It was an interesting weekend in my Kentucky hometown. About 20 Black Lives Matter protesters, led by a student from my college alma mater, were confronted by 250 counter-protesters, including men on roofs with assault rifles. The pictures in the newspaper were cringeworthy. I probably should not have been surprised. After I transitioned, I was told it would be better if I did not attend my high school reunion. They said, “There might be trouble.”
I have not been back to my hometown since my mother’s death, when a few high school classmates, all female, talked with me about the state of affairs in our little town. All were educated, generous-hearted, and I dare say fierce women who have worked hard to bring much needed education to their neck of the woods. They reminded me that there are definitely two sides to my Eastern Kentucky home.
I am not going to mention the name of the town because the 250 counter-protesters represented only about one percent of the county’s residents. They did not speak for everyone. The county is 99 percent white, with a median family income of $35,000. There are a lot of similar counties in Kentucky, most of them made up of people of Scots-Irish descent. They have been fighting pretty much everybody for the better part of 2,000 years. I love the way they are portrayed by the writer Chris Offutt. These are Appalachian people, clannish and proud. They have fought an inordinate number of our wars for us, have remained on the edge of poverty for generations, and tend to look unfavorably on outsiders. And yet.
It is true, I have been rejected by a lot of people in my hometown. When I went back for my mother’s funeral I was greeted by one sole man. But a number of my mother’s female friends, all in their 80s and 90s, greeted me warmly, by name. They did not misgender me, or speak unkindly, or gossip about me in the outer hallway. They paid their respects to my mother, and to me.
That little Eastern Kentucky town nurtured me. When I arrived as a 15-year-old from northern Ohio, people welcomed me. From the owner of the five and dime to the school principal to the the radio station program director, I was offered opportunity and friendship. I was loved and encouraged and told, “You are going to make something of yourself.” Of course, I did get more encouragement than at least half the population, because I was a male. But a lot of my female classmates received the same encouragement, if not the same opportunities.
I was voted most likely to succeed in my senior class, and I did, because of that love and nurture. The bank president helped me understand the importance of managing finances. The radio station chief engineer taught me how things worked in the real world. My high school teachers were saints, earning next to nothing while giving their whole hearts to help us move beyond the limitations of our Scots-Irish Appalachian roots. I love my hometown. And yet.
My hometown also helped me become a racist, who stayed unaware of my racism for all of my male life and the beginnings of my female life. It taught me that men were to lead, and women were to follow. It was an insular culture, suspicious of government, post-secondary education, people from either coast, Roman Catholics, Jews, and, well, anyone who had come from afar. And afar wasn’t far. You could come from elsewhere in Kentucky or West Virginia or Southern Ohio and not be suspect, but outside of that, you were watched with a wary eye. And yet.
I had a wonderful high school teacher who walked me through the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and why I should care. My father and his good friend, the town physician, were always deep in conversation about the broader world and the complexity of poverty, and working with people where they are, as you try to move them in the direction of broader knowledge and understanding. There was the young teacher who pretty much forced me to go to an honors weekend at a state university where I heard a Kentucky congressman talk about the idea of what America could be, if we dared to be great.
I had good friends who received the same kind of nurture and went on to become physicians and engineers and Fortune 500 CEOs and bank presidents and social workers and teachers and school administrators. Many of them came back home to serve those who showed up as counter-protesters this past weekend. They taught their mothers and fathers and know the fears that cause them to keep their families close and their weapons closer.
If this protest and counter-protest had taken place in any other small southern town, I would have thought, “Oh God, I’m glad I don’t live there.” But it didn’t. It happened in a town that shaped and formed me. No, I would not want to live there now. I am fortunate to live in Boulder County, Colorado, where a transgender woman can be asked by a neighbor to consider filling a vacancy on the town council, serve as a pastor in a church that doesn’t pay much attention to my gender identity, and be positively profiled in local newspapers and magazines. I get a lot of nasty mail. I need to live in a nurturing place like Boulder County. But I still love my hometown.
These are complicated times. There are bad players with bad motives, but most people are just unaware or frightened or both. Most of the counter-protestors this past weekend are not bad people. They are just sadly uninformed. What would it mean to love them well? How might I make the kind of difference in their lives that causes them to see those 20 protestors as made of the same stuff of which they are made. Today, I have no answers, just sadness. The town that nurtured me well was not very nurturing this past weekend.
There are times I am not very nurturing either, times I am self-centered and frightened and just plain ignorant. We all have a tendency to want to take the speck out of our sister’s eye while ignoring the plank in our own. But we are all human, made in the image of our creator. We all get misty eyed when we sing Amazing Grace, stand in awe at the Lincoln Memorial, and cry when our babies are born and our mother’s die. We all want to love and be loved.
I don’t know how to fix this divide. I am so tired of it. And I do love my hometown.