Fighting for Change in the Town of Berea: Interview with Michael Harrington

By Ülvi Gitaliyev and Lily Barnette

For many Berea College students, especially those who came during the COVID-19 pandemic, interacting with the town of Berea and its inhabitants might seem a daunting task. When I first came to the college, both students and staff warned me to not go out into the town at night and that some “townies” (as many students call them) are aggressive. As I explored the surrounding of the campus though, I met many kind and progressive-minded locals who embodied the ideals of Berea College. One of them is Michael Harrington.

Michael Harrington graduated from Berea in 2012 and has been living in the town since then. Locally, he has built up a reputation as an organizer and troublemaker for all things leftist. He runs an LGBTQ+ zine known as The Rainbow Menace, which includes information and organizational material for rural LGBTQ+ people. On February 26th, he agreed to do an interview with The Berea Torch; the contents of which can be found below:

ÜG: Why did you decide to start organizing in Berea?

MH: I started organizing in Berea, honestly, from self-interest. I was a young, queer person living in the town, and we did not then, and we still do not now, have a Fairness Ordinance that protects LGBT workers and renters from being fired from their job or from being evicted from their homes. I started getting really involved because of that experience of being vulnerable to being fired or evicted just because of who I am. It was that self-interest that got me started. And then, just realizing that there were tons of other people in that same boat. We have a shared struggle, and if any of us were going to ever improve those conditions, it was going to take a lot of us working together to fight for it. One person on your own, if you just complain about it or you try and push back against a very entrenched power structure – one person is easy to bulldoze, just get rolled right over. But if ten people had the same complaint and started raising hell, that’s a little bit different. For 100 people? If 1,000? That changes the game of who has power and who doesn’t. If we work together then we can pull off some really great things to improve living conditions for all of us.

ÜG: Can you tell us more about this zine specifically? And what’s the target audience of your zine?

MH: The Zine is called The Rainbow Menace and it is a radical queer magazine, D.I.Y., kind of a little bit of labor of love. It was something that my late husband and I use used to work on together. We started realizing that to pull that group of people who had a direct interest in improving things together, we needed to have a shared culture, shared cultural product, shared cultural spaces to start being able to band together as a group. The vision has always been to connect queer people with queer history and queer action today. I was never told any stories about queer people at all. I didn’t even know that other queer people existed. It’s not taught in schools by design, on purpose. It’s never discussed. So, the zine promotes the idea that you would learn about the history and inheritance of the struggle of queer people who work together to fight back and build power. I just didn’t know those stories and I think that those stories are really important; they’re really useful for organizing today because as you hear them, you start to understand who you are. You’re not alone, and you’re not isolated. There are thousands of people who feel just like you who’ve done some really dope work to build power. And for me, it started with raising that consciousness of realizing I’m not alone in this. So, it uses queer history to tell a story of queer action in the hope of recruiting people to act for queer liberation in small-town Kentucky today.

We do a lot of action alerts and a lot of analysis off the back of those stories as well. And honestly, the audience is people who know what’s going on as it relates to queer people, but as it relates to so many other things like racist violence, economic domination, etc. All of those things are connected. There are tons of us who are sick and tired of it. We’re ready to do something. So, the audience is anybody who feels mad as hell and ready to do something about it. That cuts across age lines, lines of gender identity, and sexuality too. So, it’s not just for queer people; although, it does center queer people on purpose and by design.

ÜG: As someone who has both studied in Berea College and lives in the town of Berea, what are some of the similarities and differences that you can attest to between people who study here and people who live here?

MH: I would say that the biggest similarity of people who study at the school and of people who live in the community is a lot of us are from working-class families who are struggling to make enough money to pay the bills. So many students and so many renters in this town have faced eviction or have been evicted from their homes. So many students have experienced getting their groceries from a food bank. So many residents of the town are getting their groceries from the food bank today. I think that we have a lot of shared interest in knowing what that is like and have direct incentives to change things for the better because nobody should have to go through that. There’s no reason for that in the richest country in the world. The reason that we don’t have it is that a very small number of very wealthy people keep the system going that way.

Some of the differences are just life as a student, you know? You go to classes, you do a lot of homework, you spend time hanging out with your friends, and stuff like that. You have a job as a labor position at the school. They typically are ten hours a week. I think most of the people in the town are used to like working long shifts. It’s really the grind of “I gotta get up. I gotta take my kid to school. I’ve got to, you know, work this 40-hour week job.” If they are lucky enough to find one, that is. There are similarities in there. There are plenty of Berea College students who have that experience, right? But I do think that that’s one of the biggest differences is just life as a student and the life of a full-time worker.

LB: What is the big difference between the mentality of Berea College students and Berea town members?

MH: There are plenty of similarities to how we understand the world. When you face things that make your life harder, these structural barriers to getting ahead, it pisses you off, right? And it should; it rightfully should. You’re working real hard – trying to get your degree, trying to earn your paycheck. And every step along the way, the rich, the powerful, the bosses, and landlords, they obstacles in your way that make it so much more difficult than it has to be. So, I think one of the things that people in the town and people at the school share is anger. We’re united in anger. I believe that is very important because shared anger is something to build from. Furthermore, there’s a deep yearning that life could be better than it is. I mentioned a lot of the experiences that Berea College students have. They think “life has been really challenging for me and my family. But I believe that life could be better,” right? A lot of people who live and work in Berea feel that same way – a yearning that life could be better for us, for our children, for our grandchildren.

One of the things that can be different is sometimes folks in the town look at people at the College with a lot of skepticism. Sometimes, I think that skepticism is well earned because plenty of people who live in the town have been looked down on or mistreated by folks who attend or work at the College. I think a lot of the students look at folks in the town with suspicion as well. I think that is justified too because maybe a student has had a negative experience with somebody when they’ve been off campus, right? Although those things do happen, I think the wall-to-wall kind of suspicion is misplaced and misguided. We have a lot more in common than not in common. We’re all trying to make meaning of what it means to be a Berean.

LB: What are your future plans for The Rainbow Menace zine and your life as an organizer?

MH: Future plans for the zine one are to keep publishing, right? So, this last issue that we put out sharing some stories of queer history and queer action got a lot of positive feedback. I’m working on a March edition right now. It’ll be coming out this month. The vision for it is expanding it a little. For the March edition, I worked on a feature that is much longer than any of the content that has made it into the previous issue. It’s a reflection about queer D.I.Y. publishing and how organizers have used that in the 1950s to build. Also, have a vision for the future of the zine to expand its reach, expand its audience, and help people access that in a variety of ways. So far, it’s primarily been distributed online. Lots of folks are able to access it that way, but I’d like to start getting some physical copies to pass out around the town and on the campus. There are a lot of locations where people go for information in Berea, the public library being one of them. I’d love to have some issues just put on the free table at the public library and at the school as well for continuing work as an organizer in Berea.

I’m a tenant organizer. One of the things that we talk about when we discuss nondiscrimination for LGBTQ+ folks is there is no state law in Kentucky, no local ordinance in Berea, or in Madison County that says you can’t be discriminated against and kicked out of your home or fired from your job because you’re gay, bi, trans, etc. I think that’s wrong. And I will continue advocating for that. I have thought a whole lot about this. I believe it’s true to say nobody should ever be kicked out of their home because they’re gay, bi, or trans. But more than that, I think nobody should be kicked out of their homes at all.

We treat housing like it’s this commodity – this luxury commodity that only a few get to have with any sort of reliable stability. But there are enough homes. There is enough housing that everyone should have a safe, secure, stable roof over their head. Nobody should be worrying about making rent. Nobody should be worried about facing an eviction notice, especially during a pandemic. I believe that housing is a human right and that everybody should have that. So, the organizing campaigns that I’m working on are firmly embedded in the tenant movement. That’s a benefit to queer people, right? Our vision is for a housing future for all tenants where we control our own, where we have safe and secure homes that can’t be taken away from us by the bank; they can’t be taken away from us by the landlord that helps everybody and tons of LGBTQ+ folks. Tons and tons are renters that are facing conditions, where you’re afraid of being evicted from your home because of who you are or who you love, or what your family is like. So, if nobody could be evicted all right, then obviously it follows from that that no queer people are going to be evicted either. I am going to continue housing organizing in Madison County and Eastern Kentucky for that future, where everybody has a roof over our heads to where things can’t be taken away from us by greedy corporations and banks.

You can check out The Rainbow Menace here.

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