It was 1994 when Ron Boehlke moved to Boise from Canyon County so he could finally come out as a gay man. Twenty years later, Keith Crable did the same, leaving behind his Montana hometown for what he calls a community of self-expression and positive energy.
That community rallied on Saturday for Pride, Boise’s slice of the celebrations of the LGBTQ community that take place in June, which is LGBTQ Pride Month. Hundreds filled the streets of Downtown and the steps of the Idaho Statehouse for a parade and festivities in Capitol Park — all focused on accepting people of every sexual orientation and gender identity.
That’s the same attitude that drew Boehlke, 64, to Idaho’s capital city from nearby Nampa.
“Things are opening up there a little bit (now),” he said. “But there’s a lot of anti-gay attitudes there.”
Boise is certainly not immune — just last weekend, someone burned part of a Pride flag hanging outside a home along North 25th Street. But two years after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, and one year after a gay man was beaten to death outside Nampa at Lake Lowell, Pride attendees said being openly gay in Idaho’s more rural cities can be isolating at best and dangerous at worst.
“One of the things with being out in a rural area is that there’s not a lot of ‘loud and proud’ homophobia,” said 22-year-old Elijah Nixon, who lives in Mountain Home. “But rarely do I feel safe being myself.”
Nixon starts his career as a first-grade teacher in the Elmore County town next year. Although he said the school district and his co-workers support him, he knows there are hurdles to overcome as a man teaching in an elementary school.
“No one’s ever said to me, ‘You can’t be a teacher because you’re gay,’ ” Nixon said. But he still worries what some parents may say in the future — particularly if he ends up teaching the children of people he went to high school with in Mountain Home.
“(I worry) if they’ll say, ‘I don’t want some (slur) teaching my kids,’ ” Nixon said. “What I’ve dealt with in Mountain Home is not the jerks yelling (slurs) out their car windows, but it’s the small things” — uncomfortable looks, people who actively avoid him in public or pull their children in another direction.
Shawna Lysholm, 28, said she notices the same reactions in Mountain Home. She’s lived there since last fall, when her husband was stationed at nearby Mountain Home Air Force Base. Lysholm is bisexual and has gay pride stickers on her car, she said. But that’s about as vocal as she feels she can be in a rural town when it comes to her sexual orientation.
“I haven’t been shamed for who I am (here), but I don’t broadcast who I am either,” she said.
Boise Pride is a place where she can do just that, Lysholm said. That’s a departure from what she’s used to — before moving to Mountain Home, she spent her life in rural Oklahoma, where she said most people don’t talk about being gay.
Crable, a 21-year-old student who left Montana to be able to express himself, had a similar upbringing. Though it’s been three years since he moved to Boise, he said he still hardly speaks to his parents.
He knows LGBTQ Pride events are starting to take root back home in Montana, and he’s happy he can be part of that in Boise.
“I came out when I was 16,” Crable said. “It was not a very smooth transition — it was actually because of a suicide attempt.”
Being at Pride on Saturday was a stark reflection on where he’s been and how different his life is now, Crable said.
“It’s amazing, coming out and being able to walk around (Pride) in a dress and heels. I’m able to be happy,” he said.
Just like so many of Boise Pride’s attendees, the city itself is growing, said Boisean Will Browning.
Browning, 60, lived in diverse places like New York City and France before coming to Boise more than 20 years ago to teach. This city is keeping up, he said.
“You have to start somewhere. Idaho has come a long way since 1994,” Browning said.
Much of that progress is about politics, Browning said, pointing to the Capitol building across the street from Saturday’s rainbow-festooned park. Across much of the state, Idaho is a place where there can be very real consequences for being gay. It’s still legal to deny someone employment or housing based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, and Idaho’s hate crime statute does not cover those minorities, either.
Boehlke found comfort in Boise’s nondiscrimination ordinance, which Nampa doesn’t have. It covers harassment or discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.
“(The ordinance) makes a big difference because you know they won’t put on your pink slip that they fired you because you’re gay,” Boehlke said.
For the crush of rural Idahoans who flock to Boise for Pride, the question has become how to inject some openness into their own communities. What do they think is the answer? Just acknowledge us, these Idahoans said.
Nixon said he’s not expecting Mountain Home to host its own massive celebration of LGBTQ identities. What he’s hoping for, he said, is just a place where he knows it’s safe to be fully himself.
“I know I have support from my friends or family, but there’s just not much (in Mountain Home) in terms of a specific LGBTQ community,” Nixon said.
Small Idaho towns embracing their gay residents doesn’t need to be a departure from “rural values,” Lysholm said.
“It’s not a new concept, being gay,” she said. “We’re not bad people. We just want love.”