A rainbow of colors brightened North Eugene High School recently as hundreds of students, staff, parents and community members gathered on the football field to celebrate Pride Month, which recognizes LGBTQ+ identities in June.
The Pride Festival, put on by Gender Sexuality Alliance Affinity Groups (GSA), was held for the second year in a row, but this time on a much larger scale.
Destiny Mendenhall, GSA advisor and math teacher at North Eugene who uses she/her pronouns, organized the event. She said last year’s festival was exclusive to North Eugene and garnered about 600 participants. This year’s was open to the entire 4J district, and Mendenhall said there were close to 1,000 attendees.
“For pretty much every other day of the year, we have to hide who we are,” Mendenhall said. “We have to be shameful and deal with protesters and people telling us that who we are is not okay … We get a month, and more specifically, we get a day with events like this, where we just get to be ourselves.”
The festival celebrated LGBTQ+ identities and sexualities, welcoming all in an accepting, safe environment.
In addition to school club and activity booths, there were food trucks, face painting, live performances and a number of local LGBTQ+ resource groups including Transponder, QueerEugene.org, Eugene Pride, HIV Alliance, Lane Gender Equality Center, Ophelia’s Place, 15th Night, Planned Parenthood, Sexual Assault Support Services (SASS), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Eugene Area Gleaners and Looking Glass New Roads.
The school also had significant security and police protection. A handful of protestors outside with signs and megaphones were drowned out by the cheery music on the field.
Harley Mata, a senior at North Eugene who uses she/her pronouns, said she had been looking forward to the festival all week. Mata had a sign language interpreter.
Mata has been involved with the school’s GSA for the past two years. She said North Eugene is a special school for offering space inclusion. These sorts of events can be especially significant for closeted students or LGBTQ+ youth questioning their identities, she said.
“Everybody can relax when you’re here and it might help you feel like, ‘Okay, I can be out or I can just look into myself and figure it out,'” Mata said. “If they’re here, (they can see) that the culture is not a bad culture, it just shows children that it’s safe here. Safety is really important. Everybody appreciates everybody. Identities are important.”
Mata said that since being involved in the GSA, she has felt that her identity and her opinions have been cherished.
GSA has given her and her fellow students an opportunity to express their thoughts on current events, learn about queer history and share their experiences, she said.
“I don’t have to change myself to match other people’s opinions or what they want me to be,” Mata said.
Aloe Graber, who uses she/they pronouns, is the rural program coordinator for local nonprofit Ophelia’s Place. She explained their three core resources: after and out-of-school programs, in-school services and presentations, and therapy services.
Ophelia’s Place, like other local groups, has partnered with school districts to better reach students in need.
“Schools, in many ways, are the hubs of communities,” Graber said. “By connecting with those hubs, we are able to let youth know that we are here, we are able to offer adult ally-ship that looks a different way than, like, a teacher or a guardian. By working with those schools, we’re really speaking to those hearts of communities and letting young people know that there’s a lot of different resources available to them.”
Graber, who grew up in Junction City, said they didn’t have such resources when they were in school. They said outreach is especially important in rural areas, which can be isolating.
If there had been similar resources or events such as Friday’s Pride festival, Graber said, it would’ve been transformative in her experience as a queer adolescent.
“I would feel so seen and heard, like an opportunity to know that there are places that I can go to to find queer adults to talk to, to be able to process these things, to have a home away from home, to have a safe space,” Graber said. “It would feel like I was being specifically heard and valued as a young person in a way that I don’t think that I had otherwise — that aspects of my identity were valued and celebrated rather than something that I had to keep secret and pretend didn’t exist.”
At the Pride festival, families with young children could be seen sitting in the grass, enjoying snow cones and getting their faces painted.
Liam McAloon, parent of a student at Yujin Gakuen Japanese Immersion Elementary School who uses he/him pronouns, brought his young son to the event. He said these sorts of things didn’t exist when he was in school, and he feels it is necessary for him, as an adult and parent now, to show support to LGBTQ+ groups, even if he himself doesn’t identify in those groups.
“The other option seems to be hating people,” McAloon said. “Being able to see examples around, having other kids being accepted, having gay not be a slur. Having that exist opens up so many possibilities and just saves lives by showing kids that how they are is not something that’s an abomination. It’s just who they are. And everybody should be accepted.”
Miranda Cyr reports on education for The Register-Guard. You can contact her at email@example.com or find her on Twitter @mirandabcyr.