Peri Sanders, her partner, Alex Sallee, and their puppy, Dash, are spending much of June visiting Pride Month celebrations in Southcentral Alaska, from Seward to Homer, to Anchorage and the Mat-Su. For the couple, the experience has been healing.
“In all of the Pride celebrations that we’ve gone to so far, I’ve really felt, like, this huge sense of security and safety in those spaces and, like, an overwhelming amount of love and care and joy,” said Sanders, who grew up in Bethel, is Yup’ik, and identifies as gay.
Sanders, Sallee and many other LGBTQIA2S+ Alaskans interviewed this month described how vital Pride celebrations have felt this year in the wake of measures here and in the Lower 48 targeting their community.
That includes multiple states’ bans on gender-affirming care for transgender youths, a push in Alaska to bar transgender girls from playing on girls sports teams, and Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s “parental rights” bill, which as initially drafted would’ve required parental permission for students to change their name or pronouns in school and prohibited transgender students from using single-sex facilities that correspond to their gender identity.
Organizers say those bills and measures have taken a toll on the LGBTQ+ community, and transgender youths in particular who’ve been the main target of much of the legislation and policy change. At least one health provider in Alaska who works with transgender youths described a rise in depression, suicide ideation and other mental health challenges among her patients in recent months.
“With all the challenges that the queer community is facing right now, I think I have been feeling really just kind of even more fully embraced in this community,” Sanders said. “I feel like because we’re facing all of these challenges, it’s really inspiring people to more closely embrace one another. It really has people drawing on their strength.”
In some ways, Pride this year is still what it’s always been, Sallee said: an opportunity for LGBTQIA2S+ people to feel a sense of belonging, safety and connection. At Seward Pride, the couple met someone who was in town for the summer as a seasonal worker.
He told them he met a new friend at a Pride event, “and they just hung out all day and sat on the beach and ate food, and it was like, the highlight of his summer so far,” Sallee said. “And that’s exactly what Pride is for — making connections that make your day, make your month, make your year.”
Queer joy as an antidote, and act of resistance
For Sydney Stokes, who moved from Ohio to Anchorage around the time the COVID-19 pandemic began, this is the first Pride Month that they have truly been able to celebrate in Alaska. Stokes uses both they/them and he/him pronouns and identifies as a nonbinary Black woman.
Finding Alaska’s queer community has “very much felt like home,” Stokes said. “People say the queer community here is small, but definitely to me, it’s very large.”
This Pride, Stokes said, he is celebrating the “huge amount of community care, empathy and love,” and that this month is about creating safe spaces for members of the LGBTQIA2S+ community to both grieve and celebrate.
“I think it is really important to show up and be there for the community,” said Sallee, who is co-chair of the board for the nonprofit group Identity Alaska, an Anchorage-based organization that hosts community-building events during Pride and year-round. Sallee is also an Inupiaq filmmaker whose work has included a project called “Dear Kin,” an exhibit celebrating Indigenous members of the LGBTQIA2S+ community in Alaska.
“We’ve been so harmed and hurt recently, especially within our transgender community. I want to be able to be there, and show up, and share queer joy. Queer joy is so important. I think it’s like, the antidote to the harm that’s been happening,” Sallee said.
“I definitely think that queer joy is an act of resistance and rebellion,” said Stokes, who also serves on Identity’s board.
Safe spaces and a sense of history
At a recent drag storytime hosted by Wasilla’s Black Birch Books, Vincent Feuilles, a founder of the nonprofit Queen’s Guard, witnessed what he described as a spike in animosity from the more than a dozen people protesting the event.
The nonprofit, which was founded in 2019, exists to protect drag performers and LGBTQ+ people at events where they might otherwise encounter hostility, said Feuilles, who is transgender.
“We’re just there to greet folks and to be happy,” he said.
Drag storytimes in particular have become a target of protests in Alaska and nationwide, and this Pride Month, Feuilles said, the Queen’s Guard has received more requests than ever for its presence at events in Anchorage and Mat-Su.
“It’s not that (the animosity) has necessarily gotten worse, because those sentiments and those feelings were kind of always there under the surface,” he said. “Now it’s just so blatant, and it is so fiercely being directed at the LGBTQ community, and there’s no filter to it.”
Beyond creating safe spaces for queer Alaskans to celebrate, Feuilles said, his hope for Pride this year is especially for younger generations to be educated on the history and intersectionality of Pride.
Each year, Pride Month falls in June as a way to honor the 1969 Stonewall uprising in New York, which involved six days of police raids and protests, and is seen as an important moment for queer liberation movements in the United States.
“Pride is about family and remembering the history of where it all started, and why it started,” he said. “It’s about remembering that for as far as we’ve come, no, it’s not as bad as it was back then, but equity is still not here. And we still have to keep fighting for that.”
No single way to celebrate Pride
For the past 10 years, drag performer Hank VanDickerson has been spending most of his Friday and Saturday nights at Mad Myrna’s, one of Anchorage’s only gay bars, hosting twice-weekly drag shows in a glitter beard, paint-chiseled abs and what Hank would describe as “nonstop positivity.”
“This Pride is going to be a very important one, I think, because we are under attack,” said VanDickerson, who asked that his non-drag name not be included in this story because of concerns over privacy and safety. “But I think it is very important that we show ourselves out there. That we be out there, as our rainbow, fabulous selves, and just be loud and proud.”
VanDickerson said he views the drag shows as an opportunity for people who may not be out yet, or may be feeling alone, to find joy and a sense of community. “That’s my goal, just to be a welcoming voice in the community,” he said.
VanDickerson said he also tries to get non-LGBTQ+ audience members to become invested in standing up for the community.
“I want to make sure to get everybody to be allies; to be loud, to be proud and to fight for us and with us,” he said.
In Fairbanks, many of the Pride events being organized this month by the Fairbanks Queer Collective are for families and LGBTQIA2S+ youths, including a rainbow picnic and a gender euphoria party where people can explore gender in a safe space, said the organization’s co-founders Jo Malbert Narváez and Rinam Mittlestadt.
“We really focus on building events that are family friendly, because queerness is not just for adults. Queerness exists in all ages,” Malbert Narváez said.
“Pride isn’t just throwing rainbows on things and saying, ‘Here I am, I’m gay,’” Mittlestadt said. “It’s about that community building and making sure that all of us have a safe space.”
Many interviewed for this story said the best way for non-LGBTQ+ people to be allies during Pride Month and year-round is to donate time and resources to LGBTQ+ organizations and causes, educate themselves on issues affecting queer communities, share flyers about events and resources, and speak up when rights fall under attack.
“I want and hope that those who advocate for us really do speak out, and really do show up in whatever space they’re in,” Stokes said. “And that also means understanding intersectionality and how there’s a disproportionate rate of discrimination and an inequity towards queer folks that are people of color, or who are disabled.”
“There’s this old saying, ‘Don’t stand in front of me, I might not follow. Don’t stand behind me, I might not lead.’ And it finishes with ‘Stand beside me.’ That’s the best way to be an ally,” Feuilles said.
Focus on youths
Many interviewed for this story expressed a particular worry for transgender youths, who are the target of much of the legislation being passed around the country.
Nearly half of all U.S. states have recently passed laws banning gender-affirming care for transgender youths. Alaska is not one of those states, and this type of care in the state remains available to families, and covered by Medicaid.
Still, Dr. Tracey Wiese, clinical director at Identity Health Clinic, said recently that clinic providers have seen an increase in young patients reporting anxiety, depression and suicide ideation in response to the Lower 48 legislation. Identity Health Clinic is an Anchorage-based provider that serves LGBTQIA2S+ children and adults and is the main provider of gender-affirming care in the state, including through telehealth services accessible across Alaska.
“To put it in perspective, the last three pediatric gender intakes I did in the last two weeks, all three of those children have attempted to kill themselves in the last month,” she said.
Gender-affirming medical interventions can help transgender people align various aspects of their lives — emotional, interpersonal and biological — with their gender identity, and have been linked to a decrease in depression, suicide and anxiety.
Feuilles, with the Queen’s Guard, referenced a recent report from The Trevor Project, a national nonprofit focused on suicide prevention and crisis intervention services for LGBTQ+ young people. The report showed an alarming statistic from the last year: Nearly half of all LGBTQ+ youths had seriously considered suicide at some point.
It also found that LGBTQ+ youths who live in a community that is accepting of LGBTQ+ people reported significantly lower rates of attempting suicide than those who do not.
Queer and transgender youths are also more likely to experience increased rates of homelessness and housing insecurity due to families that may not accept them for who they are.
“It’s such a sad thing to recognize because it’s so easy to be supportive, it really takes almost no effort. And we have so many things going on where we’re telling these kids they don’t exist, we’re telling them they shouldn’t exist, we’re telling them that they’re horrible people,” Feuilles said.
In Alaska, an organization called Choosing Our Roots exists to help provide support services for homeless LGBTQ+ youths, including matching them with a supportive host family and connecting them with resources and housing grants.
“Acceptance is not universal right now,” said Jamie Tresner, who works as a client navigator for the nonprofit. She said youth in emergency situations can reach out for help or resources through the organization’s social media pages, or by calling 907-764-6233.
Weise said that caring for patients whose rights are under attack can take a toll on her and the other providers at Identity.
“There’s a lot of stress, and I think just helplessness,” she said. “These aren’t irrational fears or worries that people are having. They’re super-rational, and so there’s really nothing I can do other than provide that space.”
Events like those hosted during Pride Month can provide queer and transgender youths with a sense of belonging and acceptance, and can act as a kind of antidote to that stress and pain, organizers said.
“Having spaces and opportunities for queer youth, you can see how much it impacts them,” said Mittlestadt, with the Fairbanks Queer Collective. “You can see how happy it makes them.”
The Trevor Project offers 24/7 crisis counseling for LGBTQ+ youths, accessible by visiting thetrevorproject.org/get-help, calling 1-866-488-7386 or texting START to 678-678. If you or someone you know are dealing with a mental health crisis or suicidal thoughts, you can call the 24/7 Alaska Careline at 988, or 1-877-266-HELP at any time. To learn more about the support and resources available through Identity Alaska and the Identity Health Clinic, visit identityalaska.org.
[Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Mad Myrna’s is not the only gay bar in Anchorage.]