As the hate group RV Saltshakers and other bigots step up their protests and attacks, some in the LGBTQ community are seeing an increase in harassment and intolerance
By Brad Smith
JACKSON COUNTY, Ore – Tyler should be a happy young man: He loves his home, loves his job and is deeply in love with someone.
He should feel safe – but doesn’t.
“There are times when I’m out in public, I feel like something bad could happen,” he said. “There are times when I feel so wary and uneasy, I can’t allow myself to relax or have fun.”
Tyler is gay. Openly gay. For him and others who belong to the LGBTQ community here in southern Oregon, it’s not a very easy thing to be. “I knew who I was early on. I just knew,” he said. “I accepted it and was fine with who I am. However, many in my family didn’t handle that very well. There was a lot of hostility and religious indoctrination. It was for me, emotionally, very brutal. I’m still coping with PTSD from that time of my life.”
According to studies published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), family rejection is strongly associated with mental health problems and suicidality, substance use, and sexual risk. Not surprisingly, parental rejection is linked to increased depression, suicidality and substance use among LGBTQ youth.
The research also states:
“It is important to note that those LGBTQ youth who do perceive strong support from their families tend to have better mental health and lower risk of substance abuse and – to a lesser extent -- sexual risk behaviors. The presence of parental support in the lives of LGBTQ youth indicates that parents and their children were resilient in the face of coming to terms with the teen's LGBTQ identity, which is often a significant stressor for both parents and teens.”
That wasn’t the case for Tyler.
“I’ve become the black sheep of the family,” he said with a laugh. “Some relationships with my family have been very strained and show no signs of changing. However, things have gotten better with other family members. It’s been a slow process but it’s progress nonetheless.”
Over the past year, he has found love.
“Meeting Eli is the best thing in my life. I love my job and I do have friends – but there was something else missing. That was Eli. Having them in my life made all the difference. However, there was a slight problem. Well, it was a problem for my family when they learned Eli is Black.”
It didn’t go well. Tyler said some of his family were “very outraged” upon learning Eli was Black. There was angry outbursts or tense, judgmental silence.
“I guess they felt that I’d gone out of my way to piss them off,” he said. “It’s upsetting because it seems that no matter what I do, or who I am, they’re not happy and they want to make me feel miserable.”
Eli’s family is unaware of the relationship.
“Based on what we experienced with my family,” Tyler said, “Eli and I are taking a more careful approach. It’s frustrating for us but it’s what we have to do.”
Eli, Tyler added, has been dealing with prejudice as well.
“It’s like this: We’ll be walking down the street and a white person gets out of their car. They look at Eli, stop, turn around and lock the doors. Sometimes, they don’t hide their fear and hate. You can clearly see it on their faces. It makes me sick.”
There have been times when Eli visited Tyler, as they drive through the neighborhood, someone stopped them and demanded why they’re in the neighborhood or who they’re seeing in the area.
“People have used their big pickup trucks to block Eli’s car and then comes the shouting, the threats,” Tyler said. “Or people will be on the sidewalks or in their yards, yelling and screaming at him. In my neighborhood, there are more than a few Trump signs or flags, Blue Lives Matter signs or Confederate flags.”
Tyler said that he and Eli have talked about moving elsewhere.
“We’re looking at Talent or Ashland,” he said. “Someplace where we’ll feel relaxed and safe. Safer, I should say. We don’t want to leave the area; this is our home and we do love it here. I don’t want to do that.”
Tyler and Eli aren’t the only ones who feel unsafe in southern Oregon.
A few years ago, the LGBTQ+ Community Survey was developed by the steering committee of the LGBTQ+ Listening Project – a group of queer and trans folks in Jackson and Josephine Counties in southwestern Oregon who came together with the leadership of Rory Meza in 2019.
The survey’s aim was to learn more about the needs of the LGBTQ+ community and the resources available in southern Oregon region. It was developed between February and June 2020, released in July 2020 and remained open until Oct. 31, 2020.
According to the survey information, more than 550 people responded. Reading the survey, it was troubling to learn that over 86 percent of those who answered felt “like they need to leave the area to live a good life.”
Here are some of the comments:
· “Many people tell me I need to move to Portland or Eugene to feel more welcome.”
· “Grants Pass is a very hard and dangerous place for non-straight, non-white people to exist and it's hard to get the money saved to move away due to unlivable wages, especially for non-white people.”
· “My transfemme friend is about to move away, and another transwoman in the community also left for Baker City. She carries a gun because she never feels safe here. I think queer folks here are incredibly resilient and interesting and I would like our stories to be more known without putting anyone at risk.”
· “This area is an absolutely beautiful place to live, but the “open mindedness” extends only as far as white supremacy and privilege has shown through experience. You can’t meditate away oppression. People here are completely unaware of the BLM movement and revolution needing to continue happening throughout our country and the world, and people here (as a generalization) are completely ignorant to queer history and culture.”
· “Thanks for trying. I moved here from California because I couldn't afford to live there anymore and it's been a pretty depressing transition, having such a toxic atmosphere to try and survive in. I hope it gets better.”
· “Recent protests have brought out alt-right white men with their guns. I don't feel safe at all anymore. Can't imagine what QPOC people feel right now.”
· “I moved here for my ex’s job and got stuck here. I’ve been wanting to get out every day since. Having a community would make a big difference in feeling like this place was even somewhat politically acceptable.”
But there was more troubling data, several indications on how serious of a problem southern Oregon has with bigotry and harassment.
- 77 percent of people reported “feeling like you have to move out of the area to meet your needs or live a good life” at least once. 47 percent of people reported feeling this way frequently or somewhat frequently.
- 80 percent of people reported “feeling unwelcome at a public event or in a public space because of your sexuality, gender or appearance” at least once. 32 percent of people reported feeling this way frequently or somewhat frequently.
- 73 percent of people reported “harassment or bullying because of your sexuality, gender or appearance.” 25 percent of people reported feeling this way frequently or somewhat frequently.
- 83 percent of people reported “feeling you need to hide or change your sexuality, gender, or appearance to avoid harassment or discrimination” at least once. 42 percent of people reported feeling this way frequently or somewhat frequently.
- 32 percent of people reported “being targeted, harassed, or treated with unnecessary force by police because of your sexuality, gender or appearance” at least once. 9 percent of people reported having this experience frequently or somewhat frequently.
- 45 percent of people reported “being threatened with or experiencing physical violence because of your sexuality, gender or appearance.” 12 percent of people having this experience frequently or somewhat frequently.
Little over a month ago, Tyler said he “felt being under pressure and depressed.”
He voluntarily checked himself into a hospital for a 72-hour mental health evaluation. During that time, Tyler said he was able to “sort things out” and think about his life.
“I’m glad I did that, I needed to do that,” he said. “I felt on the edge and needed to get help. It was scary but Eli and a few other friends were there for me. They helped pull me back from the edge. I’m very fortunate. Some aren’t that fortunate.”
It’s a sad, sobering reality. According to the Trevor Project, suicide is a serious problem within the LGBTQ community, especially among younger people.
Here are the facts:
- Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people aged 10 to 24 (Hedegaard, Curtin, & Warner, 2018) – and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth are at significantly increased risk.
- LGBTQ youth are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers.
- The Trevor Project estimates that more than 1.8 million LGBTQ youth (13-24) seriously consider suicide each year in the U.S. – and at least one attempts suicide every 45 seconds.
- The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that 42 percent of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth.
It's a lot of information to absorb but that’s the seriousness of the problem. Tyler realized how dangerously close he was to having an emotional breakdown or even suicide. He had a loving partner and a network of close, personal friends who cared for him.
Some aren’t that lucky.
“Have things gotten better? Yeah, some progress has been made. Some,” Tyler said. “But it can always get better. And there’s a lot of uncertainty – especially here. We have a lot of hateful people here in the valley and I worry more will join them. As I said before. Eli and I don’t feel safe here.”
As of this writing, the two plan to move. Ashland or Talent are looking like safe places for them. They’ve even talked about Portland. However, Tyler said the last few times he and Eli were in Ashland, they were met with “unfriendly stares” from people on the streets or in restaurants.
“It was a very unpleasant vibe. Shocking, too. Maybe Ashland isn’t safe, not anymore. Are we safe anywhere? The thing is, I was born here,” Tyler said. “This is my home and the thought of me being forced out of my hometown really pisses me off. I want Eli and I to be safe and happy. That’s all I want for us.
“Is that too much to ask for?”
Those seeking help or question can contact the Rogue Action Center here.