Football and gay tailgating in the Blue Ridge Mountains

A weekend at Appalachian State finds a tolerant and vibrant atmosphere and a winning football team.

After a three-year absence, the Outsports Tailgate Tour is back! The economy has limited what we can do this year tailgate-wise but even a lite-Tour is better than nothing. First stop, Boone, NC, home of the Appalachian State Mountaineers. After that we're going Ivy League at Harvard (November 13) and a TBD location over Thanksgiving Weekend. Stay tuned and keep tailgating!

By Todd Heustess
Outsports.com

The resumption of the Tailgate Tour in Boone, N.C. (population 14,000) was a pleasant surprise. In the 10 years that I've been traveling to the Boone area to visit my parents where they bought a second home after retirement, it never occurred to me that there was much of a LGBT presence in the area.

Luckily I decided to investigate and found that my assumptions were way off and that in fact the Boone/Blowing Rock area has a growing and active LGBT population, both at Appalachian State University (ASU) and in the surrounding communities.

ASUrock
ASU-Homecoming-3
ASU-Homecoming

Boone, affectionately known as the "Boulder of the East," is not just a liberal-leaning, outdoor sports-orientated college town in a somewhat conservative part of the state, it has one of the highest per capital lesbian populations in the country (Subarus are everywhere - in fact it's where I bought mine) and a very active LGBT student and faculty population. There is an intriguing growing connection between the LGBT students and faculty on the campus of 16,000 and the gay and lesbian professionals who have either bought second homes in the area or have moved or retired to this bucolic, lush college town smack in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Two of the connection points between the LGBT ex-pats who have relocated to the area and the University are football and tailgating. The ASU Mountaineers compete in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly NCAA 1-AA) and have one of the best football programs at any level. Their stunning 34-31 upset of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 2007 earned the program instant fame, but for knowledgeable football fans the victory over the Wolverines was just one more notch in impressive belt of success.

The Mountaineers won three straight FCS national titles from 2005-2007, have 16 NCAA playoff appearances since 1986 and their record this decade (including this year's 6-2 record) is 96-32. The football success at ASU continues to build on itself with ASU investing millions to upgrade Kidd Brewer Stadium (capacity just under 22,000), which boasts 18 luxury seats, new press box, 600 club seats and a state-of-art widescreen video board in the "grass" end zone. Needless to say if you're a sports fan who's relocated to the area, it's pretty easy to adopt the Mountaineers as your team, something Greg Jung and friends have done with their weekly tailgate parties.

Greg and his partner, Randy, both work at Bank of America in Charlotte and have a second home in Boone. Three years ago, Greg began to organize tailgate parties for their friends on the roof of the ASU Library parking garage and depending on the weather (Boone is the second foggiest city in the country behind San Francisco) anywhere from 10-40 (mostly) gay sports fans show up for the games.

The success and popularity of the tailgates led to the formation by Greg and Randy of a gay social club, NC Mountain Boys (and Girls) that not only promotes the weekly tailgate parties but now sponsors parties a gay ski weekend and a recently opened LGBT-friendly lounge at the Crestwood Inn. Greg like most of the other tailgaters I met did not go to ASU (he went to Purdue) but has become an ASU season ticket holder and loves the camaraderie his group of like-minded sports fans have found in tailgating for Mountaineer games.

On the day I attended the tailgate and game, it was foggy and a little cold, but the atmosphere and setting was as fun and appealing as any of the other bigger venues I've been at and the game was enjoyable as ASU continued to rebound from their 0-2 start with its fifth straight victory, 52-16, over longtime rival Georgia Southern.

My tailgate with the NC Mountain Boys (and Girls) also facilitated my introduction to the growing and vibrant LGBT student and faculty community at ASU. I assumed that the recently opened LGBT Center on campus was major news, until I met with students and graduate advisers at the Center and discovered that it's just one of many groups and resources for LGBT students and faculty at ASU.

SAGA (The Sexuality and Gender Alliance) was formed in 1990; its weekly meetings consistently draw 100 or more attendees. According to Kathy Staley, fellow to the LGBT Center, the school and administration have been very supportive of the LGBT students and programs. They run the gamut from a Queer Film Series that has run weekly every October for 10 years, to Out ‘N' Boone, a student-run LGBT newspaper, to a Lavender Graduation that honors all graduating LGBT students (and Allies), to a class in Queer Theory taught by Department of Philosophy & Religion professor Kim Hall, to a possible LGBT Studies Minor that is currently being considered by the administration.

Staley said that the school offers as many "soft" domestic partner benefits as they legally can (gym memberships, parking passes) since domestic partner benefits are not offered by the state of North Carolina (ASU is a state-supported school) and that sexual orientation is part of the school's non-discrimination policy.

LGBT Center Graduate Assistant Zack Hubbard said that recruiting LGBT students is a focus of the school, as is increasing their score on the Campus Pride Index. I quizzed Hubbard and a number of students at the Center and to a person they said that they felt comfortable at ASU as LGBT students and that anti-gay incidents were rare occurrences and the ones that occur were primarily facilitated by outside churches that occasionally protest at the campus.

Willie Rucker, who started the ASU softball program and concluded her 27-year coaching career there in 2008, said that she never had a problem bringing her partner to school events, or introducing her to players and their parents. Rucker said that overall the climate for out student-athletes (at least those who choose to be out) is accepting and most of the issues she found with LGBT student athletes and their teammates were fear-based and usually resolved with conversation and sometimes counseling. Rucker said that softball was a little different in that the biggest change over the last few years was more straight women being more comfortable in playing collegiate softball alongside lesbian players.

So is Boone the new Whistler, or Amsterdam? Not yet (coffee houses there are still just coffee houses) but with an active LGBT student population, growing LGBT presence in Boone and the surrounding communities, a new gay-friendly lounge, and an upcoming gay ski weekend (Feb 5-7, 2010) can a white party be far behind? Seriously, it's a great sign of changing times that a school and community in western North Carolina can boast of great football and tailgating, outdoor sports and a dynamic LGBT scene. Go Apps!

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