On Wednesday night in the basement of the ImagineIF Library in Kalispell more than two dozen students and parents formed a circle of chairs.
They kicked off the meeting with introductions — name, school, preferred pronouns and sexual identity, if they were comfortable disclosing it.
Among them were youth that identified as gay, bisexual, transgendered, pansexual or questioning.
“I don’t know, so I’m here,” one student said, prompting an eruption of laughter among the attendees.
It was the one of the first meetings of the Flathead LGBTQ+ Alliance, a group that formed in late March to provide a safe space for LGBTQ+ young people to socialize and be themselves. The alliance has members ranging in age from 12 to 18 years old, from high schools and middle schools throughout the valley, along with their parents. Some of the meetings are held for students in a chaperoned setting, while others are open to both students and parents. Kids younger than 12 are welcome to attend meetings when parents will be on site.
The alliance meets every Wednesday, sometimes at Imagine IFLibrary, and other times at Colter Coffee in downtown Kalispell and at the Alpine Theatre Project’s Garage in Whitefish.
J.R., from Columbia Falls High School, joined the group because she wanted to help create a culture of acceptance.
“We have a small group of people who are accepting, but a portion of the school is not accepting and the community can be very negative. People may call you names, derogatory terms,” she said. “Sometimes you’re outcast and you’re just not seen as ‘normal.’ It can be very disheartening and a lot of people I know who are in the community self-harm and other things because of it.”
J.R. said groups like the alliance help LGBTQ+ folks not feel so alone by connecting them with others who fall under that umbrella.
“We get to be authentically ourselves, which is definitely awesome, and I’ve met a lot of new people,” J.R. said. “I thought that our LGBT community was a lot smaller than it was.”
Parent M.B. helped get the group off the ground because her junior-high-age daughter, who identifies as questioning, wanted to find a supportive community.
“[My daughter] had nothing at her junior high and we had no sense that it would be welcome there at that time,” M.B. said.
She considered driving two hours down to Missoula so her daughter could attend the Youth Forward, a safe drop-in space for LGBTQ+ youth.
“What she really wanted was to find some tolerant human beings, and I said, OK I can schlep you down to Missoula, but that doesn’t help you with finding friends locally. And that doesn’t help you with your school not having something, so let’s actually try and fix that,” M.B. said.
With help from Love Lives Here in the Flathead Valley and the Gay Straight Alliance at Glacier High School, Flathead LGBTQ+ Alliance was born and held its first meeting on March 21.
“At the first meeting we had like four trans kids come and the looks on their faces when they found each other — I was like, this is what this is for. It really got me right here,” M.B. said, gesturing to her heart. “The feeling of connection, of I’m not alone. You maybe have five or six kids in a school and they don’t know each other and they feel very isolated. But when you get them together here, in a group of 30 there’s a sense of community. It’s easy to think everything is one way because one loud, unpleasant person can make you feel that everyone feels that way. At lot of times, in junior high especially, it’s hard for advocates to speak up or allies to speak up.”
M.B. said the group hopes to host speakers in the near future to cover topics such as suicide among the gay and trans populations, and perhaps address the lack of diversity in school sex education in the Flathead Valley.
“All the sex ed in our schools is heteronormative and it’s abstinence based,” M.B. said. “To somebody who’s not under the heterosexual umbrella, they’re left out in the cold and they get no information.”
G. M., a student at Flathead High School, said he realized he was gay about halfway through seventh grade when puberty hit. He’s been open about his sexuality ever since, but said he enjoys being part of the community that the alliance provides.
“It’s really comforting even for me, even though I’m already out, to have this group of people that I can go to,” G.M. said. “You think you’re all alone … that there’s nobody else that will understand, but in reality, there are people around that will understand.”
Glacier High School student L.S., said that she didn’t have a support community like the alliance when she was coming to terms with her identity as a lesbian.
“I identified as bisexual for a long time before finally I was like, I don’t want to marry a guy. I was 16 — and I was 13 when I started figuring it out,” L.S. said. “None of my friends at the time were into that at all. I didn’t know anybody else like me that was going through that. Really, all I had was the internet. It’s really different from having a personal connection.”
The alliance provides that sense of belonging, but the greater school community isn’t always as welcoming.
“I had a really out gay friend who was working concessions and the entire night they just harassed him about it,” L.S. said. “I can’t get through a single day at school without hearing some kind of gay joke. Any kind of slur. I can’t go a day without hearing that.”
A.S., a student at Kalispell Middle School, who identifies as bisexual, said that treatment at her school has been mixed.
“I feel that there is a lot of acceptance at the middle school, but there could be some people who don’t allow that because of their Christianity, and saying that oh if you’re gay you’re going to be a sin to this world,” she said. “I put it on social media that I’m bisexual and a lot of people started unfollowing me.”
But A.S. knows she can count on the alliance to remain a discrimination-free space where she can openly and unashamedly be her true self.
“What I like best about being in this group is that people are actually open to each other and they’re not afraid to say oh, I’m gay, I’m lesbian, I’m pan or I’m queer,” she said. “I don’t get asked a lot of questions about why I’m bisexual. I just feel free.”
The Flathead LGBTQ+ Alliance will hold their next meeting for youth at 6:15 p.m. on Wednesday, April 25, at the Alpine Theatre Project Garage in Whitefish, 6464 U.S. 93 S. To learn more about the group and upcoming meeting dates, visit their Facebook page by searching for Flathead LGBTQ+ Alliance or follow them on Instagram, @FlatheadLGBTQAlliance.
Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.