My travels to rural communities throughout Washington State allow me to see the tremendous progress being made in these areas, the challenges still being faced, and the passionate people behind it all who are striving to create a safe and accepting environment that allows people to be who they are, where they are.
On a clear and hot summer day in late July, I jumped into my Mazda, loaded down with Pride Foundation tabling materials, and headed to Moses Lake and Richland for their yearly pride events.
About an hour and half later, I arrived at McCosh Park in Moses Lake, where PFLAG Columbia Basin was hosting the event. With fires blazing throughout Central Washington creating gale force winds, I opened my door cautiously—having visions of my door flying off its hinges like in The Wizard of Oz.
I was joined by Pride Foundation board member, Tylene Carnell from Ellensburg, and Tri-Cities Leadership Action Team member, Christopher Mobley. We had the pleasure of meeting with PFLAG Columbia Basin, Big Bend Community College GSA, and local LGBTQ leaders in the community, who were thrilled to have the presence and support from surrounding areas.
Despite the tremendous winds, we enjoyed a wonderful BBQ and had great conversations with local groups at the event. We discussed PFLAG’s impressive presence at the community parade this year and the change in attendance we’ve seen over the years. PFLAG has also been collaborating with the GSA at Big Bend Community College—working to raise visibility and spread positive messages to the larger community, where there have been few in the past. In this area, many LGBTQ youth are forced to meet secretly at homes with accepting parents because they fear facing harassment or discrimination in public.
I was struck by the important role these two groups play in the broader community, serving as a support system for LGBTQ students who have nowhere else to turn. This opportunity to reflect together as a community made this event one I will not soon forget.
Pressing on, I headed down to the Tri-Cities to get a good night’s rest before Mid-Columbia’s Pride event the next day. Joined once again by Christopher and Tylene, we set up our information table and marched in the parade with our Pride Foundation banner, grateful for much calmer winds.
Along the route, we passed a handful of protesters holding hateful signs telling us we were sinners and going to hell, but we all moved on without any incident. Despite the fact that this was the first time I’ve experienced protesters in all my years attending this event, it was a great success with many attendees (click here to see some footage of the event).
On this trip, I was reminded once again that being visible isn’t always an easy thing to do in a small town or rural community. On one hand, these pride events serve as a way to show that we are proud of who we are, that we are an important part of our community, and that we want to be treated with respect and dignity, without fear of discrimination.
On the other hand, many LGBTQ leaders and professionals in rural areas throughout Washington fear that this visibility will “out” them, possibly leading to ridicule, and even job loss. This feeling exists in many rural communities throughout the country, causing people to keep an integral part of who they are hidden.
Coming from a small town in Montana, I know the importance of attending these events. For many, this is the only time of the year they feel part of a larger community, fostering a sense of safety and belonging. Just being visible at these rural events speaks louder than words.
Building a network of support for LGBTQ people is vital in small, rural towns where everyone is interconnected (or should we say where news travels quickly), as well as in communities that are conservative and have strong religious beliefs.
For some, this is the first time they have connected with someone else who is supportive of who they are. Those are the moments that feel the most impactful and that I find myself reflecting back on far into the future.
Gunner Scott is Pride Foundation’s Director of Programs. Email Gunner.