A local advocacy group’s first Pride celebration held special significance over the weekend as the first step toward increasing LGBTQ+ representation in Columbia County.
At 2 p.m. on Saturday, June 25, a small crowd gathered in the courthouse square in downtown St. Helens, displaying rainbow flags and colorful signs.
“Love is love,” proclaimed a protester’s placard in all caps, surrounded by multicolored hearts.
“The choice I made was to be myself,” read another.
Moving Forward, a progressive group from Columbia County, organized the protest, followed by a picnic at the fairgrounds in honor of Pride Month.
In a chat with The Chronicle, Moving Forward’s Michael Calhoun explained how he first got involved in the Pride event.
“I’m from Vernonia,” he added. “I grew up there and went to college. When I came back, I was just really surprised. I think it was before COVID that there was, to my knowledge, never had an official Pride event in Columbia County.
Calhoun told The Chronicle that as a child he felt like an outsider due to his sexuality.
“I loved growing up on a farm in Vernonia,” Calhoun said. “I am proud of my hometown. It was a great place, unless you were a queer kid in the early 2000s.”
While the rest of the country has come a long way, Calhoun says there’s still work to be done to increase rural representation.
“Historically, places like Columbia County have had zero visibility, especially for young people growing up here,” he said. “They’re queer or questioning, and they think they’re alone. I certainly grew up. So I think that (made) a big difference, having an event where it’s public, and for those who still haven’t come out, they at least know they have allies here in the county.
Pride is an annual celebration of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) identities commemorating the Stonewall Riots, a series of violent clashes that began in the early hours of June 28, 1969, between police and activists in Gay rights outside the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village neighborhood, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
In the 1960s, gay rights activism was part of the American counterculture. Homosexuals could not marry legally, were discriminated against in public places, and were not allowed to hold political office. American politicians declared homosexuality a “perversion” and US President Dwight D. Eisenhower passed a law banning homosexuals from holding federal jobs, History.com reports.
Today, Pride is celebrated around the world and serves as a reminder of the fate of the LGBTQ+ community in achieving equal rights.
Calhoun says he’s encouraged “by how accepting people are, especially in a small town.”
“I would say 15 years ago the flip side was that you as a small town gay man were a minority and treated as such, whereas now if you are a homophobic bigoted person , you’re the minority.
“So it’s a big turnaround, I think for the better.”
The Chronicle asked Calhoun what he hoped people would take away from this event, to which he replied, “there are more than you who live here.”
“When you’re ready to go out, (know) it’s a safe environment. You can live and prosper here. You don’t have to move to a big city,” he said.
Moving Forward Columbia County is a grassroots movement dedicated to promoting needed change and fairness in local politics.