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story.lead_photo.caption A spectator waves a rainbow flag Saturday, June 15 during the annual Northwest Arkansas Pride Festival parade on Dickson Street in Fayetteville. NWA Democrat-Gazette/Ben Goff

It feels strange to use the word “celebrate” when the world is as it is. And yet, Pride Month is still a celebration of the rights won and the diversity of the vibrant LGBTQ+ community.

Even without the parades and in-person events that have become a cornerstone of the month’s commemorations, recognition of PRIDE is, without a doubt, a celebration of how far equality for LGTBQ people has come. Nonetheless, the month also serves as a reminder of where that fight began and that it still continues to this day.

On June 15, the Supreme Court of the United States granted federal job protection to LGBTQ employees in a landmark case. That is to say, until less than two weeks ago, a person could be fired from their job in some states based on sexual orientation or identification.

“It’s weird,” Fayetteville resident Leah Spears-Blackmon reflects. “When you live with discrimination and inequality, you internalize it… You make adjustments that become habit. You try to stay off the radar.

“I was unaware of how internalized this fear was in me until I read the ruling and felt immediate RELIEF. I can’t explain it to you. I could have married Micah on 5/12/14 and been fired for being a lesbian on 5/13/14. This ruling is a sweeping act of equality. I’m still processing the power and gratitude of it.”

This processing for LGBTQ people comes on top of suffering the isolation, the sense of loss — of plans, of social gatherings, of employment, of tangible loss of life — and the fear brought on by the coronavirus pandemic we are all experiencing; not to mention the social unrest swelling worldwide in response to police brutality against people of color.

LGBTQ people continue to overcome challenges unique to their population while also persisting in the same fight for equal rights they were fighting in 1969 when the Stonewall Riots — another protest of and uprising against police brutality — became a catalyst for the gay rights movement.

“It’s a very complicated, very interesting time for mental health and the LGBT community,” an old friend of mine, Scott Percelay, muses.

In preparation for considering the effects of covid-19 on the mental health of our LGBTQ population in Northwest Arkansas, I contacted Percelay for a little perspective: While not an Arkansan, Percelay is a gay man who grew up in the South, holds a master’s degree in mental health counseling, completed his internship at a community center that serves LGBTQ people as well as those with mental illness, and, as a resident of New York City for nearly the last decade, rode out the city’s status as one of the virus’ most severe hotbeds in the world.

“The thing about LGBT organizations is that they do span across a lot of different platforms because there’s health care, there’s housing, there’s employment stuff, there’s the peer mental health piece,” Percelay enumerates. But there’s also the communal piece where, like the community center he worked for, some organizations serve as the only place a person can go and truly be themselves, be part of a safe community.

“I think about that as what people are possibly missing out on due to covid. And it’s just expanding the already-existing disparities in health care — who accesses what, which communities are affected most,” he says.

The “double whammy,” Percelay goes on, is hitting LGBT people of color as, according to the Centers for Disease Control, “current data suggest a disproportionate burden of illness and death among racial and ethnic minority groups.”

“And then for LGBT people of color who may be isolated, who may not be out with their families, who may be quarantining with families that are homophobic…” Percelay demonstrates, “and even if they’re not out, that has a negative impact on one’s mental health. So I think it’s a big challenge for communities to ask, ‘How can we help at this time?’”

In the spirit and celebration of PRIDE, maybe one of the ways we can help during this time is by sharing our space. We at What’s Up! wanted to lift up some of the voices of our own LGBTQ and gender non-conforming community to ensure them they are not alone, we see you, we hear you, and that we’re all in this together — whatever “together” looks like in the face of this pandemic.

Helen Chase, photographer and new mama

Photographer and new mama Helen Chase reflects on how the world has changed in the short time since her daughter was born:

The world we are living in feels strange and sad so much of the time right now. Our daughter was born in November, and we have been isolated due to covid since March. This has meant that our families and our circle of loved ones, many of whom are part of the LGBTQ+ community, have not been able to be present in her life the way we expected. On top of that, we were so excited to take her to her first Pride, which obviously is not possible this month. People have still shown up for us, and her, in many other beautiful ways, but it’s not the new parenthood my wife and I anticipated.

We are all coping with grief and uncertainty on an unprecedented scale. It’s hard not knowing what will happen or how the situation might change month-to-month, or even year-to-year. I struggle with sitting with uncomfortable feelings on the best of days, and so I have been trying to embrace the ways I can be present during this. Our daughter is so young that she doesn’t know the world is any different than it was a few months ago, and her joy at even the smallest things is a reminder of what we have. My wife and I spend as much time outside with her as possible. Advocating for social change, therapy, journaling, video calls with our friends and family, and cookies also help.

Artist and photographer John Rankine Self-portrait titled: “Pride in a Pandemic — a Homage to the Past, Present and Future”

Artist and photographer John Rankine speaks to how the coronavirus has affected his relationship with his community, as well as what helps him maintain hope:

It being Pride month, it was hard not to be able to reach out to everyone because of this pandemic. Not being able to participate in Fayetteville’s Pride Parade and all the canceled events in Eureka Springs was frustrating and sad, but well understood.

This pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests over George Floyd and police violence are a little reminiscent of the AIDS crisis and the panic, fear and activism the LGBTQ community faced in the ’80s and early ’90s. We were on the streets fighting for our lives. We lost so many talented and wonderful people. Of course, all the people like myself that survived the first plague are now in that high-risk group for covid-19. Racism and homophobia are not inherent in the human psyche. It’s learned behavior and I think white people are finally understanding that it’s not enough to just say you are not a racist — that you need to stand up to racism — just like many straight people are saying no more homophobia and standing with their LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

Eureka Springs is a wonderful, progressive place to live in Arkansas. The city has had a domestic partnership registry since 2007 and has made health insurance coverage available for domestic partners of city employees since 2011. HB 2223, a non-discrimination ordinance, passed with over 70 percent of the vote, and of course we were the first to perform legal marriages in Arkansas, a day full of drama and joy that I will never forget.

Josh Murphree, Parade Operations Coordinator with NWA Pride

Josh Murphree, parade operations coordinator with NWA Pride, recalls one of his proudest memories being a Fayetteville resident:

There have been many times when I’ve been proud to live in Fayetteville. This city sort of provides that feeling on a regular basis. But for me, one of the greatest moments I’ve experienced was at NWA Pride 2019. As the parade operations coordinator, I have a front-row seat to every single float and group in that parade, and part of my job is directing the groups on when to start the route. You know those moments where you have to freeze and take everything in so you can remember everything that’s happening? I had a few of those last year that — even through the stress, sweat, rain and loss of voice — brought tears to my eyes.

I’ve noticed the last couple of years that I develop a bit of an audience at the start of the parade, and these folks are the best. I remember specifically announcing the Planned Parenthood group last year and the cheers and applause were deafening. The overwhelming show of support and love for a group who doesn’t really get that a lot, it just meant the world. I really have the best seat in the house for the parade. There’s something about being surrounded by a community overflowing with love and support that makes all of the stress, worry, headache, all of it, just wash away. I love this town. And while we can’t celebrate and have the parade in person this year, I’m very much looking forward to going bigger and better next year. Happy Pride.

Leah Spears-Blackmon, (left) community banker, and wife Micah Spears-Blackmon, owner and chef at Early Bird Catering

Leah Spears-Blackmon, community banker, addresses how she and wife Micah Spears-Blackmon, owner and chef at Early Bird Catering, are coping with the general sense of grief we all may be experiencing:

Micah and I are both essential workers. Between trying to keep our catering business out of the ditch and me going to work every day supporting frontline bankers, we are exhausted. And then with the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks — and the list just keeps growing… There are nights when we just cry. We are devouring material to learn how to be better allies. Sometimes there are no words. BUT! Most of the time there are words — talking through those concerns and grief. Communicating feelings. Allowing ourselves to be sad, and then celebrating BIG when we are happy. WEARING OUR DAMN MASKS. Micah and I have a dear tribe of family and friends who are our support system. We get together in a back yard or on a driveway as often as possible. For me personally, dedicated alone time in the mornings to read and pray, long walks after work, physically distanced happy hours, and yoga a few times a week are saving my life. Take heart, friends. And take good care of yourselves. You are not alone.

Richard Gathright, Director and Festival Manager with NWA Equality

Richard Gathright, director and festival manager with NWA Equality, reveals the first moment that comes to mind when thinking of having pride in his community:

When the For Fayetteville movement started. I was so impressed with the group of folks, including the mayor and the majority of the city council, that were pushing to pass protections for the LGBTQ community that would prohibit workplace and housing discrimination. It took some time and a couple tries, but 52.8% of the city voted in favor of the non-discrimination ordinance, which really brought joy to my heart and reaffirmed why I love Fayetteville. Long story short, the state challenged the ordinance and it was eventually struck down by the Arkansas Supreme Court in 2019. Fortunately, on June 15, 2020, the United States Supreme Court had a different opinion, and it changed everything for the LGBTQ community.

Tanner Pittman, (left) soon-to-be-married dog- and cat-dad, and Account Lead at Outdoor Cap Company, and fiancé Joseph Farmer. (Courtesy Photo/Victoria Carney)

Tanner Pittman, soon-to-be-married dog- and cat-dad, and account lead at Outdoor Cap Company, shares where he has found support and comfort during these turbulent times:

I learned several years back that the best way to cope with my own anxiety and unease is to help others. Reaching out to others, and being available to talk when others need to talk, has helped me to not focus on my own feelings of unease. My fiancé Joseph Farmer and I joined First United Methodist Church in downtown Rogers in October 2019. The associate pastor, Ron Hayes, has an outreach program called Pub Theology. Because of covid, we weren’t able to meet in person, but we have been able to have Zoom meetings, where we are able to freely and openly discuss our feelings, and learn from others ways they have combated similar feelings. Leaning on our church body, and our friends, has helped me to put a name to what I’m feeling and experiencing, and learn new tools to combat those feelings.

And he touches on the needs of the NWA LGBTQ community right now:

Less divisiveness and dissension. There are so many people in this world who hate us SIMPLY for the fact that we love differently than what they perceive or believe is “right.” Instead of fighting within our community, we need to be building each other up and rallying and supporting one another. We don’t have to be best friends with everyone, but we need to support each other. Who better to understand the plight each of us experiences than someone who has been through it, and survived? Instead of spreading rumors, let’s spread experience, strength and hope with one another. Let’s spread love. And start that love with ourselves. As RuPaul says, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you going to love somebody else?! Can I get an AMEN?!” AMEN, RuPaul!

Shiloh Kaminski (they/them), dog parent and wellness advocate

When Shiloh Kaminski (they/ them), dog parent and wellness advocate, couldn’t find the resources in Northwest Arkansas that provided enough support, they took advantage of technology in building and maintaining their own community:

I’m lucky that as a former resident of Chicago, Ill., I have connections via online meetings with a group for AFAB (assigned female at birth) Trans* and gender non-conforming individuals through the Center on Halsted. These meetings a few times a month on Zoom have been a life-giving connection during a time where local connections and resources here in NWA aren’t as accessible to me.

Plus, a little therapy never hurts!:

Therapy! I’m thankful to have a safe space to process the grief of covid-19 social isolation, and to process my privileges and experiences during this time of social unrest.

(* = all-inclusive)

Activist Wendy Love Edge

Activist Wendy Love Edge meditates on the state of the world…

While there is some grief I feel for the loss of how life was prior to the pandemic, and a longing for in-person connections with community, I also feel that life before the pandemic wasn’t working well for most people. Many had little time for home and family, and were working several jobs to make ends meet. Living stressed and exhausted. The pause, I’m hoping, will be a reset in many ways.

The civil unrest, which may cause fear in some, is really necessary to create real and lasting change in our country. It’s necessary so that America can work for all people. This energizes me!

It’s exciting to see so many Americans standing tall, risking themselves in such a profound way, and speaking up for change and equality for everyone to be equal and free. Because, until Black lives matter, all lives do not matter.

This energy of change and hope for the future has helped me to dispel some of the fear and grief that I have felt.

That, and lots of cannabis medicine, other natural herbs, meditation, and deep breathing.

…but also points to at-risk youth as one of her main worries during this time:

I’ve been very concerned particularly about LGBTQ+ youth who may live in homes where they are not accepted and/or abused by their own families. I think it’s important that we reach out to each other and ask questions about our community members who may need support. And then act where needed.

I have personally found support in our community through personal networks, phone calls, email groups and social media connections. For this I feel very fortunate. As that is true for me, I know it is not true for everyone. This is why it’s so important that we all reach out to others in the community that we know of, and not assume that someone else did it. Isolation can occur easily for some LGBTQ+ community members.

Let’s ensure as a community that isn’t the norm.

FAQ

Better Together

These and other local organizations can help LGBTQ and GNC people find resources, establish a support system, or offer a safe space to grow community.

• NWA Equality at nwaequality.org

• Transgender Equality Network on Face-book or at transequalitynetwork.org

• HIV Arkansas at hivarkansas.org

• The Trevor Project at thetrevorproject.org

• Youth Bridge at youthbridge.com

• Y’ALLIDARITY NWA Mutual Aid on Facebook

• Northwest Arkansas Women’s Shelter at nwaws.org

• NWA Center for Sexual Assault at nwasexualassault.org

• VECTOR Health & Wellness at vector healthnwa.com

• River Valley Equality Center at rvecark.org

• Spinsterhaven - Elder Tree on Facebook

Print Headline: A Proud Community

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