ROTT AND EAGLE COUNTIES, Colorado – In two Colorado counties proud of their world-class skiing, scenic views, and attracting visitors from around the world, residents of the LGBTQ community have discovered a need for representation and support when they arrived in town.
To combat what they saw as a lack of community, small handfuls of LGBTQ residents of Steamboat Springs and Avon created their own resources and support for others like them, all as volunteer work in more than their full-time job.
“What I feel about queer people in small towns or rural areas is that there’s no sense of community, so you’re very isolated and there’s not a lot of places where we can go and meet people,” said Renzo Walton, founding member of Pride of the Yampa Valley, held in Steamboat Springs. “Some people don’t really know who their neighbors are, and they don’t know gay people, so they’re kind of disconnected from the community, and the visibility is good.”
Yampa Valley Pride – organized for the community of Steamboat Springs and greater Routt County and named for the area’s Indigenous heritage – celebrated its first Pride in 2021 with approximately 150 people dressed in rainbow outfits and supporting rural county LGBTQ members outside the county courthouse.
The area saw record rainfall minutes into the event, but most community members and allies stayed during the event, which organizers took as a sign of support.
“A torrential downpour isn’t exactly what most people want when they think of Pride, so we weren’t sure, but we had such a shocking and wonderful turnout,” said Lexi Gretzgy, another Yampa Valley Pride committee member. “A lot of people I spoke to during the event were excited and thrilled to see this, they said ‘this is my first pride and I don’t miss it.'”
Last year’s event started with a small group of newcomers who came from big cities with more visible LGBTQ communities and wanted those in the small rural town to have similar options.
“In a lot of big cities, there are queer spaces that exist all year round, and we don’t have anything like that here, so we really only have one day a year to occupy space,” said Chelsie Holmes, chair of the Yampa Valley Pride planning committee. “It’s really important, because young people here aren’t really exposed to queer culture except online, so it’s important that they know they’re not alone, they’re not weird and ‘there are successful professional adults like them in this city and their identity is being embraced.
Just south of Routt County in neighboring Eagle County, members of the LGBTQ community had a similar experience of feeling invisible and sometimes unwanted in their homes, leading to their first Pride in 2018.
“Our community needs representation and visibility, and we need to know that there are others like us,” said Madison Partridge, an Avon resident and president of Mountain Pride, held at Avon. “Growing up in a small town in Nebraska, I just wanted to see people like me who were successful adults.”
Eagle County’s first pride was born after a local transgender woman noticed the county had no LGBTQ spaces and wrote a Facebook post inviting other LGBTQ residents and allies to gather at Nottingham Park in Avon. The woman has since left town, but current Pride organizers said her legacy lives on by creating a safe space to celebrate identities.
“When we started as a group, we just wanted to create that representation for our young people and also create a community, so they know they have a safe and welcoming space where they are seen, heard and valued,” added Partridge.
As anti-LGBTQ bills have surfaced across the country, the two pride event organizers said they are focused on showing love to young gay men who often face abuse. bullying and harassment, and may not have adult role models to support them as they navigate their identities.
“I really think it’s important to be proud because it gives kids a little help and tells them not to give up,” said Andi Worthen, who grew up in Steamboat Springs and came out as transgender. in high school.
When Worthen came out as transgender, she said many of her peers didn’t know how to react, she was isolated and bullied by her classmates.
“When people found out I was gay in high school, they immediately took issue and all the religious and homophobic stereotyping continued,” Worthen said. “When I became trans I felt even more alone because it was even more unique than being gay and people understood even less.”
Although Routt and Eagle counties both tend to vote for LGBTQ rights, residents who planned Prides reported experiencing harassment and backlash from other community members.
Last June, the city of Avon hung several rainbow flags around its roundabouts and outside its recreation center to show support for LGBTQ+ Pride Month. Soon after, disgruntled members of the community took down the flags and wrote homophobic letters to the local newspaper. A back-and-forth between residents and Mountain Pride eventually culminated in an emotional Avon City Council meeting where Pride planners discussed why flags were important for representation and visibility.
“We’ve had a bit of a backlash, but this year we’re coming back even stronger and even more united,” said Avon Pride Committee member Orlando Ortiz.
While Ortiz and other Pride committee members said the backlash was hurtful, opposition was heavily drowned out by the support of dozens of county residents writing letters of support to the city council.
In Routt County, planners said the only criticism they received was a few hateful residents posting bigoted comments on internet forums, but the vast majority of community members showed support.
Both counties also plan to expand their Pride events this year, with organizers working to make Mountain Pride its own nonprofit, and Yampa Valley Pride planners working to create a resource center. LGBTQ open year round.
Pride of the Mountain will take place on June 18 at Nottingham Park in Avon, and Pride of the Yampa Valley will be held on June 25 in downtown Steamboat Springs.
Alison Berg is a multimedia reporter at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at [email protected].