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UNC Asheville LGBTQ+ Archive Expands To Jackson County

Schuylar Shayne Photography
Tyler Melvin's oral history is part of the expanded collection in Jackson County. He's a local drag performer.

A project to document the lives of LGBTQ+ people in Western North Carolina is expanding.

The LGBTQ+ Oral History Archive was founded at UNC Asheville in 2019 in partnership with the Blue Ridge Pride Center. Now the project is expanding to Western Carolina University, says Travis Rountree.

“I think it's really important to show, to demonstrate that there is indeed a history here and has been,  for a long time,” said Rountree, a WCU assistant professor of English.

For Rountree, this project is about making the queer community in rural Western North Carolina more visible. 

"What a great way to connect and also connect, across campuses, across Western Carolina, and to show that this is not something new, but it is something to be celebrated and talked about and recovered, to be honest,” said Rountree.  

According to the Blue Ridge Pride Center, approximately 35,000 people identify as LGBTQ+ in Western North Carolina.  As many as 3.8 million LGBTQ+ people live in rural America, according to the Movement Advancement Project, an equality think tank that advocates for LGBTQ+ people.

"In some instances, not showing that there are (LGBTQ+) people here is incredibly dangerous,” said Rountree. Roundtree points to violence against people in the LGBTQ+ community.

At least 44 transgender or gender nonconforming people were killed in 2020.  Helping the LGBTQ+ community be more visible can make people safer, said Roundtree. 

Archival Work Begins On Campus

Students in Rountree’s class started working on the oral history archive last semester. He says that when his students learned about the history and contributions of the LGBTQ+ community in Jackson County, those who are also LBGTQ+  felt more included here.  

“To hear some of those accounts and talk about how it affected them. That they were more comfortable and thankful that we did it in class,” said Roundtree. 

One of the historical archives that they studied includes articles on Lavender Bridges, which is thought to be Western Carolina’s first LGBTQ+ organization.  It launched in 1985. These are now part of the university’s special collections library where Sarah Steiner works.

She started collecting oral histories from the local drag scene a few years ago. These are also part of the archive.

“I was working with some people here to collect a local drag performer’s oral histories because it seemed like an untapped area in the region. We had such a burgeoning community, a really vibrant community of performers doing a lot of important activism work,” said Steiner, head of research and instruction services at Hunter Library.

Steiner points out this is another way to study gender and sexuality at Western.

"So it creates local content and historical context. That's crucial for their understanding of themselves and others and the history of the region,” said Steiner.

One of the people Steiner has already interviewed is Tyler Melvin, who is a getting a masters in higher education at WCU. In the archive interview, Melvin says drag has been a way to express the fluidity of gender and build community. His drag name is Skylar Shay.

“For me when I do drag and I perform it’s about expressing an emotion, the emotion that I’m feeling at that time and it can manifest in a variety of ways: It can be dark and dreary one day and it can be pop culture cheerleader the next day. And then it can be like church-going nun the next day,” said Melvin.

About 60 students will be involved in the project in the Spring semester. The Jackson County Collection is also hoping to have volunteers from the community to be interviewers and interviewees. 

The project funded by a WCU provost grant for Spring 2021. The Jackson County Collection hopes to host a Pride event in Sylva this summer.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.