Editors Note: Our goal as an online publication is to provide readers with stories and content that allows them to see themselves and feel connected to our collective culture. In June 2022, Weelunk put the call out for more diverse stories from the LGBTQ+ community. From that call came a new partnership with The Friendlier City Project. We are honored to share this latest photo project created by Mikaya Green, one of the organizers of The Friendlier City Project.
For the last few months, I have been working for The Friendlier City Project in the hopes of having a safe space for Wheeling’s Queer community and allies. During this time, I have met so many new amazing LGBTQ+ people. This made me ask myself, “where have all these people been the last 25 years of my life?”
The sad answer is that Queer people from smaller conservative-leaning towns tend to remain silent or move to larger more progressive states. Luckily, the times are slowly changing and even though the queer community in the Ohio Valley is small, there is still a community here and I wanted to make their faces visible. That’s how I became inspired to create Valley Visibility, a photography art piece that shows the vast different faces of the female/non-binary people in the LGBTQ+ community here in the Ohio Valley.
One of the most recognizable symbols from the LGBTQ+ is the rainbow flag which was created by Gilbert Baker in 1978. The various colors came to reflect the diversity of the community. He once stated, “Our job as gay people was to come out, to be visible, to live in the truth, as I say, to get out of the lie. A flag really fit that mission, because that’s a way of proclaiming your visibility or saying, ‘This is who I am!’”
With this in mind, I thought that the perfect way to show the Valley’s visibility would be to photograph as many people as I could as the colors of the flag. There are six colors in the rainbow flag. At first, I struggled to think if I’d even be able to get six people to do this for me. I made a post on The Friendlier City Project’s Instagram page and was blown away with the number of responses I received. I ended up with forty-eight people to model for the project, making it eight people per color of the rainbow flag.
I asked one person from each color from the rainbow to share what being LGBTQ+ in The Ohio Valley means to them and here are their responses:
“I am so excited for the future of The Friendly City! We are proving every single day that we are a thoughtful, forward thinking, and inclusive place to raise a family or start a business. The most important thing we can do now is maintain our momentum and support valued community leaders who work to make good on the promise that we are indeed The Friendly City!”
“I’ve lived in Wheeling for almost my whole life. I used to think that I could count on one hand the amount of queer people that lived in this city, and that made me feel very alone. It wasn’t until I started attending pride events that the wonderful people in this city put on that I realized just how not alone I was. So for every young LGBTQ+ person of Wheeling, WV, don’t give up hope. You’ll find your community, no matter how hidden it may seem to be.”
Subscribe to Weelunk
“I remember when I was in middle school and my brother was in high school at Wheeling Park, one of his classmates came out as gay and it was widely not taken well. My brother publicly defended his classmate despite the swarm of negative opinion. Three years after that, I also went to Park, but I experienced a vastly more accepting community. I remained closeted all throughout high school mostly because I don’t buy into the fuss of “coming out,” but a large part of it was still a fear of how my sexuality would be received. But, by my senior year in 2020-21, the blatant homophobia my brother saw just a handful of years earlier felt unimaginable. I noticed the majority of my friend group was confidently queer, outspoken, and unbothered. I don’t know if it was just Wheeling’s attitude towards the LGBTQ community changing or America’s as a whole, but within a few short years I certainly felt ‘The Friendly City’ growing into its name.”
“Becoming a part of the LGBTQ+ community has been such an eye opener to different peoples perspectives. My personal experience was very welcoming, but for other people it’s not that easy. Bringing LGBTQ+ awareness to Wheeling has helped a lot of people be themselves unapologetically. The Friendlier City Project was a power move not only for the LGBTQ+ community, but for the straight community. To show them we are here to stay.”
“I moved to Wheeling about a year ago and I really didn’t expect to find any type of queer community. I was pleasantly surprised to have met so many individuals fighting for their rights and safety then I’ve ever encountered, yet there is still such a long way to go. I have found Wheeling just as kind and welcoming as I’ve found it closed-minded and ignorant. I used to be someone very fearful and withdrawn, constantly afraid of who I was and who I thought I could be, I still fight that fear and I know so many others who hold back so much of who they are because of that fear. I really think there’s so much good change that will come if everyone continues to use their voice. So please speak up and get involved in your local community because every person really does make a difference and together we are stronger.”
“Despite not being a Wheeling native, this city has definitely welcomed me with open arms. Being a part of such an amazing queer community in such a small city makes it really feel like home. All of the work and passion I see in every gathering gives me hope for the future. I see Wheeling as a place of comfort and joy for our younger generations to call it home just like I do.”
I am so proud of this project, and I hope when queer and straight people see it they realize we are here in Wheeling! We exist in the Ohio Valley and we are here to stay. You can see the final piece in person at Clientele Art Studio’s Unladylike exhibit that is running from July 22 – August 14.
If you’d like to get more involved in the LGBTQ+ community in The Ohio Valley you can follow the Friendlier City Project on Facebook and Instagram @thefriendliercityproject.
• The Friendlier City Project is a small group of LGBTQIA+ citizens and allies who want to ensure that Wheeling’s queer community has a space to connect, share resources, and advocate for issues that impact their lives.