While talking about a teenager who committed suicide, Debra Hansen’s eyes filled with tears during the LGBT #RuralPride Summit on Thursday.
Eric James Borges had called Hansen, a College of the Sequoias professor, after he was kicked out of his home for being gay.
He said, “I am literally on the curb in front of my parents’ house,” Hansen recalled. “I have no money. I have nowhere to go. What do I do?”
She and her husband picked Borges up and found him a place to live at a friend’s home. In January 2012, a couple of weeks after Christmas, the 19-year-old hanged himself.
It matters just as much that that kid in San Francisco has the same amount of opportunities and resources as that teen in Visalia.
Hansen said she attended Thursday’s summit to remind people that many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are still struggling to find acceptance, and they need more support.
“We’ve lost a few kids because I don’t think we have a coordinated triage of social services to hold these kids up when they hit crisis,” Hansen said.
Hansen was among 250 people who attended the free 14th LGBT #RuralPride Summit at the Visalia Convention Center. The summit series was started in the summer of 2014 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Center for Lesbian Rights. The Visalia stop was the first time the summit has come to California, and the first time it has been in an area where the economy is predominantly reliant on agriculture, said Ashlee Davis, national director of the LGBT Rural Summit Series with the USDA.
During a number of sessions throughout the day, speakers advocated for better access to resources and opportunities for LGBT people in rural communities, and participants connected with groups and agencies providing services. Sessions focused on topics such as immigration, youth, poverty and health care.
If people will listen, they will begin to understand. These stories are powerful, and they touch your heart.
“I heard at one of our summits before that to be LGBT is one thing – it certainly takes a certain amount of courage to be who you are – but to be LGBT in a rural community means you’re tough,” Davis said. “You have to be tough, because you have to be willing to be not only out there, but to also at times be scrutinized. … Beyond all of that, there’s just the access to services that you can get at these larger metropolitan places that you can’t get (in a rural community), which is critically important to our trans community, to our youth as well, when they find themselves kicked out of their homes and homeless.”
Sage Valdez, 21, co-founder of the Visalia branch of Trans-E-Motion, is among those working to get people help. She knows how it feels to be an outsider. Valdez said that during her years at Santa Monica High School, she was bullied for wearing girls’ clothes, and wasn’t allowed to use the girls’ or boys’ bathrooms.
Of the bullying she experienced: “I was pushed down stairs. I got put into group mobs in a fight, and one big guy choked me out in an arm hold. It was really bad. Guys had to pull him off of me.”
My students who are LGBT still speak of brutal bullying and harassment, not just at school but at home.
At the summit, Valdez helped lead an afternoon session for LGBT youth. She says “not hitting back,” being open, and sharing information and love can change people’s hearts.
Nick Vargas, treasurer of The Source LGBT+ Center in Visalia, reflected on the changes he’s seen in Visalia since he was a student at Golden West High School.
“I feel comfortable now in walking down Main Street holding the hand of the guy that I’m seeing, and we don’t get called out. There’s no harassment,” Vargas said. “People might be thinking something, but that’s a stark change from what it would have been like when I was in high school.”
People are now realizing that we are everywhere, and we belong to pretty much every family.
Jose Granados, executive director of the Gay & Lesbian Center of Bakersfield, hopes more data is available in the future to reflect the large number of LGBT people so more services can be made available.
Thursday’s gathering was the largest LGBT #RuralPride Summit so far.
Davis said, “We’re creating a space for everyone to come and learn more about this issue, about taking ownership of this language, because until we come together like this – and not only come together, but also nurture one another – we can’t beat some of the hateful stuff that still happens out there.”