Twinkle lights reflect off plastic cups, projecting a red hue across the small but packed room. Each guest, still chilly from the mid-November air, slowly warms to the welcoming space, waiting for the night’s headliner Bedazzlor to play. Soon, the music begins and the audience comes to life, band and guests, no matter their identities, appreciative of the communal space.
This memory from last November instantly came to Yen Doan’s mind when asked about their favorite times at the Hyannis House, UNC Asheville’s safe space for sexual assault survivors, women and LGBTQ+ folk. They said the Hyannis House and others like it in the Appalachian region, serve as important spaces for community and inclusion.
“Those nights are really special because there’s a lot of people that come together. Our first house show in November was with Bedazzlor, which is a band. One of the professors here, Ashe Cosette, is at the guitar and sings and she’s also my advisor for one of my organizations. The crowd that she brought in is because her band is this awesome queer band,” Doan said.
The Hyannis House currently celebrates its fifth year on campus. A joint effort between students and the Divison of Student Affairs, the house serves to educate the campus about important topics surrounding sexual assault, inclusion and allyship, while also providing a safe space for LGBTQ+ folk and women, according to Assistant Director of Multicultural Affairs Megan Pugh, who has overseen the house since 2017.
“A group of students who were really interested in eradicating sexual assaults on campus and supporting folks with queer identities on campus collaborated with the division of student affairs administrative leadership to create this house for those populations. Somewhere in the last five years, women, in general, were added as a target population,” Pugh said.
She said the space houses Legacy, a mentoring program for young women of color, the Trans Student Union and UNCA OUT. According to Pugh, the Hyannis House should serve as a tool for social justice education for all students.
“We wanted Hyannis House to prioritize fostering inclusion and a culture of equity while providing those resources that support educational programming and also a space for coalition and community building. I think often folks misinterpret the space as simply a social space, right? Where we can go and we can spend time, which a portion of it is, but we also consider a priority of Hyannis House to really be a space of learning so that folks have a good understanding of social justice and how to apply that across campus,” Pugh said.
Doan began using the house in the fall of 2018 after being introduced by the Trans Student Union. Now, Doan serves as one of the house coordinators.
“I think it’s really important to know that there are other people that are similar to you. Maybe not someone that you’re modeling or look up to, but maybe someone that you can feel comfortable with and share similar experiences. Queer solidarity, you know? Just knowing ‘Oh, I’m not going to get full bullied by you ‘cause I’m queer. You’re also queer,’” Doan said.
Doan said the house does serve some people, but needs to be revamped, as it has become stagnant.
“I have such big dreams for the house. I really want the pebble path to be brick and I want there to be a ramp and I want there to be an actual path connecting to the road. I want the fucking shuttles to get there. I want people to know where the Hyannis House is. I want it to be included in on-campus tours. I want people to not feel it’s far away just because it’s next to Owen Hall,” Doan said.
Putting effort into making the house feel more like a home where people can gather and feel comfortable continues to be one of Doan’s biggest goals.
“I want there to be cute plants on the back porch and have a comfortable space and not feel I’m inside this old building that used to be owned by a religious group,” Doan said. “I really want there to be more homey feelings in there, you know? Like cozy, nice feelings.”
More focus needs to be placed on creating a diverse safe space and understanding the struggles of queer people change based on race, according to Doan.
“I think it’s important to intentionally be inclusive,” Doan said. “It’s something that I’ve held in my heart and haven’t really shared. I shared it with Arcade because I know that Arcade works at the Office of Multicultural Affairs and would understand and empathize with me. That’s something I noticed. I want to engage more. I’m kind of scared to step where I’m not allowed. I don’t know, I don’t want to step on these people’s toes, not Office of Multicultural Affairs, but other people, you know?”
Laurie Ray, who just finished her thesis on queer safe spaces in Appalachia at Emory University, echoed Doan’s points, stating queer safe spaces, which have historically served white lesbians, need to put more effort into providing resources and security for queer folk of other marginalized identities.
“It’s important for people of color to have their own spaces because obviously there’s this assumption I think within the LGBTQ community that, ‘Oh, you must be able to relate with me because I’m also gay.’ But race does play a factor and your ability to relate to somebody or your ability to share a culture,” Ray said. “Mainstream LGBTQ culture is not necessarily black or Southern.”
Ray said these spaces remain especially important in the South because they provide community in a harsh environment, despite a history of radical queer activism.
“We still are a region that gives a lot of homophobia. Not to say that there isn’t homophobia in New York or San Francisco, but we have a culture of homophobia that’s also a legacy of homophobia,” Ray said. “It’s different than other parts of the U.S. and it’s intertwined. Religion is interfering with politics so it’s doubly important to have these kinds of safe spaces for people because we’re on the front lines of a lot of this stuff, modern conservatism and its tendency to have a transphobic and homophobic agenda.”
Ray, who was born and raised in the South, came out as a non-binary lesbian to a supportive family, something she says many Southern LGBTQ+ folks do not get to experience. Having had these experiences, Ray used her thesis to explore how other queer people find communities in the South.
“I became really interested in lesbian bars that used to be sort of the obvious space for queer women to go to, and because that’s sort of disappearing and has been for a while. It’s like, ‘OK, what’s next? Where can queer kids go to find space? Where can queer Southern people find space,’” Ray said. “I feel it does make a difference to be Southern. You have a certain set of experiences and a perspective about the world that is unique.”
Ray conducted her research via oral history collection. The lesbian women she spoke with said they found safe spaces in insitutions more accessible than lesbian bars, such as churches and queer-owned bookstores and restaurants.
“They’re all Southern and they all talked about what kinds of spaces were important to them. I was really interested in community building and space finding in the South in particular. I found a lot of things that I knew I was going to find. A lot of people, the spaces that are fulfilling for them and their queerness and their southernness are not always lesbian bars because there aren’t a lot of them around anymore,” Ray said. “It’s a trend that we see over time becoming less about lesbian-only spaces to sort of conglomerate all kinds of queer people sharing space together.”
Amanda Wray, an associate professor of English and a coordinator of the LGBTQ+ oral history project in collaboration with the Blue Ridge Pride, the YMCA of Western North Carolina and UNCA, said LGBTQ+ folk began organizing in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
“I really do think that Asheville in particular, but the Western North Carolina region is a hotbed for LGBT organizing. People moved here because they heard other LGBT people are here and not being harassed and being able to live out,” Wray said. “There’s just so much interesting history. We had almost twice as many LGBT bars in the ‘70s as we have now in Asheville, which is kind of hard to believe for some people. In 1964 or something like that there was a gay bar in Candler, which is so cool.”
In the ‘80s, gay bars in Asheville became more trans-friendly thanks to Holly Boswell, a trans activist. Prior to the ‘80s, gay bars only welcomed gay men, leaving lesbians to congregate elsewhere, according to Wray.
“I think in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, our bars started becoming more trans-friendly and that was not how it was everywhere in the country. A lot of people were really afraid of trans people and excluded them from the LGBT movement, from gay bars, all of that, but it didn’t seem to be the case here,” Wray said.
Today, Wray works to archive these stories through oral history collection, a similar approach to Ray’s research. These stories help preserve LGBTQ+ oral narratives in a region often known only for its rurality and conservatism.
“We were talking to people about their history, living LGBT and in Asheville. They’re telling us rural stories and histories before they even make it to Asheville. 60 percent of the people we have interviewed have lived in the region for more than 23 years. That’s crazy. Embedded rootedness, you know? I think that’s part of it,” Wray said.
Working to archive these stories ensures people do not forget the region’s rich history of
LGBTQ+ activism and community, according to Wray.
“I think it’s up to all of us to be documenting LGBT history because if we don’t it gets erased. It’s gone. I think that my project has gone from, ‘Gosh, I hope I can write a book someday,’ to, ‘This is a local movement right now with people coming together to make sure people get their stories heard,’” Wray said.
Ray shared this sentiment, stating there is not only a history to be gained but also connections across the LGBTQ+ community. She said there’s an epidemic of loneliness in the community which can be remedied by connection.
“I think young people feel isolated, especially LGBTQ people. If we can sort of bridge that gap and have conversations with each other, I think we can learn a lot from each other. I learned a lot from these people who I’ve known my whole life, but maybe I haven’t had this kind of conversation with them before. I think they can learn a lot from us too. It’s a bi-generational relationship where we can learn a lot about each other and then provide support and laughter in times of hardship like now,” Ray said.
Safe spaces can serve as centers for this conversation. To Ray, these spaces can serve as avenues for education, but LGBTQ+ folk also need a space just for themselves.
“I think it’s important to have spaces away from straight people. It’s not just about educating because I feel we do so much of that as for people in the world. We do so much of the job of educating straight people about what’s going on,” Ray said. “I think space for all kinds of queer people is important. I’m not saying that education’s not important, but I think that it is important to have space and not have an agenda.”
Doan seeks to foster this kind of space in the future for the Hyannis House, focusing their attention more on intentional programming and space improvements.
“I wish the house was not as stagnant as it is. I wish we did cool things involved with the community and cool things together. Hyannis House was always a little home to me,” Doan said.