Growing their own food and winning over their neighbors, they feel safer in rural West Virginia than they ever did in the big city.
Up the narrow, winding roads where the Appalachian Mountains cut through West Virginia, the countryside is dotted with squat one-story homes. Some are decorated with American flags and covered in slabs of cheap plywood; other homes are sturdier buildings painted with delicate country motifs. In each yard, animals wander freely, and golden sunlight bounces off the purple wildflowers and rolling meadows.
One small town here, a settlement established in the 1800s, has a Walmart, a gas station, a Wendy’s fast food restaurant, and a handful of churches. Down a forked road, half an hour outside town, the pavement turns to gravel and the landscape changes to deep forest. It’s here that Honeybee Williams’ new home comes into view, its sharp, modern angles contrasting with the softness of the countryside and her surrounding 65-acre-farm. On a summer afternoon, Williams, a 26-year-old transgender woman from Maryland, sits at a long, rectangular table in the garden in front of her new home, wearing a lacy pink dress and braiding a piece of grass, her dirty blonde hair tucked into a ponytail at the nape of her neck.
Williams and a small group of young transgender people are working to transform this Appalachian community, with its dwindling population and flailing economy, into a place where LGBTQ people can rebuild local ecosystems and fight for environmental justice and sustainability.
To some, this region, where trees outnumber people, might seem like a strange choice for a group of marginalized people looking for community and safety. Residents of Appalachia have a reputation for being wary of outsiders, and much of the region is politically and socially conservative. But Williams and the rest of the farm’s residents (whose names have been changed here to protect them from the violence, harassment, and discrimination transgender people regularly face), say Appalachia’s open spaces and sparse population offer an opportunity for LGBTQ people who feel isolated and alone.
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It started with a death. Last year, when a local artist died, and left the 65-acre property and home he built to the West Virginia Regional Land Trust, the Trust’s board decided to give it to a group of people aiming to create an intentional community. The Trust launched a call for proposals and asked applicants to submit a one-page description of what they would do with the land. Williams, along with Sara Smith, an Indian-American transgender woman from Detroit, and Jamie Taylor, a gender-neutral Native American from North Carolina, both of whom are in their late twenties, jumped at the opportunity. Their six-page proposal included a five-year plan, a resource assessment, a fundraising campaign to build new infrastructure on the property, and a detailed framework for developing an intentional community for LGBTQ people with a particular emphasis on people of color.
Williams and her boyfriend, Heron, were living in their car with their two dogs when they heard about the call for proposals. Heron is 24 years old and grew up in rural Maine. In his free time he plays the fiddle, collects rocks, and classifies different types of moss. Today he lives with Williams on the farm and enjoys bluegrass music, whittling, and herb farming.
After facing constant harassment in big cities for the way she looked and dressed, Williams chose to drive up and down the East Coast doing seasonal work and taking on odd jobs, like picking blueberries in Maine or helping a friend with a construction project. For her, moving to Appalachia was a chance to have a fresh start and a permanent home again.
“I thought, this is the one chance I’m going to get,” Williams remembers. “I wanted to show these people who don’t know me that they could give this land to these trans kids and expect that we would take care of the place.”
Since then, the group has learned the history of West Virginia and how the economy has changed Appalachia’s landscape. They’ve made it their mission to remove the invasive plant autumn olive from their property, and they’ve started to forge relationships with their neighbors. The group has gotten particularly close with one of the women on the Trust’s board, a member of the Catholic Worker Movement (a group of autonomous Catholic communities) who moved to Appalachia several decades ago. Williams, Smith, and Taylor occasionally give tours of the area to groups of Catholic students visiting Appalachia to learn about conservation. One of their main goals is to promote community resiliency in the region, which has been impacted by flooding and pollution and has lost many of its traditional farming practices.
“This hollow used to produce so much of its food, and people have gotten away from those ways,” says Williams, as she sits in the property’s serene garden, surrounded by edible plants. “Community resiliency is about us being in it together and building something sustainable for generations to come. We want to live in a place where we can make connections with our neighbors, where we can grow grains that we know are going to grow in this region.”
The property contains the small house where the group lives, several gardens for growing vegetables, fields of grass the residents hope to convert into farmland, a pen where their 14 ducks live, and acres of wooded hills. Deep in the woods is a dilapidated WWII-era cabin and a dried-up ditch where a small pond used to be. The group lives in quiet intimacy on the property, telling jokes and engaging in long conversations when they want company, or writing, playing music, gardening, and doing housework in solitude. Each person uses their unique talents to turn the place into a home.
Williams and her boyfriend were the first people to move onto the land, and she has taken a lead role in building and mending the house. Arriving in December of 2016, her first major project was to fix their only source of heating, a stove that was falling apart after years of disuse. It was snowing on the day she moved in, and Williams surveyed the wood stove with its missing stovepipe.
“I was like, I’m going to the hardware store and buying a stovepipe and attaching it to the roof so we don’t freeze,” she says, laughing.
Williams, Smith and Taylor launch into a jovial assessment of her handiwork, giggling as they point to the spots where the stovepipe jutting from their roof is still lopsided.
Smith is a slender, 28-year-old transgender woman of Indian descent. Her sleek black hair is fasted in a ponytail that hangs coquettishly at the side of her head, and she is wearing a loose turquoise shirt and long black maxi skirt decorated with sequins. She and Taylor tease Williams, but Williams appears confident about her work.
“I knew the stovepipe had to be higher than the roof to create a draw and pull all of the air out,” she explains. “I’m the builder, I’ve never grown a tomato in my life, you can’t expect me to keep anything alive, but I can fix a window and put in a door, I can put up a stovepipe or dig a hole.”
The group is now focusing on making the property as hospitable as possible so other people will be tempted to join them here. Williams constructed a homemade toilet from a deep hole in the ground and a plastic bucket with a toilet seat fastened on top. Slabs of wood surrounding the toilet offer a semblance of privacy. But the property has no electricity for now, and there are wild animals. One day, Williams was sitting in a wheelbarrow reading a book when a bobcat walked down the road. Her boyfriend was almost attacked by a bobcat when he was singing in the garden another day; Williams is convinced that his subpar singing voice was what attracted the beast. The area is also known to have mountain lions, and bears and deer regularly visit the property’s garden to eat the kale and squash.
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For Williams, the threat of wild animals is far less perilous than the threat she faced from other humans before moving to Appalachia. When she lived in cities like Baltimore and Washington D.C., Williams was physically threatened and harassed more times than she can count. All of the farm’s inhabitants share memories of the trauma and discrimination they faced in more populated urban centers as a result of their gender identity. Everyone living at the farm had trouble talking about their gender with their families, were physically attacked or threatened while living in cities, and faced persistent homelessness. In D.C. and Baltimore, Williams and her friends were regularly grabbed or groped by passing cyclists, and people often screamed insults at them from passing cars. Street harassment was an everyday occurrence.
Last year, at least 23 transgender people died in the United States due to violence, the highest number ever recorded, according to the Human Rights Campaign. The group also reports that fatal violence disproportionately affects transgender women of color, and that the intersections of racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia often deprive these women of employment, housing and healthcare, making them especially vulnerable.
Williams was working as a labor organizer in Baltimore when she decided to go “full-time,” a term for when transgender people begin to represent their true gender identity all of the time. The shift was incremental. First, she started wearing dresses every day, then she began fixing her eyebrows, wearing makeup, and growing her hair long. Now her dirty blonde hair reaches past her shoulders. But this transition was far from easy. She says the community organizers she worked with, people who claimed to be radical and progressive, were not comfortable interacting with and supporting transgender people.
“I was facing huge amounts of street harassment and violence that I’d never experienced before,” says Williams, remembering the time when she began identifying as a woman. “Doing it sometimes in controlled environments is different from doing it every day and needing to get on this bus and go to work.”
As time went on, her mental health began to deteriorate. Terrified of being attacked, she stopped leaving the house and seeing her friends. When she did go out, she carried a baton for self-defense. Williams was yelled at, catcalled, and harassed every day on the streets of Baltimore, and she was physically attacked so many times she was sure one day someone would kill her.
She feels safer now that she’s living in Appalachia. The fact that she knows all of her neighbors, and that there aren’t very many of them, is preferable to being stared and yelled at by strangers in the city each day. There are several families living up the gravel road near their property, a man who lives alone, and one gay man who lives in the town and works at a restaurant. The group has made contact with all of them with varying degrees of success, but they spend most of their time at home working on the property. One of the farm’s neighbors, another man who lives by himself, brings them fresh eggs and tomatoes sometimes.
“In the city you can have the anonymity to be any terrible human being that you want to be without any repercussion, but here you know who everyone is,” she says. “Everyone who has a Confederate flag out here, we know their names, we interact with them on a regular basis. There is a sense of community that you don’t have in the city.”
Smith wanders over to the table carrying a plate of salad greens freshly picked from the garden. The array of herbs and leaves is richer and tastier than the produce found in most supermarkets.
“Oh, it’s a friendly little kale bug,” she coos, picking the insect off of the leaf and flicking it onto the ground. A few minutes later she lobs a piece of apple into the nearby compost pile.
“There is kale, there is something called shiso, which is strongly antibacterial, there is amaranth, chickweed, arugula, buckwheat, so it’s half grown and half wild… I can talk for hours about microgreens,” she continues, gesturing towards the salad on her plate. “You should try shiso, it’s like basil meets mint.”
Smith is the group’s permaculture expert. She began learning about farming after leaving her job as an engineer with an automobile company in Michigan when she was in her early twenties. Her decision to leave home was fueled by the feeling that she couldn’t fully express herself with her family and co-workers. Her parents, who had immigrated to the U.S. from India a few years before her birth, had a hard time accepting that their child was transgender.
“My dad grew up in the 1980s in India and everyone was really fearful of AIDS, so I think there was a lot of propaganda against gay men and how they are evil; although, if you look back in Hinduism there is actually a tradition of gender non-conforming people, and you can find it in the scriptures that being trans is powerful,” she says, adjusting her flowing black skirt with a manicured hand.
Smith’s parents were angry when she explained her gender identity to them. They yelled and screamed and mentioned that she played with boys’ toys as a child.
After leaving home and quitting her job, she bounced between farming projects in New Hampshire, Colorado, New Mexico and California for a few years, and eventually began working for a solar energy company in D.C. It was there that she connected with Williams and several of the farm’s other residents. The women were involved in organizing grassroots activities and charity events for the LGBTQ community in Washington. But Smith also experienced violence while living in the city.
“Violence of all kinds comes hand-in-hand with being gender non-conforming. There is a big relationship between violence and gender,” she explains. “I felt pretty unsafe in D.C.”
People regularly threatened Smith’s physical safety, and she had weapons pulled on her on numerous occasions while living in the city. Like Williams, she feels safer now that she’s living in Appalachia, but being a person of color in a majority white community has added an extra challenge. When Smith and Williams visited a local government office to request food stamps, Williams, who is white, was given the food stamps right away, while Smith, who is of Indian descent, was asked to prove that she is a citizen. She often has to modify her real name because people don’t know how to pronounce it.
“I’m very aware of being different through multiple layers,” she says. “I told [neighbors] the name of the town where I was born, and they were like, ‘In America?’ I said, yeah, I was born in Detroit, and they were like, ‘Detroit, America?’”
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Today, the group is working to build the relationships of mutual support and trust that are the pillar of Appalachian society. Down the narrow gravel road where they live, they are slowly reaching out to their closest neighbors. Williams, who is a trained medic, has informed the neighbors that their house has Narcan, a prescription medicine that blocks the effects of opioids and reverses a drug overdose.
West Virginia has the highest rate of overdose deaths in a country plagued by an opioid epidemic. In 2015, the state’s drug overdose death rate was 41.5 cases per 100,000 residents, nearly three times the national average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Williams thinks a big part of the reason so many people die in West Virginia is because they are too far from a hospital when they overdose. Offering Narcan might make people feel awkward at first, but she thinks it’s better in the long run that they know the drug is available nearby.
Despite their efforts, sometimes neighbors can be standoffish. Many aren’t accustomed to having outsiders move in. In the nearest town, the population fell by around seven percent between 2010 and 2016.
Meanwhile, the farm’s isolation can lead to something the group nicknamed the “hollow ramble.”
“We’ll see people in town who we know and we’ll just start rambling on about a lot of stuff people don’t even care about,” explains Jamie Taylor, 28, who met Williams and Smith in Washington D.C. and later joined them in Appalachia.
Taylor, one of five siblings, grew up in an impoverished North Carolina fishing village. As a teenager, they began reading blogs on Tumblr and learning the terminology needed to self-identify as transgender. But when they came out at the age of 15, their religious stepfather attacked them viciously. After leaving North Carolina at the age of 25, Taylor experienced homelessness on numerous occasions.
Today, Taylor sits basking in the sun at the long rectangular table, wearing jean shorts over their slender legs and a shiny headband to hold back their chin-length blonde hair. Taylor often catches themself talking to the farm’s 14 ducks, and sometimes Taylor even hand-feeds them and cradles them on their lap.
Williams, too, has examples of her hollow ramble.
“The weeds are this tall now, we need to cut the grass, maybe it’ll rain next week, the deer ate my squash, you won’t believe what this duck did, I put a couple of screws in that piece of wood,” she describes, laughing. “And you just ramble and ramble, because other than each other we haven’t seen other human beings in like four days.”
Still, all of the farm’s residents are excited about transforming the community into a safe and sustainable place that can accommodate more LGBTQ people. Smith is especially excited about promoting anti-racism, environmental justice, and justice for transgender people, and she wants the farm to be a place for people to do different iterations of that work without too many rules.
“LGBTQ folks in rural areas don’t have community, but there are issues we can tangibly address by offering residency, among other things,” Smith explains.
In the quiet atmosphere of the garden, surrounded by sorghum and pumpkin plants, the group discusses their numerous projects and plans for collaborative farming and community resiliency. Raising ducks, planting seeds, building beehives, and milling wheat are all on the agenda, as is planting fruit and nut trees.
They temper their excitement about the new project by remembering how much hard work is needed to create a sustainable project that people will be interested in joining.
“Here we have steep hills, but there is a lot of potential to grow a huge percentage of the food we eat,” Williams says as she continues to braid the long piece of grass.
She pauses and looks around.
“This is better than anything else I’ve ever had.”