Hundreds of Durangoans attended last week’s candlelight vigil, organized by Four Corners Alliance for Diversity, to honor the 49 victims of the Orlando gay club massacre. With an abundance of our country’s political leaders espousing hateful beliefs about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, it was heartening to see so many locals showing up. But not everyone was allowed to attend.
“One young person couldn’t come to the vigil because her mom was afraid she’d be shot,” said Kristi Dean, Durango Pride committee coordinator. “For the parents of young people who are trying to come out, this event in Orlando created another barrier.” Though our country is shaken, afraid and heavy-hearted, it’s now more important than ever to discuss why Pride festivals and LGBT events are so meaningful and what we can learn from the horror in Orlando.
There’s a generational difference when it comes to attitudes about sexuality. According to the Pew Research Center, the noted increase in the share of adults who favor same-sex marriage is due in part to generational change. Younger generations express higher levels of support for same-sex marriage, although older generations have also become more supportive of same-sex marriage in the past decade. It’s presumably less of a big deal for someone to be bisexual, transgender or to refer to themselves as a “non-binary gender” in this day and age. Parents and grandparents grew up in world with taboo, unspoken truths and hidden love affairs. “My grandmother still says ‘light in the loafers,’” said Stella Acquisto, recent Fort Lewis College graduate and former head of PRISM, a student-run club for gay, bisexual and transgender students on campus. In 2016, lots of celebrities are out and proud: Ellen DeGeneres, Ellen Page, Jodie Foster, Neil Patrick Harris, Ian McKellen, Anderson Cooper and Eric Fanning (not exactly a celeb, but he’s the highest-ranking openly gay military official in U.S. history), to name a few. As demonstrated by the violence in Orlando, however, there is still rampant vitriol in our country directed toward the gay community.
Struggles of an LGBT lifestyle“I think if every single gay person on the planet came out on the same day at the same time, people would be in shock,” Dean said. “They would never imagine how many there are. At that point, you’d be like, ‘I guess I better accept them! There’s a lot.’”
Although a person may instinctively know who they are attracted to, American society is largely heteronormative (meaning heterosexuality is considered the norm). “Coming out” as a gay, bisexual or transgender person can therefore be a lengthy process filled with doubts and confusion. “I knew I was different, but I couldn’t figure out why,” Dean said. “I tried dating men, and never had a successful relationship with a man. It never lasted more than two or three months. Then I went out to a gay bar, saw two women kiss and slow dance, and I was like, ‘That’s it.’”
In some instances, exposure to a phobia will lessen the phobia’s power. That’s why it is helpful to foster Pride events, during which people from the LGBT community are free to be themselves in public, to see and be seen. “Homophobia: We have a word for the fear of homosexuals, but we don’t have one for the hatred of them,” said Nancy Stoffer, coordinator of diversity programming at FLC. “Yet ‘homophobia’ works, because hatred springs from fear. If someone looks inside, and they’re afraid of what they have found because the outside world is shaming them, then they’re gonna lash out. Either by committing suicide – and there’s a hugely disproportionate rate of young gay people who commit suicide – or lashing out against a symbol or representation of what they’re most afraid of in themselves.”
Stoffer is right: Gays, lesbians and trans people are more likely to think about or attempt suicide than the average person. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center estimated that between 30 and 40 percent of LGBT youth, depending on age and sex groups, have attempted suicide. Hard data on actual suicides can be hard to come by, because death certificates don’t list sexual orientation. It’s hardly surprising that young people, bullied at school or taught anti-gay sentiments at home, would succumb to depression and self-harm.
Why we need Pride What’s the point of Pride fests anymore? After all, gay marriage is legal in the U.S. – and has been for one year. Celebrities are out. Many TV shows focus on gay characters (“Orange Is the New Black,” “Will and Grace.”) Aren’t people aware enough already? Nope. We have a long way to go. Many religious extremist groups display malicious intent toward LGBT folk, and even non-terrorists and average Americans nurture hostile feelings. The Orlando shooter was a U.S. citizen.
Dean has lived in Durango for only two years, but she’s been quick to take charge of Pride and LGBT events, bringing in a group of new and energized blood.
“We need a place to celebrate and be safe,” she said. “We don’t have a gay bar in Durango, and we really don’t have the ability to maintain one here. There aren’t enough people who would come out to a bar setting. Durango members are families, they’re lots and lots of parents with children. The gays and lesbians here are outside, in nature, skiing and bicycling. When we hold a gay dance, half the gay population doesn’t come.”
A Pride fest is not just a setting for gay people to hang out. Sure, there will be rainbows and probably plenty of glitter and glitz, but it’s a place for straight people to celebrate and support, too.
“It’s for everyone,” Dean said.
Pride is also an opportunity to boost tourism and the economy. “Every event centered on downtown is good, because people come,” said Tim Walsworth, executive director of the Durango Business Improvement District. “The city makes it pretty easy to get an event downtown. And maybe this will become more than just a regional attraction. Maybe people in the Four Corners will come to it. I applaud Kristi and her volunteers for making it a big deal.”
If you are concerned about safety, in light of the Orlando gun violence, rest assured that Dean is taking precautions.
“We’ve asked the Durango police department to add additional patrols, so officers will be driving by our events on a regular basis,” she said. “There was an officer at the candlelight vigil who was there early and stayed the whole time. Some Durango police officers and government officials are in the LGBT community, so everybody’s got a vested interest in making this a positive, successful event.”
Maybe you’ve never had to think about this stuff. Maybe you’ve never been afraid to hold your partner’s hand in public, or felt discriminated against because of your gender orientation. But people in the LGBT community live in a different and less welcoming world, one mired in land mines that must be carefully avoided.
“In your day-to-day life, how often are you questioned about being an American?” Stoffer asked. “My guess is never. If you’re born and raised here, it’s not something you think about. The same is true with being heterosexual or cis gender. Pride is a chance for people who find themselves living continuously in someone else’s country to come home for a moment, and be surrounded by people who won’t judge or attack them. It’s a chance to counter the shame that’s built up.”
Acceptance in Durango We’re lucky to live in an enlightened mountain town populated by people who mostly accept varied ways of life. According to Dean, every single business establishment she approached to participate in Pride said “yes.”
“Generally speaking, I think Durango is progressive,” Walsworth said. “I don’t even like the word ‘tolerant’ anymore. I don’t think that’s the right term. It’s not enough. It’s your neighbor, man, what’s the problem? Diversity, in my opinion, is always a good thing. Always.”
Not everyone shares Walsworth’s optimism.
“We have gay retail business owners in Durango who are not out because they’re afraid they will lose their customers,” Dean said. “You think that here in the Four Corners area we’re so liberal and progressive and gay people don’t have to worry about hiding, they walk around downtown holding hands.” Dean suggests Durango has a large population of gay and lesbian young adults. “FourSTAR [Four Corners Support for Transgender People, Allies and Relatives] hosted an event about being transgendered, and 30 people between the ages of 13 and 18 showed up,” Dean said. “The guy who ran it has done 600 of these events, and this was the biggest audience he ever had, right here in Durango. We also had a coming out party in January at El Rancho, and got 180 people. If you think that many gays and lesbians came to a one-night event, and there’s 15,000 people in Durango, that’s 1 percent of the population. And lots of them weren’t even there!”
What can we learn from Orlando?“People were getting pretty complacent,” Dean said. “Hate was kind of going under the radar. A lot of people were like, ‘They legalized gay marriage. They don’t have a problem anymore!’ It’s hate AND fear. Hate usually comes from a lack of knowledge, an unknowing.”
Ignorance certainly breeds contempt. But homophobic people might understand the LGBT plight better than they care to admit. The media has put forth speculation about the Orlando shooter struggling with his own sexual orientation; he used multiple gay dating apps, and people claim he’d been previously spotted at Pulse, the gay nightclub where he opened fired.
“When people in this society look inside and find they are not heterosexual, oftentimes they find shame,” Stoffer said. “That’s painful to live with. It makes people hurt either themselves or others. So if we as a society can continue to say, ‘There’s no shame in this. You should be proud of who you are,’ then hopefully we won’t have incidents like the tragedy that just took place. Pride is the antidote to shame.”