Ty Bo Yule13 min read·Jun 172
I hit the road at 7AM on a Friday morning, only an hour later than I had planned. Set up for Ozark Pride in Hardy, Arkansas, was to begin the next morning at 11AM. My destination for that night was Springfield, Missouri, the last big town on the way to Hardy. Google maps told me it was an eight and a half hour drive. I thought I could make it in twelve.
My van, Cookie Monster, is not built for speed. It only theoretically has cruise control. It has a tape deck, but my cassette collection from the 80s has long since melted. I listened to public radio, then classic rock for as long as I could. Then I shoved my cell phone in my bra strap, by my ear, so I could listen to podcasts for the last two hours of my drive.
I was grateful to finally arrive in Springfield around nine. It was raining on a dark county highway for the last hour of my drive. I pulled into a strip mall and cooked dinner in my van by the light of a Jimmy Johns. I found a large parking lot between two hotels and settled in for the night. I had a weed drink while I finished the Spelling Bee then slept like a big, gay bear.
The next morning, I made coffee in a Home Depot parking lot and was back on the road by seven. I was excited to see my friends again. I had been to Hardy’s first Pride in 2021. The two and a half hour drive from Springfield to Hardy is a long, uninterrupted roller coaster of wooded hills and dead armadillos. Hardy is a tiny hamlet of 743 in the middle of the Ozarks in rural Northern Arkansas.
It’s an unlikely place for a Pride celebration. Hardy was a known sundown town not that long ago. It is still potentially unfriendly to people of color and non-normative individuals who may find themselves wondering where to park their distinctively queer van after dark.
Arkansas, as a state, has the distinction of being the first in the nation to ban gender-affirming care for minors in 2021. A judicial stay on enforcement of this law remains in place while the legal challenge, brought by four Trans youth, is ongoing. Most of the few providers for Trans healthcare, however, have left the state or discontinued that portion of their practice. Trans individuals that receive gender affirming care in Arkansas now have fifteen years to sue for malpractice, instead of two, making it additionally difficult find insurance.
They were the second state to ban Trans girls from playing sports. They recently passed their own version of a “drag ban”, which prohibits performances in public spaces, that may “appeal to” intentionally vague “prurient interests.”Arkansas governor and unironic SNL skit, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, just signed into law her own version of Florida’s “don’t say gay” education reform, which not only bans any mention of LGBTQ issues before fifth grade, but mandates restroom and changing room restrictions. School employees must get parental permission to use preferred names and pronouns. The bill also centers charter schools, a decades-long Republican project to gut public education and usher in a new age of de facto segregation.
There is a new bathroom ban for adult Trans people, who could be charged with misdemeanor sexual indecency, if they use the public toilet aligned with their identity while a minor is present. It was amended to add “for the purpose of arousing or gratifying a sexual desire” after considerable dissent. Sanders also banned the word “LatinX” for all official purposes as one of her first actions as governor.
This has all taken place in the last two years, since I went to Hardy’s first Pride. Over 500 similarly intentioned bills have been advanced this year in nearly every state with varying degrees of success. (For a well-researched and fascinating account of this top-down legislative siege, I recommend “The Anti-Trans Hate Machine: A Plot Against Equality” podcast by TransLash Media.)This legislation has had the added effect of sanctioning and promoting organized, aggressive, and occasionally violent anti-Queer demonstrations at family-friendly Queer events.
As I drive past the Confederate flags announcing my arrival in Hardy, I wonder what I always wonder about authoritarian ambitions. What is the end game for these American Christian Nationalists? They clearly want to legislate Queers back into the closet. Are they trying to force everyone they don’t like out of their states? Do they want genocide? A new civil war? The Rapture? Are Republican politicians using this recycled moral panic cynically to distract from declining living standards and capitalistic plunder of the middle and working classes?
It doesn’t matter. They are currently making life demonstrably more difficult and dangerous for Queer people in areas that weren’t welcoming to begin with. What is the strategy for Queers in red states? Most of them can’t or don’t want to leave. I found Queers in those places do what Queers everywhere have always done — organize, build community, create joy, and defy bullies.
I turn off the winding county road onto a steep, gravel path I know ends in a terrifyingly narrow concrete slab across a decent sized river. I make it to the other side and drive into the country field where a small sanctuary of love and rainbows is being assembled.I never get tired of this. It’s always worth the drive.What kind of audacity does it take to put on Pride in this place in this time? No matter how far I go to see it, it’s like coming home.
I take my place on the vendor side of the field and set up my little display. There are about a dozen vendor/organization tents. I walk toward the ample, yet decaying covered wooden stage. Next to it, Ozark Pride has a new tent, with their retro 70s chic logo. Abby gets up to hug me and tells me to set up wherever there’s room. We met last time I was here.
Next to Ozark Pride’s tent is Engaging Arkansas Communities, a non-profit providing free STI and HIV testing as well as support and prevention services. I meet Kimberly and Kodee who agree to come talk to me when they have time. I continue down the line of enthusiastic vendors, introducing myself and making new friends when I spot Brennan, the Ozark Pride President and someone who made an impression on me the last time we met.
Brennan came out as Trans exactly two years earlier, the night I was last there, at the Pride afterparty and drag show. Since then, he’s started HRT and organized two more Prides. He’d just had surgery on his knee and was in a wheelchair, being pushed through the soft grass by his wife while he directed support staff.I leaned over to hug him while he tells me the speakers for the show just caught fire. I had noticed a couple drag Queens earlier so I asked how he felt about Arkansas’ fresh “drag ban.” “First thing I did when I heard about it was organize a drag show,” he drawled. I smiled and nodded, but I saw he had his hands full so I ambled back over to my tent.
Kodee came by to chat and check out my book. They agreed to sit for my first interview of the day. Kodee is Trans and lives in Little Rock. They started transitioning at 27. They are HIV+ and explained to me Arkansas also criminalizes people with HIV. If you don’t inform a sex partner of your status, you could be charged as a sex offender even if you don’t transmit the virus.
When I ask about how it is to be Queer in Arkansas and if they’ve ever thought of moving, they tell me they don’t have much of an issue personally, but are concerned for the Queer youth. “If we leave, who’s going to speak for them?” When I ask about the future of Queer in Arkansas, they just smile and tell me, “They (Queer youth) aren’t going to take this shit.” They feel like things might improve when the older generation dies. Wait it out — valid strategy.
Kodee’s coworker, Kimberly, approached my display next. She said telling her own story might help others having similar struggles so she was glad to have an opportunity to share it with me. Kimberly was in an unhealthy relationship eight years previously and then she lost her grandmother. She went through a struggle with meth and tested HIV+ at some point.
She beamed when she talked about her activism work. She loves helping people. She met her husband on an HIV+ dating app and they’ve been married for three years. They have a two-year-old and her husband’s daughter and toddler also live with them.When I asked about Arkansas’ anti-LGBTQ legislation, she replied, “I’m a very loving person. I’m a Christian. Everyone deserves to be their true selves…If we’re not giving support, where does that leave them? …Sometimes, you don’t know the impact you’re going to make on someone, but you still have to try.”
My old buddy, Abby, came over. She’s one of the organizers. She got involved when she met Mama Catherine (another organizer’s mother) at Walmart and she prayed over Abby and invited her to join Ozark Pride.Abby has a twin sister but never felt accepted growing up with her grandparents. She started wearing boys clothes at a young age and knew she liked girls. She told me about her past mental health struggles, but those issues were improving with medication and a new loving relationship.
She and her fiancé are trying to get back on their feet after their house with all of their belongings and savings burned down earlier this year. They’re living with friends in an even smaller town. Abby said she can’t find a job, but got on disability.
When I asked how it was being Queer in rural Arkansas, she said, “I’m loved. I have so many friends…Everything I know is here, so you risk it.” She’d like to move to Texas, eventually, “I wanna see what the world has to offer.” But for now also thinks the situation will improve when the old people die in 5–10 years. Damn boomers.
It was hot. I got up to watch the drag show. Somebody drove to Walmart and picked up a speaker. It wasn’t meant to handle outdoor events, but nobody is complaining. Everybody is cheering and tipping. The Queens’ heels are sinking into the grass, but that doesn’t stop the death drops. A drag King’s dog joins his dad in the act. Watching little kids watch drag Queens is one of my very favorite activities.
During an intermission, I asked some of the performers how they felt about Arkansas’ new “drag ban.” None of them seemed intimidated. Aubi Gold, Mother of the Haus of Mineral of Fort Smith, Arkansas, replied, “I’ll walk into any gas station, Walmart, Dollar General. I do not care. Look at me.” In a later Facebook exchange, she told me she “grew up in a small town, just like Hardy,” so she wasn’t “scared of a little rough and tough battle.” Aubi is impressive. She is a talented performer and a natural leader.
It’s late afternoon. The drag show has ended. People are starting to pack up. There is no after party this year. Hardy won’t allow Ozark Pride to use their civic center any more. They claim there was property damage and theft the last time, but consensus seemed to be that was a “load of horseshit.” I have two more interviews I’ve been waiting to do.
The first is with Chase, a drag King I met in 2021. He and his wife and kids live in Thayer, Missouri, close to the Arkansas border. He’s been transitioning for ten years and says it’s the best decision he ever made. He got into drag watching Rupaul, but didn’t start performing until he saw his first King perform at a gay bar in New York. He loves the community created by drag culture and also loves glitter. There is still some in my van.
When he first started transitioning, he drove to Lincoln, Nebraska for care. His primary care physician is now unbelievably in Arkansas, but he informs me there is only one that he knows of. He says Missouri is no better, but his family and community are there. “I have fought for a long time for who I am and who I wanna be. Where I’m at now, with the support group I have around here, I will continue to fight…for the people who don’t have a voice. It’s the youth I’m concerned about.”
I finally get another chance to talk to Brennan. He’s been busy. His voice has dropped dramatically since I saw him. He says testosterone has helped his mental health. He is the only out Trans man in the area. He thinks about moving to Arizona, but his wife wants to stay in Hardy, so he’s staying.
He got involved organizing Ozark Pride just before the first one by answering a Facebook ad. I asked him how he felt about the day. “Well, everything that could have gone wrong happened (but)…Oh man, I looked out at one point and counted 83 people in the bleachers. And to see that compared to the first couple years, it was amazing. To see how far we’ve come in the last three years, it’s such a sense of accomplishment.”
It was something to be proud of, a perfect Pride. It was time to pack up. I drove back to Springfield and found the same hotel parking lot to crash in.
On the drive home the next day, with time to think, I realized I wanted to know more about organizing efforts in Arkansas. The legislative attacks are taking place on a state level currently, coordinated nationally. Full-time, local activist organizations are often the only resource for strategizing large targeted actions to counter these authoritarian efforts in the capital. Often, these organizations are also founded and run by small groups of dedicated individuals, united around a purpose.
Rumba Yambú is one of the founders of inTRANSitive. They migrated to NW Arkansas as a youth and found activism in junior high when they hand-drew fifty flyers announcing the first Day Without Immigrants march in Springdale in 2006 and organized their friends to hand them out.
After emerging as Trans, they were frustrated at the absence of an organization that confronted the intersectional oppressions faced by Trans immigrants. InTRANSitive started as a Facebook presence to organize against TERF recruitment in Fayetteville in 2017.
I hadn’t ever thought of TERFs as a centrally governed entity that engaged in recruiting, but I know conservative strategists have highlighted “gender critical” feminists’ and “detransitioners’” perspectives as an effort to inflate the scope of their anti-Trans campaign. Were there conservative-funded gangs of TERFS hyping Trans controversy in NW Arkansas before the legislative attack?
Yambú tells me inTRANSitive was self-funded until they testified against the gender-affirming care ban at the state legislature in 2021. They think it was no accident this legislation came to Arkansas first. It was a test case. They say Arkansas didn’t have the organizing infrastructure to fight. National LGBTQ funding organizations took notice of inTRANSitive’s efforts and began to invest in Arkansas.
With the funds, they were able to purchase a building and open the first Transgender Community Center in Arkansas in Little Rock. They provide advocacy and services for survivors of domestic and sexual violence. They advocate for and provide translation services for Trans immigrants. They have education and community care spaces for Trans people and have Youth programming. They also provide direct financial support mostly to black and brown Transwomen.
Yambú and InTRANSitive are a strategic leaders against the current anti-Trans legislative attacks. They have organized digital and grassroots campaigns against the massive conservative political agenda in Arkansas. When I asked Yambú if there is anything they’d like Queers in blue states to know, they answered, “It’s eventually going to come to you and there’s proof of that. That’s what I tell funders.”
Tig Kashala, Director of Operations at Lucie’s Place, based in Little Rock, also agreed to meet with me over Zoom. Lucie’s Place was created in 2011 after the suspicious death of Lucille Hamilton, a Trans community member in Little Rock, while traveling to Louisiana. It is a Black-feminist, Trans-led, intergenerational collective providing direct services and advocacy to LBGTQ youth experiencing homelessness.
After being run as a traditional non-profit, the organization was reclaimed by Trans and Queer organizers of color, returning it to its grassroots foundations. Kashala runs their drop-in center with a free closet. Kashala got their first professional credit in costume design at fifteen. They’ve taken their passion for costuming and transformed the free closet into a style consultation resource for gender non-conforming folk that visit.
Kashala grew up in what they described as a religious cult. They have a deep understanding of a Christian Nationalist mindset. “They are not failing at critical thinking, they live in an echo chamber…Conservatives operate in a state of cognitive dissonance. They can’t and won’t come to terms with real situations.” They were kicked out of their congregation as a teen.When asked what they want Minnesota Queers to know, “There are organizers in the South. There is a resistance movement. Southerners need a lot of support right now. Don’t write off Southern states as full of Hillbillies.”
I didn’t personally meet any hillbillies in Arkansas, just a ton of innovative, brave, passionate Queer organizers.
Little Rock is also home to the House of GG — The Griffin-Gracy Educational Retreat and Historical Center. This is the legacy project of Trans revolutionary, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy.If you’d like any more information or are interested in resource sharing or solidarity work, here are some links to your Queer community in Arkansas:
Ozark Pride: https://myozarkpride.org/
Lucie’s Place: https://www.luciesplace.org/
House of GG: https://houseofgg.org/
Next stop — Ottumwa, Iowa.