CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When Raleigh County native Bradley Milam set out to document the history of gay culture in West Virginia, his classmates at Yale University wondered if he would find anything to write about.
"How many gay people could there possibly be in West Virginia?" they asked Milam, then a senior in college and the first graduate of his high school to attend the Ivy League school.
Now 23, Milam is the first full-time staffer for Fairness West Virginia, a group founded in 2009 that advocates for gays and lesbians. One of his biggest challenges as program director, he said, is to show state leaders that rural communities have a stake in gay-rights issues.
"There's a big stereotype that gay people only live in New York City or in other major metropolitan areas," said Milam, who started his new job April 1.
After graduating from Yale with a history degree, Milam worked as a paralegal at a small criminal defense firm in New York.
Now, he is working out of Fairness West Virginia's first office, a bright little space in a West Side office building where he's still unpacking boxes.
"I'm so excited to be back," he said, "but it's also a huge responsibility."
Until now, volunteers had run the organization.
Five years ago, Milam applied to Yale "on a whim." He grew up the son of schoolteachers in the unincorporated town of Fairdale, graduating as valedictorian of his class at Liberty High School.
"I was always very good in school," he said. "It was sort of my thing."
In high school, people had suspected he was gay. A close circle of friends accepted him. Many others didn't. In gym class, boys threw batteries and bottles of pop at him. He didn't tell anyone.
He came out to his friends at age 18. Telling his family was harder. He did that a year later.
He felt liberated at college, where he was openly gay from the first day.
At first, Milam struggled in academics. Many of his college classmates had attended elite East Coast prep schools.
But he worked hard, he said, because he wanted break stereotypes of West Virginians "not being as intelligent."