A local group is making a statement of LGBTQ support, one that can be seen in numerous Spencer neighborhoods.
The group, LGBTQS Alliance, has been decorating trees with sashes – the colors of the rainbow – to allow people in Spencer and other area towns to show support for members of the LGBTQ community during Pride Month.
Pride Month is recognized nationally throughout June to honor the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan, New York, and to recognize impacts of LGBTQ individuals have had on local, national and international history.
LGBTQS Alliance – the “S” stands for straight allies – got its project idea on Facebook, where the group began in November 2017.
Spencer resident and group member Linda DeLaughter had posted a photo to the Facebook group page that she received from a friend of pride trees in Chicago.
“I looked at that and I thought, Why can’t we do that here? We should do that here,” DeLaughter said. “I just posted it and people started commenting on it. People were getting excited about it.”
The group’s leader and founder, Kris Pirie of Milford, and other group members took the idea and ran with it. They met at the Spencer Library this past Monday to create kits for the first round of pride trees.
They made 25 bags that night and quickly ran out. Now, Pirie has a list of about 25 more people, mostly in Spencer, who have asked to have a tree decorated.
The group has already decorated trees in Spencer, Milford, Okoboji and Spirit Lake.
“I’ve come to know people because of the tree decorations,” Pirie said. “I would say 95% of the trees that I’ve done so far are for people I don’t know. I would say that’s good.”
DeLaughter said the group has been surprised by how well the project has been received and how quickly word spread.
“It must have been karma or something,” DeLaughter said. “It must have been a disturbance in the Force because all of a sudden everyone was talking about it.”
Pride tree project helps group grow
Pirie started the LGBTQS Alliance Group as a Facebook group page in November 2017. At first, he had 90 members in the group.
The group held its first meeting in May 2018 on the lawn behind what used to be The Bear Coffeehouse and Wine Bar in Spencer.
“It was just kind of a starting point,” Pirie said. “We kind of congregated and got our ideas of what we wanted the group to become. That was great to see supporters.”
From there, the group met monthly until November 2018, when attendance started to dwindle.
Many people just got busy with other things, Pirie said. He had also become more involved with Spencer Community Theatre.
“I just felt like we just did the same thing every month,” Pirie said. “We never progressed. We just kind of sat in a circle and talked. We talked some about religion and homosexuality and we talked about LGBTQ, but nothing progressed.”
With the group’s pride tree project, awareness has skyrocketed. The Facebook group now has over 130 members.
Pirie hopes the awareness leads to meeting again or beginning another project in the near future.
“I still don’t know exactly what I want out of the group,” Pirie said. “I just want a place for people to come and be supported, a safe space for people for people who maybe aren’t out yet or don’t have support at home for LGBT youth. Just a nice spot for them to feel comfortable and accepted.”
Reports show difficulties LGBTQ people face
That support is something many who identify as LGBTQ do not feel they receive in their communities.
Over half of LGBTQ Americans say they have experienced violence, threats or harassment because of their sexuality or gender identity, according to a 2017 poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
LGBTQ youth face problems at home and at school, too, according to a 2018 Human Rights Campaign report.
That extensive report states only 24% of LGBTQ youth feel they can be themselves as an LGBTQ person at home, 67% hear their families make negative comments about LGBTQ people, 48% who are out to their parents say their families “make them feel bad” for being LGBTQ and only 27% feel they can be themselves at school.
The report also states that 73% of LGBTQ youth have experience verbal threats because of their identity or perceived LGBTQ identity, while 3 in 10 have received physical threats.
While the LGBTQ Alliance Group’s pride trees have been received mostly positively, there has been one incident, Pirie said, of a tree being torn down.
He said he’s not upset, but “not surprised, either.”
DeLaughter said something like that is probably to be expected.
“We can’t spend all our time and our energy worrying about negative aspects,” DeLaughter said. “Because we want this to be a positive gesture in the community. And hopefully it will start people talking and having conversations and learning more.”
Those conversation would lead to an important realization, Pirie said.
“That’s a big thing that I just wish people knew,” Pirie said. “That we’re just like everybody else.”
Building LGBTQ support in Spencer
The pride trees are a step forward in trying to build awareness and support for the area’s LGBTQ community.
DeLaughter said she is happy so many have wanted their trees decorated or volunteered to help decorate.
“It was gratifying to see people step forward and say, ‘Yes, I want to be part of this,’” she said.
DeLaughter said she hopes the project begins conversations and fosters support for LGBTQ people in the community.
She explained that she’s spent most of her life in Spencer and that, over the years, many of her and her daughter’s friends have left the community because they didn’t feel accepted.
“They had so much to offer,” DeLaughter said. “Gifted in so many ways. Artists, musicians, a lot of people who work in the theater. And we support all of those things here in Spencer, but I feel like maybe we haven’t done enough to support the LGBTQS group because, if they felt accepted, maybe they would stay. And we need diversity here in Spencer, I think, more than ever.”