If you’re LGBTQ in a small town, where do you go for support? The group Small Town Allies & LGBTQ has filled that need for almost 10 years. It’s holding a Valentine craft and coffee event on Thursday, February 8th from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Allegan County Technical & Education Center.
Shannon Johnston of Plainwell says the group tries to plan at least six events a year at different locations in Allegan County. Many of the events are open to the public, but it wasn’t always that way.
“I think we wanted a private place in the beginning so people could feel safe,” said Michael Rankin, who decided to move back to his hometown of Otsego five years ago.
Since the Small Town Allies group started, the LGBTQ rights movement has reached a few milestones. Same-sex marriage became legal in all states. Gay and lesbian people can now serve openly in the military. Several cities in Southwest Michigan have passed LGBTQ anti-discrimination ordinances.
But Joseph McClees of Otsego says small towns still need groups like this.
“Yeah it’s becoming more accepting, it’s becoming more open to be gay in small towns," he said. "But there’s still families that turn away from their children. There’s still young adults that are out there committing suicide because there isn’t a safe place.”
The suicide rate among transgender people is especially high. According to the U.S. Transgender Survey, more than half of respondents have tried to commit suicide at least once in their lives.
McClees says in a small town there are fewer places LGBTQ people can go for support. He says when he was younger he would go to the gay bars because it was the only place he knew to meet people.
“You get to go out and dance and have fun, but they weren’t necessarily a safe place. Too many times — I’ve seen it myself — people getting drugs slipped into their drinks,” said McClees.
Rankin adds — even if a certain bar is safe — there are plenty of LGBTQ folks who simply aren’t interested that scene.
“There’s gay people that don’t want anything to do with any type of stereotypical gay thing," he said. "They want to walk their dog, they want to hold hands with their husband or wife or girlfriend/boyfriend — whatever it is for them. They just want the normal things.”
Rankin says, for him, it’s more fun to be in places with all kinds of people, not exclusively LGBTQ.
Stephanie Grimm came out as a transgender woman when she was 18. She says an extrovert and is always meeting new people:
"And they often tell me ‘Stephanie, I’ve never sat down and talked with a transgender person before face to face. I don’t know one.’ People often tell me that they had a pre-notion of how they thought transgender people are, but people are just people.”
Shannon Johnston says nowadays she goes to public events all the time — and sometimes brings her kids.
“But there was a time when I was scared to death to tell my mom. So the importance of the group is that we do have a group — there are others," she said. "So we can feel strong just by being together.”