Mason Adams Published

Rae Garringer Marks 10 Years Of Country Queers

A person wearing a ball cap, glasses, and a gray sweatshirt poses with their pet goat. The person is smiling up at the goat. The goat has brown fur.
Rae Garringer with their goat Thistle in 2022.
Rae Garringer

This story originally aired in the Oct. 15, 2023 episode of Inside Appalachia.

For 10 years, West Virginia native Rae Garringer has traveled around the country, recording oral history interviews with LGBTQ people in rural areas. Beginning in 2020, they started producing those interviews for a podcast, called Country Queers.

Garringer is now working on a Country Queers book. Inside Appalachia Host Mason Adams recently talked with them about the project and some of their favorite moments from the last decade of interviews.  

The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Adams: How did you first conceive the Country Queers project?

Garringer: In some ways, it’s a long story that I’ll try to keep short. I grew up in West Virginia, mostly on the border of Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties. I had never met an out queer person before I left the state for college in western Massachusetts in the early 2000s. And so I really bought into this national narrative that’s existed for a long time that there aren’t queer and trans people in rural places, which meant I ended up spending about 10 years away from home outside the region before finally moving back home in 2011 to 2012.

At that point, I started to see queer people around town at the Walmart, at the state fair, wherever it was I went when I got off the farm, off the mountain. I got frustrated. I felt like, not only had I never been told anything growing up here about the fact that there are queer people here, I also hadn’t seen any evidence of rural queer stories in a national queer media landscape. So I started the project out of those intersecting frustrations and needing for myself to find and meet other rural and small town queer people, and figure out how they were making it work to build a life in a place like this.

Adams: What form did that project first start to take shape? How did you start that journey?

Garringer: It started as, and continues to be, an oral history project at its core. I didn’t have any formal training and oral history or audio recording or interviewing, or anything like that. People ask me, “Why oral histories?” And I don’t actually know if I hadn’t read a bunch of oral history books or studied it or anything, but somehow, just the idea of sitting down with people and asking about their lives was really appealing to me.

I saved up and bought a little Zoom audio recorder and started doing interviews. Some of the first interviews happened with folks I met through the Stay project, which I was a part of at the time before aging out. Then [I] started to slowly gather more interviews, as I would be traveling somewhere to see friends or go to a wedding or wherever I was, I’d kind of reach out to people I knew, to see if they knew any rural queer people. So the project kind of grew organically in that way. It was about seven years of doing oral history interviews, and I wasn’t really sure what the best format was going to be to share them.

The project for many, many years was happening in my free time outside of full-time work and grad school and with basically no budget. The original dream when I started the project was to make a book. I had this sort of overly ambitious idea: I was going to put together a book of photos and interviews from every state in the U.S. But in 2014, when I took a month long road trip and went through only six states and did 30 interviews in 30 days, but drove 7,000 miles, I realized that level of gathering stories over such a wide range was not going to be possible for me.

So yeah, I spent a long time trying to figure out how best to present the stories and also trying to figure out how to have space and time to work with them. I started recording interviews in the summer of 2013, and we didn’t end up launching the podcast til the summer of 2020. So there were a lot of years of slowly plugging away at doing oral history interviews.

A podcast cover featuring pink cowboy books. On the cover, it reads, "Country Queers The Podcast."
The Country Queers podcast.


Adams: How did you eventually land on that podcast format?

Garringer: I was trying to work on Country Queers for a while, working in rural public schools in West Virginia, where I wasn’t able to be out at work, and then went to grad school to try to get some time for the project. And then ended up at WMMT in Whitesburg, Kentucky. I was the public affairs director there for about three years. At that job, I was responsible for about eight hours a week of radio content. Because of the pace of that job and how small our staff was, I got pretty good at turning around audio pretty quickly. And so really ended up deciding to do the podcast because it felt the most possible for a little DIY project with very little funding and very little time.

At that point, I’d been gathering these stories for seven years. I had, I don’t know, probably over 60 sitting on my hard drive and really wanted to get them out to people. The decision to do a podcast really came down to, it felt like something I’d be able to produce in the shortest amount of time with the least amount of money compared to a book or other ways to present the stories.

Adams: Alright, so here you are 10 years in, you’ve spent countless hours interviewing dozens of people, and put tens of thousands of miles on your car traveling around to do it. What are some of the favorite moments that really stuck with you from this process?

Garringer: Gosh, there’s been so many. It’s really hard to just pick a couple. But it’s interesting, because I’m working on a book about the project right now. Part of what that’s given me is the opportunity, for the first time in this decade of doing this work, to really sit and look at all of it as a collection. One of the things that’s been really fun about working on the book is I still have really vivid memories of each of the interviews. At this point, it’s 90 or more over the course of the decade. But for all of them that have happened in person, which is the majority of them, I can still remember details about the time I spent with people.

I’d say the majority of the interviews have happened in people’s homes. There’s just been such an amazing generosity by people who’ve shared their stories with me. I think about meals that I’ve eaten with people, people’s pets, things I remember about their homes or their property. I really fondly remember, in the first year, an interview I did with someone who has since passed away, who for a variety of reasons was not comfortable using her legal name. The pseudonym that we gave her is Francis. At the time, she was 78. She lived in western Massachusetts, and she was a former nun. And she was just as feisty as can be and started out the interview basically by interviewing me about the project and giving me a bunch of suggestions about what I should change. And she was just delightful. Yes.

Adams: I know from experience that one can’t conduct numerous interviews requiring deep listening without being changed. How have these interviews changed you?

Garringer: Oh, gosh. I think it’s hard for me to even know because it’s been such a huge part of my life for the past decade. It’s very rarely been my full-time job, but it’s been really constant in my brain and my body and my heart this whole decade. And also my own experience, trying to still figure this out for myself as a rural queer person in rural Appalachia. So one thing is, every time I do an interview, I’m a little confused. I’m also so overwhelmed with gratitude for how trusting people are, how generous and vulnerable people are in these oral histories. I think there’s something really special about oral histories between people who have some shared layers of identity, particularly for marginalized communities.

It’s this chance to intentionally sit down together and connect in this way that is really good for us as a species. You know what I mean? To get the chance to sit down and really listen to someone in that way, and really listen to them talk about their life and their memories and the joys, the traumas, all of it, and to make meaning of what it’s resulted in for them — it feels like such a gift to me every time.

I’m still confused why it’s worked, why people agree to talk to me, but it’s just so incredible. I feel like there’s so much wisdom in these interviews that people have gained just through living their lives. A lot of it is about having a sense of humor. And a lot of it is about a sense of resiliency that I think is pretty common among rural queer people across really wide differences in geography and other layers of identity.

Adams: Yeah. Ray Garringer, I’m glad you’re braving through the confusion and the effort that this involves, and that you’re sharing it with us. Thank you so much for coming on Inside Appalachia and speaking with us.

Garringer: Yeah, thank you so much. I appreciate it.