For the last few years I have been a volunteer with Just Live, Inc. We are a non-profit organization focusing on depression awareness and suicide prevention. At our annual Labor of Love music festival, held in New Munster, Wisconsin, I met a grieving mother who shared her loss. As a bisexual parent myself, the grief of this mother for her closeted questioning child haunted me. I chose to cope with my emotions by writing a short story focusing on suicide among young queer people. The story is meant to be a wake up call. It’s meant to help us see that words hurt and are sometimes fatal. It’s meant to say I see you and it’s okay if you aren’t okay.
It was my intention to invite advocates from the queer community to this music festival. I know the statistics for depression and suicide in the LGBTQ community. Representation matters and there is comfort and healing when you don’t feel alone. I understand the isolation of living in rural areas where finding people like you feels impossible.
There’s an adage that’s not so old, “if you see something, say something.” It’s meant to wake us up to our surroundings and should compel us to take action. My recent questions asked to local LGBTQ activist and community leader Jody brought that concept to mind but with a twist. “If you see a need, fill a need.” And she’s done just that.
I met Jody through her community website. I reached out hoping that we could share services and resources. This lady turns her words into action. In the last few years She has organized Pride fairs that bring in people from Walworth county and surrounding Wisconsin communities.
Jody has a later in life coming out story. Her identification as transgender was a long carried secret and although she tried to conform to the cisgender world, her heart knew who she was. “I had no choice about being socialized male,” she told me. “It’s almost like brainwashing. Coming of age in the 60s and 70s was the height of non-conformity. There was some comfort in that it was ok to be different.”
Jody’s story holds true for so many LGBTQ people and her bravery is blazing a trail in the rural community of Walworth County, Wisconsin; see a need, fill a need. Being different in small town America is challenging. Being out is only the beginning. When you step away from the safety and anonymity of home life you often feel a deep sense of isolation.
When I attended the 2017 Pride festival that Jody organized, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I imagined a few tables with pamphlets and rainbow swag. There were plenty of both but so much more. I spoke with people from all walks of life, united with pride for who they are or whom they love. I met doctors and nurses who offered health care guidance. I heard stories from students who feel connected and accepted. I also spoke with a few pastors offering the real love that comes without judgment. It’s wonderful what happens when people bravely support others and remind them it’s enough to be themselves.
“We wanted to bring people together in a safe setting of fun and camaraderie,” Jody explained, and she did exactly that. She followed up the success of the 2017 Pride festival with style. The 2018 pride fair managed to line the sidewalks of Veteran’s Square Park, more than tripling the size of the first event.
This year the organizers added a Teen Tent. It was run by and for the young people attending, giving them the space to express their identities with music and activities. The growth from Pride 2017 to 2018 was visible and exciting. I expected to see rainbow swag in every tent but what I felt was full on pride. I wandered around meeting people who share a sense of urgency to end isolation and save lives. “Inclusion is so important,” Jody told me. That’s why the presence of allies at this small town event is critical. Being here, being out and finding community support made the second annual event a smashing success.
It wasn’t without negativity. “In all the years we’ve had events we had our first protestors come to ‘share’ their beliefs about the ‘sins’ of the queer community and organizations that support us.” Jody didn’t want to focus on the hate and disrespect that this group brought to the day, though. Instead she wanted to celebrate the positives of the queer community and allies who surrounded that hate with love.
In 2019, Jody’s organization, LGBTQ of Walworth Country will hold their third Pride fair with hope that more people will attend. Vendors and sponsors are welcome and can visit the website for more information. Jody and her wife will be in leadership roles again, also celebrating forty-five years together in 2019. “To say she’s been supportive would be an understatement.”
LGBTQ of Walworth County is on a mission to embrace diversity without discrimination or judgment and the truth is, because of their courage and commitment they don’t have to do this alone.