MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — What’s it like to be LGBT in West Virginia? Gay and lesbian residents there say that although it’s not as bad as it could be, there’s still a lot of work to be done.
The state’s Eastern Panhandle — parts of which include quaint towns like Harpers Ferry, Berkeley Springs and Shepherdstown that are sometimes destinations for Washington residents who want to venture beyond the hustle and bustle — is a distinct region.
Martinsburg, in Berkeley County, is just more than 60 miles from Washington and sits along an interesting stretch of Interstate 81 where one can drive through Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania in about 45 minutes. The other two counties in the Panhandle — Jefferson and Morgan — are also easy to navigate, the former especially where it’s not uncommon to find residents who work in the D.C. Metro area but are drawn to West Virginia for its drastically more affordable real estate prices.
The tri-county area is also home to many same-sex households; same-sex marriage is illegal here although it’s not one of the 31 states that have constitutional amendments banning it. According to Williams Institute analysis of 2010 Census data, Jefferson and Berkeley are the two counties with the most same-sex households (Morgan contains drastically fewer). Jefferson has 6.29 per 1,000 households; Berkeley 5.69. Kanawha County includes the state capitol, Charleston, and has a PFLAG chapter, a gay men’s chorus and is home to the state’s LGBT activist group Fairness West Virginia, yet it sits fourth overall in the state for number of same-sex households.
And while Democrats have a stronghold in government here — they currently hold the governorship, both Senate seats and both houses of the state legislature — West Virginians are still considered largely conservative and have supported the Republican candidate for president in every election since 2000.
A new group called Eastern Panhandle LGBTQ Alliance of West Virginia formed in mid-June, its retired organizers realizing they had time on their hands and sensing a need for more interaction among the Panhandle’s gay residents than currently exists.
John Mason came out in 2000 after many years as a family man with two daughters and dual careers in the telecom industry and as an evangelical pastor of a non-denominational Bible church he formerly led in Potomac, Md. He moved to Jefferson County about eight years ago and is neighbors with Marla Seymour, a lesbian who came here from Frederick in 2002.
“Marla and I were talking in her living room one night and we were kind of like, ‘OK, what are we going to do now,’” Mason says over coffee at Jumpin’ Java Café in downtown Charles Town, W.Va., a small town in Jefferson County. The café is one the new group has targeted as gay affirming in a church-and-business directory it’s compiling.
“The light bulb really came on for both of us,” he says. “We just feel this is the perfect option. We’ve got at-risk kids with suicide, kids who have no support, who are homeless because they’re gay and we thought, ‘This is really what we need. We need a resource beyond the internet where there are actual people that these kids can talk to and find support, find community, have social interaction with other gay people. … With the Supreme Court decisions on Prop. 8 and DOMA, we’ve got a lot of momentum going and we’ve got to tap into it and see what we can draw out of it for the LGBT community here.”
The group has elected officers, is working on mission and vision statements and has a Facebook page that has attracted about 2,000 “likes.” The first fundraiser, a drag bingo, is scheduled for Sunday evening from 6 to 10 p.m. at The Club (5268 Williamsport Pike, Martinsburg), the only gay bar in the area. Organizers say they also want to start a PFLAG chapter, an LGBT alcoholics anonymous group and have a Pride event next summer.
“It may just be a covered dish picnic, but it will be something,” Seymour says.
Ally Susan Pellish took kids of parents who attended the first steering committee meeting out for ice cream so the adults could strategize. She’s been involved with AIDS work in the region for years and says she supports the new group wholeheartedly.
“It’s a great opportunity for the residents of West Virginia to see what a viable community we have and how diverse it is and how wonderful the integration can be as it should be,” she says.
Though she loves the area, she says it has its downfalls.
“I know there are children here who have been banned and disowned and have no place to go for Christmas, for the holidays,” she says. “That kind of injustice is just beyond my comprehension.”
Others in the state are also expressing support.
Coby Myers, owner of the Club and gay himself, says supporting charitable and LGBT-affirming groups such as the Alliance is central to his business plan (since opening in January, he says the Club has “done very well.”).
“The Eastern Panhandle has never had anything like this and we have a very large LGBT community here that people don’t really recognize,” Myers says. “I’m all about helping them raise money for whatever will benefit them and the community.”
Attorney Stephen Skinner lives in the Panhandle, founded Fairness West Virginia in 2006 and is the state’s first openly gay elected official. He’s a Democrat in the West Virginia House of Delegates. He called the Alliance effort “noble” and says he’s “delighted to support any group that works toward equality.”
Casey Willits is the executive director of Fairness West Virginia as of May and says although his group is working more on the legislative front — the Alliance is working to attain 501c3 status, which would prevent it from lobbying — he’s excited to see what the group will accomplish.
“It’s so great to see people that are passionate about their community,” he says. “I’m just thrilled that people take it seriously enough that they feel called to take action.”
Mason, who says he’s been devoting about six hours a day to the group, says several goals lie on the immediate horizon — a website beyond the Facebook page, a resource guide to include LGBT-friendly businesses, churches and service groups in the region, an investigation and possible resource sharing with campus and high school alliance groups in the area (there are rumored to be two GSAs at Panhandle high schools but the Blade could not immediately confirm this), the aforementioned PFLAG chapter and more.
As for downsides both encountered or feared, Mason and Seymour say the region’s largely bedroom community type of atmosphere could be problematic. They both know of many gay and lesbian older couples that have second homes or have retired here and aren’t interested in this kind of thing.
“It is a concern of mine that we may bump up against a gay wall,” Seymour says. “I think there may be gay people here who aren’t especially interested in change. I don’t think they would do anything to intentionally harm us, but I think that could be a big bucket of gay support we’d be missing and it concerns me. … Those people are established, they’re comfortable, they come here to get away. They don’t really want to be part of this umbrella or this resource. They come here to vacate, not engage and that’s a different battle entirely. Some of them have supported us but not a lot.”
Mason says his biggest goal is letting young LGBT people know they’re not alone.
“We want to tell them to come join us,” he says. “You may have been born into a conservative family, born into a conservative church, but you can choose your family and we can be that family for you. … We want to provide support, encouragement and resources for that younger gay person who just has no support.”