Here’s a short list of things gay people have to be happy about these days:
The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
A second trouncing of Proposition 8, California’s ban on same-sex marriage, this time, in February, by a federal appeals court.
Same sex marriage endorsements by Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Colin Powell, the NAACP, Jay-Z and even George Bush’s former attorney, Ted Olson.Gay marriage is now legal in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont and New Hampshire.
What all this means for Bend is that this week’s Pride Festival is likely to be busting at the seems as queer people in the area come out in force to celebrate recent victories and reconnect with the LGBTQ community.
“I think we were a completely marginalized invisible silent population,” said Melissa Adams, the new executive director of the Human Dignity Coalition, which is a nonprofit in Bend devoted to advancing equal rights for people who are gay. “And a lot of that has changed on the national level. We’re expecting a really good turnout.”
An unprecedented slate of events and gatherings are happening all over town this week running up to Saturday’s Pride Festival in Riverbend Park. This week of happy hours, wine and cheese receptions and other private gatherings are an indication of the growing vibrancy of the gay scene in Bend, partly in response to the shift in acceptance at the national level, said gay leaders in Bend.
Expectations of a good turnout at Saturday’s Pride Festival can also be traced to an uptick in the number of social get-togethers in town and that’s in large part due to a new group in town managed by Cliff Cook.
Eighteen months ago, Cook sat down in his living room with some friends and decided the gay scene in Bend needed a change.
There weren’t enough events or opportunities for gay people to meet each other.
“We thought, ‘Why aren’t we doing more,’” said Cook. “And we just said, ‘We can— let’s just do it.’”
They came up with Stars and Rainbows, an organization with Facebook and Meetup pages that now offers about ten opportunities per month for people in the gay community to get together.
“It shows that the LGBTQ community is growing and is more interested in events and activities and sharing and being together,” said Cook.
In addition to this new group, the Human Dignity Coalition is also bulking up offerings. With Adams, who holds a masters in social work, now at the helm, the group plans to offer clinical mental health counseling starting later this month. She also envisions a domestic violence shelter for members of the gay community, too.
“I think, in Central Oregon, the last five to 10 years has made a lot of progress for the LGBT community,” said Cook.
Cook remembers that when he came to Bend in the early ‘90s, the Pride Festival was really just a large potluck in a park each year. And a number of attendees didn’t want it advertised.
“We’ve gone from folks not wanting publicity,” he said. “And today they are very comfortable.
But even with recent victories and growth in acceptance, there are still frustrating struggles for gay people in Bend. For instance, they are not allowed to marry in Oregon and gay parents must still pay thousands of dollars to go through processes to legally adopt children they have with their partners.
And there are more annoying things, too. Like that Bend doesn't have a gay bar.
Seven downtown serves that purpose for some young gay people who go there regularly, but the bar does not advertise itself this way and is in no way an exclusively gay bar where people go to connect with other gay people, said people in the LGBTQ community.
“If you want to meet a lot of people from Bend,” said Mike Lovely, a gay man and longtime Central Oregon resident, “go to the bars in Portland.”
Lovely, who has been active in the gay community since moving here in the early ‘70s agrees with Cook that things are improving, but people still feel afraid to hold hands here, he said, adding that discrimination is still alive and well in some quarters.
“It’s still here,” he said. “But it’s better than it used to be.”
Cook, too, acknowledges that there are still challenges, but points to the ever-widening gay community in Central Oregon as proof that life is getting better.
“You know, things have changed,” said Cook. “It’s a much more positive feeling out there now.”