Why I Love Johnson City, an LGBT Idyll Right in the Heart of Bible Belt
Johnson City is in Tennessee, a state where the legislature is considering at least three anti-LGBT bills. But, as an LGBT traveler, it's also the author's favorite place to be.
Johnson City, Tennessee is the sort of place you can’t leave behind. Not fully.
In 1985, physician Abraham Verghese moved from Boston back to the Johnson City where he had previously finished his residency. It was there in rural East Tennessee that the young doctor began seeing gay men with HIV, becoming both their physician and their confidante.
As The New York Times noted in its 1994 review of Verghese’s heart-wrenching memoir My Own Country, patients flocked to him—“mostly gay men who were moving back to their hometowns after years away.” Like many LGBT people in that era, the Times reported, these Tennessee men had absconded to coastal cities but “now they were sick, and were coming back to their families.”
Verghese had made Johnson City into an unexpected Appalachian destination where gay men with HIV could at least find some compassion in the absence of a cure.
More than two decades later, the ripples of Verghese’s empathy still run through Johnson City.
In 2018, when a pride festival came to the college town for the first time, a staggering 10,000 people attended, as WJHL reported. (Only 66,000 people live in Johnson City.) Ever since I started visiting in 2013, coming back almost every year, I have been disarmed by the welcome its residents gave to an openly queer and transgender woman like me.
My Johnson City friend Jeff Clark, though, isn’t surprised. When he asked me recently if I knew why this small Appalachian city had such an inviting LGBT community, he pointed in part to Verghese’s decision to come back in the mid-1980s. Johnson City is a special place, but not in some sort of cosmic sense: It has been made special by those who care for it.
Yes, Johnson City is in America’s Bible Belt. More specifically it’s in Tennessee—a state where at least three anti-LGBT bills are currently under consideration in the legislature. But it’s also the place in which I have felt the most at home—and had the most fun—as an out LGBT traveler.
When I traversed the country for two months in the summer of 2017 to write my new book Real Queer America about LGBT life in red states, Johnson City was the one destination where I stopped working and just relaxed. One night, I found myself swimming in Jeff’s pool, pushing my bisexual best friend around on a makeshift raft built out of swim toys.
Afterward, we all gathered by the fire pit to sip bourbon out of a shared Mason Jar. That’s the closest I’ve come to heaven.
If this is the first you’re hearing about Johnson City, well, that’s a damn shame. The closest major landmark is Asheville, about an hour south, and although that North Carolina city has a certain cachet due to its population of artists and musicians and LGBT people, Johnson City has been sitting across the state line the whole time, waiting for its own riches to be noticed.
An old railroad town nestled in the mountains, Johnson City now has parks, restaurants, and breweries where its train stations used to be. Oral history has it that Al Capone smuggled liquor through the city during Prohibition—and walking among all the 1920s architecture downtown, you’ll want to believe those stories, even if they can’t be verified.
The finest room and board in town—the Carnegie—is a hotel from the golden age of hotels, with taxidermy, an ornate lobby, and an attached steakhouse where a bartender serves up drinks long after the kitchen closes.
(But if hunger does strike at a late hour, you can always grab a bite at the Mid City Grill downtown which stays open until the ripe hour of 4 AM. Bring your own beer and order the Beckinator Burger. Trust me.)
There’s no denying that Johnson City is deep inside Trump country, judging from 2016 election results, as broken down by county. But it is perhaps because it is in such a deep-red part of the United States that its own pockets of LGBT acceptance feel so welcoming, in the same way that a mug of hot cocoa tastes better when you can see the snow falling outside your window.
The New Beginnings nightclub—or “Newbies” as my friends call it—provides a place for LGBT people like myself to dance embarrassingly to Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” after having a bit too much to drink. During the day, the Willow Tree coffee shop downtown offers a steady supply of caffeine and books and live music, all served up in an LGBT-friendly space.
The local college, East Tennessee State, offers events for LGBT students, like a RuPaul’s Drag Race viewing party, a Transgender Day of Remembrance vigil, or a reading from non-binary poet Andrea Gibson.
Every year I come back, it seems, the local LGBT community is gathering strength. In 2017, the organization TriPride was founded to serve Johnson City and two of its neighbors, collectively known as the Tri-Cities. 2018 was the Pride Parade. Who knows what 2019 will bring? One local group hopes to opena community center downtown this year.
LGBT people still encounter plenty of prejudice in Johnson City, as my friends who live there can personally attest. I can’t sell it as a queer paradise. Nor can I pretend as though Johnson City competes with megalopolises like the Bay Area or New York when it comes to the sheer number of options for LGBT socializing. But what it lacks in quantity, it makes up for in heart.
I first drove to Johnson City in 2013 with what I can now admit was some trepidation in my gas-pedal foot. Living in Georgia at the time, I was aware of Tennessee’s less-than-stellar reputation on LGBT rights, which only heightened my hesitation to visit during the first full year of my gender transition—but some friends I had made online were eager for me to see their home.
Shortly after arriving, I had been introduced to the most amazing group of LGBT and allies: students, artists, even a male model, all of whom had some sort of personal or familial tie to Johnson City. Some have since moved away—as Dr. Verghese eventually did, incidentally—and others have stayed, but all still share a deep and abiding fondness for this strange, often-ignored place. It’s not perfect but no home ever is.
I fell in love with the welcoming, tight-knit nature of Johnson City’s LGBT community—a quality I have since encountered repeatedly in similar red-state cities. In a large metropolis like, say, Los Angeles, birds of a feather don’t have to flock together thanks to abundant bars and social events that cater to incredibly specific subsets of the LGBT crowd.
In Johnson City, by comparison I met one bisexual person—fellow writer Jennifer Culp—and then, seemingly, met all the bisexual people as she introduced the rest of them to me in rapid succession. Soon, I was only a couple degrees of separation away from every openly LGBT person within the city lines. The community felt knowable and tangible.
I came back to Johnson City after that first visit—and then I came back again and again and again. On one visit, I watched Jennifer perform in a local production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. On another, I was the runner-up in a local bar’s Goth Prom costume contest. There have been Halloween parties and birthday dances and long, lazy hours spent watching bad movies while Jennifer’s tortoise, Zelda, crawls around on the floor.
My reasons for returning have never been as noble as Dr. Verghese‘s mission of helping rural gay men during the HIV epidemic—but I, too, found Johnson City lodged in my heart after I left the first time. I could leave, sure—but I couldn’t stay away.
When I lived in Atlanta, I would make the five-hour drive north through the mountains, often alone. When I moved to South Florida, I had to fly to Charlotte and then take an aging propeller plane to the Tri-Cities Airport, where there are more people working in the security line than there are going through it. It cost almost as much as a discounted flight to Europe.
But I made the pilgrimage because I had become a believer. Johnson City had proved to me that LGBT acceptance can be found almost anywhere, especially where I didn’t expect it.
Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States is available now.