By Ann Marie Swan
In October, as flames from the Decker Fire lit up the mountainside above Salida High School in rural central Colorado, Zakiah Berry was named homecoming queen of 2019. Dressed in slacks, a button-down shirt, bow tie and a rainbow belt, she was the first gay girl to receive the honor.
The packed football stands held the weight of Berry’s classmates and their families, many of whom had been evacuated as the fire reached into their neighborhoods. They roared their approval of their chosen queen, radiant with a megawatt smile and tight brown curls that cascaded around her crown. Everyone saw Berry that night.
And she saw them, too. When Berry looked up into the crowd, squinting through the Friday night lights, she said she felt joy.
“Everyone in the stands was cheering,” she said later. “I felt really supported.”
Acceptance is difficult to measure or quantify. Yet, what is certain is that rural life can amplify acceptance or rejection, and reactions ripple through communities.
In September 2019, the Movement Advancement Project (MAP), a nonprofit equality think-tank in Boulder, released a nationwide report that found lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, including those of color, in rural areas are more vulnerable to discrimination. The report said public opinion in rural areas, though diverse, is less likely to be supportive of LGBTQ people than in urban areas, and that LGBTQ organizations and communities have less organizing and political power. The nonprofit noted that in rural areas, having fewer people can mean differences are noticed right away.
Additionally, LGBTQ people of color who are struggling with acceptance or coming out have fewer places to turn to for social or legal support, or even basic information. The report found that, generally, spaces that exist may not be able to support the multiple intersecting aspects of someone’s identity; for instance, rural areas are less likely to have resources specifically directed toward LGBTQ youth of color.
The percentage of LGBTQ youth in rural and urban areas is roughly the same. In a separate report in April 2019, MAP pointed to national research that shows, roughly, 10% percent of rural youth identify as LGBTQ—the same as in urban areas.
Salida, a small city of about 5,700 people, is just one of many rural communities across the state—none of them alike. Outdoor adventurers have found a paradise in this former mining and railroad stop. There’s no shortage of art galleries, restaurants and shops in the picturesque Victorian downtown of red-orange brick buildings. Second homeowners discovered Salida and helped drive real estate prices through the roof. Deep pockets of poverty are embedded here, too, and affordable housing is minimal.
Progressives and conservatives contend for the soul of the place. Salida, at the south end of the county, is generally more progressive than Buena Vista, 24 miles north, where churches are the social glue. President Trump carried the county in 2016.
Run the numbers on rural Chaffee County and it adds up to a place short on racial diversity. Of the 20,027 residents, 85.2% are non-Hispanic white; 10.1% are Hispanic or Latino; 1.7% are Black or African American; and 1.7% are two or more races, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Many Chaffee County residents are embracing LGBTQ teens and stepping forward as allies. Still, statewide, the 2017 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey found significant health disparities faced by lesbian, gay and bisexual high school students compared with heterosexual peers: 42% percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual youth reported being bullied, compared with 22% of heterosexual peers.
Nearly two thirds of lesbian, gay and bisexual youth reported feeling sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks, compared with 27% of heterosexual peers. One in five lesbian, gay and bisexual students had attempted suicide in the past year, compared with one in 20 heterosexual students. The list goes on, and includes increased risk of drug and alcohol abuse.
And yet those numbers don’t tell the full story. After all, there’s Berry, who won over Salida high-schoolers’ hearts and was elected homecoming queen.
More and more safe spaces in Salida are popping up, following work started by artists Jimmy Sellars and Mark Monroe, who moved to Salida from Denver in 2015. The married couple started Sellars Project Space’s Partnership for Community Action, creating popular events like Salida Soup, where potluck diners vote on (and fund) projects in the Upper Arkansas Valley pitched by community members.
In 2016, Sellars and Monroe organized the first Pride Parade down F Street, the main thoroughfare in Salida. In 2017, they created Teen Night, a bullying-free, drug-free hangout space with movies, games and conversation.
“And a lot of French fries,” Monroe said. “I mean, a lot.”
Teen Night is open to all kids, no matter their gender or sexual identity.
“We started to realize the need centered around people seeing each other and knowing they exist,” Sellars said. “People tend to pull back much more in a rural community, especially if they think they won’t be accepted.”
For rural kids who aren’t ready to come out, isolation can be sharpened. In micro communities, such as churches and ranches, a fear of not belonging can be magnified multiple times over. Rejection can mean estrangement.
Sellars and Monroe got to know more rural teens when they brought a design collective, an extracurricular class, into the high school to show how the arts can be predominant in business. Teens were invited to write, paint, illustrate or do other creative work. They designed logos and filmed videos. Working with the students, Sellars and Monroe noticed a need for a club for both gay and straight teens. But the school district required a teacher sponsor and the club had to be student-led.
Jane McBride, a former Salida High School student who is now a freshman at Columbia University in New York City, took the lead a couple years ago to become the first president of the Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) at the school.
“At first, it was only two kids,” McBride said. “But by my senior year, we had a turnout of about 15 kids weekly. During the second year, a lot of the kids were out to friends but not to family. The GSA provided a great community for them.”
Some teachers registered their classrooms as welcoming spaces, too.
Sixteen-year-old junior Reece White, the current GSA president, is taking the club further by coordinating with other clubs in Buena Vista and Leadville. GSA is open to any students who want to be supportive and respect the rules of confidentiality, White said.
“Some students have made complaints, including myself, about bullying based on sexuality,” White said. Students come to GSA for safety and emotional support when it isn’t offered elsewhere.
This is tangible progress at the school. But it was important that the rest of the community was welcoming to LGBTQ teens, too.
“We felt that they didn’t have a good understanding of where it was safe for them to go,” Sellars said. He and Monroe contacted business owners and asked whether they would pledge to welcome LGBTQ youth. A list of safe restaurants and shops was compiled by the Ark Valley Equality Network. Promises of protection were made.
Based on the 2017 statewide survey results, though, not enough LGBTQ teens across Colorado are able to do this. Not enough of them have a sense of belonging in their own communities.
There is no singular rural experience, as there is no singular LGBTQ experience.
Salida senior Zeke Hersch, 17, of Salida, identifies as gay and said: “The only time I’ve run into some problems here was when I rode horses and did a bit of rodeo.” The other riders “didn’t like me for doing their thing and not being like them. I heard the occasional ‘faggot’ in the halls, but to me that word means nothing. I brushed it off, and that was mainly freshman year.”
Hersch is an inquisitive person who plays guitar, works out and enjoys thrifting. He spent a year in Copenhagen and hopes to travel to Spain or Mexico to learn Spanish after graduating. This summer, Hersch is planning a road trip with his sort-of boyfriend he met in The Netherlands.
Hersch called his journey coming out as a gay man in Salida surprisingly uneventful.
“I thought everyone would be shocked or have these big reactions,” he said. “But for the most part, they just said ‘okay’ or ‘love you,’ and we moved on.”
Hersch came out to his grandmother first.
“The feeling of relief when you come out is a thousand times better than keeping it a secret,” he said. “I knew I had to tell my parents, but I couldn’t bring myself to it. I was kind of forced to come out to them when my dad found a screenshot of the texts I had sent to my grandma. Randomly, on the same day, my sister told my mom.”
Hersch said his parents were surprised and it took them time to adjust.
“But they’ve been really supportive,” he said. His coming-out post on social media “made it official,” he said.
Hersch said he does feel safe in Salida.
“Of course, I wish there were a larger dating pool,” he said. “But I can’t have it all, right?”
It’s no coincidence that LGBTQ teens who are supported, loved and embraced aren’t just healthier. They have the means to shine.
“All of our programs in the LGBTQ+ arena are inspired by youth at Salida High School,” Sellars said.
Sellars and Monroe’s goal is a kind of normalization—to just be seen and to welcome allies. This led to the start of the couple’s Spectrum Alliance, which hosts casual monthly meetups for LGBTQ families and friends.
The men became trainers of Safe Zone, too. They taught this LGBTQ sensitivity program in workplaces and municipalities in Chaffee and neighboring counties, and educated more than 20 other trainers who then taught more than 300 people.
“We are all about giving people permission to have a different viewpoint that’s a positive one,” Monroe said. “We welcome your brain to change.”
But where were the families of rural LGBTQ kids? Sellars and Monroe weren’t connecting with some of the people they needed to reach most.
“Families come out after their kids do,” Sellars said. “You start to see the picture. People are operating in fear, trying to find their way through it and not destroy their family structure.”
And there’s quite a lot of fear. Sellars mentioned a youth, who won’t be identified here, living at home. This is a triumph. Before conversations with the parents, the youth may have landed on the streets, he said. Instead, a new level of understanding was reached.
Sellars said: “We all see each other. We know we’re not alone.”
For anyone who knows Berry, it’s no surprise she was elected homecoming queen. She plays soccer and basketball, and is a manager of the football team. Berry is biracial; her mother is white and her father is African American. After picking up her lunch tray in the school cafeteria, Berry can turn around and be welcomed at any number of tables. She moves easily among social groups. She likes to talk but has a quiet side, too. And she possesses a kind of confidence that magnetizes other kids toward her.
Growing up in a family of seven kids, Berry was “sort of forced to talk to people,” she said. “That got me comfortable. My parents raised us to be who we are. They’ve always been there.”
After the crowning ceremony, Berry let the other homecoming-queen nominees try on the crown. They passed it around and giggled under its weight. Berry then handed the crown to her mom, Heather, for safekeeping. After halftime, Berry was back on the football field in her managerial position, endzone camera in hand.
The Pagosa Springs Pirates beat the Salida Spartans, 40-7, that night. Above the homecoming game, the flames from the Decker Fire competed for attention. The fire would eventually consume almost 9,000 acres and continues to smolder. And although no one was hurt, the fire was menacing. It torched a couple of cabins, ruined the mountain air quality, drove mountain lions and bears closer toward town, and kept residents in a high state of alert.
But homecoming night was a break from it all. And that night belonged to Berry. She glowed. In fact, she couldn’t be missed.