My big gay camping trip has taken me through the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. I wanted to go to North Carolina but haven’t made it there yet. I’ve become so smitten with West Virginia I’ve decided to stay here for a bit instead of moving on right away.
The differences between this part of the country and the places I’m used to — namely Aspen, Chicago, Manhattan and Indiana — are striking. Forget the accents, everything is different here, from the cultural and social norms to the architecture and food. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’m still in the U.S. because it doesn’t really feel like it.
I used to wonder what life was like for gay guys in small Southern towns. I imagined their lives were hell, riddled with the bigotry and ignorance of their neighbors and coworkers. I imagined them always looking over their shoulders, fearful of the next verbal or physical homophobic attack coming their way. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
One thing I noticed about Southerners when I first arrived is that they truly don’t care what anybody thinks about them. A lot of people say they don’t care what others think, but Southerners mean it. The ones I’ve met, especially the gay guys, have a “Love me or kiss my ass” attitude that I adore and wish I could adopt as wholeheartedly as they do.
It’s why they don’t get upset when you call them “redneck” to their faces. They love being rednecks and wear the label as a badge of honor because they value what it stands for. In the words of Blake Shelton, they’re proud to be “... backwoods legit, don’t take no shit...” rednecks.
When I heard Charleston, West Virginia, was holding its gay pride celebration last Sunday, I had to go. I’ve been to pride celebrations in cities across the country and around the world, but never to one in such a small town. The parades in Chicago and New York are huge and draw crowds in the hundreds of thousands of people.
When I lived in Sao Paulo, Brazil, I volunteered with a local group to pass out condoms at their gay pride parade. I was shocked when I got there to find out the group’s plan was to distribute 1.3 million condoms in one day. I was absolutely floored when I later found out the crowd estimate for that celebration was more than 4 million participants, and it was named by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest gay pride parade.
Charleston proper has a population of around 50,000, and there’s only about 300,000 in the metro area. Even though it is the state capital and the largest city in the state, it’s still a tiny town and couldn’t possibly compete with pride parades in Chicago or Sao Paulo.
The event itself was small but well attended. I haven’t seen official numbers, but there were at least 1,000 people there, and probably more than that. There were about two blocks of vendors and groups providing food, cold water and information about their services. One group offered free HIV testing, and several churches were present to affirm their support and acceptance of gays and lesbians.
Being West Virginia, I expected to see protesters. But upon arrival I didn’t have to pass a single group of screaming lunatics to get to the parade. I was pleasantly surprised that they loonies hadn’t come out of their bins to harass the homos.
That feeling didn’t last long. Before the parade started, my friend Shane and I were walking down the parade route when he said, “Oh God, there they are. Let’s go over there.”
I looked up and saw them: a group of six protesters, all carrying signs about God and gays and AIDS and hell, chanting some nonsense I couldn’t understand, and coming right down the street towards us. Shane wanted to avoid them and went to the side near one of the booths. I wanted a confrontation started walking directly towards them.
These idiots show up to every gay pride celebration in every city every year. Some queers scream back at them, others feel they take the high road by ignoring them. I mostly just wanted to talk to them.
In Manhattan, when the crazy protesters show their faces at the pride parades, the “Dykes on Bikes” pull right up to the protesters and sit on their bikes revving their engines to drown out their chants. When they do that the crowd always goes wild.
In West Virginia, they have a different way of handling these protesters that is amazing, and that I’d never seen in more than 20 years of attending gay pride celebrations.
As I approached the group, I saw about six men and women riding on horseback behind the protesters, clearly trying to catch up with them. I thought the riders were part of the protest group. There was a lot going on, and it all happened very fast.
As the men and women on the horses caught up to the protesters, they spread out and surrounded the six protesters, effectively creating a “corral.” I suddenly realized that the horses were covered in glitter, and their riders were wearing rainbow colors. These weren’t redneck protesters on horseback, they were the gay-redneck cavalry coming to save the day.
The protesters suddenly realized they were surrounded and couldn’t get out of the impromptu corral without going perilously close to the huge horses around them.
“You can’t block us in,” yelled one protester to a lesbian on a horse. “That’s illegal!”
“We ain’t blockin’ y’all in,” she replied. “We’re just strollin’ down the street, just like y’all.”
The crowd roared with appreciation and approval.
“Let us outta this,” the protester demanded. “Move your horse!”
“I ain’t responsible for what happens to you if you get too close to my horse,” the lesbian replied with a grin.
Stalemate. The protester knew exactly what she meant by that and wasn’t about to risk trying to maneuver between the huge horses.
Outwitted by the redneck homos on horseback, the redneck protesters had no choice but to walk in a slow cadence as the corral moved them to the end of the street and away from the pride celebration. Once at the end of the street, the horses broke formation and allowed the protesters to escape with nothing more than bruised egos.
Only in West Virginia could glitter-covered horses and their bold riders save a gay pride parade.
Doug Allen rides, but only one very special Friesian in Indiana named Cricket. Reach him at Doug.Allen75@yahoo.com  or follow him on Twitter @Doug__Allen (two underscores).