Content warning: Homicide, white supremacism
Over the summer, two of my best friends and I spent a sunny afternoon in Charlottesville, Va., home to the University of Virginia (UVA). We were in my Southern home state for a week while my friends scoped the area for a move, and given Charlottesville’s proximity to us, we figured it was the best option for a fun day trip — a reasonable idea until last week.
At the time, we reckoned correctly. Following a beautiful trip through the verdant, rolling Shenandoah Valley of my childhood, we had an absolute hoot in the historical college town of “C’ville.” Once we arrived, I said hello to several passersby. One of my friends, a native of upstate New York, asked me why I kept greeting strangers. After years in New York, I was revisiting the warmth of my Southern upbringing.
A week ago, a UVA student in Charlottesville killed three other students and wounded two more people. The shooter — who won’t be named, as he has made himself unimportant — was a known threat beforehand, purchasing firearms and getting investigated by campus security.
On Monday morning, I woke up to a New York Times notification about the shooting. I immediately messaged my friends in Virginia to see if they were safe. They were, although they were shaken by the news. Things like this weren’t supposed to happen back home. Yet they have time and time again, from Virginia Tech to UVA.
Charlottesville is one of the friendliest cities in Virginia. Its brick sidewalks give it a historical charm typical of old Virginia towns, while UVA makes “C’ville” modern and vibrant. As I snacked on too many fried pickles in Charlottesville, I realized that I had made peace with my home state. I’d reclaimed a town that partially drove me out of the state I loved.
In the summer, my friends and I walked past UVA’s campus, which boasts a prominent statue of university founder Thomas Jefferson. We then arrived at the Fralin Museum of Art, with its powerful and devastating exhibitions on queer AIDS sufferers and the Gothic South. We stopped at a bicycle-themed tavern where we ate fried pickles, and finally we shopped at a quaint, three-story used bookstore on Heather Heyer Way.
It was then that our blood ran cold. Heather Heyer Way was named in honor of the late 32-year-old anti-fascist who was murdered on that street by a neo-Nazi driver during 2017’s Unite the Right rally. The rally saw hundreds of white supremacists march through Charlottesville, chanting “Jews will not replace us” and “white lives matter.” When the dust cleared, Heyer and two state troopers were dead.
At the time, I lived two hours away from Charlottesville. I wasn’t in any physical danger. But the notion of white supremacists marching in my state terrified me as much as any news ever has. I wanted to leave Virginia. A couple years later, I found a good reason to when I fled to New York to live a queer life. Many aren’t so lucky to escape.
As I write this, Colorado Springs is reeling from another mass shooting, this one in a queer nightclub. The five dead and 18 wounded victims were preparing to celebrate Transgender Day of Remembrance. They have now joined the ranks of the dead they wanted to commemorate.
Former Colorado Congresswoman Lauren Boebert uttered empty words about the horrors of the shooting, the product of a culture she’s promoted with anti-trans rhetoric and outrageous acts like bringing a gun to Capitol Hill. This isn’t a Virginia-specific problem. It’s a cultural drive towards genocide.
While in upstate New York I was happier and safer from that cultural movement, my life there as an adult woman was fundamentally divorced from my country upbringing. The parts of my childhood environment that helped me bloom — barbecue joints in old barns, family get-togethers with bluegrass in the garage and tube rides up the Potomac Canal in Harper’s Ferry, W.Va. — were beyond my reach.
Leaving Virginia was painful. I wasn’t going to see the Shenandoah Valley’s lush hills anymore. What few friends in Virginia my abusers permitted me to keep wouldn’t come ‘round no more. Hell, who was gonna play the banjo at New York parties?
The South of Unite the Right and Thomas Jefferson can’t be the only South. Virginia is home to the Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains. It has pockets of queer resilience. Charlottesville has many anti-racist and anti-fascist activists, like the ones who stood up to Unite the Right five years ago.
The sizable anti-fascist counterprotesters who stood up to the Nazis have largely won. A bridge in “C’ville” is painted with several bees, depicting different queer liveries. The message “bee yourself” sits next to another message overlaid on the Ukrainian flag livery blue-and-yellow, defiantly proclaiming “Ukraine fights against genocide.”
An abandoned hotel bears some telling graffiti. “Support trans wrongs!” says one defiant and proud tag, subverting the phrase “trans rights” to encourage trespassing and encroaching. This is not a city where queer liberation is dead.
North of the Mason-Dixon line, I often hear folks assert that the South is merely the pasture of cousin-loving MAGA chuds and Ted Cruz acolytes. That certainly describes the governance of the American South, but the idea all people in the South embrace a far-right white supremacist culture of death is wrong and totally pernicious.
The Texas Observer recently pointed out the South’s strong progressive contingent. 67% of Virginians support abortion rights. My hometown, Manassas, Va. elected Danica Roem, the United States’ first transgender delegate. And in September, thousands of students in and around my home county walked out of school protesting Virginia’s anti-trans policies.
The Charlottesville I saw this summer is one path forward for Virginia: a city of great Black and Brown art, queer liberation and the ruthless fight against fascism. Its warmth encapsulates the best of the South: strangers who say hello and help out when you’re in trouble.
Virginia is awful and terrifying and beautiful and welcoming. If we embrace community and simple pleasures, we can navigate our way out of this violent, fascist mess. Reject the politics of love and simplicity, and we’ll see more violence like we have at UVA.