Rosemary Ketchum and Transgender History in Appalachia

June is LGBTQ Pride month, an annual celebration of non-heterosexual and non-cisgender identities. That includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, nonbinary, queer, and intersex identities, among others.

Although Pride month celebrates a spectrum of identities, the rights of cisgender gay and lesbian white people have been prioritized. Meanwhile, the voices and rights of LGBTQ people of color and transgender individuals—“people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth”—are often marginalized. History offers numerous examples of this marginalization, but you needn’t look back far to realize marginalization and discrimination continue today. 

Trans people have long battled for their civil rights and the freedom to be who they are. In Appalachia, trans folks have lived, thrived, and made history. The region was the birthplace of many trailblazers, such as Lucy Hicks Anderson, Carlett Brown Angianlee, and Robert Eads. 

Lucy Hicks Anderson

Born in Waddy, Kentucky in 1886, Lucy Hicks Anderson became “the first transgender person to in history to fight for marriage rights.” Under the support of a local doctor and her family, Lucy was able to live as her true self from an early age. At age 15 she left Kentucky for a life out West, eventually landing in Oxnard, California. There she became a fixture of the community and a socialite during Prohibition-era America

In Oxnard, she ran a brothel and sold illegal liquor, which got her arrested a few times. However, she was never in jail for long, as the community supported her. In 1945, shortly after marrying her second husband, an outbreak of venereal disease in Oxnard resulted in medical officials examining Lucy and her brothel employees. The examiner discovered Lucy’s gender history, prompting the district attorney to void her marriage license and arrest Lucy for perjury. Ultimately, the jury found Lucy guilty of impersonation and fraud, placed her under ten years of probation, and forbade her from dressing as a woman. She was banned from Oxnard and resettled in Los Angeles with her husband for the remainder of their lives. 

Carlett Brown Angianlee

Originally from Pittsburgh, Carlett Brown Angianless, a shake dancer, became the first Black American to plan a gender confirmation surgery. After volunteering for the Navy in 1950, Carlett learned that she was intersex. Before realizing she was intersex, the Naval Hospital admitted her for “mental illness.” Upon discovering “female glands” they offered to operate and remove them. Carlett declined and asked them to remove her male sex organs. The medical staff said they could not perform such an operation and that she would have to go abroad to Germany or Denmark and renounce her American citizenship to receive medical care.  

Carlett’s pursuit for gender confirmation occurred at the same time as Christine Jorgensen’s. However, unlike Christine–a white transwoman with Danish heritage–Carlett met racial barriers. Christine received special permission for her surgery in Denmark, kept her citizenship, and became a celebrity upon return to the US. Carlett, on the other hand, even after becoming a Danish citizen, never received medical care, struggled financially, and was imprisoned for wearing “female garb.” While she received media attention in Jet Magazine, no one knows what happened to her in her later years. 

Robert Eads

Robert Eads of Toccoa, Georgia, was the subject of the documentary, Southern Comfort, which chronicled his last year of life in 1999 and the discrimination he faced when seeking treatment for ovarian cancer. He was refused treatment by numerous doctors who were worried that treating him would ruin their reputation. Robert explained the cruel irony of his cancer diagnosis was that he had wanted a hysterectomy but doctors advised him against it. “It’s kind of a cruel joke that the last only part of me that was really female is trying is killing [me],” Robert said. Stigma undoubtedly contributed to Robert’s untimely death, but his legacy lives on through the documentary and a musical adaptation.

Via Rosemary Ketchum. 

Those elders paved the way for today’s generation of trans leaders like Rosemary Ketchum. I had the pleasure of speaking with Rosemary following her historic election to Wheeling’s City Council. She will be officially sworn in on July 1. She is the first openly trans elected official in the state at the age of 26. 

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

How does it feel to be a young person elected as an official?  

I’m the youngest person serving on our city council by I think 20 years, which is kind of crazy to me. And also the only woman serving. All of the winners were men. But as a young person, I think I provide a new perspective. Also, as a young West Virginian, which in so many ways is an oxymoron because we have such an old population, one of the oldest in the country I believe. 

Young people don’t stay here. Young people may grow up here, but often leave, and so hopefully what we can do in the city of Wheeling is make the city here—but also the state of West Virginia—more attractive for young folks. It feels good to be a young councilperson, a little overwhelming because I don’t have the lived experience in like chronological numbers that the other council members have had, but I also think that can be an asset. 

And going off of that, what do you love about Appalachia and West Virginia and how do you try to convey that, especially in enticing young people to stay? 

I think it’s all about the story we believe and the narrative that we have for our state. 

I wasn’t born here, I was born and raised in East Liverpool, Ohio. I’m a West Virginian by choice and that was kind of an obstacle I needed to overcome campaigning because many of the other candidates raised their kids here, got married here, went to high school; people knew who they were. 

But truthfully, I love the state of West Virginia for many, many reasons, but I think we are the original rebel state and we had the courage to be ourselves and to say this is who we are, this is what we believe, and refute any of the other racist and systemically problematic issues that were present, not only 100 years ago, but 50 years ago. 

And we have not in the past 30 years done the best job of being courageous in so far as our politics, but that is our history. And I think our history is incredibly progressive and one of the things that was most inspiring to see recently was the teacher’s strike. People said, “We’re fed up and this is what it looks like,” and we led the nation in supporting our school service programs. 

In West Virginia I feel we have so many broken systems and it’s incredibly disheartening, it makes you feel hopeless. But I feel where the ground is broken we have the most opportunity to dismantle those systems. We’re already halfway there. And so I feel we have the greatest opportunity to dismantle them and use those parts to build something better. 

I like what you say about being the rebel state and people not realizing West Virginia’s history. How do you combat that when the perception of Appalachia and West Virginia is of closed-mindedness? How do you convey the layers of identity there? 

Exactly. The rebel state, not the rebel flag state…very, very different things. 

I think you’re right. The biggest obstacle we have in the state of West Virginia are the things that people believe about the state of West Virginia, the stigma. I work in mental health and in my work, we talk about stigma every single day; mental health stigma, the stereotypes people believe about those with mental illness. 

I have been to conferences in DC and elsewhere where we all introduce ourselves and somebody’s from New Jersey and somebody’s from California and I say, “Well, I’m from West Virginia” and people are like, “What? What happens there? Who are you?” I am apparently not their perception of West Virginia and that strikes me because I, of course, see West Virginia as a beautiful place and I think we have some of the most compassionate, hardest working people anywhere in the country, but we have done perhaps a disservice in the way we control the narrative and I think politically that is really true. 

We have, unfortunately, elected people who are more interested in what they can do for themselves than what they can do for the state. And our current governor isn’t incredibly helpful there. So, it is a work in progress, but I think the biggest obstacle we have to overcome is, like I said, is the stigma. 

You mentioned mental health and I was wondering if you could speak a bit more on that. Like, why is mental health so important, especially in the context of West Virginia? And what barriers are there around mental health services? 

Yeah, so I believe we are experiencing a mental health crisis across the country. I believe mental health is a foundational component to everything. We in West Virginia even self-stigmatize, where we internalize what people believe about us and that’s really harmful for our own mental health, for our own psyche. 

One of the other issues that compounds all of that is the opioid epidemic that has been particularly harmful here in the state of West Virginia. We are one of the most rural states in the nation and we didn’t have the health care apparatus to serve the incredible need—both medically but the psychiatric need that was also required. The hardest part, in my job as a mental health advocate, is trying yes to support the work on the medical side but also advocate for mental health resources. 

In the city of Wheeling here we lost one of our hospitals, OBMC, very, very recently that occupied the only mental health in-patient psychiatric unit within 75 miles, and that was just lost. And it was kind of a punch in the face to our entire community, and as a result, we had law enforcement escorting people with serious critical mental health conditions 75 miles to Clarksburg for treatment. 

In 2020, that is absolutely unacceptable. It blows my mind that that’s what is happening. I haven’t been sworn in yet but I have spoken about what we can do to pull those resources back to our community. 

Yeah, it’s really important. I’m going to shift gears a bit in my questions and talk a bit more about you. So what does it mean for you to be that state’s first trans elected official?

Yeah, so the first openly trans person in the state. I knew it would be relatively important. I mean honestly, I thought if the Charleston Gazette-Mail picked it up, I would probably frame it. And when MSNBC and CNN DM’ed me on Twitter, and the Netherlands wanted to chat, I was really overcome with humility, and fear, a little bit. 

I did not anticipate this to resonate so deeply with the country. I mean, it’s pride month and both the terrible and amazing things that happened during pride month. Removal of health care protections for transgender folks that the Trump administration has enacted and in the same breath, maybe 24 hours later, the Supreme Court of the United States rules in favor [of] workers rights under Title Seven of the 1968 Civil Rights Act. So, it’s a very strange time to be an American in pride month, especially a trans American. 

I was also wondering how the Wheeling community has responded to you getting so much national media attention and therefore spotlighting Wheeling, and like you said, West Virginia as well? 

My Twitter and Instagram have kind of blown up. Like, 5,000 followers in four days or something. Someone in the country was on my Twitter and they shared a story of our local news covering that I was on the news. And they were like, “This is the most iconic small-town story.” Like, “Breaking news, one of our people was on the news!” 

I was like, that’s so sweet. But people have been, I think, again overwhelmingly positive and excited, which I’m so happy about. Not only do they like me and think that I’ll do a good job, but they’re actually excited about what’s happening here politically, which is not normal. 

I was knocking doors a year ago and people were not excited about politics here. They were not hopeful that things are going to change or that people have the best interests at heart. And I’m not giving myself any credit here, I don’t think I’m changing the world overnight, but just to see people just paying attention I think is a really, really good start. And so if it took a little national media attention to get our stuff together, I’m grateful for that. 

Annie Chester is a writer and co-founder of expatalachians. She writes about the environment and culture in Appalachia and abroad. She is currently a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

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