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Organizers Who Are Honoring Pride In Small Towns


June is Pride Month, which recognizes the contributions of LGBTQ Americans to the history and life of this country. And while many big cities are celebrating the return of parades and big storefront displays and some outdoor gatherings, that's not what Pride looks like everywhere. Today we wanted to hear from Pride organizers in smaller cities and rural areas, which don't always get the resources or support that organizers in other places might have. There are lots of voices that represent this experience, so today we picked a few to share their stories with us.

Joining me are Gibran Cuevas, co-organizer of Blount Pride in Maryville, Tenn., which is in Blount County. He runs a support group from LGBTQ youth in Appalachian Tennessee. Gibran, thanks so much for joining us.

GIBRAN CUEVAS: My pleasure.

MARTIN: Tonya Jones is a business person and co-organizer of Pikeville Pride in Pikeville, Ky. She and her wife also serve as foster parents to LGBTQ youth. Tonya, welcome to you.

TONYA JONES: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And Alray Nelson is the founder and organizer of Dine Pride, also known as Navajo Nation Pride, which is in Window Rock, Ariz. It's focused on celebrating the Navajo LGBTQ community. Alray, welcome to you as well. Good to have you with us.

ALRAY NELSON: (Speaking Navajo). Yes.

MARTIN: So I just - do I have this right, that each of you represents a Pride that is fairly new? So I want to hear how you got involved in organizing Pride in your area and why. Gibran, can you start with you?

CUEVAS: Sure. Yes. They've never had a Pride event in Blount County. And we put our - out - our first gay pride event was at a local lesbian-owned and run bar-restaurant-bookstore. And 750 people showed up. And what was really most amazing for me in that evening was that we had some protesters. We had some alt-right protesters and some religious protesters outside of the event. And our youth, our LGBTQ youth was across the street from them. And they were talking back and forth and back and forth. And by the end of the evening, the LGBTQ youth had ordered pizza. The Nazis had left, but the religious people stayed and had pizza with the kids. And they sat down, and they had really great conversation. And that just warmed my heart.

MARTIN: Wow. Tonya, what about you? How did yours start?

JONES: Well, a few years ago, we had some of the neo-Nazis come and do their little rally here in Pike County. And different things had sprung off of that. We've had a woman's march since then. And then a few of us that had participated in things like that got together and talked about Pride. It started out just a very few of us but organized our first Pride, had that in 2018 and then our second in 2019. And, of course, COVID ruined 2020, so this will be our third Pride. But it has just been an amazing experience.

MARTIN: So, Alray, what about you? You founded Navajo Nation Pride in 2017. So tell me a little bit about what gave you the idea and what made you want to do it.

NELSON: You know, it came from a mission that we want to reclaim our sacred knowledge that to be LGBTQIA into spirit since time immemorial, even before Stonewall, our tribal nation was recognizing unions between people of the same sex. We were here already uplifting trans women of color. We're already here fighting for LGBTQ youth. And we were seen as sacred beings. We were revered and honored and part of ceremonies, part of different roles in - within the community. And this - you know, we have roles within our own creation story, as well, for my people. And so it was a matter of reclaiming it, sharing that knowledge and letting people know that it's OK to be who you are and say, like, you know, I matter in this whole thing.

MARTIN: Tonya, what about you? At previous - I know last year was a bust as it was for, you know, everything. But what do you think is the importance of an event like yours? And are there any moments from, you know, previous events that stood out to you? Like, I remember one year, you worked the hugging booth.

JONES: We have had so many that as soon as they see the flags or see anything like that, they just start crying because for the first time in their life, in their hometown or somewhere close to their hometown, they feel accepted. The first year I did the hugging booth and everything, I had a couple come. And there - it was a transgender male. And they came back the next year specifically to find me because I was the first person that made them feel accepted and loved outside of their own home. Their families weren't accepting to them or anything. And I broke down crying, you know, because I'm emotional. It just made me feel that that was my mission, was to make somebody feel safe.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I wanted to ask, how does Pride live on after the month? Like, what - what's the - is there a tail to this? Does the work that you do on a Pride Month, wherever you are, carry on throughout the year? Does it have some meaning beyond the month? Tonya, do you want to start on that?

JONES: I know here where I'm located at, I actually own a small business, too. And I have a lot of customers that come in for the first time, and as soon as they see me, if they've seen me at Pride or saw my picture in the paper for Pride or something, they're like, I know you. I'm safe here. I'm like, yes, honey, you're safe here. And it's just a year-round thing. I'm always trying to do at least something to where - it's either on Facebook or Instagram, at least once a week post something positive out there for people.

MARTIN: Gibran, what about you?

CUEVAS: Definitely it doesn't end in June, especially - like I said, we're constantly trying to help the LGBT community. We're constantly having to deal with these discriminatory bills. So it doesn't stop. And we constantly have the support groups. And we're doing a Pride event in October. Because of COVID, we pushed it to October to make sure more people were vaccinated. And the - you know, the temperature is going to be a little cooler, so we'll be able to do an outdoor event. So Pride isn't just in June. You know, take pride in being who you are all the time.

MARTIN: Alray, final thought from you. What's the tail of this? Does Pride Month have a - have an effect beyond the month itself?

NELSON: Yes, it does. And for the Navajo people and I think for the 570 plus hundred other sovereign nations all across the United States - Navajo Nation being the largest in land mass and by population - you know, it sends an inclusive message that, you know, Pride is not only just about one month. It's also about just every single day out of 300 plus days in the whole year. And we're really proud of how successful that has been.

But in addition to that, we did a lot of things during COVID in regards to, you know, uplifting and making sure that we supported and protected our elderly that identify as LGBTQ, especially those who were really affected in the local nursing homes here on Navajo Nation but also making sure that we get, like, PPE and, you know, food and donations to the most rural areas of our LGBTQ families that lived in different parts of the three states that our nation encompasses.

And it led to a point where, you know, we had to step back and say, you know what? In terms of reflection, where do we see ourselves within the next couple of years, right? And that led to a conversation to where it was full of optimism. It was full of, like, us looking towards the future and saying that, you know, we started a movement. And that movement's not going to end.

MARTIN: That was. Alray Nelson, co-founder and organizer of Navajo Nation Pride, which is in Window Rock, Ariz. We also heard from Gibran Cuevas, co-organizer of Blount Pride in Maryville, Tenn., and Tonya Jones, co-organizer of Pikeville Pride in Pikeville, Ky. Thank you all so much for joining us, and Happy Pride.

CUEVAS: Happy Pride.

NELSON: Happy Pride.

JONES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.