Oral History with Jill Ellern (2021)

Special Collections at UNC Asheville
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00:00:00 - Introduction

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Segment Synopsis: Interviewer Danny Woomer introduces Jill Ellern.

00:00:24 - College, Career, and Jill's Search for Home

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Partial Transcript: I'm 1962. My parents were hippies in the sixties in LA and moved in the back to the land craze, to rural West Virginia, answering [inaudible 00:00:39] Mother Earth News. That's historical, whatever's. And so I grew up in rural West Virginia and went to college at West Virginia Wesleyan College. Got my library degree there, my bachelor's in library science and needed too-- I wanted to be a real librarian; so I got my degree at Louisiana State University and was there for the year and a half you needed to get your ticket. My first job was at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. I also met my second partner, I guess, and we moved to the big city of Washington, DC, which was quite an experience for three and a half years. And we both missed being in the country. She was from Louisiana, mostly, and we moved-- I applied to many jobs in Rural Appalachian. I wanted to be within driving distance of West Virginia, so I could go back home and was offered this job at Western Carolina University at the airport on the way home. I was the third interviewee and they said, "Hire that person." So Bill Kirwin at the time, hired me.

Actually asked me if I would come and it took me a little while to say yes, but I came here from the big city of Washington, D.C. in January 1st, 1990. So I started the decade off here. While I was there, I wrote some notes from last night thinking about it. While I was there, if you're from rural Appalachian, the big city doesn't prepare you, it doesn't prepare you for the big city and getting connected with people. While I was-- you can go to the same bus stop at the same time every day and see different people, it was hard to create connections there. So we did try to join various GLBT groups. I marched in the gay pride things in the late eighties. I was there, I was already in D.C., so I just went downtown. That was kind of nice. Yeah. So we marched in those, When I was in graduate school, we went to the women's March that was in D.C., so it was pretty cool. But I really had problem creating connections, it was difficult, even in the LGBT women's groups, they all seemed very worried about being outed. It was not a great time in history. Instead, we spent a lot of time at science fiction conventions, which there was a lot of that. My partner at the time was very into medieval reenactment kind of things, so we did lots of that, that will relate in a story in a little bit. So we probably went to 20 or so. So when we came to rural North Carolina, there wasn't any science fiction conventions and what there was, was the Society for Creative Anachronisms, the SCA, which tries to recreate the middle ages as it should have been. And lots of camping events where you can dress up in medieval garb and hang around in [such] [inaudible 00:04:41] So we got connected to the people here that way, and as soon as I came to, right there, to the circulation desk at Hunter Library, we met, even in my interview actually, I met Dottie Burnett. Okay. She was working at the circulation desk and a couple other people who are at the circulation desk. There seemed to be quite a lot of women at the [circ. desk] [inaudible 00:05:15] so they helped us find a house and got involved in the community, the LGBTQ community, through folks that I knew from the library. And was invited to various groups on campus and the community groups that are here. And so I don't think-- there was a Lavender Bridges, and then there was something else. And then there was Out in the Mountains. The groups kind of changed;I forget what the second one was. Out in the Mountains was the one that has persisted and still persists. So I'm sure you have a list of questions? I don't want to, but that's where I'm from. I've been here now 31 years and know a lot of folks.

Segment Synopsis: After obtaining her Master's degree, becoming a protestor, and working at the Library of Congress, Jill decided to move back to Appalachia for a better sense of community.

Keywords: 1990; Activism; Activism through marching; Creating community; Hunter Library; LGBT Women's Groups; Lavender Bridges; Librarian; Library Science; Library of Congress; Out in the Mountains; Society for Creative Anachronisms; Washington DC; West Virginia; West Virginia Wesleyan College; Western Carolina University

00:06:50 - Connecting to Communities Online

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Partial Transcript: It's a lot of creating connections. In D.C. that, I [inaudible 00:06:55] so you had to go to groups. I wasn't in the bars. We try, I don't think we even tried. We were really not bar people at that time. And so we did some of the groups, but they were very, it's hard to describe, the culture has changed so much over the years [laughter]. Here was a connection with people and trying to figure out how to connect people has been, as a librarian that's what I have, I'm good at with my work. And I'm known as a connecting kind of person. I even got a card made. I was a card carrying lesbian. I don't have it at the moment but it has my name and all of the email groups I was involved in at the time. Of course, when we started it, there wasn't any email, but you went to groups that campus had a group that met regularly to do potlucks. Let's see, I have some notes here. I kind of did two connections as we got here. I did the SCA kind of things. And I did the GLBT kind of things. We started, my ex and I started the medieval reenactment group on Western. To start it, like I said, they were camping events. We did all sorts of camping events all over Western, North Carolina and Charlotte. The group, that's the main group was in Charlotte. So we had to drive quite a long way to be part of those groups. We got involved in some of the pagan community at that point.

My ex was very pagan. So with that connections with SCA and middle, mid-age reenactment and garb and all that kind of stuff, we got connected in some of those. As far as the LGBT community that was more local here at first in Sylva. A lot of the local business people were part of it. Folks who ran City Lights and Lulu's and stuff. So Golden Carp, all those major things were part of that group. And there was various, there wasn't very many, but there was a few on campus that were out, some met and talked and got to know each other. Mostly through hanging out at these potlucks. We met at the Catholic House to begin with, and then it moved over to St. David's, into their extra room was where we had it. I set up various email groups so that we could all talk about events and things that were going on, create connections, let people know that there was still folks in the area and that they weren't isolated too far. It was a lot of work to get connectings here. So that's what happened in the first, I have three themes, if you will. The first 10 years of my working here, that's what I did. In 2000 my girlfriend and I broke up. And at that point, I think a lot of things happen. If you've been in groups, they go through stages, just like relationships do. And at that point, my ex had come to the conclusion that most of the LGBTQ people in this area were kind of crazy, just like she was. And so we didn't, I didn't have very many friends except for what was in the SCA, which was very far. And some of these ones, we didn't create lots of this. So by 2000, when I broke up, I really didn't know hardly anybody at that point. So it kind of crescendo and went back, went down. And in 2000, I'd say, because I wrote notes here, the internet was taking off. And when she left I didn't have any real good friends, but I was chatting. Chat rooms were a big deal. Planet Out had various rooms based on various geographical areas and then subjects as well, like getting the truck was one [laughs], but the North Carolina room, I spent a lot of time in the North Carolina room at night. And at that point I was to create friends. And the only ones I could find at that point, because Out in the Mountains had gone, whatever was before out in the mountains had gone down, again.

I drove all the way to Raleigh to hang out at a bar in, which is six and a half hours away. And on my way back, I said to myself, there's got to be more queer people closer than six hours. I know that it has to be. So I just happened to talk to somebody in North Carolina room that was having a group set called Sheville. If you drop the A and Asheville it's Sheville. And so there was ListServ and Yahoo groups that started Sheville and they were talking too much so they had an AfterDark. So we had one of our first get togethers in Asheville, which was, which started me on this mixed train in the 2000. Sheville AfterDark did a lot of picnics, getting together with various events. And that's the Asheville area. And it seemed if you know any of the connections and the GLBT groups in this region, Asheville is kind of a very big lesbian Haven. There's a lot of women, there's a few men, but a lot of women. They tried to ... but it took a long time because there's a conservative rent in Asheville as well, but a progressive.

Segment Synopsis: Jill recalls creating connections in Western North Carolina before and after losing a romantic relationship until she found Sheville, an online group that began creating events for women-loving women.

Keywords: 1990s; Break-up; Charlotte; Chat rooms; Creating community; Creating connections; LGBTQ+ community in Sylva; Lesbian community in Asheville; Pagan; Sheville; Sheville AfterDark; Society for Creative Anachronisms

00:13:35 - LGBTQ+ Socialization in the 2000s

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Partial Transcript: And so there wasn't a gay pride. I've gone to a gay pride in DC, but here, Asheville took a very long time to get that going. It took forever. I know it's huge now, but at the time it was not. I know there's so many gays in Asheville, it's not even funny. It's kind of a mecca for them, but even during that time, there was just not a lot of going on. But the Sheville group got really tight with a email list. And we spent, we did a lot of events, almost a monthly there for awhile. And so I was driving to Asheville, which is an hour away, but still pretty significant. And I met my next partner there. We were together for eight years as part of the Sheville AfterDark folks, she moved into this area. She was from Brevard. So she moved in with my area and we got involved in the, Out in the Mountains started coming back up. She went to SCC. So we got connected with there. All of those events. There was also a local group as part of Out in the Mountains. Some women in that group had potlucks locally. So they did that. So that became less SCA, that kind of fell off with the previous girlfriend and then all of this Sheville kind of things with the email list. I did a presentation at the gay and lesbian studies convention, a conference that's in Asheville. And I did a presentation and I think the third year of Sheville AfterDark on this community that was built and a part of the bars scandals, and those types of things that happened.We were not really part of the bars, but we had, we met there for dances occasionally. So, that kind of grew up. So I was involved in that and all the email groups, and I was trying to get more people because the more people you have, the funner it is. So I spent a lot of time in Asheville, needless to say [laughter]. It's just an hour away, but it's still, as there wasn't as much going on here, this more bedroom community kind of thing for Asheville. And I spent a lot of time in Asheville getting to know people. My partner at the time worked at Harris. And I don't know if you've worked for Harris. There's a GLBT community there as well, but we broke up in 2008. So after that point, because I was so connected into all the internet and stuff, I tried various dating apps and had about three, two to three short-term relationships. One lady was in Franklin, couple in Asheville and it came to the point where it seemed like most of the socialization I did was at Asheville.

It was because that's where, if you were looking online, that's where most of the women were [laughs]. One of the women that I dated liked to go to churches. So we went to various churches in Asheville and Franklin and so I got involved in some of the church, not involved. We visited many of the churches and some of the nicer ones that were okay with the GLBT type things were ones, after we split up, I went back and I started getting involved in the church. Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Franklin. And so I got involved with Franklin in the leadership and stuff. There was various faculty members who went there at the time. One couple, a lesbian couple and a couple of faculty members from Western also go to that one. They're welcoming, which was nice. And of course Out in the Mountains had various things. If you've not talked to the guys, Herb and Chris, Chris had a video shop right here on campus. And then they moved, Chris now owns City Lights in downtown Sylva, the bookstore there. And his dad is, was a faculty member that retired, that lives up Caney Fork in that area. And so he was part of Out in the Mountains, as well, as I mentioned, there's a lot of LGBTQ people in, running businesses in Sylva, which is kind of interesting.

Segment Synopsis: Jill details her social life in the early 2000s and how she formed connections to the LGBTQ+ community in Asheville.

Keywords: Franklin; Out in the Mountains; Sheville; Small Businesses; Sylva; Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Franklin

00:19:24 - Creating Connections in the Mountains

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Partial Transcript: There became a big group in Franklin as well called Franklin Friends. That was mostly guys group. Whereas I think Out in the Mountain was more mixed, but there was a very small contingency of women in the Franklin Friends. And because I was going to church there as well at that point, we had a little contingency of the women's auxiliary, if you will, of Franklin Friends. Franklin is a big retirement area. Folks who have made money in Florida and summer here, but winter in Florida, they all come back to Franklin and they get together and they meet at restaurants rather than potlucks, which women tend to do. The guys tend to group in restaurants where people, they pay people feed them [laughter]. It was very strange, but the Franklin Friends got really big at that point. We would take over restaurants. It was pretty great. And there would be 25 or 30 men and like four women. So that's what kind of happened at that point and got together with, and got to meet some of the local women here a little bit. And some of the ones that were meeting previously when I was doing my previous life, if you will, with my second partner here, mixed in with the friends and Franklin Friends, because of where they lived in, geographically. Let's see. So there was still connections with those people. Now in 2013, I was on the dating scene again and answered an ad in the app Plenty of Fish, if you will. I'm not sure if it's still alive, even. And I met my current wife, my wife who I married in the church at Franklin in Plenty of Fish. She was actually living in Chattanooga and we had planned to just be friends. And at that point I was deciding that I was socializing [inaudible 00:21:59] Asheville than I was Franklin or Sylva. So maybe I should move closer to Asheville because that's where the women were. And at that point I met my wife, Jude, and she was actually in Chattanooga and we met in Murphy while I was living in an RV for six months as I was looking for houses. And so I bought a house in Waynesville and she moved in and we lived in Waynesville for several years.

And recently we, well recently for the last four years, we decided I was looking for jobs and didn't get what I was looking for. So we said, "well, if we're willing to move from Waynesville" because I was then not socializing as much in Sylva. She had kids and she had horses and things we were doing here in this area. So if we're willing to move away or are we more willing to move to Sylva? So we bought a farm in Sylva and we have three equine and her kids have come live with us in various RVs in the area. And so that's where I am right now.

After 30 years of living here, COVID of course has made things all screwy, but don't socialize as much with the Sheville AfterDark. Although they're all Facebook friends. Been doing the family and the farm thing and the work thing lately. So I haven't done as much socializing. I don't think anybody has really done as much socializing as we once did. And so there's the story of Jill's life. I want to tell two other stories,

So during the period, I think I was in between girlfriends in the library here at Western. During this middle area, that's asked, like 20, 15, 20 years ago? One of the associate Dean had a party at her house and invited all the library people. We did that for only a small period of time at Hunter library, where we had house parties and one of the associate Dean had a next door neighbor that knew me from Out in the Mountains kind of thing. And I wasn't really out at work, which is not true right now. You can't do...I wasn't really out. And it was before Ellen, I know this sounds funny, but before Ellen and everybody, the things shifted, I think at that point. But I was still working on Sheville and I had connections with everywhere and I was in message boards and emails. And if you knew, and she said, she introduced me ...the lady who ran the party was introducing this nextdoor lady but I knew her from Out in the Mountains stuff. So she like, "oh, I know Jill, in fact, I have a story about Jill." And so the story she told about Jill. She said I was at Mission Hospital to go to a procedure. And I was being wheeled through, if you've been to Mission Hospital, they wheel you through a lot of hallways to go through it, because it's been built a hundred different ways. And I looked at the woman pushing me and she looked at me and we knew that we're probably both family, both gay and I was trying to figure out how to talk to her. And my first question to her is, do you know Jill Ellern? And then the woman said, "Indeed, I do. I do know Jill Ellern" now Asheville. And so we just knew, and half the people in the library were like, "well, how does that make a difference?" So the question is kind of like, do you know Bill W [inaudible 00:26:18] I got well known in the area as connecting people and knowing where the groups were. So, that's one of my library stories. So I was involved in a lot of the connection, creating connections in the mountains.

Segment Synopsis: Jill tells stories of finding connections in Appalachia in the 2010s, and mentions how she met her current wife.

Keywords: Creating Connections; Franklin Friends; Mission Hospital; Waynesville

00:27:02 - Coming Out and Concluding Thoughts

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Partial Transcript: I have a weird coming out, I guess, because my parents were hippies in the 60's, it wasn't as big a deal. I think I got more homophobic as I got involved with people. I, my mother, I was rural West Virginia. My mother was recently divorced and was involved. She liked to drink and party. And the kids across the street were college students. There was a party house called the pink house. And a bunch of them were gay guys that had big parties in the middle of nowhere, rural West Virginia. One of their friends moved into the area and when she was in the summer, she didn't have as much money. So she became a roommate of my mother's and I was about to go to the way to college. And she was just, their first year of college. And so we spent a lot of time together. And when I went away to college, when I came back, we went "you know", so I had to tell my mother that her roommate and I were seeing each other. So it was a very strange, but my mother was real cool with it. She knew what was going on, not a big deal. So we, my mother was a little crazy and others, there's a lot of other things going on there, but she came away to college and went to college with me which was just 40 miles down the road, to West Virginia Wesley. She was going to Glenville State. So she came to college with me. We had kind of a falling out with my mother and went on from there. And four years of college, I was with her. And then we broke up when I went away to graduate school at LSU. And that's how it kind of connects into that.

Yeah. So I guess I learned homophobia actually from my first girlfriend who was so worried. So I was fine until I connected with her, who wasn't really out. And I spent quite a bit of time trying to... So I kind of learned that those homophobia kind of self stuff from my first girlfriend and dealing with the world at that point. Yeah, it was, it was. And so when I went to LSU, the first things I did was "where's the women's groups, where's the gay groups." Let's go check it out. And so that's, and I helped form a little group there at graduate school at LSU, called Sappho Circle. We had a little woman's group as part of the now group. And the now group went to Washington D.C. in the Women's March, but the Sappho Circle had picnics and that kind of thing and started a newsletter and went to women's basketball games and that kind of thing. So, that's where I met my second girlfriend. And we went to the library of Congress together. So she had her own issues, too. She had her own personality issues. Women are special. They have some interesting issues. So when we came here, we've come from, D.C. Had its own little homophobia thing going on because of all the people who had to worry about their security clearance. So that homophobia was mixed with what was going on in society with the gay marches. Because it was two of those during that time as well, while I was in DC. And then when we came to here, although we had groups here, you aren't really out. It wasn't really talked about as well. You knew people, but you weren't really out at work. And so I kind of, like I said, I don't think I started with a homophobia, I think it grew on me with the first couple of relationships. And then I have to say Ellen hit, and all those things that happen with coming out on media and then all of the stuff that happened with the internet. And so it's been a trip that's to say. So I feel like part of the nation went through that whole process all together. So I've been part of the being careful while you're working but I have to say I'm privileged to work at a university where this is not as big a deal and librarianship, which is kind of liberal as well. So I have a perfect storm there. And although I have been making connections at Western, Western has its own ... being in a rural part of the world where the community is a lot more conservative as well has a mix of conservative and not conservative, if that makes sense.

Is that it? Gosh, it has been an hour. So there's the story of Jill's life up to now. I've only been married once. I didn't want to be married. I've, like I said, I was raised by folks who didn't believe in marriage. So, but I was involved in, I went to Asheville to the, we all went as a group to try to get married at the board of registration. I was part of that group, my girlfriend at the time, we went and tried to get married and helped some of the Asheville progression of the right to marry. And so I've been involved in a lot of big events in LGBTQ and in this area.

Segment Synopsis: Jill tells her coming out story, how engaged she has been in LGBTQ+ groups for decades across the nation, and her involvement in Western North Carolina's progression.

Keywords: Coming out; Community involvement; First experiencing homophobia; Glenville State; Sappho Circle