The Lesser-Known Pioneer: Lige Clarke and the queer legacy left behind

by Brandon Cooper
he/him
contact@queerkentucky.com

It was just two months since the United States was plunged into World War II. Temperatures were below zero in the hollers of East Kentucky and, while a nation mourned, James and Corinne Clarke of Cave Branch Hollow in Hindman, Kentucky, welcomed a son to the world. Elijah ‘Lige’ Clarke would live out his days as a leader in the Gay Rights Movement – one deeply ahead of his time.

Who was Lige Clarke?

After graduating from Eastern Kentucky University, Clarke joined the United States Army. By the 1960s, he was working in the U.S. Army’s Chief of Staff’s office at the Pentagon and held nine different security clearances (the lowest of which, he’d brag, being Top Secret). Clarke worked a highly sensitive government post while actively protesting the U.S. at a time when very real, physical and professional consequences could occur. 

Clarke and his partner, David Nichols met in Washington, D.C. at a gay bar called “The Hideaway.”

Through their activism and other queer networking, Clarke and Nichols quickly grew to gay stardom amongst urban queer communities. Clarke joined a small group of Mattachine Society members in Washington, D.C. — one of the first nationwide groups for LGBTQ people that began during the “homophile” movement of the 1950s. The D.C. chapter stageed the first openly gay picket in front of the White House on April 17, 1965 (four years before the Stonewall Uprising). Clarke allegedly hand-painted nine of the ten signs displayed at the protest, and his activism was only just beginning. 

The Activist & Writer

In the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy stoked mass fear and paranoia about gangs of gays taking over the American government from within – the lavender scare. The outcome? Mass firings of gays and lesbians from government jobs, enraged hatred towards difference, and angry queers. Clarke and his network took action.

Despite taking some of the greatest risk of his protesting peers, Clarke was often accused of “not being serious enough about his activism.” Perhaps much of this discontentment in the early queer movements held for Clarke was rooted in their lack of understanding of his Appalachian foundations. 

Clarke’s queer identity, and his persona overall, was largely influenced by his Appalachian upbringing. Clarke often rejected the idea of marriage and had concern for his cohorts’ incessance on equality. For Clarke, liberation for queers would come only “when society in general became sexually liberated.” Discounting labels and ‘cornering,’ when asked what his sexual preference was, Clarke simply stated, “My preference is for Jack Nichols.”

It was his understanding of society, and patience for progress, that allowed Clarke to speak and write emphatically about social and political happenings in the queer community. In the book, I Have More Fun with you Than Anybody, co-authored by his partner, Jack Nichols, Clarke and Nichols allude to the inefficacy of extremism – from any side of a battle: “right-wingers, we know, are only slightly more demented than left-wingers.” 

Clarke was proud of Appalachia, proud of his home, and proud to share it. He was said to have used his ‘hillbillyness’ strategically, leaning into the stereotypes held about Appalachians. 

He was temperate – reserved. 

A co-founder of, GAY, the Nation’s first LGBTQ newspaper, Clarke used his “lived beliefs” to take on large social and political issues while centering his work around personal identities.

A Legacy Continues

Now, 80 years since Clarke’s birth, Lora Smith, chief strategy officer for the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, and Baylen Campbell, director of community impact for Invest Appalachia, co-founded the Lige Clarke Liberation Fund to memorialize and continue Clarke’s legacy. The fund, an arm of the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, will share the work and ideas of the “lesser-known pioneer,” Campbell said. 

Smith added that she is optimistic about the future for queer Appalachians. Growing up in Southeastern Kentucky, many queer folks were told their only option would be to get out. “Now…folks [her] age and younger [are] returning to the mountains to live and build better communities.” Which is exactly why building the infrastructure – social and physical – for queer people to succeed and thrive in Appalachia is so important.

The need for queer people in Appalachia is broad, Campbell explained. 

“It is important to build support and infrastructure for long-term stability for queer Appalachians,” he said making a nod to Clarke’s dedication to community-centric solutions. “He never stopped coming home – never.” 

The work Smith, Campbell, and Clarke’s nephew, Eric Rhein, are doing is particularly important given the recent attacks on queer people in conservative areas like Appalachian Kentucky.

Queer people in Appalachia have notably stood up for their communities – even when their communities disparaged them. Smith described this as “modeling a different type of acceptance and compassion – giving people the empathy that maybe you yourself were not shown – is a special part of the queer Appalachian community.”

Political, social, and economic solutions require perspective and understanding.

The fund’s first group of grantees was announced in Hazard at the Big Idea Fest in the fall of 2022. Funds of $5,000 was dispersed for flood relief to queer farmers, Holliday Farms. The STAY Project: Appalachian LoveFest received $1,500 for its music and art festival for youth in Harlan, Kentucky. The fund also provided Pikeville Pride $1,000 to support their local efforts.

“It’s important to us to ground the fund in Lige’s legacy as a means to acknowledge that queer and trans folks have always been a part of mountain communities and there are queer and trans people in Appalachia’s future,” Smith said. “We want to support fostering, developing, and promoting queer leadership within regional nonprofits, support the creation of queer spaces, art and media, and provide queer youth with financial and other resources to seek educational and personal development opportunities that they might not otherwise have access to.”

Political, social, and economic solutions require perspective and understanding – they require that all stakeholders have a seat at the table. For many queer Appalachians, the resources they need to build their seats are simply lacking. The Lige Clarke Liberation Fund honors a pioneer of the gay rights movement – a son of Appalachia – and carries his legacy on to build the strong, liberated Appalachian communities Clarke envisioned.