Picture this: a group of vans gathered in a field in rural Kentucky.
From the aerial view, it’s hard to see what’s going on, but it is clear that it is a vanlife meetup. “Cool”, you think, and shrug it off. But zoom into that field in Kentucky and you’ll see not just vans but pride flags, diversity, and queer joy filling up the field as well. With old friends uniting and new friends in the making, everyone has gathered for the first Queers in the Country event.
The Motivation for Queers in the Country
Queers in the country took place from Friday the 22nd to Monday the 25th of April in Richmond, Kentucky. The event was organized by Braidyn Browning, who was inspired to start the gathering from a lack of inclusive experience at other vanlife events. They told me that “Queers in the Country is the end result of countless exclusionary experiences from other nomadic centric events. Those events, while needed, felt very much lacking in intentionality and safety, specifically for LGBTQ+ people. I have the honor of working exclusively with queer folks for a living and have witnessed first-hand how quickly the rural queer community rallies around events like this.” When it comes to the mission of QITC, they went on to state, “Our primary mission for this event and at the event venue is to create safety, foster inclusion for everyone and provide space (even just for a weekend) where everyone can be absolutely and wholly be themselves.”
And that is exactly what they did. As a nonbinary, pansexual queer person, I’ve never experienced quite an inclusive, mindful, and welcoming event before in the travel world when it comes to gender expression, sexuality, and more. When I arrived on Friday evening in my Ford transit, I was a little nervous as I only knew two people at the event, and had never been to a vanlife meetup before. But after being greeted by smiling faces with such loving energy, I realized that I could finally exhale in this country vanlife space.
Growing Up As a Queer in the Country
I grew up in rural Ohio, so country living is nothing new to me. From a young age, I’ve been drawn to the outdoors; a cool creek perfect for wading, mud ready for little bare feet, the sounds of birds tweeting and singing their songs as the sun rises in the morning, and the feel of an open dirt back road has always called to me. Cities make me feel overwhelmed and unwell, so after graduating high school in Ohio I moved to the south – North Carolina – and began my journey where I went from living in my van and backpacking other countries often to having a home base in the country while traveling part-time.
I’ve known I was queer since I was young; although I was born female and socialized as a girl and then a woman for my entire life, when I was little I was sure that I was a boy. I started wearing clothes that we traditionally assign as “boy clothes” and frequently talked about how “I wish I was born a boy”. I only knew gender as a binary experience of man and women, boy and girl, male and female. As I grew older and had more awareness around the subject of gender and sexuality, I found labels that were new to me that helped me finally define and free myself at the same time.
Why Intentionally Creating Safe Spaces is So Important
Due to the many discussion circles at Queers in the Country, I learned that many others shared the same experience as me as well. A queer couple that I met at the event said: “Queers in the Country was a liberating experience: to be seen as we are, yet even more honoring to see others share vulnerably, and let down their walls. We met so many great and genuine people that truly see and understand what it means to work to live and not live to work.” Nat and Lil from Moving Oasis, a queer and women-owned van conversation company based in West Palm Beach, Florida commented: “As van builders, we also enjoyed visiting the variety of vans as they were each so unique and personable in their own way. The safe haven that was created by the team of Queers in the Country was unmatched to anything we have experienced in vanlife. We are so thankful to have experienced this opportunity and to have unforgettable encounters with beautiful people from all over the world.”
Group Discussions and Vulnerability at QITC
Some of the group circles where illuminating and venerable conversations took place covered topics such as “The Trans/Non-Binary Experience on the Road”, “Being a Queer Couple on the Road”, and “Being an interracial couple on the Road”. There was also a local panel discussion on the rural queer experience and how the nomadic community can foster positive change.
Drag Queens and Queer Comedy
In addition to group circles and panels, guests were delighted and entertained by a queer comedy set on Saturday night and a bingo brunch drag show put on by the Kentucky Fried Sisters on Sunday afternoon. The Kentucky Fried Sisters is an organization that exists to embrace and love the sex worker, queer families, and queer folks no matter where they are on their journey. They state that they are here to “defy and resist oppression and bigotry in our community.” While at the event they brought their flare, entertainment, and sex education to an open, curious, and excited community.
LGBTQ+ Strangers Turned Friends at QITC
This group of queer folks who were once strangers came together in rural Kentucky and found community, hope, ease, and much more. Becky Benelli, a queer yogi who led a group of vanlifers in a sunrise yoga practice at the event, captured that sentiment perfectly when she said: “The event Queers in the Country has brought forth an abundance of joy and shed a layer of armor that has confined my heart and being for some time. I wasn’t just participating, I was seen. This event is a reminder that there definitely are other truly wonderful and unique humans out there in the world. This Is something I have been waiting a long time for. The comfort and joy that has followed Queers in the Country have been overwhelming in the most very positive of ways.”
I couldn’t agree with them more. In a world full of uncertainty and chaos, Queers in the Country was the lighthouse that brought a group of people together people who didn’t quite understand just how much they needed each other. I hope that its light continues to shine bright, each and every year to come.