Virgie native uplifts Kentucky and Tennessee LGBTQ+ voices through bar, advocacy

Wendy McCown-Williams

Even though Wendy McCown-Williams is a politically-appointed member of the Putnam County Election Commission and a business owner, she weighs her business decisions out against how it could be viewed.

For McCown-Williams, operating Cookeville’s only gay bar, Club Temptation, means being constantly aware that she owns a gay bar in a town of 33,000 people.

Every business decision has to be weighed against possible negative attention. When she hosted a cookout for regular customers and employees, she made a conscious decision not to allow children at the bar, fearful of the backlash. When she decided to put up Joe Biden election signs, Trump supporting-customers stopped coming.

Living in a rural community, McCown-Williams was aware she was many people’s first impression of a trans person, which pushed her into being a public figure. She now serves on the Putnam County Election

What do you identify as? Why? Or why don’t you identify as anything?
I identify as I have lived for the past 21 years, a pre-op Trans woman. When I began my transition in the mid 90’s my mentors made it very clear that if they were going to help me transition then I had to put in the hard work and sacrifices. At the time I was living in Cincinnati, Ohio and being Trans was still considered a mental illness. I has to not only see a psychologist but also a psychiatrist in order to receive paperwork to then go to a doctor for hormone replacement. I really owe major gratitude to Sirrocco and Meshell for the guidance and resources to start the journey to be my authentic self.

What does the word Queer mean to you?
I will be honest the word “Queer” has very harsh and dark memories for me. Growing up in the 80’s and being bullied in grade school and high-school in Eastern Kentucky that word was used to bash, bully and degrade me weekly. Being the “queer” or the “queer” boy was how those that saw me “different” were able to put me down and shame me. I understand that today’s youth has taken back the word for the positive but it’s not a word I use and I still cringe when I hear it.

Where are you from and explain what it was like growing up/living in Kentucky?
I was born and raised in Virgie, Ky (Pikeville) until I graduated Shelby Valley High School in 1992 and then attended Eastern Kentucky University from 92-95 in Richmond, Kentucky. I grew up in an age before the internet and there was NO representation of LGBT people on television that I was are of.

If you were at all “different’ you were bullied and shamed for feeling or acting that way. I remember clearly being in grade school and during recess being on the merry-go-round while the girls would say “boys can’t push” then the boys would get mad because I wasn’t pushing OR playing “house” and being told that boy’s can’t be the mother. I never knew why I was “different” but the teasing and bullying started around 6th grade. My freshman year at Virgie High School was the darkest memories I have. I was bullied relentlessly my entire year.

I would eat lunch alone, sit on the bus alone, and just tried to be invisible. I then discovered I could mask it all by being the outgoing person who tried to make people laugh. I also became good friends with a group of girls (Michelle, Kristy, Shawn, Bubbles) who served as a buffer from me and the teasing. I struggled but was able to “fit in” my last few years of high school. I also of course struggled at home trying to be the “son” that my father wanted and that caused a lot of headache and anxiety. I eventually went to live with my great grandparents and life became easier though it was always in the back of my head.

My grandparents were Old Regular Baptist so religion was prominent in the household and I was reminded constantly that people who were homosexual were seen as sinners and doomed to hell. So obviously it made things even more difficult. Once I graduated in 1992 I then went to college and my life changed, for the better. I was finally able to meet and see people from all walks of life. I became friends with a guy who was gay and he introduced me to my first gay bar and drag show. I finally felt like I was part of something, even though going to said bars was still not safe and still very taboo. Drag eventually helped me become who I was always meant to be, Wendy. Going to E.K.U and traveling to Morehead for weekend trips to the Driftwood and Stonewall in Huntington, WV or eventually the Bar Complex and Club 141 in Lexington, Ky really helped me out of some dark moments.

What would you say to anyone struggling to come into their own identity?
It will take time but it will be OK! Obviously LGBT youth have so much more references, resources and people to identify with then my generation did but it will still take time to grasp and understand, I’m still learning. Don’t expect everyone around you, especially your family, to want to be 100% supportive from the start. Your self identity is unique to YOU so don’t let others pressure you into labels or a lifestyle that you aren’t comfortable with. Take the time to get to know yourself and reflect on what makes you happy. I promise you it gets better.

How does your own identity run how you carry yourself? Or does it?
From a visible standpoint I had to make the inside match the outside in order to be happy, so my identity as Wendy needed to be a total package. My personality is more of how I carry myself and I try not to to let me being a Trans woman be the only thing people see me as. I am a complex person with a lot going on.

What issues do you see in the queer community?
I think the biggest issue I see in the LGBT community is the divide we have among our own community. Politically if you are moderate and don’t 100% support and or understand the progressive side then you are looked down on. Many gay men and lesbian women still have issues with Trans women. We are often seen as the entertainment on a weekend at the local gay bar or told we just couldn’t cut it as men so we decided to become women. Then some radical feminist believe our rights somehow will come at the expense of women’s rights. No group of people will agree all the time but I hope that our common struggles can continue to bring us together.

What do you think would solve those issues?
I honestly don’t think there is a solution to solve those issues or fractions within the community. We just have to understand that our experiences will be different but we are all fighting for the same acceptance.

Do you feel excluded from the “mainstream” queer community? Why or why not?
I have never been a person who needed to be part of a group to feel included. I think Trans woman and men are making bigger strides across mainstream which is helping us become more visible whether it be Trans shows like POSE or seeing Trans people on mainstream shows like Laverne Cox and Candis Cayne. Though the inclusion is going slowly at least we are being more involved in society and entertainment.

Where do you feel “at your best” (safe, happy, fabulous, comfortable, etc)
I feel the safest, happy, fabulous, and comfortable when I am in gay bars especially my own, Club Temptation in Cookeville, TN. Gay bars have been the backbone and safe environment for LGBT individuals since Stonewall. These bars are the places we come out, meet our chosen family, raise money for our community, laugh and cry. When I am on stage or emceeing I am using my presence to let that person who is in the audience for the first time know they are safe or use it as a way to educate those that have never met a Trans person. Communities need these places so support your local LGBT bar.

Who influenced the life you live now?
I have had many mentors and influences in my youth ranging from mentors like Meshell, Sirrocco, Ashley and the list goes on. I was blessed when I moved to Florida to meet a older Trans woman, Miss Robin, who helped me get my life together and transition further. Politically I have been influenced by Hillary Clinton and of course my mother and great- grandmother Mazie who never shunned me for being ‘different’ which helped me know it was o.k. to eventually be who I am now. Finally I hope that I have been an influence for those coming up behind me and will continue using my platform to do that.