Kyle May always thought he would have to leave Eastern Kentucky to find a place he belonged.
“For years I tried to get out,” said May, who is gay. “I tried to move. I tried to get jobs elsewhere. I tried interviewing relentlessly.”
But the chance to leave never came for the Pikeville native who graduated from Morehead State University in Rowan County, went to graduate school at Alice Lloyd College in Knott County and eventually moved to Paintsville.
May, 29, now works as a clinical director at Mountain Comprehensive Care in Prestonsburg.
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May’s urge to leave reflects the feelings of many LGBTQ people who grow up in this rural and mostly-conservative part of the state, said Gina Bryant, who helped organize a gay pride event in Pikeville this weekend — the first of its kind for the city.
The festival, planned for Saturday afternoon in Pikeville City Park, will include music, a drag show, a “free hugs” booth, vendors and speakers. The restaurant Bank 253 will host an after-party.
Bryant and May, who also helped organize the event, hope the celebration signals a more inclusive and progressive future for Pikeville and Eastern Kentucky.
LGBTQ people who grow up here often feel isolated because of the lack of an organized and active community, Bryant said, and that feeling of isolation drives them out of the region, often to Lexington or Louisville.
“Most of us felt like we would have to move out of this area to really feel accepted and to really find a community,” said Bryant, who is bisexual. “So I think this is something, for most of us, that we’ve been wanting our entire lives.”
Though the event will be a first for Pikeville, similar festivals in other Appalachian cities have attracted thousands of attendees. One in Johnson City, Tenn., attracted between 7,000 and 10,000 people this year, Bryant said.
Pikeville is a cultural and economic hub of Eastern Kentucky. Bryant said the city’s standing could give the event the visibility it needs to have real impact.
“I feel like if we can do this here, we can really give these kids who are like us hope,” Bryant said. “I feel like making a more inclusive community will go a long way toward making these younger people want to stay here.”
In a region often cited for its declining population and lack of economic opportunity, Pikeville it somewhat of an outlier.
The city has grown in recent years. Retail shops have sprouted up on the outskirts of town. The University of Pikeville and the Pikeville Medical Center have attracted young professionals and students looking for jobs in the health care industry.
In the wake of coal’s decline — the number of coal jobs in Pike County dropped by more than 50 percent in the past five years, from just over 2,000 in 2013 to about 915 today — a variety of companies have promised to bring hundreds of jobs to the Pikeville area in coming months and years.
These proposed projects, especially a proposed battery manufacturing plant, have offered hope to some residents hungry for more diverse and higher-paying job opportunities.
City officials have tried to provide the services young people expect in hopes of attracting and retaining them, said Pikeville City Manager Philip Elswick. Those include new shops and restaurants downtown, faster and more reliable Internet service, and affordable housing.
But when asked about diversity, Elswick hesitated to say how he thought an active and visible LGBTQ community could play into Pikeville’s economic future.
“From the city’s perspective, we just offer those venues that are available to people, and really don’t take a position on issues like that,” Elswick said. “Totally apolitical in that way.”
On the other end of that spectrum is Huntington, W.Va, just across the border from Ashland.
The city has in recent years established LGBTQ and minority advisory committees to the mayor. Its Open To All campaign, established in 2016, has spearheaded several projects, including pride picnics and distributing diversity-themed stickers to churches, businesses and civic organizations.
Huntington Mayor Stephen Williams, who led the campaign, said it has helped the city culturally and economically. One of its goals was to attract and retain young people who might consider moving out of state.
“When you have a diverse, inclusive community, that’s something young people will be drawn to,” Williams said.
Pikeville “has always been kind of a forward-thinking, forward-acting community,” Williams said. The pride event here is “an indication of what’s happening in Appalachia.”
May, one of the Pikeville organizers, said he hopes Pikeville officials will make an effort to openly embrace diversity.
He suggested painting a crosswalk with rainbow colors — an initiative that Lexington took last year to promote diversity — or developing support groups. May also offered other, less expensive proposals, such as posting rainbow “Safe Zone” stickers in public buildings.
Pikeville is not currently pursuing any of those options, Elswick said.
May, though, said he is hopeful this weekend’s festival will nudge the area toward a future where gay Eastern Kentuckians feel they belong.
“I really am glad to see that Pikeville is appearing to become more progressive the longer I’ve lived here,” May said. “Because, just to be honest, I never expected it. I never thought it would go that direction.”
Will Wright is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Reach him at 859-270-9760, @HLWright