When Shannon Ratliff was growing up in Hindman, she didn't know she was lesbian, but she knew she was different.
Ratliff gravitated to a group of girls and boys who loved each other unconditionally, she says, and as they went their separate ways to jobs or college, they kept in touch. And nearly all of them have come out as gay or lesbian since then.
"It was very tight-lipped," she said. "They all came out one at a time. We never discussed being gay. We never talked about anything queer at all. We met as straight people."
After high school, Ratliff, 37, attended Eastern Kentucky University, which she describes as a haven of opportunity for people from the mountains who are at all "different."
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Ratliff will discuss her struggle to find acceptance in a rural, culturally conservative place later this month in the Kentucky Equality Federation's sessions with the oral-history recording project StoryCorps, which has gathered stories from everyday Americans on a wide array of topics, including haunted memories after 9/11, memory loss and African-American history.
StoryCorps has been to Whitesburg once before and collected numerous interviews surrounding the local coal-mining industry. One of the program's partners in Lexington is Keeneland Race Course, and organizers hope to gain interviews of track workers and horse people whose voices are often not heard.
Ratliff now works in the university's human resources department. She is thinking about going back home, temporarily, to work on a book project about being gay in Eastern Kentucky. But she describes her relationship with the mountains as "love-hate."
"The mountains are ... they're beautiful, and there's still just so much culture; they're comforting, protective. And they're also very isolating," Ratliff said.
Just being yourself
One of Ratliff's chosen family members is Tyler Watts, someone she grew up with. Watts is a transgendered man who was born Tammi Watts in Knott County.
He lived for years as a lesbian woman but still never felt comfortable with that identity. He was kicked out of his home during high school, when his parents found out he was secretly dating another girl. Only recently has he decided to begin living as a man. Now he is relying on his friends in Richmond.
Watts says he occasionally goes home to visit and would never consider moving back. He said he's doing a StoryCorps interview because hiding is exhausting.
He grew up in the mind-set of a boy and didn't explicitly realize he was a girl until he went to grade school, with separate bathrooms.
"As a child, you don't realize how things really are, how people think of you, how people look at you. You're just being yourself, and you don't really know yourself," Watts said.
Watts' parents didn't return phone messages from the Herald-Leader.
"They're having trouble. I'm not going to say they're not supportive, because they are, but it's not talked about," he said.
"I miss going to see my grandmother, but now my face has changed, a little bit of my body structure has changed. I've had no surgeries yet. I dread what my grandmother would think because she's really old ... . I don't want the TV or politics to change how she feels about me.
"A part of me thinks she might already know."
No more hiding
Will Taylor, 26, said he feels more secure being himself in Harlan than he would in a large city where he doesn't know anyone else.
He said he was "in hiding" until a few years ago but now wants to do a StoryCorps interview because he thinks gay rights will advance more quickly if more people speak up.
"I think it not only gives us a chance to tell our story, it gives us that documentation. It has to do with our struggles and hopes," Taylor said.
He lives with his parents in Harlan and has worked various jobs, such as truck driving, coal mine security and animal shelter volunteering.
Coming out was easier than he thought.
"I thought at first that it was going to be really bad. When I came out, I just came out and told everybody. The first person I told was my dad," Taylor said.
"He lit a cigarette, sat there about a minute or two, and then he gave me the speech: 'We still love you, that doesn't change.' "
Taylor's parents declined to be interviewed for this story.
He said his mother has struggled more.
"She knows, but we don't talk about it," he said.
Living in a small town is a kind of mission for Taylor. He likes that people know who he is.
"You get all these people who are in the closet and scared to come out, they come to you," he said. "I feel that if I can help one person find themselves and understand who they are, that's the greatest thing."
It's not so hard for Julia Oiler Spiegel to live in small-town Kentucky as a lesbian woman. She moved to Erlanger at age 40 after separating from her husband in Memphis. A short time later, she told her family she is lesbian and moved in with her partner. They are raising Spiegel's 12-year-old son.
Spiegel said she is grateful for the opportunity to speak to StoryCorps because, even though she feels secure living openly in Erlanger, she values the chance to show how "normal" her family is.
Spiegel is a full-time student and works as a caregiver for an autistic child. She volunteers with Kentucky Equality Federation, a gay-rights advocacy organization. She said she is still friends with her soon-to-be ex-husband, and she has been able to help his son from a previous marriage who came out as gay.
Her partner works for the postal service. Her son goes to school with a few other children of gay and lesbian parents. Over Christmas, Spiegel's partner presented her an engagement ring.
"When everything about you is questioned on a daily basis, it's kind of hard to trust other people," Spiegel said. "You just need to be heard. The gay and lesbian communities are misunderstood sometimes. People automatically think it's all about sex to us, and it's not. My family is just like every other family."
Bringing people together
Ratliff's family grew up in a hollow in Hindman. Her grandmother lived across the street, and her aunts and uncles all nearby.
"There is a beauty in that close bond, and there's also a level of interdependency that is a bit unhealthy," she said. When one person is different, it's suddenly everyone's business.
She knows she is the subject of gossip and talk back back home. But she also knows she can help others. She said she is grateful for the chance to tell her story through StoryCorps and hopes people back home will listen.
Kentucky Equality Federation President Jordan Palmer, a Hyden native, said getting people to talk and open up is the goal of the project.
The non-profit StoryCorps has archived interviews of more than 60,000 people nationwide since its start in 2003 and will spend the next two months recording in Whitesburg and Lexington, partnering in part with KEF.
StoryCorps interviews are broadcast on NPR's Morning Edition, and the conversations are preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
"It's intended to bring people together," Palmer said. "It's an intimate conversation."
Palmer's organization takes several calls a week from young people who are bullied or people who are facing violence at home or work because they are different.
That's something Palmer knows about.
He said he was expelled from his private church-affiliated high school because he was gay and was sent to an "ex-gay" clinic in Lexington.
But after it all, Palmer said, he values his tight-knit family — his mother and siblings — more than a wilder lifestyle in a large city.
"I've never had more support than in a small, rural community," he said.