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Guest Column: The Closeted Valley

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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Pioneer Valley is still trying to come out of the closet. In the past Western Mass. has led in many aspects of LGBTQ progress—from the champions in Springfield who stood for ENDA in its earliest days, to the activists in Northampton whose passions became a symbol for LGBT pride nationwide, to the Berkshires that showcased the artistic talents of our community for generations.

Yet, to those raised here and those who have chosen to make this region their home, there is a troubling trend in our future, despite our past. We are in a unique moment in LGBTQ history. The country is marching forward on issues of marriage, inclusion in the military, protections in the media and job discrimination. The LGBTQ community is seeing unprecedented progress, but regionally we are seeing a different type of history-making.

We host one of the most notorious anti-gay advocates in the world, who has opened a coffee shop in the heart of Springfield and is now running for governor. There have been spikes in bullying students perceived as LGBTQ in high schools and middle schools. We have seen hate crimes throughout the Valley, sometimes perpetuated by individuals as young as 14. Adults have reported discrimination in city halls, universities, police departments and small businesses. Young people are regularly facing homelessness after coming out to unaccepting parent(s) or guardians, often finding a lack of resources to support them within our communities.

Even with the relatively recent emergence of openly LGBTQ candidates and elected officials regionally, there has been an emphasis not on their abilities to serve as LGBTQ leaders, but on their ability to minimize that portion of their identity.

The open inclusion of the LGBTQ community is as much a social justice issue as an economic one. Organizations cite that potential LGTBQ job candidates are often concerned that our region, whether the issues are real or perceived, is not open, diverse or welcoming except in a few iconic cities. LGBTQ folks raised here often leave, feeling that they will only be comfortable and supported in other parts of Mass., New England or the country. Plus, with the increase of racial demographic changes throughout the region, LGBTQ people of color are often rendered invisible as cultural competency around these populations is often lacking.

I have experienced these issues firsthand growing up in Springfield. When I was a middle-school student, bullying was considered part of growing up; when I was in high school, student Gay Straight Alliances were rare and out adult LGBTQ mentors didn’t exist. Now, as a working professional in the region, I find that the climate has changed very little. Serving in public office showed both the best of our communities and the worst.

Coming out is tough. It challenges the beliefs that we are told about ourselves, who we are and who we can become. But coming out makes us better individuals, a stronger community and a more dynamic region. That is why we need to be proud of being LGBTQ, proud of our allies and proud of our region. We must learn from our past, embrace our present and determine the future we want for the entire Pioneer Valley.•

Amaad Rivera serves as the founder and president of Springfield Pride and is a former Springfield City Councilor.

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