Gay community reflects on year's milestones at Richland Pride event

Tri-City HeraldJuly 21, 2013 

— With landmark Supreme Court decisions and the legalization of same-sex marriages in Washington this year, the Mid-Columbia Pride theme of “It’s Time!” for the event’s seventh year “just felt right.”

That’s according to the group’s president Christie Oar, as more than 150 people gathered Sunday at John Dam Plaza in Richland to celebrate and cap off a week of Pride events.

“It’s time to be recognized. It’s time to be equal,” said Oar, 44, of Richland, who reflected on coming out in the 1980s. “It was a scary time out here. If you worked at Hanford and they thought you were gay, they could fire you because they considered it a national security risk.”

Janet Pierce, 59, pastor at River of Life Metropolitan Community Church in Kennewick, remembered having to lie about her sexual orientation to serve in the Army from 1975-78, teaching Chinook helicopter repair. Pierce said she came out when she was 19 years old and has seen a lot of change since participating in rallies during the 1970s.

“I don’t think I could have envisioned that you could get married in any state or in the country,” she said. Pierce married Cindy Stratman, 55, in 2004, but had to do so in Canada. She said that before the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, there were legal complications with insurance and Social Security.

“It’s really been the legal benefits that make the difference,” she said.

The gay community has seen social changes as well. Community organizer Mark Lee, former director of the now-defunct Vista Youth Center, talked about a Tuesday Pride gathering of about 60 professionals at a local winery.

“We were looking at each other, and said, ‘Six years ago, this would have never happened,’” he said, remembering other restaurants and businesses refusing to host Pride events. And while Lee said the community has made great strides, he also noted the recent controversy when Arlene’s Flowers in Richland refused to provide flowers for a gay wedding.

“Social movements take longer than the legislative movements,” he said.

Still, the younger participants realized how different mainstream attitudes are toward the gay community.

As Crystal Gilson, 18, of Kennewick, led Sunday’s Pride parade with her girlfriend Rachael Gilmore, 19, of Pasco, they held hands and carried a rainbow flag alongside the American flag.

“It’s time for us to walk down the street holding hands without getting yelled at or getting those evil kind of eyes,” she said. David Laughery, 31, of Richland, said he dropped out of high school due to bullying.

“Now that you have support groups, it’s easier for children to come out and the suicide rates are down,” he said. And after moving Pride events from Pasco to Kennewick and finally Richland last year, Oar said that Pride may have found its permanent home.

“The city of Richland has been absolutely fabulous from top to bottom,” she said.

Oar also wants the event to keep growing and become more involved in the community, not just during Pride week. She noted her group’s fundraising efforts and hopes to get involved all over the Tri-Cities — not just at events for the gay and lesbian community.

“We give to the community; we’re just not visible as a community,” she said.

-- Kai-Huei Yau: 509-585-7205; kyau@tricityherald.com

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