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OZARKS COMMONS: Pride in our community


The very first week after I moved to this beautiful area with my family 12 years ago, I forgot where I was.

We were paying at the register in Walmart, and I absently and playfully grabbed my sweetheart’s hand for a quick squeeze. Immediately, I felt eyes boring into the back of my neck and remembered, “I’m not in Kansas anymore.”

I turned around, and there, standing three checkout lanes down from me, was a gentleman of very muscular build, about my height, wearing a shirt with cutoff sleeves, lifting his mirrored sunglasses to their perch on top of his head. He made eye contact with me and held it.

And slowly, slowly, his face spread into a grin, as if to say, “I’ve been waiting my whole life to see this moment.”

A moment in which a pair of lesbians so in love felt safe enough to be who they were in their small-town Walmart. To absently hold hands just like any other couple so in love.

A few years later, in a single weekend, my wife and I were stopped by a sweet older lady who wanted to just take a moment to smile at us and praise the love we obviously have for each other, and then the very next day, as I sat sipping my coffee early on a Sunday morning, I watched a pair of neighbors, up to that point unknown to me to be gay, share a quiet, tender moment as they watched the sunrise together.

This is what Pride is all about.

Sure, it can be flamboyant and loud and glittery — it’s a celebration, after all. But it’s a celebration of the fact that LGBTQIA+ people — folks who are lesbian, gay, transgender (trans), questioning, intersex, asexual or gender nonbinary — can live their lives on their front porch and in their neighborhood markets without fear of jail, death, or worse.

As I witnessed a good friend explain to someone fearful of what Pride could be, “Pride is a sigh of relief.”


Pride is typically celebrated in June because it commemorates the anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. Stonewall happened on June 28, 1969, when patrons of a gay bar in New York City resisted a police raid, sparking riots that became a pivotal moment in the LGBTQIA+ rights movement.

At that time — a mere 55 years ago — it was criminal to be lesbian, gay or transgender. Police would arrest women for not wearing at least three pieces of “feminine clothing,” or anyone dressed in full drag (men or women dressed in clothing associated with the opposite gender, often for entertainment). Of course, that’s not to leave out transgender men and women who found comfort in being able to express their authentic selves in places like Stonewall, even at risk of peril to life and liberty.

Flash forward just 20 years to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I am old enough to know people who died in that epidemic and to have heard the utterly heartbreaking stories of AIDS victims, many of whom were young men in their 20s, dying alone and calling for their mothers while fearful hospital workers handled them with gloves if they touched them at all. Visitors were restricted because the disease’s mode of spread was not well understood. The loved ones who did show up were often not allowed to touch the remains of a victim once death staked its claim.

Enter ACT UP, an organization that actively fought against — and still fights — the stigma against HIV/AIDS, pushing for better legislation, medical research and treatment and advocacy for patients, and again pushing the movement forward.

Too often, the HIV/AIDS crisis was used to further stigmatize the LGBTQIA+ community. ACT UP gave us a platform as a society to understand that HIV/AIDS can happen to anyone — 9-year-old hemophiliacs receiving blood transfusions, like Ryan White, and wealthy, straight, professional athletes through unprotected sexual intercourse, like Magic Johnson, and everyone in between. In doing so, ACT UP stepped the LGBTQIA+ community up another rung on the social ladder.

Just a couple years later, in 1993, Brandon Teena, a transgender man, was raped and murdered in Nebraska, spurring a blockbuster movie, “Boys Don’t Cry,” that came out one year and 10 days after Matthew Shephard was left for dead on a fencepost in Wyoming after having been beaten and tortured for being gay. He was 21 when he died. Teena was, too.

When Matthew’s story broke headlines and Brandon’s story took to the silver screen, I was on the cusp of adulthood myself, and grappling with my own identity — not fully realizing I was lesbian yet, but knowing somehow that these horrible things happened to “my people.”

Around this time, celebrities started coming out of the closet. Greg Louganis. Ellen Degeneres. Rosie O’Donnell. These were tremendous acts of courage. And those first steps led to a generation of young adults and teenagers having visible role models, thereby setting us up to become visible role models ourselves.

Which is important. Why?


According to the Trevor Project, a national nonprofit founded in 1998 focused on preventing suicide among LGBTQIA+ youth, young people in that community between the ages of 13 and 23 are four times more likely than their straight, cisgender peers to attempt — not consider, attempt — suicide.

In Missouri, according to the state Department of Mental Health and its Missouri Student Survey, as of 2018, LGBTQIA+ youth are five times more likely.

Nationally and statewide, numbers are likewise significantly higher for LGBTQIA+ youth and young adults who report substance abuse or misuse, and symptoms of depression and anxiety.

What brings those numbers down? According to the Trevor Project, the same thing that makes everyone feel better: acceptance and support, affirming spaces, representation in community, education and awareness. Youth who reported having affirming spaces at home or at school, who reported being accepted for who they are, reported statistically significantly fewer suicide attempts.

When nearly half of our LGBTQIA+ youth have considered ending their own lives within the last year, as Trevor Project Reports, and further half of them actually try it — and remember, these statistics are only compiled from the responses of those who lived to tell about it — that is a terrifying picture.

Let me really drive it home. If we accept a Gallup poll result from 2022 that indicates 7.1% of U.S. adults identify as LGBTQIA+ and apply it to the West Plains High School graduating Class of 2024, we could conclude that roughly 20 of those Zizzer alums are part of the “alphabet brigade.” Of them, statistically speaking, 10 are likely to have thought of suicide in the last year. And of them, five are likely to have tried it. And thankfully, to date, they are presumably all still with us.

This is why visibility and community spaces matter.


It’s not about rubbing “our lifestyles” in your faces. Fact of the matter is, our lifestyle doesn’t look so different from yours. We have cats, dogs, kids, work full-time jobs, look out for our neighbors, same as you do. We love to go off-roading and floating the river. We buy our groceries in the same places you do; many of us attend church every Sunday and listen to the same sermons you do.

Pride is an act of rebellious self-love. It is the byproduct of a community so torn apart by grief, the kind of grief that brings people together for comfort and solace but is also completely unnecessary on a humane level. It is the result of that same community, fed up, declaring that joy and thriving in the face of adversity is reason enough to celebrate. Existing is reason enough to celebrate.

We in West Plains are incredibly fortunate in that we have a long list of businesses that are openly supportive of the LGBTQIA+ community, and our friends, neighbors and coworkers have our backs. We have businesses owned, operated and managed by members of that community.

A support group for LGBTQIA+ adults, Folx, meets from 5:30 to 6 p.m. every Monday downtown in a building just off the Avenue which proudly displays our flag in its window. I hear from former residents who cannot believe that the place where they grew up has become such a welcoming community.

My wife and I have never felt anything but loved and accepted here.

There are a few who are afraid. They equate drag shows with burlesque stripteases and to hear them tell it, Pride is an all-out Bacchanalian affair rife with drunken debauchery — won’t someone think of the children?

We are thinking of the children, every day. That’s why, at West Plains’ first Pride event this weekend in Galloway Park, there will be allies giving out hugs to anyone who needs them, pancakes for breakfast on Sunday — Father’s Day — and stories read, face-painting and games for the whole family.

I hope to see you at Pride, which will from noon to dark today and Sunday at Galloway. Join us. Even if it scares you. Drop by, take it all in with an open mind, and claim a hug from an ally or a drag queen if you’re up for it. We would love to have you.

After all, you deserve to be celebrated, too.

As always, I love to hear from you, even when we disagree. Let me know your thoughts by emailing abbyh@westplainsdailyquill.net or give me a call at 417-256-9191.