PFLAG group forming in Sanpete County attracts dozens
When Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays is honored later this month at the Equality Utah Allies Dinner, it will be for the organization’s laudable outreach efforts — efforts that are now reaching into the very heart of rural Utah.
Folks in Sanpete County held an open house Friday, Sept. 14, to begin assessing the need for, and potential viability of, PFLAG in the area, and invited LGBTs and those who love them to attend.
“I thought if we did something like this, and we advertised it, and if there is somebody out there looking for something like this, well, we’d have something,” said Robert Buckner, who spearheaded the effort.
Though PFLAG might at first seem out of place in very small, very conservative, very rural Sanpete — where turkeys (farmed for the locally-based Norbest brand) far outnumber humans — it turns out Buckner was right: The need for support of LGBTs and their friends and families does not know the bounds of minimal population.
“I’ve been waiting for something like this to happen,” said a woman who attended the meeting, whose grandson identifies as bisexual and also attended. “We are so ready for this. We’ve been ready for a long time. We need it,” she said.
That need exists on three levels: for families and friends of LGBTs, for LGBT persons themselves and for society. Those needs correspond to the elements of the mission of PFLAG: support, educate and advocate.
Kathy Godwin, co-president of PFLAG-Salt Lake and PFLAG’s Mountain West Region director, said it’s not so strange to have PFLAG in rural areas. “Rural,” she says, “means there is a tendency for people to know a lot of people, they may even say they ‘know everyone.’”
Because of that, it may be especially difficult for someone in a small community to come out as the parent or relative of a gay person. Feelings of isolation and the fear of rejection and possibly negative ramifications are just as real for non-LGBT family members as they are for their LGBT loved ones.
“PFLAG focuses on providing a confidential safe place for people to come and talk about the people they know and love,” Godwin says.
Helen Thurston says she didn’t have such a place when her son came out to her. In the little town of Manti, there was nothing she could rely upon for support.
“I was in a state of shock for a long time,” Thurston said. “For two weeks I felt like I was going to die of shock and shame. I handled it badly. But what else could I do? It was my training. I could have used the support of other parents of other gay people” she said.
Godwin has a metaphor for the experience: “It would be the same as if you were a single dad with three daughters. You did not grow up as a girl, you did not experience what teenage girls, or 10-year-old girls, or 4-year-olds, go through.”
Families and friends of LGBTs, she says, “need the affirmation that somebody else has gone through it.”
With the support PFLAG provides, the organization teaches families and friends how to, in turn, support their LGBT loved ones, how to be able to “listen to your child, because they’re going to tell you things you didn’t expect or anticipate,” Godwin said.
For many, the close, tight-knit nature of small communities can be sustaining. But for LGBTs, it is often stifling, making support for them particularly important, even invaluable.
“You have to be pretty tough to be [LGBT] and survive here,” said one gay Sanpete man who, at 60, remembers some pretty rough times growing up.
His boyhood friend, also gay, had a family who raised turkeys: “In turkeys, when there’s one that’s unhealthy or a runt or something, the other turkeys will surround it and kill it. [My friend] said that is exactly how he felt.”
Godwin said, “In a rural community, we find that youths particularly feel very, very isolated. There is no visible sign that there is anyone for them to confidentially talk to and share their feelings. That’s why PFLAG is important — it begins to identify that space.”
Though not a gay-rights group per se, PFLAG does advocate, in that it helps people “to have those very personal conversations [about LGBT loved ones] we need to have with those in our lives. It’s learning how to have those conversations so you can continue to build that love, support and respect for that person who is LGBT.”
Through such conversations, individual and societal attitudes — even in places like Sanpete — can evolve.
Organizer Buckner had something like that in mind when he had the idea to initiate PFLAG in Sanpete. A couple years ago, after seeing equality successes with nondiscrimination laws elsewhere in the state — and particularly noting the LDS church’s support of such laws — Buckner went to city councils in Sanpete requesting similar ordinances.
“No one would talk about it,” he said. An organization like PFLAG could have helped. In communities like Sanpete, gay people may be somewhat timid about asking for their rights. But, Buckner said, “You get a parent defending their child, and they’re tenacious. If it’s a parent who’s out protecting their child, they can be a formidable force. I think people are more apt to listen to a parent.”
Sanpete residents might be more ready than one would think to accept such support of LGBTs and the people who love them. When gay Moroni resident Donnell Blackham purchased two copies of the local newspaper last week — the Sanpete Messenger, which ran a front-page story previewing the PFLAG meeting — the store clerk asked if Blackham had picked up an extra copy by mistake. Replying, Blackham pointed to the PFLAG article and said he wanted to send it to relatives. The clerk responded, “It’s certainly about time something like this was done around here.”
Godwin said it was significant that the local paper had carried the article, and that several people attended the meeting because of it.
“That says a lot,” she said. “That means people are reading the paper, that they saw an opportunity for themselves and then came out to the meeting and want to meet again. That always is a good sign. That’s really fabulous.”
The meeting had around 25 attendees. That might sound slim, but Godwin said even her chapter in Salt Lake sees around 25-50 in a meeting. Some rural chapters are excited to see even 10 people, she said.
“[The Logan chapter] is not even a year old. I think for five months they worked on stability and awareness before they even filed to form a PFLAG chapter. They had to find out who would come and what they wanted when they came. It has to be specific to the community.”
Sanpete families and friends of LGBTs are embarking on that same process now, with hopes that an official PFLAG chapter will result in the near future.