Building queer visibility in rural Utah

A Q&A with barber and filmmaker, Kylee Howell.


Kylee Howell, director and the town’s barber, at the Rio Theatre for the film premiere of Be Where You Are.
Courtesy photo

On a hot July evening in Utah’s Carbon County, the local LGBTQ+ community and allies gathered at the Rio Theatre on Helper’s Main Street for the film premiere of Be Where You Are. The cream- and orange-hued cliffs that surround this small town in Utah’s historic coal country glowed in the evening sun. Vases of lavender, a traditional symbol of the queer community, decorated the theater. Kylee Howell, the film’s director and the town’s barber, took the stage in a purple shirt and said, “Thank you for coming out tonight.” A few people broke into laughter, which spread through the audience as more caught on to the pun. 

Howell’s short film features six local LGBTQ+ people and their experiences coming out in Carbon County. The state of Utah is known for its antagonism to LGBTQ+ people. In January, following the wave of anti-trans legislation sweeping the nation, the Utah Legislature passed a ban on gender-affirming health care for trans youth. Meanwhile, in his recent Pride Month declaration, Gov. Spencer J. Cox, R, carefully avoided any mention of LGBTQ+ or the queer community in what the Utah Pride Center called “an irresponsible coward act of erasure.”

Compared to much of rural Utah, Helper is more accepting. Residents credit this to the historic ethnic diversity of a place where over 20 languages were spoken in the early 1900s. Howell herself is descended from Mexican and Italian immigrants who came to Carbon County to work in the coal mines. Today, Helper’s mayor is lesbian, and rainbow signs that say “Helper Pride” line Main Street. And in Howell’s film, even as people share the fear and pain they’ve experienced due to homophobia and transphobia, they also talk about their love for Carbon County and the roles they play in the community today, from student body president of Carbon High School to advocate for victims of domestic abuse. The film feels as much about pride in place as it is about LGBTQ+ pride. Indeed, the film’s title — Be Where You Are — is meant to convey that dual pride.

Kylee Howell owns Friar Tuck’s Barbershop on Helper’s Main Street.
Courtesy photo

High Country News spoke with Howell about the film, their experience as a queer person in Carbon County, and what’s next in their efforts to build rural queer community.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

High Country News: What motivated you to make this film?

Kylee Howell: Being from here is what drives me. Growing up in Carbon County and not having any sort of positive visibility for queerness or lesbianism made me feel like something was wrong with me. I moved to Salt Lake as a teenager, but two years ago I came back to Carbon County with my wife, Jen. It’s lovely to live here. This is home. But when we moved back, we stopped holding hands in public. And that wasn’t something we consciously talked about at all. It’s just what we did. Once I realized that, I redirected. I can’t live my life in the closet again. So this film partially came out of needing visibility myself. But there’s a lot of people who have those same needs. There are so many queer folks that aren’t speaking up or are moving away to find resources and community. It’s not like Carbon County isn’t queer. There’s just not a tangible feeling of queer community.

I have a lot of city friends that have preconceived notions about this rural area. But I know those ideas to not be true. My grandpa’s friend would say, “In the coal mines, you don’t get to care what race somebody is, what nationality, what sexual orientation. Everybody needs to just do their job and do it well so that everybody can go home to their families.” And that is the heart of this community.

HCN: What does visibility mean to you, and why is it important?

KH: Visibility is safety. Being visible means somebody else is going to be more comfortable being their authentic queer self. And that leads to a domino effect. Then we’re not going to be the spectacle, we’re just part of the community.

Every experience I’ve had has been more and more validating. And I want to give that light to other people.

I’ve been out since I was 17. I’m 35 now. I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve been to the protests and rallies and prides and parties and court cases. Every experience I’ve had has been more and more validating. And I want to give that light to other people.

HCN: You own Friar Tuck’s Barbershop on Helper’s Main Street. On the surface, you cut people’s hair. But people also come to you with their stories and ideas. What is the role of a barber in a rural community?

KH: I’m a bridge builder. People call me their therapist, which is funny because my wife is an actual therapist, and I’m like, “Please, go see a licensed professional.” But a big part of my job is creating relationships with people. When I’m cutting someone’s hair, we’re listening to good music and having a good conversation, and I’m like, “Do you really not like queer people?” And they’re like, “No, actually, I don’t care.” Those conversations are happening all the time in my barbershop right now.

They also tell me what they’re up to, and I’ll let them know about someone who’s trying to do something similar. I can make those connections for people. While they’re getting a haircut, I can also tell them what to do that weekend.

Joven, Ky and Goldie at Aunt Nell's Soda Fountain in Helper, Utah.
Be Where You Are film still

HCN: At the screening, you said this film is by the community, for the community. How did the community show up for this project?

KH: West Coast Show Support, a Helper-based concert and film production company, offered to do this entire production for free. I said, no, I need to pay you so you can continue to stay in this community. So, I put out a call for funding on Friar Tuck’s Instagram. My goal was to raise $3,300. We raised that in 26 hours. The whole time donations were coming in, I was just sobbing. I was getting Venmoed $5, $100, $10. People were coming into the barber shop and handing me $4 and tipping me extra after their haircuts. I think that the biggest donation towards this project was $200. At first, the donations were all from people I knew, and then I was getting texts from friends that said, “Hey, my neighbor down the street just Venomed you,” or “My mom has a friend that wants to be interviewed.” And that’s when I realized this could be something bigger.

HCN: What are your other ideas for building queer community in Carbon County?  

KH: After the screening, people told me they want more of these stories. So, I’m in the process of starting a nonprofit called The Lavender Lighthouse Project to share more stories from rural queer people. That’s part of the Lighthouse — letting people know we’re here.

I also just want to get money in the hands of our community members. Financial barriers are huge in rural areas. That’s a big reason why people don’t get gender-affirming haircuts that they want, or that they don’t get therapy that they need. The dream is to have an actual community center where people can gather, brainstorm ideas, and have a hub for resources.

HCN: Thirty years ago, Helper was on the verge of becoming a ghost town. How does building queer community and visibility help make Carbon County a better place for everyone?

KH: Acceptance of LGBTQ+ people is good for the entire community. When people feel welcome, when people feel like they belong, when people feel like they have something to contribute, that elevates the entire community. I want to cut hair on Helper’s Main Street for a long time. I need a viable community to do that. Because I want to stay here. I love it here. You can hear the crickets. You can see the stars. When I wake up in the morning, it’s so quiet it feels like a movie set. That’s why it was so hard when I felt disconnected from myself here. So, by creating more space for queer community, I’m trying to bring my love for this place and my authentic self together. That’s what all of us need. I want people to know they belong without any question.

Brooke is the Virginia Spencer Davis Fellow for HCN, covering rural communities, agriculture and conservation. She reports from Salt Lake City, Utah. Email her at [email protected] or or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy. Follow her on Instagram @jbrookelarsen or Twitter @JBrookeLarsen.

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