The Tale of Queer Appalachia

A popular Instagram account raises funds for LGBTQ people in Appalachia. But does the money really go where it’s supposed to?
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In August 2018, the fifth annual Shaping Our Appalachian Region Summit, a social services and jobs fair, was held in Pikeville, Ky. Among the booths set up by local universities and health-care companies was a table from Queer Appalachia, a wildly popular Instagram account. Over its two-year history, Queer Appalachia had expanded beyond its original content about the lives and culture of queer people across Appalachia — playful memes about Dolly Parton and cornbread — and began collecting money from its followers to support social initiatives in the region. A small cadre of volunteers sat behind the QA table at the summit, including Mamone, the account’s founder, and a volunteer named Leo. (Mamone uses the mononymous Mamone. Leo spoke on the condition that only his first name be used.)

Leo grew up in Richmond, a town with deep ties to the coal mining industry, and felt a strong connection to Mamone’s platform. After Leo had volunteered for a few months, Mamone asked him to help expand Queer Appalachia into harm reduction work, a set of interventions designed to reduce drug overdoses and stigma associated with drug use. “I started volunteering locally, learning as much as I could about it as humanly possible, and loving every second of it,” Leo says. He trained to distribute naloxone, a drug that rapidly reverses opioid overdoses, and to teach others those skills; soon, he was spending up to 60 hours a week on QA’s harm reduction projects.

That summer, Leo, Mamone and another volunteer traveled throughout the Appalachian region, distributing harm reduction materials at zine festivals and pride celebrations. The community response was “outstanding,” Leo says. To finance their travel, Leo posted a call on Instagram asking supporters to buy QA stickers and donate to QA’s Venmo account. Leo says Mamone, who controlled the Venmo account, never told him how much money was raised in those campaigns.

In September, Mamone posted a call on Instagram asking Queer Appalachia’s followers for more donations, writing: “We’ve given out ALL of our Harm Reduction supplies & need your $upport to buy more Narcan, needles & fentanyl test strips to hand out.” It was accompanied by a picture of nearly empty cabinets.

But Leo knew this wasn’t true. Their cabinets were full of donated supplies. “I immediately sent [Mamone] a message being like: This is extremely unethical,” says Leo.

“I get the empty cupboards are not an authentic representation of where we are,” Mamone texted back. “It ain’t too far off though looking at overall budget. ... I do not have the time or ability to make custom graphics for each new post ... that’s the very nature of fundraising like this.” (When I began reporting this story in February 2019, I wrote an introductory email to Mamone with a few questions about the scope and workings of Queer Appalachia. After replying to that initial email, Mamone did not respond to multiple detailed requests for comment, made over the course of a year.)

In 2019, a Roanoke-based nonprofit called the Virginia Harm Reduction Coalition approached Queer Appalachia about partnering to apply for a grant from HepConnect, the granting arm of Gilead Sciences. The two outfits teamed up and won the grant of $300,000. Leo signed off on the application, but once the money was awarded, he quickly became frustrated with how the funds were distributed.

He decided to stop working with Queer Appalachia and scheduled a meeting with Mamone to quit in person. Mamone drove up to the meeting in a new truck, complete with “every bell and whistle,” says Leo. “There was no transparency on where the money to buy this brand-new truck came from,” he told me. “I just thought it was such a ‘f--- you’ to all of the people, the poor and working-class people who had given their money [to Queer Appalachia] without really understanding or knowing where it was going.”

There is a lot of joy in the account, and striking beauty, and a sense of scrappy survival. There is contradiction and anger, fat bodies and the beloved breakfast chain Tudor’s Biscuit World.

If you’re from Appalachia or the South and active in lefty communities, you’re probably familiar with Queer Appalachia. If you live in New York or Los Angeles, it may be the only Appalachian-based media you know. A post from June 2017, about a year after its launch, described QA as an aggregator for “field notes, poems, prose, essays, playlists, reviews, photography, crosswords…and anything else as long as it has to do with Queer Appalachia/Queer South.” As the account picked up followers — 276,000 and counting — it received coverage from NBC News, Slate and USA Today, among many others.

The attention may have to do with the scarcity of Appalachian representation in popular culture. In recent years, “Hillbilly Elegy,” a memoir by venture capitalist J.D. Vance, characterized the Appalachian culture as one deeply “in crisis.” The popular TV show “Justified” depicted Appalachian eastern Kentucky as a place of murder and meth. It has always been this way: From the stereotypes circulated in local-color novels after the Civil War to the spectacle of “The Beverly Hillbillies” in the 1960s and “The Dukes of Hazzard” in the 1980s, Appalachia has seen its natural resources extracted and its stories disregarded, a history that has left insiders starving for positive, or at least nuanced, representations of themselves. Excellent recent works like historian Elizabeth Catte’s book “What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia” received regional and critical acclaim but failed to attract a national mainstream audience. I became aware of this history of stereotyping when I took a job in southern West Virginia in 2009; I’ve since returned many times and have written a book set there.

Representations of Appalachian queerness are especially rare. West Virginia has the highest rate of trans youth per capita of any American state, according to a 2017 study by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, but advocates for queer people in Appalachia have struggled to mobilize national attention or resources. “Queers aren’t supposed to survive in the mountains in a region that’s not supposed to survive in the landscape of our culture,” says Caleb Pendygraft, a scholar based in Massachusetts who studies queer Appalachian language and representation. “Our survival tactics have always been creative, and they are often visual.”

That’s another reason for Queer Appalachia’s success. There is a lot of joy in the account, and striking beauty, and a sense of scrappy survival. There is contradiction and anger, fat bodies and the beloved breakfast chain Tudor’s Biscuit World. There are the Appalachian Mountains in the background, green and old and gorgeous; here in the foreground is a femme man with a rattail posing against a pickup truck. There is a sense of refusing to apologize in the account’s messaging, of being exactly who you are, as shocking or crass as that might seem to others. “QA is radical,” says Pendygraft. “A lot of fundraisers, a lot of nonprofits [in Appalachia] really shy away from using the words ‘queer’ and ‘racist’ and ‘sex worker’ because they’re trying to be inclusive, to not offend anyone. But QA does.” Posts are often filled with long strings of comments from queer Appalachians saying they finally feel seen.

Amid all the hope and beauty, however, is another side of Queer Appalachia. Almost from the beginning, the account engaged in financial activism to benefit important social issues — ending white supremacy and combating transphobia, for example — by asking for donations from its followers. The project clearly aspired not just to chronicle the experiences of queer people in Appalachia, but to fix many of the problems it was identifying. Fixes that required money.

(Engravings in illustration: Getty Images)

In November 2016, six months after it launched, between posts about homemade slingshots and wooden spoons, Queer Appalachia solicited donations to benefit a recovery effort for wildfires that had just devastated Gatlinburg, Tenn. It directed followers to donate to QA through PayPal, promising that “100% of your donation will go to buy supplies.” The account didn’t update its followers on how much was raised or where the money was sent.

Queer Appalachia went on to raise money in this manner, serving as the intermediary for contributions toward the social good of Appalachia, and for people who requested assistance via an email form on QA’s website. These fundraising calls were often accompanied by images of the emails, along with QA’s PayPal and Venmo information. From “I’m QTIPOC [queer, trans, intersex person of color] positive, living in my car” to “I’m not able to access my local rural food assistance options with dignity, I’ve stopped even trying because it so hard,” each email was more heartbreaking than the next. QA’s Venmo history — which was public for a time but has been changed to private — reflected donations from around the country, often small amounts from $5 to $30, alongside messages of support. It was not possible on Venmo to follow these donations after they were made.

The account’s fundraising efforts expanded in November 2018, when QA launched a coat drive, asking followers to send donations or mail gently used coats to Mamone in Bluefield, W.Va. The Instagram post for the drive raised over $5,000, and the coat request list was 8,000 people long, Mamone told Burnaway, an online magazine about art in the South. That November alone, QA said it sent out or bought 450 coats for queer people in need. “WE’RE NOT GOING TO STOP UNTIL EVERYONE THAT WROTE IN ASKING FOR A COAT GETS ONE…#nooneisdisposable,” read the post.

Three sources close to Mamone, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of social and professional backlash, told me that the coat drive prompted them to doubt Queer Appalachia’s claims on Instagram. The scale of the project, and the logistics involved to donate, clean and ship that number of coats, seemed suspect. Leo had started volunteering for Queer Appalachia by this time and says that he saw mailed-in coats in Mamone’s garage; pictures posted to Queer Appalachia’s Patreon page, another online fundraising platform, appear to confirm this. Leo once saw Mamone loading coats into a car, he told me, but isn’t sure what happened after that. I found people on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter who had donated coats, and who greatly appreciated QA’s collection efforts; using the same means, I could not find anyone who had received a coat, or anyone who had benefited from the individual fundraising calls.

Further, Mamone’s use of identity labels during the drive also ostracized some former supporters. “Everything is always so extreme and it’s so tokenizing,” says Kayleigh Phillips, a tattoo artist who worked closely on a QA project with Mamone and has since cut ties. “It’s always [for] a trans person of color. That’s who they pump every time [Mamone is] trying to get money.”

“I remember saying something along the lines of, ‘Why don’t you just send the money straight to the people,’ when they were doing the coat drive,” says Shane Hicks, an Asheville, N.C.-based Black trans man and Instagram activist. (Mamone identifies as non-binary.) Hicks routinely left comments on QA posts criticizing content that he saw as anti-Black or excluding of people of color. But his critical comments were quickly deleted, he says.

As for Mamone’s own finances, they told friends and posted on Facebook that they made a good living as an audio engineer, producing live shows for the Coachella and South by Southwest festivals via SiriusXM. A representative for SiriusXM told me that the company has no record of a Gina Mamone — the name Mamone previously used — as a current or former employee, although this doesn’t preclude the possibility that Mamone worked as an independent contractor.

Queer Appalachia is not a registered nonprofit organization, nor are most of its alleged charitable recipients. Operating this way is an intentional political statement, QA says on its site, where it positions itself as an alternative to the “nonprofit industrial complex.” This is part of what could make QA innovative: The informality can be freeing, and very of the moment. Traditional fundraising can be out of touch with, or even downright hostile to, the needs of marginalized communities. Some aid programs restrict what recipients can buy on their dollar, and some homeless shelters do not accept those without state-issued identification, say, or people who were previously incarcerated.

But this also makes financial accountability extremely difficult. It’s impossible to know if the money QA raised during these calls — and continues to raise through its account today — lands in the bank account of its intended recipient. Donors trust that QA will transfer their donations to those in need. PayPal and Venmo donations can’t be traced without consent from the account owner, Mamone, whereas any citizen can request access to a nonprofit’s records. Sometime in 2019, QA partially changed its model and now sometimes links directly to the PayPal or Venmo of the person it is seeking to help, although I was not able to find anyone who benefited from this model; further, it would be impossible to discern if donations originated from QA followers or the recipient’s personal channels.

“Nonprofit organizations operate under the necessary assumption that not all of the funds collected will be put directly towards the mission they are serving,” Kevin Scally, chief relationship officer for Charity Navigator, a national nonprofit that assesses and evaluates charitable organizations, wrote in an email. “By necessity, there are costs associated with carrying out the mission of an organization that precludes that possibility. When an individual fundraises for an organization on an online platform, on the other hand, it is expected that all of the money collected will then be transferred to the specified nonprofit in the full amount (barring platform fees).”

Almost from the beginning, Queer Appalachia engaged in financial activism to benefit important social issues — ending white supremacy and combating transphobia, for example — by asking for donations from its followers.

Along with individual fundraising requests, in January 2017 Mamone started a GoFundMe campaign to create an Appalachian-themed zine called Electric Dirt, with donated content from 22 contributors, including beloved Instagram astrologer Chani Nicholas and acclaimed West Virginia novelist Mesha Maren. But the photograph on the cover, which featured a Black gender-nonconforming person, was used without permission or licensing from the photographer, the queer New Orleans artist Cameron Bordelon. When Bordelon contacted Mamone about the use of the photo, Mamone apologized and offered a “social media spotlight” or a free ad in the zine’s next volume, says Bordelon, who declined the offer.

The campaign ended up raising $30,306, according to its GoFundMe page, and then “fulfilled another $20,000 in direct sales after the book’s release in late-December 2017,” wrote Elizabeth Catte in Belt Magazine. (Catte told me she received this figure from Mamone.) But to an audience at the 2018 American Folklore Society conference in Buffalo, Mamone reported that Electric Dirt raised $100,000. According to the Phoenix-based printing company used for the zine, the order was for 1,200 copies of the 200-page color publication, which cost about $7,000. Hollis Brooks, then Mamone’s significant other, says the copies were shipped using Stamps.com. Based on current market rates, a conservative estimate for that cost is about $3,300; we can’t know for sure what other costs accrued, if any.

Mamone announced on Instagram that the proceeds from the zine, beyond production and shipping costs, would be distributed to the Appalachian community via a microgrant program. Grants would range from $250 to $2,000, and Mamone encouraged applications from anyone: “You do not have to have nonprofit / 501c3 status,” they wrote. “This is an intentional redistribution of resources, POC / Indigenous projects are strongly encouraged to apply.”

Fourteen grant recipients were listed on Queer Appalachia’s website until late 2019, when the microgrant program disappeared from the site. Out of the 14 listed recipients, one reported receiving $250; one reported receiving $1,000 instead of a promised $3,000; one had no record of receiving money from QA; and one said QA “amplified” their efforts but gave no financial contribution. Two received donations they had not applied for, totaling grants of $6,000 and $100. (Five either did not return requests for comment or declined to comment. Three could not be found for contact.) Three others not listed on the website confirmed to me that QA donated $250 to each.

In total, I confirmed that Queer Appalachia gave $8,100 to Appalachian people and organizations through its microgrant program. Because of the lack of transparency and the different figures Mamone reported to press and supporters, it is impossible to know exactly how much QA raised vs. what was distributed.

In our February 2019 email exchange, I asked Mamone about the QA model. “I don’t know if we have a model other then trying to get things on the to do list done every day to the best of our ability,” they wrote. “I’m not an employee, we’re not in a 501(c)(3) etc, it’s a community zine project ... It’s a collective, we vote.” In a November 2016 post, Mamone characterized QA as “a handful of Appalachian queers” who “share responsibility equally.” But the site doesn’t list any other members of the collective. In a 2018 Bitch Magazine article, author Kristina Gaddy described QA as a collective of 15 people, a number that Gaddy attributes to Mamone.

I spoke to nine people who donated material for the Electric Dirt zine, five journalists who have covered Queer Appalachia, and nine representatives of small nonprofits who received or were supposed to receive money from QA. They all said they’d never communicated with anyone at QA except Mamone.

In addition to Mamone’s former partner Hollis Brooks, and estranged former colleagues Kayleigh Phillips and Leo, all of whom worked closely with Mamone, I spoke to Appalachian academic and activist Zane McNeill, who agreed to help Mamone edit Volume 2 of the Electric Dirt zine, and Hicks, who helped Mamone find Black trans people in the South posting calls for financial help. All five said that — while they volunteered their time on different QA projects — Mamone was the only person they were aware of who posts and moderates its social media, makes decisions about programs and initiatives, and has power over the QA money.

This is not the first time Mamone has made questionable claims about their work. After growing up in and attending college in West Virginia, they moved to D.C. and worked at a now-defunct organization for adults with intellectual disabilities; Mamone eventually filed for bankruptcy in the city. They relocated to New York and founded Riot Grrrl Ink, which claimed, on its now-defunct website, to be “the largest queer record label in the world.” Riot Grrrl Ink was not registered as a nonprofit on IRS.gov or as an incorporated business in any state. On the extensive online music database Discogs, Gina Mamone is given a “concept” credit on Nervous But Excited’s 2009 album “Anchors,” but RGI is not credited as producing any albums or songs.

Traditional fundraising can be out of touch with, or even downright hostile to, the needs of marginalized communities.

Riot Grrrl Ink’s site made some bold claims: that RGI or Mamone (they seemed to be used interchangeably) had been nominated for a Grammy Award and that they’d won the “Lannan Foundation trailblazing award for greening of the music industry.” The Lannan Foundation says that “Lannan has no such award and no knowledge of Gina Mamone or Riot Grrrl Ink,” and neither RGI nor Mamone are listed in the online Grammy archive, although it is not possible to view early rounds of Grammy nominees.

RGI purported to have “over 200 artists on our Produce & Support roster,” including Indigo Girls and Amy Ray, Sleater-Kinney and Pamela Means. Many of these artists dispute this: A press rep for Sleater-Kinney replied that their clients have never heard of Gina Mamone, while Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls said through her agent that Mamone “has helped me out with my solo work in the past but not in a paid capacity.” Means told me by email that Mamone “donated $1000 once,” but added that they “never managed, produced, wrote, or consulted on ANY of my work.”

In the winter of 2014, RGI declared on Facebook that it was “closing for the rEvolution.” In an act of racial solidarity inspired by the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., RGI said it planned to transfer all of its assets and contacts to AwQward Talent, an agency exclusively for trans and queer performing artists of color founded and run by J Mase III. During a phone call with Mamone, Mase says, Mamone promised the agency around $100,000 in resources. But money never arrived. It was a devastating blow: “I wanted to believe that there were people out there who actually believed in solidarity,” Mase says.

Taylor Black was a New York acquaintance of Mamone’s who had come to doubt many of Mamone’s claims about RGI. The two fell out of touch when Mamone left New York to move back to West Virginia, but Black kept up with Mamone online, watching as they launched Queer Appalachia. “I guess they finally figured out a new business scheme after Riot Grrrl Ink closed,” Black told me. “I figured the same old stuff might be going on. But with Queer Appalachia, the issues are actually important.”

Since Queer Appalachia is not registered as a nonprofit, it has to be sponsored by an organization with 501(c)(3) status to apply for grants. The Virginia Harm Reduction Coalition, which partnered with QA to win the $300,000 grant from HepConnect in October 2019, is a registered nonprofit. According to Leo, coalition co-founder Lawson Koeppel wrote the grant, which was then signed by Leo and Mamone. “I basically just signed my name at the bottom, and I didn’t really look at it much more than that, which is extremely naive,” Leo told me.

How could an organization that’s not a nonprofit be part of a successful bid for a $300,000 grant? A Gilead Sciences spokesperson told me that the company grants to the national Harm Reduction Coalition, which then regrants the money through the HepConnect program. A spokesman for the national group, Daniel Raymond, told me that the grant was for the Virginia Harm Reduction Coalition (unaffiliated with the national group) — not Queer Appalachia. But until recently, the Harm Reduction Coalition listed Queer Appalachia as a grant recipient on its website. When I asked Raymond why, he declined to comment.

When they announced the $300,000 grant, Mamone wrote on the QA Patreon page in December 2019, “we had no idea all of the expectations and responsibilities that would come along with accepting such a grant. It was & is the very definition of our first rodeo. This grant is a game changer not just for us but the state of West Virginia. Much of the public harm reduction done here is what we would call performative…It’s designed to make white people with advanced degrees feel like things are being done in their community.”

Expecting a substantial influx of cash from the grant, Leo created a budget to hire Appalachian queer people of color, as the proposal promised. But Mamone, who was solely in charge of the fund allocation, stopped him, says Leo. According to Leo, Mamone wanted to offer a salaried position paying nearly $110,000 to Koeppel, a White man. (Koeppel did not return requests for comment.) Leo became frustrated: As much as QA purported to prioritize the voices of people of color, there were zero people of color involved in its decision-making — or any native-born Appalachians, for that matter, except Mamone.

That’s when Leo decided to quit. Mamone “is not doing this radical work,” he says. “What they really are doing is just making income from selling their merchandise,” using “harm reduction memes and concepts to just ultimately raise money through funding merch.”

Queer Appalachia has become a new kind of gatekeeper: the link between this important, vulnerable community and mainstream American media.

The need that Queer Appalachia identifies is real: Queer and trans people living in the region have some of the country’s highest rates of addiction, suicide and health problems. And some of what QA provides — emotional support, identity validation, community engagement — is important. But there are legitimate questions about the rest.

“So often there is a gate keeper, an archivist, sociologist, anthropologist, folklorist or historian that curates, and decides who & what is documented,” Mamone posted on Instagram in January 2017. “Someone with access to higher education and resources, that most, especially in our impoverished region do not have. That does not happen here.” But Queer Appalachia has become a new kind of gatekeeper: the link between this important, vulnerable community and mainstream American media. Journalists, perhaps eager to support what they perceive as a worthy cause, have written stories built only on interviews with Mamone.

The rhetoric Mamone and Queer Appalachia use make them somewhat criticism-proof. “They have a lot of clout, and everyone is so afraid of backlash, being accused of not being supportive,” says Kayleigh Phillips. “I did feel a level of compassion [for Mamone],” she says of their time working closely together. “But ... they’re preying on the people that they’re supposed to be helping.”

“They presented themselves as a leftist and an anarchist,” says Leo. “But at the end of the day, it’s capitalism. And it’s been exploitation of all these people who really believe [in] and maybe have projected what they’ve wanted onto this project.”

Meanwhile, Queer Appalachia goes on. According to its Instagram account, the project is looking to hire queer people of color as promised in the $300,000 grant and is soliciting applications for $250 microgrants for Black rural artists. QA also continues selling merchandise — an adult onesie emblazoned with an image of Dolly Parton will run you about $125, while a “Capitalism Is the Virus” shirt is $35 — and has launched a fundraising campaign promising to “forgive Appalachian medical debt” in the amount of every dollar donated. According to the QA Patreon and website, Electric Dirt Volume 2, priced at $35, was due out in August 2019, then October 2019, though QA’s website now promises it in “late summer 2020.” It has not been published.

Correction: An earlier version of this story included Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s documentary “Heroin(e)" as an example of a work that received acclaim but failed to attract a national mainstream audience. The documentary was distributed by Netflix and won an Emmy in 2018 for outstanding short documentary.

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly identified New Orleans artist Cameron Bordelon as Black.

Update: This story has been updated to reflect the correct name of Appalachian academic and activist Zane McNeill.

Emma Copley Eisenberg is a writer based in Philadelphia and the author of “The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia.”

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