First openly gay Kentucky Poet Laureate, Silas House talks visibility and backlash

By Belle Townsend

Silas House, a Whitley County-born author whose works have become beloved bestsellers, was selected by Governor Andy Beshear to be Kentucky’s 2023-24 Poet Laureate.

“I think it’s particularly important to me right now, to be trusted as the governor as a representative, in a time when there’s so much anti-LGBTQ+ legislation out there,” House said. House now resides in Lexington, Kentucky and we picked up real quick that we were both rural natives from the most conservative corners of this Bluegrass. 

“I know Kentuckians to be such loving welcoming people, but most of the legislators’ votes make many of us feel unwelcome and unsafe.”

The duality of Kentucky is something many LGBTQ+ folks struggle with in living here, especially in the light of all of the anti-LGBTQ+ legislation that was pushed in Kentucky these last few months. But, despite the difficult duality, there are still cultural values here that show people are not the rhetoric assigned to them through cultural war campaigns. 

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear and Silas House

Getting at just this point, House once wrote in Southern Foodways Alliance, 

“There is no monolithic Southern family. Mine is the one I know best, and I have witnessed great change occur within us. My parents, who once chatted at suppertime about rounding up and forcing all gay folks onto an island, now welcome my husband and me to their table as a couple. They buy us joint Christmas presents, go on vacation with us, and refer to us as a coupled entity: y’all. They support and adore our son, their grandchild who has transitioned to male over the last couple of years. Sometimes when we are at the lake or dining together in a restaurant, I stop to marvel that we are all out together, my parents laughing and unafraid of how people might see us.”

As House wrote that there is no monolithic Southern family, there is no monolithic southern person, either. House continued in our conversation, “One thing about rural Kentucky, which is where I grew up and can speak on, is that there is this idea of acceptance– as long as you are quiet in your queerness.” He went on, “This is a form of erasure. I think that’s why it is so important to be visible, to be vocal, and to live your life openly.”

On being the first openly gay poet laureate of Kentucky, House shared that, “If by having more of a public platform I can help somebody else to find that safety and acceptance, then that really makes it worth it for me.” This rings true, especially given that one of the anti-LGBTQ+ bills in Kentucky’s legislature sets in place a book banning process for schools in SB 5. More than ever, it is important for our young people to see themselves in the stories they read and in the people representing them.

I then asked House what it would have meant to him as a young LGBTQ+ child in rural Kentucky to have representation. He said that he did not have “any” models like that growing up, and that even people who were out, “like Billie Jean King or Liberace,” he did not see those people talking about “the issues.”

“Being a child and seeing a writer from my area, or the poet laureate, talking about who they are in their full complexity, and not having to hide that? I think it would have been such a comfort to me. I just felt so alone growing up. It often made me feel more ashamed, through the culture, because I did not have those people to look to for guidance.”

House shared with me how he has been receiving such an outpouring of love from those in Kentucky and out of the state on being chosen as poet laureate to represent Kentuckians. But, House shared that, “I’ve also seen quite a bit of hate mail, comments on Governor Andy Beshear’s page, articles, and so on, about me being gay. A lot of it is them saying I can’t represent my people properly just because I’m gay, or even that I’m anti-religion because I’m gay, even though I’m a pretty vocal person of faith.”

Silas House (left) and Husband Jason Howard (right)

He continued, “All of these assumptions about me, because I’m a gay person, they would never say these things about a straight person – that they can’t represent everybody. So, in other words, the gay people don’t exist, right? I think the main thing is, the way some of these people are politicizing my gayness, saying I’m too political in my gayness.. The thing is, they are the ones who politicize people’s love. The people saying that are the ones politicizing it. Not us. We’re just trying to live our lives.”

As House is just trying to live his life, he has done a heck of a lot in it so far. A New York Times bestselling author of seven novels and a writer of four plays, House also is a published poet and creative nonfiction writer. Last year, in 2022, House received the Duggins prize, the largest award for an LGBTQ+ writer in the nation. The same year, House was named Appalachian of the Year via a nationwide poll. House has recently written for Time, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Ecotone, Garden & Gun, Oxford American, NY Times, and Bitter Southerner. House’s writing meets activism, in that he often unpacks LGBTQ+ discrimination and environmental injustices in his storytelling. A musical journalist as well, House has worked with big names like Jason Isbell, Kacey Musgraves, Lucinda Williams, Tyler Childers, S.G. Goodman, Lee Ann Womack, Kris Kristofferson, and many other musicians. Additionally, his honors include the Storyline Prize from the New York Public Library/ NAV Foundation, EB White Honor Award, the Intellectual Freedom Prize, and Appalachian Book of the Year. This is My Heart, one of House’s plays, depicts the LGBTQ+ experience in Appalachia. This is My Heart won the Karen Willis Award Excellence in Theatre for Social Justice. 

House is clearly not new to making literary, artistic, and cultural contributions to the state of Kentucky and the nation as a whole. With his first book published in 2001, House has been telling stories informed by his rural Kentucky upbringing for over two decades. He has been sharing the stories of rural folk, of queer folk, and of religious folk for a while, and House’s nomination as poet laureate only confirms his legacy as a storyteller. 

Governor Andy Beshear has been receiving backlash from a small but loud crowd, despite remaining one of the top most popular governors in the United States, bouncing around between 1st to 5th most popular governor in the United States. Beshear recently vetoed SB 150, the omnibus anti-trans bill, although it was overturned by the General Assembly. But, Beshear is not new to showing up for LGBTQ+ Kentuckians, through his messaging rooted in common sense and empathy. He was the first governor of Kentucky to attend a Fairness Rally, when he wrote on Twitter, “We must work together to pass a fairness ordinance, end discrimination & create a more inclusive Kentucky.”

Silas House ended our time together by sharing that he is, “proud to serve under this particular administration, because I think Beshear has really strived to represent as many Kentuckians as he can, and to make as many Kentuckians as possible feel seen and heard.. Honestly, that’s unusual. I think more and more politicians try to only speak to their base, but I appreciate the way he seeks to represent and serve all Kentuckians.” He mentioned that in addition to naming House as the first gay poet laureate, Beshear also named Crystal Wilkinson as the first Black woman to be Kentucky’s poet laureate in 2021-2022. 

He continued on the topic of representation and visibility, “I want to do that as poet laureate. One thing that a writer must do, especially in novels, is create empathy. I think we can all benefit from becoming more empathetic.”