Q&A with Mayor John Manchester
The Appalachian Queer Film Festival couldn’t have found a more accepting home than Lewisburg, West Virginia. We sat down with Mayor John Manchester to talk about his experience with the festival, as well as his understanding of its impact on his community.
AQFF: How did you first hear about the Appalachian Queer Film Festival? What was it like having it in Lewisburg?
John Manchester: On April 1, 2014 I was looking over a poster about an alternative film festival coming to Lewisburg in October. I had not been aware of any plans for a festival then, but I was excited that someone was planning one. I looked closer at the poster and saw the initials “AQFF” and had no idea what the acronym referred to. I did an online search, and out popped “Appalachian Queer Film Festival” — my jaw hit the counter. I thought for sure it was an April Fool’s Day joke. I figured no one would be so bold to use the word “queer” in the official name of a film festival. I did some more research and found out I was mistaken. AQFF was legit, and it was being planned in my town. I talked to the organizers, who gave me their rationale for the name—put it out there and start to debunk the negative connotations of LGBT folks beginning with negative language. Having grown up with the term “queer’ being used as a supremely negative slur word, I was impressed with the boldness of the act of reclaiming and redefining the word, but I was also unconvinced that small town America was ready for this boldness.
However, as the weeks passed I came around to believe that the choice of the word “queer” within the title of the film festival was an act of genius. How better could anyone present a festival of ideas to debunk stereotypes of LGBT individuals, especially those with connections to Appalachia (known as a very socially conservative area of the country) than to deal head-on with one of the traditional words contributing to that stereotype.
AQFF: Was there any pushback to holding the Festival in Lewisburg?
JM: I felt no significant pushback. Lewisburg has a healthy mix of people who have been here a long time and people who are newcomers who chose to move here either for work, to retire, to go to the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine or whose spouse/friend relocated here. We are also a tourist town which encourages a good mix of visitors of all sorts. These factors I think lend themselves to a greater acceptance of new ideas. I was pleasantly surprised at both the lead up to the festival and during the festival itself how smoothly things went.
The festival attracted a wonderful mix of people, folks from out of town, locals, gay and straight, film lovers and artists. At the end of the day everybody enjoyed the festival, ate at local restaurants, shopped downtown and had fun in an attractive and safe environment.
I think even those folks from this community who had some level of anxiety and apprehension about what an Appalachian Queer Film Festival would be and who it would attract relaxed as the festival played out.
AQFF: Have you noticed more of your constituents talking about queer issues after the Festival?
JM: I think there has been a slightly greater willingness to talk about queer issues. Much of it surfaced in the lead up to the Supreme Court decision on Freedom to Marry. Nothing surfaced formally in city council meetings—just a bit of greater ease in discussing issues in everyday discussions.
AQFF: What has been the Festival’s legacy?
I think the legacy has been one of a greater ease among the general population at thinking about queer issues. Many more people than I would have guessed felt more free to approach me and tell me they appreciated my supportive stance on Gay Marriage, often adding that they had a family member or a close friend who was a member of the LGBT community.
The festival broke down some barriers and showed that a large influx of the LGBT community coming to town was really not that different from any other group of people who come to town to enjoy what we have to offer. What’s not to like about more people coming to town to celebrate the arts, shop, eat, spend money and have fun?
AQFF: What are several must-see places in Lewisburg?
JM: The arts scene featuring two great venues—Carnegie Hall (one of only 4 Carnegie Hall performance venues in the world) and Greenbrier Valley Theatre (the state professional theatre of West Virginia). Walk through the downtown historic district with great small shops and restaurants, all independently owned. The farmer’s market will be open on Saturday. Venture into the surrounding countryside for the Greenbrier River with a 77 mile bike trail following it northward. The 900,000 acre Monongahela National Forest is nearby with many good and challenging trails. The Greenbrier State Forest is 10 miles away also with lots of trails and a disc golf course. Lewisburg is a small town with friendly people, amenities that match many larger cities and provides easy access to outdoor recreation.