HAGERSTOWN, Md. (AP) — Ron Beachley remembers slipping through the side door of a downtown Hagerstown hotel into the Bull Ring, a gay nightclub, in the early 1980s.
“You didn’t want anybody to see you,” he said, “because sometimes at closing, people would get beat up in the street.”
He calls it “mind-boggling” that lesbian, gay and transgender people can celebrate openly in the center of the historically blue-collar city 70 miles from Washington, D.C.
Pride events have been held annually in the nation’s capital since 1975, but change has come much more slowly in smaller communities. Advocates say that only now, after federal court victories legalizing same-sex marriage and affirming other LGBT civil rights, have lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people been able to live openly without fear of discrimination in many small towns.
The proof can be seen in pride festivals and LGBT resource centers popping up across rural America.
There were 252 pride festivals in the United States in 2015, up from 179 in 2014, said Sue Doster, a co-president of InterPride, which tracks and promotes the events.
CenterLink, a network of LGBT resource centers offering everything from legal aid to youth activities, now reaches across 40 states, with a membership that has nearly quadrupled to 170 in the past decade, said CEO Terry Stone.
Tom Nestor said he co-founded the center in downtown Pocatello, Idaho, in 2012, in response to LGBT teen suicides in southeastern Idaho, a conservative, rural region with a large Mormon population. People can visit discreetly, through a coffee shop in the building, or a back entrance displaying a sign and rainbow flag.
Mormon church policy holds that acting on same-sex attraction is a sin, people in same-sex couples can be excommunicated, and their children cannot be baptized until they’re 18 and have disavowed homosexual relationships. Still, Nestor said he’s seen little open hostility.
“I was born and raised in the valley here,” said Nestor, 60, “I never thought I would see gay marriage and a sign that said LGBT on it in the state of Idaho, and now we have both.”
The trend alarms Brian Camenker, executive director of MassResistance, a Waltham, Massachusetts-based group that fights the establishment of gay-friendly student organizations in public schools. He said LGBT centers prey on troubled kids, and pride parades are hyper-sexualized demonstrations by disturbed individuals.
“You’ll see all kinds of abnormal and destructive behavior celebrated,” Camenker said.
Anti-gay sentiment is more often expressed online now, said Gavin Grimm, a transgender 17-year-old in rural Gloucester County, Virginia, who challenged his school district’s bathroom policy and won in federal appeals court. The school district asked the Supreme Court on Wednesday to block Grimm from using the boys’ restroom when school resumes in September until the high court decides whether to review the case.
“The negative people are cowards,” Grimm said. “They sit behind a computer and say whatever they want but that’s as far as they go. The people who support me go out of their way to contact me and reach out in a positive manner.”
Ty Russ, a 15-year-old transgender girl in Hagerstown, said she was confused by sermons at her family’s International Pentecostal Holiness Church.
“Those people were really nice but preached hate,” Russ said.
The denomination declared same-sex marriage “contrary to God’s will,” in a statement last year. Rhonda Smith, business administrator for the church’s Appalachian conference, said by email, “We are not haters nor do we wish to comment” for this story.
Russ heard a different message from Hagerstown Mayor David Gysberts, who told her school’s anti-bullying assembly that he is gay.
“It was just very cool to see someone like a mayor say that in front of a bunch of kids,” she said.
Gysberts said he encouraged organizers to move the pride festival downtown from the county park where it had been held for several years.
“I think this is very good for the community and a positive sign that we’re making progress,” he said.
Former mayor William Breichner made headlines in 2003 when he likened a proposed drag queen pageant in the city to a Ku Klux Klan rally or a hobo convention because of what he considered negative publicity.
Breichner said he’s fine with the pride festival, though: “You know, the times have changed considerably and, naturally, my thoughts regarding that sort of thing of have changed,” he said.
Festival organizer Todd Garnand, 29, is a great-nephew of Ron Beachley, He said he’s never known the kind of hostility that drove Beachley to hide his sexual orientation, and which prompted many of Nestor’s friends to search for acceptance in bigger cities.
“This is my town,” Garnand said. “I was born and raised here. I’m not leaving because I’m different.”
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