When Juli Stratton moved to rural North Idaho from Chicago five years ago, she had no intention of becoming a leader in the area’s LGBTQ community. Today, the board president of the revived PFLAG chapter in Coeur d’Alene and self-described “accidental activist” knows that stepping up has made a difference.
“I was miserable and felt like a gay fish out of water,” said Juli, a former counselor and paralegal who relocated to Post Falls, Idaho with her wife Amy, a physician with a practice in North Spokane. “I desperately wanted and needed to find a sense of community with other LGBTQ people, and people who were supportive and respectful of who I am.”
She soon discovered she wasn’t alone, and pursued the idea of reviving PFLAG. A chapter had operated in Coeur d’Alene for a brief time in the early ‘90s. Julie described the outpouring of support for the new chapter, re-formed in May 2014, as truly incredible. Monthly meetings average about 20 in attendance, ranging in age from 11 to 72. In November, more than 30 people turned out for a meeting devoted entirely to hearing personal stories from the transgender community.
This fall, Pride Foundation awarded PFLAG Coeur d’Alene a $3,000 grant for general operating support. Some of the funds helped purchase a projector and screen to show the “Add the Words” documentary film to more than 85 people in Coeur d’Alene earlier this month.
“The biggest reward in doing this is that people are finding people,” Juli said. “They’re getting their needs met. We’re building a sense of community. It’s an awesome thing.”
That community building includes supporting LGBTQ youth. A significant number of college-age students come to the PFLAG meetings, including many students from North Idaho College’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance club. Juli also volunteers as a community co-advisor to the college’s GSA.
“I attend weekly GSA meetings, help bring in speakers, and integrate PFLAG if parents want to get involved or when students move on or graduate,” Juli said.
She’s also spoken about PFLAG to the GSA club at Lake City High School in Coeur d’Alene, attended afterschool programs teaching kids about the harm of anti-gay slurs, and hosted game nights for youth. She hopes to eventually secure a safe space where LGBTQ youth could hang out after school.
“Kids here are scared to come out because they’re afraid of being hurt and bullied,” she said. “That sense of safety is a big concern. They feel that they cannot be their true selves. As a result, they tend to leave the area as soon as they can for a more accepting place to live, or else they stay closeted.”
Making it safer and more accepting for the LGBTQ community—especially LGBTQ youth—is particularly significant to lifelong Coeur d’Alene resident and parent Rebecca McNeill, whose 11-year-old daughter Julia identifies as bisexual. Julia was among those who testified last spring before the Coeur d’Alene School District board in an unsuccessful effort to get the district to add sexual orientation and gender identity to its non-discrimination policies.
“When the school district rejected that, Julia was devastated,” Rebecca said. “‘You don’t matter’ and ‘you’re not safe’ are the messages she got. She wanted to drop out of school.”
Julia’s outlook significantly improved after connecting with PFLAG Coeur d’Alene, her mother said, noting she’s now more energized, has started a diversity club at her middle school, and intends to address the Coeur d’Alene School District board once again about its non-discrimination policies.
“I’m so immensely proud of how courageous she is,” Rebecca said. “She’s standing up for herself and her peers. She’s taking the activism she’s learned from PFLAG and bringing it back to her school and the whole district to make it a better place for her and her friends.”
Rebecca, who is also PFLAG Coeur d’Alene’s treasurer, also brings her 9-year-old son to PFLAG meetings and greatly appreciates that he is learning more about the diversity of the Coeur d’Alene area community, and the harmful myths and stereotypes that too often surround the LGBTQ community.
“Having grown up here, I’ve often felt so isolated, politically apart from everyone, and haven’t known how to connect with like-minded people,” Rebecca said. “Being a part of PFLAG has been tremendous. I’ve found those people. I know they’re here, and I’m interacting with them now.”
That testimonial is one of many that has encouraged Juli and affirmed that the newly reformed PFLAG group is having the positive impact she hoped it would. The chapter has added an advisory council to grow their impact and to help carry out education, outreach, and advocacy efforts concerning equality and diversity throughout the North Idaho area, including local faith communities.
It has also inspired the formation of another new PFLAG chapter in nearby Moscow, Idaho. The chapter’s formation was largely influenced and supported by Juli and PFLAG Coeur d’Alene—who helped gather names and contact information from people interested in creating a PFLAG in Moscow. There are now four PFLAG chapters in Idaho, including Boise and Idaho Falls.
“People tell us they have joined PFLAG because they found a place to belong and now have a voice,” Juli said. “They feel the love and caring everyone feels for each other. It’s become such an important part of their lives, and they never want to miss a meeting.”
“I had no idea we would receive such a wonderful reception from this community,” Juli reflected. “I feel blessed to do this.”