In small town like Walla Walla, creating inclusive spaces is step number one for GLBTQ community

by Andrea Miller

Considering the subcultures of Walla Walla: the onion growers, the wine makers, the inmates, the kids lurking outside Coffee Perk: the GLTBQ community is isolated and forced underground by the town’s dominating social values.

Brenda Gordon, a member of the local PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), social worker and director of the Walla Walla Community College Women’s Center, said that in Walla Walla there is a “strong support, but a strong opposition” to the GLTBQ community. Gordon and Sharon Kaufman-Osborne founded the Walla Walla chapter of PFLAG about seven or eight years ago. The organization has survived despite a few years of very low membership. PFLAG meets monthly and aims to provide support for its members and create an open forum for future members.

Gordon said PFLAG hopes to put out a diversity guidebook of businesses and organizations “self-identified as being open and friendly” to the GLTBQ community. It would inform readers of public places they may feel safe visiting. The idea came from a similar resource published by an advocacy group in the Tri-Cities.

Gordon is also very involved with the First Congregational Church and its relationship with the GLTBQ community. Gordon and fellow advocates have worked to make First Congregational an institution where anyone may feel welcome. Gordon said First Congregational “tries to be an inclusive community.” There is an entire weekly service for the GLTBQ community.

Kevin Fetner lived in 17 other places before moving to Walla Walla. He and Gordon proclaim themselves to be adopted siblings because of the close relationship they have built since they met. Even with Gordon at his side for kindness and support, Fetner said, “Walla Walla is a pretty scary place.” Fetner said, “Walla Walla is amazingly homophobic,” and as a result, it has “driven a subculture [the GLTBQ community] underground.”

Walla Walla’s small size and removed location impact its attitude towards the GLTBQ community. Fetner said, “In any place of isolation [like Walla Walla], ignorance is passed down” from one generation of its citizens to the next. Fetner acknowledged that “some people want to change,” but he said he is “not sure about a catalyst to change” the prevalent views towards homosexuality. He said, “I don’t know what it’s going to take.”

The beliefs in Walla Walla about sexuality cause conflict in Fetner’s personal life and work life. As a fencing/concrete contractor, plumber and handyman, Fetner spends a lot of time in other people’s homes. There are instances when his customers will make derogatory comments about homosexuality in front of him, and he does not know what to do. Recently, Fetner’s car was egged, the only car on his block to receive such an offense, and an anonymous source made accusations against him and his behavior at a volunteer mentor program. All accusations were proved to be false, but Fetner said he still feels attacked. He said, “I never cease to be amazed at the things that are said and done.”

Fetner is the president of the local PFLAG chapter. A few years ago, he set up a successful chapter in Moscow, Idaho, so he has hope the Walla Walla organization will develop more as well. Of its members, Fetner said, “I hope more parents come. [Their involvement] helps diffuse feelings of anger and betrayal.”

Fetner and PFLAG have made it a goal to open up the discussion of homosexuality for youths. They want to organize some kind of diversity handbook for the high school to let students know it is their federal right to found a GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) in their school. Fetner and Gordon emphasize that such a group must be organized internally within the schools for it to be successful. A GSA could provide students with an opportunity to meet up in a safe place, and overall, according to Gordon, “reduce bullying.”

The initiatives of PFLAG continue “support, education, advocacy,” according to Gordon. Though Fetner is unsure of how to get these initiatives to hold positive meaning for all people of Walla Walla, he said, “I’m sure as hell going to try.”