Young people growing up queer in Montana say one of the hardest parts is how truly alone it can feel to be different under the big sky.
For the last seven months, a group of mostly high school students in the Flathead Valley has been trying to change that. They call themselves the Flathead LGBTQ Alliance, and are hosting Ally Night Thursday in Whitefish. The goal is to raise community awareness while providing support and a safe place for kids who are trying to figure themselves out.
"Just in the area we are in, it feels a little more constricting than other areas for members of the LGBTQ community," says Gabe Mahoney. "As a group it was decided that we would help people have a breakaway or a serenity from all of this hatred they may face in their lives."
Mahoney is media coordinator of the Alliance, which is an arm of Love Lives Here, the local affiliate of the Montana Human Rights Network.
"It's just a good way for kids to come together and know they're not the only one like them or that they’re not alone, that there’s people that support them, because before they didn’t really have that," adds LC Schneiter, the Alliance's vice chair.
When the group started back in April, the local newspaper the Daily Interlake published a big story about it. Several months later, that same paper featured a letter to the editor that quoted Bible verses and condemned the group and its parent organization, Love Lives Here.
The Alliance organized a letter writing campaign in response, and the next week, Alliance chair Kedryn McElderry says the paper had a very different opinion page.
"The title of the whole letter to the editor section was “In defense of LGBTQ.” And it was three whole pages of letters people had written in, emails they had sent," McElderry says. "There was a large composed letter from local clergy members that many had signed off on. And then the following week they published a letter in the featured spot from me talking about the Alliance and the work we do, and why this kind of work is important in the Valley."
McElderry says when he started high school, he was one of two openly gay students at his school.
"Bullying was not uncommon," he says. "There were two separate fake Instagram accounts made about me for the purpose of smearing my name and making fun of me. I was pinned up against the wall and attacked in the men's restroom, and that's in a public place, in a movie theater. And then years of dropping the F-bomb, dropping homo at me, that sort of thing. Then coming onto this year, working with the Alliance, it’s become so much more public for me.
"I was followed a total of seven times by seven different groups of people. There was an instance when I drove around my best friend’s neighborhood because I was afraid to get out of my car, because if I got out of my car, then they would get out of their car. And we don’t even need to address what could have happened next. So, the whole idea that we hear about bullying and people just kind of bob their heads at it — it’s a big deal. Especially for the LGBTQ community and the youth. It is a never-ending battle, and in Kalispell, Montana, it’s an uphill battle that every one of us fights every day."
Before the Alliance united queer kids and their families across the Valley, some schools, like Glacier High, had Gay-Straight Alliance organizations. Glacier’s GSA even started hosting AccepDance, an annual alternative prom for LGBTQ students.
"I danced and had fun and I met people but going back to school the next day was, it was like I was all alone again," Walter Pearson says. "It was very hard to, even after coming out of the closet, be myself. And then we formed the Alliance and I’ve never been happier with me or my family or anything like that."
The Alliance meets weekly in Kalispell and is open to students and families across the Flathead Valley. They trade notes about physical safety and mental health and get answers to the questions that leave their parents and friends not knowing what to say.
"My freshman year I didn't have anyone to look up to," Schneiter says. "No adults had the answers and our classes didn't include any of us or our history, especially in sex ed. That sucked."
"You're just constantly bombarded with that girl-boy, straight image," says Willow Whitewolf, not Kyllian Mahoney as previously reported. "And so questioning yourself, why can't I be like that, it makes you question everything about yourself, pretty much."
"How do I tell my dad and my family? How do I do this?" Pearson remembers thinking.
"I just hit the ground with the pride flag running and kind of gave up on that whole being alone thing. Because, as I came to find, there were many, many more LGBT people, you just had to look," McElderry says.
The Alliance hosts Ally Night Thursday, November 15, at 6 p.m. at the Bohemian Hall in Whitefish. The event features raffles and a silent auction fundraiser, live music and a session they’re calling Q and Gay.
Gabe Mahoney says it’s a chance to shake off the illusion of isolation.
"When you come to this group and you know that there are other people who are going through exact same struggles, it's empowering to see all these other LGBTQ students that make you feel not alone anymore and not so isolated," he says. "I think with the scope of how big the world is compared to you, sometimes you take that too much into consideration and think you're more alone than you really are."