Unalaska sees large turnout for annual LGBTQ+ Pride celebration

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Yhvana Rupecio holds a banner that reads “We the People Means Everyone.” (Hope McKenney/KUCB)

Five-year-old Harper and her mom Emily Gibson sat in front of Unalaska’s high school on Friday afternoon, drawing an arched rainbow and colorful snowflakes on the gray pavement with broken pieces of chalk. Harper wore braids punctuated by rainbow heart barrettes in her hair, and a colorful sweatshirt adorned with a picture of a grinning Minnie Mouse.

Harper was one of the younger attendees of Unalaska’s second annual LGBTQ+ Pride event — what she referred to as the “Rainbow Festival” — organized by local nonprofit Unalaskans Against Sexual Assault and Family Violence.

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Children get their faces painted at Unalaska Pride. (Hope McKenney/KUCB)

The gray skies and drizzle didn’t deter dozens of community members from showing up to the two-hour event to play games, answer trivia questions on LGBTQ+ history and enjoy homemade corn dogs and rainbow cupcakes to the soundtrack of the musical Hair and Diana Ross hits.

M. Lynn Crane is executive director of USAFV, which runs a food bank and provides an emergency shelter for victims of intimate partner abuse, as well as resources on how to recognize and avoid victimization.

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The Unalaska Fire Department wears hoodies for Pride Month. (Hope McKenney/KUCB)

She said this event is one example of the organization’s support for all marginalized communities, who are often at much higher risk of experiencing violence. Crane said it’s also about harm prevention. National studies show LGBTQ+ youth are four to eight times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers. That also includes people who are two-spirit. Traditionally, in some tribes, those are people who are considered neither men nor women, but a distinct, alternative gender, according to the Indian Health Service.

Up to 40% of homeless teenagers identify as LGBTQ+ people, and trans people are over four times more likely than cisgender people to experience violent victimization, according to the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law.

“I think people are marginalized here in a lot of ways,” Crane said. “I think there’s a lot of harassment that happens. I think there’s a real fear of violence — a valid fear of violence. I think LGBTQ two-spirit people everywhere struggle. I think we’re trying to do better, but we could do better than we’re doing now.”

Speaking in a mic to a group of Unalaskans in the high school parking lot, Crane said she’s outraged by efforts across the country to erase LGBTQ two-spirit+ people from public life.

Unalaska Pride participants
Jade Leclere and Gilmar Tapaoan at Unalaska Pride. (Hope McKenney/KUCB)

“I said it at last year’s Pride event and I’ll say it again today: This event is about love,” she told the rainbow-clad audience. “This is about making sure that our LGBTQ two-spirit+ co-workers, family members and neighbors know that we love them, that we accept them, that they are safe with us and that we have their backs.”

Shari Coleman sits on the Unalaska City Council and is a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

“I grew up in a time when you didn’t talk about this,” she said. “I’ve seen a great evolution in the way society views the LGBTQ community in a positive way, but we still take so many steps backwards. And so these events are important to show that this community is supportive.”

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USAFV’s Pride event took place in the parking lot of Unalaska’s high school. (Hope McKenney/KUCB)

As she scanned the parking lot, Coleman said she saw people from all parts of the community: different races, religions, sexual orientations.

“And that makes me feel good,” she said. “This is not just about people out here who are LGBTQ — that’s not who’s here. There are all facets, and that actually makes me feel the best.”

Yhvana Rupecio is a trans woman who moved to Unalaska just over 20 years ago. She was dressed in a short black dress, varsity jacket and bright orange slippers, carrying a banner with a rainbow American flag that read “We the People Means Everyone.”

“I celebrate myself every day, but it’s important for the whole community to celebrate with us,” she said, wielding her flag and yellow purse.

In her more than two decades on the island, Rupecio said she fortunately hasn’t experienced any harassment or violence.

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USAFV staff and board members. (Hope McKenney/KUCB)

“I came here from the Philippines and I was afraid that I was not going to be accepted by people, but surprisingly everyone was so welcoming,” Rupecio said. “That’s the reason I’m still here. It means so much. It’s really good to be in a community where you can be yourself, [where] you don’t have to hide or you don’t have to be someone you don’t want to be.”

Twenty-one-year-old Gilmar Tapaoan had a different experience growing up as a gay man in Unalaska.

“I lost many friends when I came out in junior high,” he said. “I really was kind of stuck in a corner by myself because I was the main openly gay man in this school. So I was kind of like the lone wolf, and it was scary.”

Tapaoan said it was hard finding out his sexuality alone. But he said eventually he found who his true friends were and he found community support. He said that support means a lot for kids who haven’t come out.

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Harper Gibson sat in front of Unalaska’s high school on Friday afternoon, drawing an arched rainbow and colorful snowflakes on the gray pavement with broken pieces of chalk. (Hope McKenney/KUCB)

“Having an event like this shows you how much support you have within the community,” Tapaoan said. “And it still just baffles me, it blows my mind, to see how many people actually showed up and have shown support for the LGBTQ community as a whole.”

Back at the mic, Crane — from USAFV — shared an anecdote with the audience.

“I asked a local person who happens to identify as part of our LGBTQ two-spirit community why they thought it was important that USAFV was holding this event. And they said something to the effect of, ‘So that we know that there are more people that love us than hate us,’” Crane said. “That’s why we’re here. It’s about love. It’s about love. It’s about loving our neighbors, loving our children, loving our community and ultimately loving ourselves. Thank you for coming to Unalaska Pride.”

Although the event lasted only two hours, participants said they hope the demonstration will show lasting support for the LGBTQ+ community.

On Tuesday, the country’s largest LGBTQ+ advocacy organization declared a state of emergency for LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. The Human Rights Campaign pointed to what it sees as discriminatory legislation targeting the LGBTQ+ community. For more information, you can visit their website at hrc.org.

Locally, if you’re in need of support, USAFV’s crisis line is available 24/7 by calling (907) 581-1500 or by texting (907) 359-1500 between 8 a.m. and 11 p.m.

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