Appalachia is quickly becoming all warm and accepting. West Virginia isn’t going to be gay-marrying anytime soon. Turning abstractions into realities is a person-to-person, one-person-at-a-time thing there. But when it does happen, watch out.

Hue-Man

February 9th, 2013

What you’re describing goes a long way to explain why LGBT rights have progressed at nearly the speed of light – in ways that even the most radical of gay rights advocates would never have imagined, twenty or even ten years ago.

People have come to realize that they have a “confirmed bachelor” uncle, they have a cousin that says she could never find the right man, they realize that their children could be gay or have a friend who is a part-time police officer who has a live-in boyfriend. (Gay actors playing iconic roles like Dr. Kildare, Perry Mason, and Doogie Howser as well as Rock Hudson may have had a part to play.)

Hunter

February 10th, 2013

I think you’ve got a very good point here — as someone with family in Appalachia myself (western NC), I know that if you attack family, you’ll have the whole clan on your case (no matter how much they’ve been fighting among themselves).

There’s also connection to the community — if you’re related to someone people know, even if you’re from out of town or another state, you’re in.

As for this story, the mayor sounds like a real piece of work — her behavior was much worse than name-calling. I can’t help but think that the backlash has been significant, though, to force her resignation. Good.

Jim Hlavac

February 10th, 2013

It is stories like this that remind me that not only did gays pretty much achieve what we did without any laws for us — but often while laws against us were still on the books — and why the entire No-gays movement (anti-gay they are sometimes called, but, when they call for you not be gay, they are “No gay” indeed,) is simply doomed to failure. In other reports some 98% of gay folks are out to immediate family, and 68% out to extended family — and no matter how hard the politicos try, they’re not going to make our families hate us — those days are gone.

Meanwhile, growing up in NYC, family protections mattered just as much, but, probably weren’t as newsworthy, though, when I started to do business across the rural Gulf South in the mid-1980s I was astonished to find cops protecting every gay bar I found from Alexandria LA to Florence South Carolina, and all those in between – and this at a time when 10 years at hard labor was a common term for “crimes against nature.” The cops simply would not enforce the law — and gave us protection — against ladies like this mayor, and her younger hetero male creepies. It was then, I think, that I realized that we won, and the rest was merely mopping up.

Gene in L.A.

February 10th, 2013

I wouldn’t say the rest “was” mopping up; there’s still a lot of water on the floor, and we’ll be mopping for quite some time yet. But part of the floor is dry now, and that’s definitely an accomplishment.

Jay

February 11th, 2013

This is an inspiring story. But I wonder how this village of fewer than 2,000 people can support a mayor and an administrator and a police chief and police force and a town council, etc. Seems like a lot of overhead for such a small place.

Rod Roddy lookalke

February 11th, 2013

Hunter also mentioned what I experienced , in a small town in Southern IL, in the late 80s. Because my parents were living there, after retiring and moving back to the area where they grew up, as well as some relatives who always lived there, and still do. People were accepting of me, even the men in town, when they realized I was just another guy to them. One person at my parents’ church asked them why I didn’t attend with them, and was told “our son doesn’t believe the way we do, and attends church in (a nearby large town with a college). ‘Nuff said, I guess, as it was never brought up again, and I was never harrassed, by anyone, while I lived there. I believe many people know someone gay nowadays, so it’s more a factor of being someone people know, these days, and even more now than when I lived in Southern Illinois, back in the late 80s/early 90s.

Andrew

February 12th, 2013

They may not be 100% comfortable with the gayness, and they would probably prefer that they were different, but… “s/he may be a “queer”, but they’re *our* queer…” You pick a fight with one, you pick a fight with all.

(And, over time, folks come to terms with the gayness thing, provided they can understand it. They may never be happy with gayness as expressed, say, in the Castro or NYC, but that’s got more to do with the cultural differences between Appalachia and the Castro or NYC, and it’s just exacerbated through the prism of difference).

G.I. Joe

February 16th, 2013

You’re absolutely right.

And this is why the black Civil Rights Movement has had a hard time achieving what it set out to do – because they have to fight from the outside to get in.

Gay people have the advantage of being born INSIDE. The obvious disadvantage of course is that until you’re old enough to move out or until the country changes enough, it means you’re ALONE inside, in enemy territory.

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