At the Youth Pride Prom at Merchants Hall on June 22, Tonya Durant said kids were shy about dancing at first, just like any school event. The difference was they had three drag queens to get the party started.

Durant, the venue’s general manager, was one of those drag queens. She co-hosts the monthly drag shows as Anita Cocktail, and helped organize the prom for LGBTQ youth. Durant felt the dance was a hit, with 40 students in attendance.

“You could see friendships forming and walls coming down.

“It was a really awesome thing to witness,” she said. “It was a great time for all that were there, the kids, the parents, the performers, the volunteers — all there to celebrate life, togetherness and being true to oneself.”

Kamryn Eatherton, who performs as Bethadone Clinique, called the prom a “life-saving event.” Citing the increased risk of bullying that LGBTQ kids face, he said they need places where they feel accepted.

Eatherton moved to Vermont two years ago and said Rutland lacks a central organization that plans events for LGBTQ folks of all ages, as well as a designated space for such events to happen. These barriers make it harder for the local LGBTQ community to organize.

TJ Wierzbicki, who co-hosts the drag shows as Amy Leigh Celestial, grew up in Rutland and agreed with Eatherton’s assessment.

“I know of people who are gay, and I hang out with them, but there’s not any one space for us to really do anything,” Wierzbicki said. “There’s no events for us to all do something, there are no places to go.”

A place to gather

The lack of explicitly LGBTQ-friendly spaces in Rutland is part of what drove Durant and Wierzbicki to bring drag to Merchants Hall, and their show is popular with people of all ages and identities.

“Everybody gets along, it’s like a big family,” Durant said.

“It’s great to see the younger and the older generations come together to have a good time.”

The performers hope the show will boost LGBTQ visibility.

“The culture is here, but it’s hidden,” Eatherton said. “This is the first LGBT-friendly thing that I’ve seen at all, and it’s taken off.”

Their platform also comes with the responsibility of maintaining it on behalf of their audience, many of whom have come to count on the drag show as an opportunity for self-expression.

“If we want it, we have to do it,” Eatherton said. “You need to have the people who will constantly put in the effort to make it happen. It’s like a second job.”

The show’s organizers do everything including advertising, ticket sales and decorating.

“We’re busy with our regular jobs, and yet we’re still doing this because it’s important,” Durant said. “It’s something that we really need around here.”

The drag queens aren’t alone; Karly Haven has been organizing events with Rutland LGBTQ+ MeetUp since she took over the group in March 2018. She advertises on Facebook and the site MeetUp.

“I’ve had people come from all over the state for my events,” she said. “There’s a large need for community in the southern parts of Vermont. I know Burlington has the Pride Center and lots of events, but the rest of the state, we’re lacking in that.”

According to Haven, the lack of LGBTQ community can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“People tend to be involved in other events with their employers or with their family and so the LGBTQ groups have always fallen second to those other things in their lives,” she said.

This can lead to low attendance at events, as Andrew Hamling learned when he became one of the group’s co-hosts last August.

“At many of the events I’ve attended, one or two people show up,” he said. “We did this pancake breakfast, and Karly got all this food, and then only two people showed up. It’s a little disheartening.”

However, Hamling believes consistency is key.

“With the more events that we create, the better the likelihood that somebody is going to say, ‘Hey, this group is still going, maybe I’ll go.’”

Much like the drag show, Haven believes her group offers heightened visibility for the LGBTQ community.

“I think visibility matters because throughout history, LGBTQ people have been so persecuted and discriminated against,” she said. “When you’re visible in the community and you have people standing with you, it’s really good to feel empowered in your community.”

Supporting youth

The lack of programming also affects LGBTQ youth, something that adults are trying to change. Dre Trudeau, a case manager at Rutland Mental Health, plans to start a support group for LGBTQ youth in September.

“Our target is going to be middle school- to high school-aged individuals because we don’t exactly know what the demand is,” Trudeau said. “I want to have a space that’s kind of like a drop-in space for kids to be as comfortable as they need to be, and know that even if their family members or extended family members don’t accept them, they have support to help them get through this difficult time in their lives.”

Another organization that works with LGBTQ youth is Outright Vermont, which offers training and development programs to communities around the state. They also host Friday Night Groups in partnership with local LGBTQ adults, which Executive Director Dana Kaplan said would be an option in Rutland.

Kaplan said adding programming in Rutland is a priority for Outright. Given data from the 2017 Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), which showed poor mental health outcomes for LGBTQ youth in Rutland and across Vermont, Kaplan said Outright will continue to expand its reach.

“[The data] tells me that getting into Rutland County and having LGBTQ resources and groups for youth is a really high priority for our organization,” he said. “All of that data is just screaming hurt. People who are being hurt and who are being failed by our system and our state and that’s what we want to change.”

Many teachers at the local schools are also working to support LGBTQ youth. At the high school, where the Gay-Straight Alliance faded from lack of participation in spring 2018, the New Neighbors club hopes to take up the mantle next fall. Jennie Gartner, the club’s adviser who also advised the GSA a few years ago, believes that schools play an important role in supporting LGBTQ students.

“We need to do for our LGBTQ youth what we would do for any youth, which is support them and listen,” she said. “As a school, we have a moral obligation to support students both emotionally and academically.”

There is a parallel effort at Rutland Middle School, where music teacher Allie Griffiths meets with a group of LGBTQ students and allies. The group, which started in February, has about 30 members.

“What kids need to hear in middle school is that there are adults who will help them and who care,” Griffiths said. “I wanted the kids to know that there’s a long line of people behind them and they’re standing on these people’s shoulders.”

The group discusses gay rights leaders such as Harvey Milk, and watches movies about the gay rights movement. Griffiths also passed out stickers for teachers to put on their doors, which signal to LGBTQ students where they have allies. In June, students put up pride posters.

“Pride month was really special because this was the first time that a lot of them felt pride,” Griffiths said. “That’s huge, to know that you have a community and you’re not alone.”

Looking forward

Many organizers in the LGBTQ community referred to feeling burned-out sometimes, as they create programming without much institutional support. However, they all expressed their desire to continue their work, including planning more events celebrating pride next year.

“We want to start a parade in this area, a place where people can be themselves and be proud of who the hell they are, and not have to hide in the shadows,” Durant said.

In light of the Pride Prom’s success, Durant and her fellow drag queens plan to start a regular monthly show for teens. The shows will be a tamer version of their 21-and-over performances.

“We hope that we can get even more of our younger community to attend these teen nights,” Durant said. “There is not anywhere else that kids have to go. Not just the LGBTQ kids, but kids in general.”

Durant said the next teen event will be a drag show and dance party on July 20 with the theme Great Gatsby. This will mirror their July 7 performance for adults with the same theme.

Eatherton said there is power in gathering and celebrating identity.

“I think that our screams would be so much louder than the bigots and the people that are against this stuff,” he said. “I think we have a lot more of the community than we think.”

sarah.asch

@rutlandherald.com

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