“The journey through trans* is not an easy one,” shared Todd Wills, a transgender man living in Great Falls, Montana. “No two experiences are ever identical, and it takes a lifetime of courage to live authentically as you. Growing up in Montana, despite having a supportive and open-minded single mother, I did not have much exposure to the concept of gender being separate from sex assigned at birth. I didn’t know that I could be accepted without forcing myself into society’s mold for female until middle school. I didn’t accept myself enough to consistently be authentically me until my senior year of high school.”
Unfortunately, Todd’s experience mirrors that of many other LGBTQ people and families living in Great Falls and across the Northwest. With a lack of resources and safe spaces for LGBTQ people, it is not surprising that many in our community feel isolated and sometimes fear for their safety.
However, in February, a local clinical social worker approached Open Definitions—a group working with the Great Falls LGBTQ community—to share information about a new space that was available.
From that moment on, the group formed a planning committee to figure out the most effective and inclusive way to implement a long overdue community center. Approximately two months later, an inviting and welcoming space—complete with organizational materials and workshop opportunities—was created.
Todd, who is also a member of the Open Definitions group and helped support the creation of the Great Falls LGBTQ Community Center, reflected; “When I found out that an LGBTQ+ center would be opening in Great Falls, I was ecstatic. I had to be involved. Montana has one of the highest suicide rates in the country. Approximately 40% of LGBTQ+ individuals will attempt suicide in their lives. The sense of community, resource referrals, and for some, the escape that this center can provide, could save countless lives.”
Having grown up approximately 90 miles away from Great Falls myself, I was both elated and a little shocked when I learned about the new community center. I traveled to Great Falls often in my childhood—my family spent a lot of time there, as well as in smaller communities on the hi-line. Great Falls has always felt like a community with immense potential, but there was a gap in services and support for LGBTQ people.
The creation of an inclusive LGBTQ community center will be an important turning point for the local community—positively impacting people’s ability to live openly and safely.
Amma Jones, who works with the Lambda LGBTQ student group on the Great Falls College Montana State University (MSU) campus shared with me, “Feeling alone is a struggle faced by many LGBTQ folks, and Great Falls is no exception. In a sleepy town like ours, there can often be wide gaps between people, making it difficult to connect with others.”
“Having a centralized location can help bring the community together,” Amma continued. “The community center creates a place where people can connect across gaps of age, gender, religion, and more. The Center also offers visibility to the community. By showing Great Falls that there are LGBTQ individuals and families that live here, and offering information, we can teach Great Falls to be an open and accepting place—leading by example. Community members can come and get information and talk to people, and with that understanding, fear dissipates. With less fear, there is less hate, and more people feel safe to be who they are, and our community becomes more colorful.”
“The center in Great Falls welcomes people of all gender identities, orientations: romantic or sexual, ages, experiences, walks of life, etc,” said Todd. “Instilling this sense of community now is a huge step in the right direction. My personal hope, and goal, is that one day LGBTQ+ individuals will never need to ‘come out,’ because we’ve erased heterosexual/cisgender normativity. Being LGBTQ+ is not a deviation from normalcy. Every person should be free to be 100% authentic, 100% of the time—shame-free.”
Kim Leighton is Pride Foundation’s Regional Development Organizer in Montana. Email Kim.