Volunteers with Add the Words Idaho attend Twin Falls Pride. Add the Words Idaho is a volunteer-led advocacy group that pushes for legislative protections for the LGBTQ+ community. (Courtesy of Chelsea Gaona-Lincoln)
When Chelsea Gaona-Lincoln began working as an LGBTQ+ activist in Idaho, she said there were only a few pride events available for Idahoans to attend.
“I went to Boise, Pocatello and Coeur d’Alene,” she told the Idaho Capital Sun. “Now here we are trying to schedule out the Idaho Pride events calendar for volunteers because I can’t drive to all of them by myself.”
In recent years, the executive director of Add the Words Idaho said she is seeing more rural areas step up to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community, despite this year’s “grueling” legislative session.
And that resistance and momentum at the local level will continue to grow, Gaona-Lincoln said.
Towns like Sun Valley have celebrated smaller pride events in past years, but this year it hosted its first Pride festival, with many other towns hosting their second or third festival:
- Boise Pride: 1989
- Pocatello Pride: 2000
- Idaho Falls Pride: 2012
- Coeur d’Alene Pride: 2016
- Sandpoint Pride: 2021
- Rexburg Pride: 2021
- Silver Valley Pride: 2022
- Sun Valley Pride: 2023
“If you’re going to a town like Rexburg, and there is a pride celebration, then legislators can’t say that there are no gay and transgender people in that community,” Gaona-Lincoln said. “They’re not going to be able to say that because these events are happening all over the state.”
Gaona-Lincoln said that while LGBTQ+ community events are often focused on taking place in Boise, she said rural LGBTQ+ communities feel a “ripple effect” of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation that has taken place.
Despite recent legislation, Idaho Pride organizers are preparing themselves to deal with anti-LGBTQ+ protesters.
In Rexburg, East Idaho News reported that the local Pride celebration had a significant police presence. Additionally, Pride attendees faced opposition from MassResistance, a national anti-LGBTQ+ group led locally by former Idaho State Representative and Idaho Freedom Foundation policy fellow, Ron Nate.
But anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and protests are not stopping rural Idahoans from celebrating. More of Idaho’s rural towns are showing up for the LGBTQ+ community in ways that didn’t a decade ago.
Creating visibility, rural North Idaho organizers talk LGBTQ+ Pride
Situated between North Idaho’s historical mining district and modern ski attractions, Silver Valley Pride is hosting its second annual Pride festival July 22.
Ali Koski, the founder of Silver Valley Pride, told the Sun that she created the family event to increase visibility and awareness for the LGBTQ+ community and to also educate employers, restaurants, bars and stores about the community.
Hedged between the Bitterroot Mountains and 50 minutes away from Coeur d’Alene, Koski said the Silver Valley LGBTQ+ community is significantly underserved.
“There’s no resources easily accessible as far as mental health or LGBTQ+ support, and a lot of people move out of the valley because they’re afraid to just exist,” she said in an interview.
Koski said the biggest struggle for LGBTQ+ community in rural areas is acceptance in their surrounding communities.
“For LGBTQ+ youth, I think acceptance both at home and in the classroom is the biggest struggle,” she said. “In rural schools, they still don’t have inclusive language, and they don’t have inclusive practices.”
Koski said Silver Valley schools are 20 years behind city schools when it comes to creating an LGBTQ+ environment.
And for LGBTQ+ adults living in rural areas, Koski said many people don’t feel comfortable coming out because they fear losing their jobs and would rather relocate.
Koski said rural community members already struggle getting access to mental health and addiction counseling
“Rural areas are already predisposed to alcoholism and drug use, and we don’t have access to mental health services,” Koski said. “These people just want services, but they can’t get them without driving 45 minutes to see a counselor, and they can’t talk to a primary care physician that might be gender affirming without driving at least 45 minutes and waiting for six months.”
Koski said she believes Idaho’s core values are accepting of the LGBTQ+ community.
“Living in Idaho is all about getting to do what you want to do and your neighbor getting to do what they want to do,” Koski said.
In addition to Silver Valley Pride, Sandpoint Pride is in its third year hosting the event.
Andrea Marcoccio, the lead organizer of Sandpoint Pride, told the Sun that event organizers are mindful that they are experiencing a “historic time” where the region is politically divided by “irrational hostility and acts of violence.”
According to Idaho State Police hate crime data, 15 out of the 50 reported hate crimes that took place in 2022 targeted the LGBTQ+ community — second only to racially-motivated crimes, of which there were 23 reported incidents.
Marcoccio said she understands safety concerns related to pride events in rural areas, but she said the event is meant to welcome and celebrate the LGBTQ+ community’s contribution to society and to support their rights.
“We have learned that we as a community keep ourselves safe when we act in partnership as individuals, community organizations, businesses, and public officials,” she said in an email. “We believe the vast majority of people want to live in safe, respectful communities. Sandpoint has always been a place of community — working together to solve problems.”
Watchdog group creates ‘Protecting Pride’ guide for LGBTQ+ organizations
As pride organizations prepared for and led their regional celebrations, one organization stepped in to offer guidance to Idaho pride organizers concerned about safety.
The Western States Center is a national civil rights group based in the Pacific Northwest that monitors organized bigotry and anti-democracy movements and works to counter their influence in the region.
This year, the organization released a ‘Protecting Pride,’ guide offering pride organizers across Idaho tips to secure their events and work with local governments, businesses and local organizers.
Kate Bitz, a program manager at Western States Center, told the Idaho Capital Sun that the guide helps pride organizers set clear expectations for attendees and offers a code of conduct to keep attendees safe and prevent escalation. The guide also offers insight to vendors who may not be familiar with being targeted.
“The guide consists of the voices of organizers giving concrete advice to folks who are coming in and celebrating their communities first, second, or third pride this year,” she said. “There are so many smaller communities who are just starting to celebrate Pride and just starting to make that space.”
As a way to disincentivize anti-LGBTQ+ protesters from attending North Idaho Pride Alliance’s celebration in Coeur d’Alene, Bitz said the Western States Center donated $10 for every anti-Pride flyer or protester found at the event, allowing the organization was able to donate $500 to the local pride alliance.
What are anti-democracy movements in Idaho? Expert talks
While pride organizers in Idaho have been wary of celebrating pride after members of white nationalist group Patriot Front planned to riot at last year’s North Idaho pride event, Bitz said pride organizers also have had serious safety concerns this year related to anti-democracy tactics.
Challenges to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression are concrete indicators of an anti-democracy movement, Bitz said.
“From attacking the freedom of expression of LGBTQ+ people, attacking democratic and civic institutions — like the library system and contesting the freedom to read — there’s a lot of things embedded within those ideals that really do not square with the First Amendment or other constitutional protections,” she said.
Bitz said anti-democracy groups also tend to use intimidation tactics to prevent parts of the community from expressing themselves.
“If we’re seeing in increasing unease amongst people in a community to even have some of these discussions openly and bring their points of view to bear because at every single public meeting, they’re having cameras pressed in their face, they’re being called discriminatory terms, or speaking out leads to being put on blast with inaccurate and even defamatory ways on local alternative news sources, that is all an indication of that anti democracy grounds,” she said.
Idaho is unique because of the increasing stranglehold that anti-democracy groups have in local politics, Bitz said.
“We’re seeing an increasing opening in local politics to people who are involved with bigoted and or white nationalist groups,” she said. “There are some serious concerns about Idaho becoming a beacon to anti-democracy and even white nationalist leaders or personalities – especially leaders who have moved to Idaho since 2020.”
While they are often associated together, the term anti-democracy contrasts with white nationalism, Bitz said.
White nationalism traces back to the Civil Rights Movement era when people, who referred to themselves as segregationists, turned to the idea to turn a portion of the U.S. or the entire country into a white ethno state.
Bitz said that support from local institutions like city councils and local businesses are meaningful ways communities can protect the LGBTQ+ community.
“There are many Idahoans who have very deep roots in the area that are committed to organizing for a better and more inclusive Idaho,” she said, adding Coeur d’Alene Mayor Jim Hammond’s Pride Month proclamation was a step in protecting the region’s LGBTQ+ community.
“That really shows how the support of local institutions makes a difference when we’re talking about support for the LGBTQ+ community and any marginalized community,” she said.
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