Drag sisters Mary Jane and Aradia pose near an abandoned plastics factory in Cumberland, MD.

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2023 ZEKE Award: Honorable Mention

The Queens of Queen City

Michael Snyder | Maryland, United States

America is, by admission of most of its political leaders, a nation shaped by deeply held religious beliefs and cultural values. And perhaps nowhere is this truer than in Appalachia, a mountainous swath of America’s eastern midsection, known for its Rust Belt work ethic and its Bible Belt conservatism. Here, Cumberland, MD was once the “Queen City”, a hub of industry and culture. But the story of Cumberland has paralleled that of many once-great cities throughout the Appalachian region: the gradual departure of industry and, with it, a slow descent into economic stagnation and cultural decline.

But even here, flowers are growing in the cracked pavement: a queer community has banded together, created a thriving drag scene, and – against all odds - built the largest Pride movement in the region. The “Queens of Queen City” is a documentary project exploring the courage, risks, and repercussions of openly expressing LGBTQ identities in rural, conservative America. The project charts the course of this queer community over five years as they struggle with loss, bigotry, and acts of arson, to build an inclusive, vibrant community.

As a native to Appalachia and the Cumberland region myself, I have been deeply inspired by the courage of this community and have spent the last 10 years getting to know its members, hearing their stories, and making images with them. My hope is that, in shining a light on both the struggles and joys of this community, it will inspire individuals elsewhere in rural America to embrace and express their chosen gender identities.

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