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Posts for February, 2013

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.