When I met Jocelyn, a Parkersburg, West Virginia woman in her early 20s, she was coming off her fourth job interview at the third fast food restaurant in two weeks. She’d made it to the second round with the manager, who’d just told her he wanted to know “how it looked on paper.” On paper, she looked great; her resume listed two previous management positions at fast food franchises before the age of 22. But he was referring to the other paper: the birth certificate.
Eight months into Jocelyn’s gender transition, this was her norm. Sometimes potential employers asked for a letter from her therapist affirming that gender dysphoria is a legitimate medical issue, and that she has been diagnosed with it—but by the time potential employers reached that question, she knew it was pointless. As far as Parkersburg’s anti-LGBTQ residents are concerned, Jocelyn is a “biological male.” She says that, in the end, the manager told her that her presence would scare away their mostly older clientele.
I asked Jocelyn why anyone would require a birth certificate for work in fast food. She laughed quietly and said, “I don’t know.” Jocelyn’s support system is small; her adoptive parents disowned her and, lately, even her friends began to distance themselves from her because of what everybody seemed to refer to as “it”—a way of getting around the phrase “gender transition.” In our time together, she didn’t speak much. She’s hard to reach by cell because she often needs to borrow one from a friend.
When the manager referred to an “older clientele,” he was likely referring to the many Parkersburgians who believe that Jocelyn’s gender transition is a trick to spy on women in bathrooms. Last August, the validity of trans identity was at the center of a debate over a proposed non-discrimination ordinance (NDO), which would have expanded the West Virginia Civil Rights Act on a local level by adding ethnicity, sexuality, sex, genetic information, veteran status, and disability status as categories protected from housing and employment discrimination and access to public facilities.
Far-right religious groups in Parkersburg opposed the NDO, attacking it with transphobic language and characterizing it, in essence, as a “bathroom bill.” A small-scale televised news saga began. State offshoots of national pro- and anti-LGBTQ rights groups appeared. Pastors blasted the LGBTQ “lifestyle” as Satanic and called upon their congregants to petition; hundreds of members of the anti-LGBTQ, Christian-based group Liberty for Parkersburg, or “Liberty,” packed city council meetings with hymn circles and fire-and-brimstone testimony. According to an affidavit filed with the State of West Virginia, one man testified that a pastor approached his home and said that he was working “with city council” to defeat an ordinance that would allow men to watch his daughters shower in their school locker room. A woman testified that a man had repeatedly attempted to try on a dress at the retail shop where she worked; another balked at the comparison between LGBTQ rights and the 1960s civil rights movement. Parkersburg City Council rejected the non-discrimination ordinance that month by an easy 6-to-3 vote; people on both sides of the issue have chalked it up as a victory for Liberty.
Most of the country is in legal limbo for LGBTQ rights policy. In the 30 states that lack statewide non-discrimination policy based on sexual orientation and gender identity, cities and counties can implement their own rules. As of March 2018, 383 counties and cities have passed some form of non-discrimination ordinance. Nationally, anti-LGBTQ interest groups are well aware of this, and some are standardizing and disseminating rhetoric locally (often echoing the Jim Crow template, which once convinced people that mixed-race bathrooms put white people at risk of venereal disease).
That strategy wound its way to Parkersburg via the West Virginia Family Policy Council, a state branch of Tony Perkins’s Family Research Council, which the Southern Policy Law Center (SPLC) has labelled a hate group. (The Family Research Council’s website describes state Family Policy Councils as “independent entities” that “accomplish at the state level what Family Research Council does at the national level—shape public debate and formulate public policy.”) Liberty for Parkersburg was born of this ideology. A city council member speaking to Jezebel on condition of anonymity, as well as a leader of Fairness for Parkersburg, agree that West Virginia Family Policy Council director Allen Whitt single-handedly steered the outcome. “Allen Whitt is the reason the NDO was tabled,” a person from the pro-LGBTQ opposition said.
The Family Policy Council of West Virginia—namely, the director, Whitt—tends to appear at city council meetings throughout the state when LGBTQ measures come up. (The Family Policy Council, for example, once sponsored a statewide robocall campaign in which a 12-year-old girl says that a man came into her changing room after swim practice.) Fellow travelers like the “gay conversion therapy” network Focus on the Family and the pro-life, “free speech” interest group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF)—another SPLC-designated hate group—appear at school board meetings and county board of education meetings under state branches. The ADF then bombards these meetings with junk science supporting a theory that gender dysphoria is curable, and threatens lawsuits against schools that have passed non-discrimination policies for transgender students.
As of this April, Whitt’s organization—which now refers back to the NDO as the “defeated” “men-in-ladies-room ordinance”—is encouraging Parkersburg city employees, via its website, to preemptively “seek out free legal council” from their “legal partners” at ADF in case an “LGBTQAI [sic] activist” tries to get their followers fired for “express[ing] any moral or religious objections to same-sex relationships or transgendered behaviors,” while at work. (The city already has an equal employment opportunity policy covering sexual orientation and gender identity, but pro-rights group Fairness Parkersburg has proposed that the city codify its policy by clearly mentioning those terms in its job postings and applications.) The Family Policy Council warns that equal employment opportunity policy will cause so much stress over censorship that “eventually faithful citizens who hold such backwards views on marriage and sexuality will be discouraged from applying for city jobs altogether.”
Jocelyn now has little legal recourse against prospective employers who ask for her birth certificate during a job interview. At the moment, West Virginia’s LGBTQ folks inhabit a legal gray area; while there are no laws specifically prohibiting businesses and schools from, for example, denying access to a certain restroom or job based on sexual orientation or gender identity, the ACLU argues that the 14th Amendment covers students on the basis of equal protection under the law—this argument was central to Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade. “[Jocelyn] could file a Title VII claim [under protection of “sex” in Civil Rights law], but look who’s in charge of the federal government right now,” said Fairness for West Virginia’s director Andrew Schneider. “They’re not receptive to LGBT non-discrimination claims at the moment. We no longer have an ally in the U.S. Justice Department; we have an attorney general who is siding against the LGBT community.” The vice president has made a career of it.
Ironically, the NDO would have protected mostly heterosexual-identified Christians. Disability status alone covers one in five people under 65 in Parkersburg while only one in 200 unmarried couples identify as LGBTQ.
One drive I took through Parkersburg, population 30,600, spanned a generic stretch of shopping plazas, over a bridge, past a brief section of corporate headquarters and on to a tree-lined historic Main Street, through which runs the B&O railroad tracks. On this route alone, I passed a church about every 30 seconds. They are integrated seamlessly with local establishments: small roadside churches look like veterinary offices or delis; there are big churches that look like high schools; there are small cathedrals in the historic center; there are wood churches in shingled suburbia. Even the storefront signs like “JESUS IS LORD IN THE MID OHIO VALLEY” and glowing fetuses share the same soft-focus pastel aesthetic as signs for pastry shops and consignment stores. Churchfinder.com lists about 90 churches in Parkersburg alone.
Churches also advertise signs like anti-abortion “counseling” services for expectant mothers and food and clothing donations—Faith Link Voluntary Caregivers, the Salvation Army, The Arc of the Mid Ohio Valley, Catholic Charities West Virginia, The Gabriel Project, the Mid-Ohio Valley Fellowship Home, St. Frances Xavier Church, St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church (services for utility bills and emergency prescriptions), Sisters of St. Joseph Charitable Fund. At least 16 out of 21 food pantries listed on the Wood County Family Resources’ directory are at churches or religiously affiliated. In Parkersburg, one in four people live below the poverty line, up from 19.8 percent in 2000. The opioid epidemic is brought up in daily conversation as casually as property maintenance. According to FBI data, rape rates are over a third higher in Wood County than in New York City; burglaries are over six times higher. According to an NEA report from 2017, the state ranks 12th in welfare spending but 50th in police and protection.
Fairness would argue that an NDO would help the city just as much as the churches do. On its website, Fairness points out that discriminatory employment policies are a turn-off for big companies who might want to move to Parkersburg, which would boost its dwindling economy. A 2015 report by the Human Rights Campaign found that 89 percent of Fortune 500 companies had nondiscrimination policies protecting gay rights and 66 percent supporting “gender identity.” North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” would have reportedly cost the state $3.76 billion in lost business over 12 years.
But Whitt sees the lack of corporate interest in West Virginia as a place to create jobs as a positive. “In West Virginia, some of the tools that the Left has used in other states—the threat in North Carolina of pulling out NCAA basketball championships or the same threats in Texas or perhaps removing the Super Bowl—we don’t have any Super Bowl in West Virginia, we don’t have any NCAA championships,” he said in an interview with Jezebel. “We don’t have any Apple stores or Tesla dealerships. We don’t have the monetary things that people cling onto and fear that they might lose if they stand up and do the right thing here. West Virginia is a battleground, but West Virginia is poised to win this because we’re not susceptible to those economic pressures.”
The Rock—the mini-megachurch that was instrumental in mobilizing the anti-NDO forces—sits in a low-lying, worn-out quadrant of homes off an unmarked turn-off across from Wendy’s. The football field-sized, squat concrete compound is marked only by a glitchy LED message board on the corner of its vast parking lot, which flashes images of a baby with its arms outstretched skyward (advertising daycare), a Facebook logo, the hashtag #morethansunday, and activist-tinged scripture: “Let us not love merely in theory or speech but in deed and in truth.”
Inside, the tinted glass doors open up into a sparkling lobby with an espresso bar, glass-door offices, and a daycare staffed by friendly volunteers who cheerfully informed me that nobody would be available for comment and offered a sticky note to leave my contact information.
The sermons can be viewed via video. The pulpit, which looks like a bit like a set for a live television show, is lit by impressionistic streaks of an 1980s palette of turquoise, purple, and yellow illuminating the stage and an electric piano player adding uplifting tinkling accents for emphasis. An alternating roster of pastors strongly advocate for an influential role in government prompted by, if not hate, then very strong disdain for the LGBTQ “lifestyle.”
In one clip, Pastor David Chisholm tells the audience about the city council meeting and instructs them to circulate the petition against the NDO—the petition presumably supplied by the West Virginia Family Policy Council. (Allen Whitt would neither confirm nor deny that the WVFPC wrote the language, but said merely that the FPC helps locals and gives them the tools to organize.)
“...[I]f this ordinance is passed…your little girl can be down at city park using the restroom, and a man that identifies as a girl can use that same restroom, and legally everything can be okay,” he says. “If you let the devil in just a little bit, he’s never satisfied...I wanna know that I won’t be forced someday to hire somebody with a demonic agenda to come in when I have a righteous agenda.”
In another, Pastor Kevin Leal asks congregants Parkersburg Police Chief Joseph Martin and Lieutenant Greg Nangle onstage to congratulate them for following his advice in their work in government. “A couple of years ago,” he says, “I began to give this man prophetic words about affecting government, be in government, prepare to be in government, prepare to affect a shift in society.” Leal leads the audience in shouting: “We’re proud of you! We’re proud of you!” and after a few minutes of this, he puts his head on the sheriff’s forehead, as though channeling holy power:
“You’re going to begin to feel the angelic presence of God when you’re on the job, when you’re talking to your officers, when you’re setting policy. The Lord says I will put an army of angels around you to fulfill my purpose and my destiny.”
On a rainy evening late last August, the week following the vote against the non-discrimination ordinance, a small rainbow-colored protest of about 20 people lined the entry driveway to the Wood County City Council building. A reporter from a local news network stood aimlessly with a cameraman whose camera pointed downward. In the elevator, I overheard her mention to an LGBTQ-sympathetic city council member that the network wasn’t sure if they should come out for this particular city council meeting. Gone were the throngs of Parkersburgians there to protest the NDO, which had been voted down weeks before; hardly a quarter of the seats were filled. The reporter would have to scrounge for content, for sure.
Jocelyn slid beside me behind two members of Liberty Parkersburg, Brian Harrell and Dan Stevens, whose well-manicured, cultivated friendly look harkened back to 1990s sitcom dads (and who declined to comment). “I’ve never been to one of these,” Jocelyn whispered and giggled. “I’m terrified.”
The theme of the meeting was property, and local landlords rattled off a dismal list of problems everybody seemed to know well. Landlords were dealing with drug dens, tenants who deface the community with front yard junk piles, people who go through the garbage and strew it everywhere. Two council members spent much of their time on their iPads, looking down as citizens delivered their testimonies. Finally, Sharon Kuhl—the only woman council member out of nine—interrupted a speaker: “We all know [the panhandler problem] is terrible,” she said. “I think the public needs to know that there is nothing we can do about them. The ACLU sued the city of Parkersburg,” she said with audible disdain. “They have a right to panhandle, they have a right to make a living—no matter what or how that is.”
Just the name “ACLU” has a tyrannical ring to it amongst the anti-civil liberties front; in November 2015, months before the passage of HB2, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory called on the state attorney general to “stop the federal government from taking over our schools, and challenge the ACLU and President Obama’s attempt to force local districts to open sex-specific locker rooms and bathrooms to individuals of the opposite biological sex.”
After the meeting, the pastors mulled around to converse with council members. At the end of the table, a small tiff brewed between a woman in her 20s wearing a rainbow cape, and city council member Eric Barber, a laid-back former convict with a “who, me?” kind of charm. According to Fairness for Parkersburg, he initially promised a “yes” vote on the NDO and suddenly changed his mind.
The argument vacillated this way and that, and went nowhere, though Barber was sporting. “Can I change the fact that I’m a felon?” he asked her, apparently comparing his legal status to being queer. “No.”
“Yeah but that was your decision,” the woman said.
“Yeah but can I change it? No!”
When asked to explain his vote, he gave various answers, none of which made sense, which he seemed to know, as if throwing spaghetti at a wall to see if one answer stuck. “Legislating takes a certain finesse,” he said, and “some of the language” of the NDO, like “gross immeasurable embarrassment,” wasn’t clear enough. Then he said his reason was a lack of willingness to compromise, but when asked about how this issue could have possibly reached a compromise–since it was a yes-or-no decision–he deflected, saying that there was too much noise surrounding the issue. “[T]here was a lot of taunting, there was a lot of berating, there was a lot of let me collect some of those liberal tears—a lot of people felt personally attacked, and were described in ways they were probably never described in,” he said, referring to what the anti-NDO group called LGBTQ advocates. I asked like what. “You know, words like ‘demonic,’ ‘deviant’...different hateful [slurs].”
“Child molesters,” the woman offered.
“Yeah, that sort of thing,” he said. “Social justices and social problems are never really black and white, unless you’re on the end of being discriminated against, then it’s very clearly black and white from their perspective,” he added.
Another man approached to ask why the Council didn’t adopt an NDO in order to promote big business; Barber just gave him more non-answers about how the city council needed to consider not just the people being discriminated against, but “business owners.”
“What business owners?” he asked. “You’re talking about Highmark?...No, because they already have [a non-discrimination policy]. You’re talking about the banks? Because they already have it.”
“But not every one of those companies are as inclusive as you perceived,” Barber countered, “because they have discriminated themselves.”
“That’s not the point.”
“Right,” said Barber, “but how do I legislate intolerance out of people?”
The question hung in the air.
The exchange ended with a group handshake, as though at the close of a weekly sports game.
Over post-meeting drinks, Fairness for Parkersburg members Kim Williams and Jeanne Peters were rethinking their retirement plan. The state is losing its population faster than any other, second only to Illinois; Parkersburg has lost a tenth of its population since 2000.
“We’re losing two generations,” said Williams. “When educated West Virginians don’t come back home, where does that leave the state? Nobody’s talking about that. Everybody says we’re going to get back with coal. Well, renewables work really well, and nobody’s talking about that. How do we fix the state?” (While Parkersburg doesn’t directly depend on coal, the topic dominates political discussion of the state’s future, reflected in its election of a billionaire coal magnate as governor in 2016).
Williams doesn’t see much left for the younger generation, either. She thought of a local queer man who’s weighing his options for life after grad school out-of-state.
“I tell him ‘go,’” said Williams. “‘Just go. Because now is not the time.’ Before becoming affiliated with Fairness I would have, but for now this is not the time.”
The underlying question, which nobody would state outright, was what remained in Parkersburg for Jocelyn, who listened quietly without drinking. She had an early morning appointment in Ohio to see her doctor since, she said, no one in the state was able to treat her through her transition. How could she even benefit from giving her name to a reporter? In the best-case scenario, lending one’s identity to a story about employment discrimination might make it harder for her to find work. Privately, some at the table feared worse.
That was several months ago. Jocelyn stayed. Not only that, but she’s found a job as a restaurant supervisor, and is also working with a new educational nonprofit that aims to connect trans people with doctors, therapists, non-bigoted employers, and school funding aid. At the moment, she’s working on a campaign to get medical services to the area for people like her who can’t afford to travel. West Virginia has the highest rate of transgender teens per capita, she told me over email—did I know?
I asked if she would be OK with adding her news to the piece. “Yes :),” she wrote. “It’s always better to uplift and show that through oppression, we only grow stronger—and achieve more as a result.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Fairness Parkersburg as Fairness West Virginia. Additionally, a statistic about opioid overdoses was incorrect. Jezebel regrets the error.