Gay Poems For Red States by Willie Carver

or Willie Edward Taylor Carver Jr as he’s credited on the cover of this volume.

In 2022, Willie Carver was named Kentucky Teacher of the Year. A homophobic vendetta led by just one woman caused him to decide, only months later, to leave the public school system, but not before testifying before Congress about the targeted harassment both he and his students received as a result of him living as an openly gay man.

Despite fleeing a system that couldn’t, or wouldn’t, protect him and his kids, he found that he couldn’t just turn his back on the ones he left behind. Thus was Gay Poems For Red States born, as he channels his hard-earned wisdom into a collection of poems meant to speak to queer Appalachians, telling them that they matter and are seen and loved more than they know.

And this is an extremely powerful collection of verse, as Mr Carver talks about his own upbringing, what it felt like to be a queer kid himself and how difficult it was for him growing up. Through his poetry, he details both the mortifying moments (as in the powerful opener Minnie Mouse Toy) and the moments of grace that helped him survive. It helps so, so much that he had supportive parents who were ready to accept him even when he wasn’t ready to accept himself, as he describes in both that first poem and in the equally moving Someday Child.

In addition to being a song of encouragement and inspiration to queer kids — and, in parts, a memorial to the people he helped and the people he thought he should have helped more — this book also talks about being poor and Appalachian, and how that background both defined him and spurred him to succeed. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the poem Hard To Take Seriously, that puts into verse his experience as a child being discriminated against simply because of his accent. Later, in poems like Food Stamp Holiday Song and Trombone, he’ll lay out the impact of compassion on his life as a small child who knew all too well what shame tasted like.

This volume truly feels like a way of paying that compassion forward. While it isn’t the most accomplished collection of wordsmithing I’ve ever read, there’s no denying the power in the way Mr Carver communicates his experiences. His writing comes from a place of genuine empathy and care, telling the disadvantaged that they matter, that they’re allowed to take up space and lead fulfilling lives and to be proud of who they are and where they came from. It’s devastating that so many books like this, with so much representation and hope, are labeled as “grooming” or similar nonsense by homophobes who would rather see queer people dead than living without despair. Gay Poems For Red States fights valiantly for kids’ rights to dignity and acceptance. I’m hoping it’ll inspire more people to do the same.

Gay Poems For Red States by Willie Carver was published June 6 2023 by the University Press of Kentucky and is available from all good booksellers, including

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