CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Growing up, Chris Gosses had limited exposure to the LGBTQ community.
Gosses didn’t have any classmates who were openly gay. When he graduated high school in 1991, the top health concern was the AIDS epidemic and the related public anxiety.
“The only thing you saw on TV was a horrible, ugly caricature of what it meant to be a gay person, so I didn’t identify with that,” he said. “I was like, ‘That’s not me. That’s not how I feel in my heart, and that’s not how I live.’”
Gosses was 24 years old when he told his family he was gay, not knowing what to expect.
“I heard relatives say — because, you know, they watch the news — ‘Oh, if my kid was gay, I wouldn’t know what I would do.’ I heard aunts and uncles saying that about my cousins,” he said. “After I came out of the closet and well into adulthood in my 30s and I mentioned that to my aunts and uncles, they were devastated. They were like, ‘Well, that’s not how we feel in our heart, and I’m sorry that we said that and presented that in front of you when you were a kid.’”
He continued, “You know there are other folks who are going through what you are going through, but when you’re in that area, you’re in that time of your life, sometimes, you don’t know where to turn. You don’t know where to find community.”
When recalling the moment he told his mother about his sexual orientation, Gosses mentioned the tears in her eyes.
“Inside, my world was falling apart,” he said. “She was crying, and she said, ‘I’m sorry you couldn’t come to me sooner.’”
Gosses, now 49, serves as the president of Rainbow Pride of West Virginia, a nonprofit organization that hosts multiple LGBTQ events in the state, including the Pride Parade and Festival held in Charleston on June 4. Various West Virginia groups have organized events throughout June to mark Pride Month and recognize LGBTQ individuals and history.
Gosses spent part of that Saturday watching the event from its main stage on Summers Street.
“I got involved in Rainbow Pride of West Virginia because I saw the possibilities for the community and I thought that I could lend a hand and chip in wherever I could,” he told MetroNews. “I didn’t expect to be the president of Rainbow Pride of West Virginia. I thought I was just showing up just to help out and be one of the many voices in the chorus.”
According to the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute, an estimated 68,100 West Virginians are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Gosses noted LGBTQ people have similar experiences with coming out, “even though the path is a little different.”
Dannie Stiles can remember the crushes he developed on male students in his kindergarten class.
“I really didn’t understand it,” the Buckhannon resident said.
It was not until Stiles began high school that he recognized himself as gay, but only privately due to concerns about the possible reactions to being open. Stiles started telling other people after leaving the Army; he noted his service coincided with the enforcement of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy preventing LGBTQ people from serving openly.
“Everyone knew. They were just waiting,” he said about coming out.
Savannah Lusk, a Wyoming County native and West Virginia University medical student, attended the Pride Parade and Festival with a group of her classmates working at the event. She came out as a lesbian ahead of her high school graduation.
Lusk wanted to tell her parents, remembering “something didn’t feel right” with not talking about it.
“I was my parents’ golden child. I had gotten a really good scholarship at WVU, I was going to be valedictorian, and at the end of the school year, I threw them for a loop with this new part of myself,” she said.
“They took away my phone. They took away my car. They said they weren’t going to kick me out but I needed to really seriously think about this and the consequences.”
Natasha Stone was hesitant about coming out to her parents. Stone, the gender policy manager for the LGBTQ advocacy group Fairness West Virginia, is a transgender woman and lesbian. She opted to talk to her friends first.
“I didn’t go to my parents until a little bit after I started transitioning because I was worried that they might try to stop me,” she said while setting up Fairness West Virginia’s table at the Pride Parade and Festival.
Stone described the conversation with her parents as “not ideal.”
“A couple of years for them to come around, I will say,” she recalled.
Stone also dealt with harassment for being transgender. She said the comments happened as she tried to access hormone treatment.
“It took me probably a year and a half to actually get on hormones after I came out, even though we started the process to get on them almost immediately,” she said.
“Because I’ve been on hormones for over 10 years, most people don’t know I’m trans. When I work with people, I have to tell them and they’ll go, ‘Oh, I didn’t know.’ Now, it’s fine because I can move in the world and people don’t realize.”
Same-sex marriage has been allowed in West Virginia since October 2014, months before the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges made it legal across the country. Yet West Virginia lags behind other states in ensuring protections for the LGBTQ community. The Williams Institute published a report in February 2021 regarding discrimination against LGBTQ people, noting the lack of laws in areas such as employment “likely contributes to an environment in which LGBT people experience stigma and discrimination.”
“I’ll tell you flat out West Virginia could and should be doing a better job in terms of protections for LGBTQ people in every single arena,” said Rayna Momen, a doctoral candidate at West Virginia University who assisted the Williams Institute with the report. “There’s no area where we’re doing enough or a fantastic or a great job in any respect.”
Momen, who is nonbinary, said people in the LGBTQ community face a higher chance of violence and harassment. The lack of legal protections can result in LGBTQ workers being less productive and students dropping out of school and skipping classes.
“In daily life, we are just subject to more discrimination and higher risk of violence and victimization of all different forms,” they told MetroNews.
Lusk said she has heard comments against LGBTQ people at work; she stated attending physicians have made derogatory comments while unaware of Lusk’s sexual orientation.
“When you think about the medical field, you would think they’re probably some of the most forward-thinking people because they have to take care of diverse populations,” she said.
Lusk also stated West Virginia University personnel have shown support for her.
“I thought that my patients would maybe have a difficult time,” she continued. “I never thought that my colleagues would have so much of a pushback as I thought.”
A Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network study found that 81% of LGBTQ middle and high school students in West Virginia have received verbal harassment because of their sexual orientation, and 63% of respondents have described harassment related to their gender expression. Students also have reported physical harassment and assault at school.
Fairness West Virginia tracks instances of transgender and nonbinary individuals struggling to access health care and other services.
“We hear stories about people being refused service, people being turned away at places like gyms,” Stone explained. “A lot of trans people don’t know where to start to get started on transition for hormones and that kind of therapy. We’ve been working to address those issues, but it’s still an uphill battle.”
Gov. Jim Justice signed a bill in April 2021 prohibiting transgender athletes from participating in female sports; the U.S. Department of Justice would later describe the law as unconstitutional. A federal judge granted a preliminary injunction in July 2021 as Becky Pepper-Jackson, a transgender middle school student, aspired to join her school’s cross-country team.
West Virginia municipalities have made steps to protect LGBTQ residents; 16 communities have approved nondiscrimination ordinances, and Charleston, Morgantown and Wheeling have banned so-called conversion therapy, a discredited practice directed at changing someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
President Joe Biden signed an executive order Wednesday calling on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to address health care access for LGBTQ children and families. Agencies are also responsible for an initiative aimed at discouraging conversion therapy and addressing inclusivity in schools.
The challenge of being an LGBTQ person living in West Virginia is Stone’s motivation with Fairness West Virginia. She has lived in West Virginia for 33 years and does not plan to leave.
“I get to help make the state a better place for LGBTQ people, and that’s really the reason I stayed,” she said.
Stiles compared staying in West Virginia to being under a spell, adding he wants to remain a West Virginian.
“As far behind as we are legislatively, we have so much progress that needs to be made. If we leave, who’s going to be left?” he said. “There’s work to be done, and somebody’s got to do it.”
Lusk’s West Virginia roots are deep; her father was a coal miner, and she credits West Virginia as the place that “built her.” Her support comes from her parents — who “have come a long way” — and finacee.
“All my life, I’ve wanted to close the disparities and the social determinants of health that I faced as a kid and the people around me faced,” she said. “I think about the diverse people of Appalachia and the queer people in Appalachia, and I just want to stay and make things better and for them to have a doctor that they see a little bit of themselves in.”
Lusk said support for LGBTQ West Virginians has been mixed, but the overall perception is improving.
“I would say that I had a very negative outlook on it, especially being from Wyoming County where, when I came out, I wasn’t very well received,” she said.
“Definitely, we have much more support [now] than I ever thought when I was in high school. We have a long way to go, but I’ve been really pleased with the support I have seen.”
Gosses — a Toledo, Ohio native — was living in Cincinnati when he met his boyfriend, a Charleston resident. Gosses moved to West Virginia’s capital city to be with him.
Staring at the groups of people walking through the festival, Gosses was grateful for the opportunities to create such spaces for LGBTQ people. Many Pride Month events over the last two years were canceled or reduced because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“If we’re living our truth authentically and living the best versions of ourselves, we’re going to impact other people who don’t realize they know gay people,” he added. “There’s so much more to me, and every person in this crowd has a beautiful, amazing story. It’s tough to be bigoted toward someone when you can see their heart.”