Country Queers are becoming more and more visible in the media but, the question is, who is truly listening?
Georgian RuPaul’s Drag Race girl and trans icon Kylie Sonique Love recently entered the “All Star Hall of Fame” after competing against three fellow southern queens. During her time on the show, Love was not shy when discussing her southern-otherness, at one point describing herself as “country as a biscuit.” The regional camaraderie shared by the cast was further exemplified by their group performance in the pop-country crossover, “This Is Our Country” (now available on iTunes—ping).
In her verse, Love exemplified her sing-song Georgian accent specifically when she said, “I’m gon’ use my twang when I need to yell.” This “twang” Love refers to is a regional accent heard in many voices within southern and Appalachian states. Speaking with a twang is a political act capable of invoking kinship or alienation, depending on who hears it.
Twangs are not the only distinguishable sounds in the sonic conglomerate of the United States. The range of dialects vary greatly depending on regions, states, and local communities, experienced and exhibited differently depending on geographical and sociological influences. From the Bostonian soft “a” such as in “park your car in Harvard yard” to the elongated vowels in the stylistic “Valley Girl” lexicon, nuances in speech patterns are as unique as thumbprints. Yet, the rural southern and Appalachian voice is often pigeonholed as the only variation in American speech and, worse yet, further shoehorned into one homogenized sound.
Regardless of how subtle or exaggerated one’s rural accent is, sounding different from the majority of people heard on television or in the street is not a flaw. Dr. Jennifer Cramer, department chair of Linguistics at the University of Kentucky, maintains that dialects are as numerous and individualized as ice-cream flavors.
“And there is no such thing as flavorless ice-cream,” she said.
In other words, accents are not deviations in language, rather, an integral part of communication. Everyone who uses their voice has a distinct sound whether they realize it or not.
While having an accent is not unique, it is a uniquely common occurrence for rural people to be told their distinct sound is obtuse. According to Cramer, there is an abundance of evidence that supports the notion that listeners draw conclusions about the whole of a speaker’s identity just by hearing “one word.”
Silas House, novelist and author of notable Appalachian works, fiction faculty at the Spalding School of Creative Writing and the NEH Chair at Berea College, said he believes it is a shared experience for southerners and Appalachians to have their voice singled-out at least once in their lifetime.
“People will make a joke about your accent and expect you to go along with it,” he said.
Accent stigma may frequently begin in jest but it is important to note that the nature of rejecting someone’s identity by means of silencing or shaming their voice is insidious. Ironically enough, Cramer said her Louisvillian tongue earned her the nickname “Kentucky” while studying linguistics and language in Indiana. Even while working in a field which celebrates language variances, her accent led to instances of professional gatekeeping when others expressed she sounded like a “rube.”
The reach of accent shaming spans far and wide.
House said many of his students over the years have confided in him about instances when their voices have been pointed-out and mocked by other professors — experiences House said has happened to him as well. Once a colleague suggested he deliver lectures without his notable Laurel County dialect in a situation he described as, “Someone from an upper class telling me I sounded poor and stupid.”
Despite how innocently occurrences of accent stigma manifest themselves, the consequences of voice shaming leaves permanent damage on the speaker. No institution of higher learning, workplace, or media outlet is absolutely free from this form of stigma. Nowhere in America is safe for Appalachian and southern dialect speakers.
While this has emotional implications, accent stigma can jeopardize much more than mental health.
As Cramer puts it, “Most everyday folks feel perfectly comfortable openly discriminating against language…There are no legal protections for language.”
Since accent does not qualify as a listed class protecting applicants from potential discrimination, employers are well within their legal rights to pass on job candidates because of their voice. Applicants without a neutralized voice are in fact at the mercy of an interviewer’s unconscious bias and commitment to inclusion.
In order to better secure job opportunities, many rural folks opt to mask their accent in a process called “style-switching.” There are even programs and courses offered at schools and workplaces which offer curriculums of “accent reduction” methods. These types of courses promise students that they can boost professionalism and enhance corporate desirability. Alabama based Theatre and Communications professor, NeilDavid Seibel, is one such student of these kinds of programs.
“Sadly, I lost my home accent,” Seibel said of the Northern-Kentucky dialect he once used.
The amalgamation of Appalachian and Midwestern influences he grew up speaking is now “a nostalgic memory” after his theatre training resulted in the loss of his regional sound.
“I don’t blame my teachers at all,” he said. “There wasn’t [the idea of] code-switching back in the day.”
Siebel said while working in New York, he never experienced discrimination based on his accent. In fact, he admitted he and his cohort felt a sense of pride when locals said they did not sound like they were from Kentucky. It wasn’t until he returned to the south that he realized that his home accent had stayed behind, lost completely on those with whom he once shared a linguistic homeplace.
“It broke my heart,” he said.
Despite the loss of his native speech pattern, he maintains that he does not resent the program he attended for delivering on the promise of installing a “corporate dialect where you can fit in anywhere,” a tool that did serve to benefit his career.
The overarching disdain of rural dialects in favor of neutralized ones–thus its subsequent erasure–is not a new epidemic, just an untreated one. In 1911, Louisville-born Cora Wilson-Stewart opened fifty “moonlight schools” in Appalachia to improve literacy in the region. However, regional dialect became a casualty of the curriculum, reinforcing the persistent belief that “twangs” impede on the English language and only serve as unfortunate markers of identity.
While accent stigma may not seem relevant to everyone, examining the intersections of unmitigated negative reactions to the quality of someone’s speech reveals the roots of voice based discrimination runs deeper than the southern and Appalachian United States.
Many members of the LGBTQ+ community all around the country are all-too-familiar with the social consequences of “sounding gay” in cis/heteronormative society. On the subject of “gay voice,” Seibel believes the joyful abandonment of masculine communication norms makes the LGBTQ+ male voice stand out from their straight, cisgender counterparts.
“I think [we] tend to see things in a slightly different way and [so] we enjoy the musicality and range and different resonances,” he said.
According to Seibel, the affectation of “gay voice” is not enjoyed by the majority of cis/hetero males because, “Gay men aren’t afraid to go where straight man can’t.”
While internalized homophobia within the community can lead to the rejection of those who take advantage of this liberated speech pattern (i.e. the “masc for masc” mentality), it is generally employed by many in Queer circles online or out loud. However, those who share the rural and queer voice may find themselves left out of the conversation altogether.
Lucas Simpson, a marriage and family counseling graduate student from Danville, said his time mingling with non-Kentuckians and non-southern Queers while in undergrad caused him to hyper-fixate on his “nasally, country-bumpkin” voice in a way he never had before.
“I don’t know where my accent ends and my gay voice begins,” he said.
Though Simpson identifies as bisexual, he says fellow Queers dismiss his sexuality by citing his voice.
For those with hybrid speech patterns, it can be dangerous to speak authentically. There is no clear path to safety when homophobic locals or metro-normative LGBTQ+ folks reject different aspects of this voice. Simpson says he often finds that the marriage of his country and queer sound doubles the scrutiny, leaving him rejected twice as much. The systemic issues of classism and bigotry often manifest in the unregulated world of accent stigma and voice-shaming forcing rural queers to decide whether they will embrace or suppress their identities.
House believes this dual snubbing happens because rural LGBTQ+ people do not neatly fit the mold of mainstream Queerness.
“[As rural queers] we’re often told our voice doesn’t matter,” he said.
House said he too commonly faces wariness from other LGBTQ+ people due to his pronounced attachment to his rural roots. Aside from the subject matter he speaks on in his works, his attachment to Appalachia is richly defined by the way he speaks aloud. To some, the melodic quality of his voice reminds them of home. To others, perhaps his voice conjures images of political oppression. Either way, House said it’s time to shrug off the “classist” assumptions of poverty, stupidity, and especially complacency toward social inequality that is attached to the Appalachian voice.
“It’s just a way of letting the rest of the country off the hook,” he said regarding the idea that racist remarks are only said with southern twangs. “The whole country is racist.”
Linguists like Dr. Cramer suggests the end to dialect based oppression follows the deconstruction of the belief that Standard American English (SAE) is a naturally acquired, inherently perfect language.
“It can’t be true that the Kentucky language is not the same as some standard you’re holding it to,” she said.
This harmful belief can be replaced with the acknowledgment that regional dialects follow their own rules and can even make up for the failures of SAE. For example, Cramer points out that “y’all” pluralizes “you” in a way SAE cannot do without gendering the subjects.
“You may describe that as a way Standard American English is lacking in the pronoun paradigm,” she said.
The masculinity in “you guys” is “bleached just by saying it a bunch” whereas “y’all” encompasses all genders within the word.
Perhaps the induction of tumbling, twang-talking Kylie Sonique Love’s into mainstream Drag Race royalty will help steer rural queers and their language into a place of validation in our communities. This does appear to be a part of the All Stars Winner’s royal objective, as she made it clear that she was ready to rewrite the story surrounding the shame she once felt about her accent. While we cannot control the acceptance of our Queer identities from non-Queers, we are perfectly in command of our own biases toward each other.
One thing is certain, however: many of the country’s ears are being exposed to the rich resource of the rural queer voice for the first time. Time will tell if others will come to hear rural queers shout their voices from the mountaintops, or, like the mountaintops themselves, if they will come to completely remove them.