Sunday, September 15, 2013

Provo Pride

Posted By on September 15, 2013, 11:59 PM

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Coming up this Saturday, Provo is going to have about as close to a city-changing experience as it can without some type of fantastically impossible dome being thrown over it. --- Provo Pride, the first LGBT festival to be held in Utah County, will make its debut on Sept. 21 in Memorial Park, a mile from one of the most religious schools in the country and in one of the heaviest populations of conservative voters in the state. That in itself is enough reason to take notice, regardless of which side you stand on. Today, I chat with two of the organizers behind this year's event about their lives in Utah County and bringing the festival to life. (All pictures courtesy of Provo Pride's Facebook page.)

Adaryn Riverstone & Rebecca Taylor

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Provo Pride on Facebook

Gavin: Hey, gang. First off, tell us a little bit about yourselves.

Adaryn: My name is Adaryn Riverstone. I was born in Missouri but raised here in Provo since I was an infant. I attended local public schools and attended Utah Valley University after graduating high school; I received a science degree. I was raised LDS, but left the church in early 1999 after doing extensive research on its claims.

Rebecca: My name is Rebecca Taylor. I grew up here in Provo and I am 33 years old, I have two kids and am now divorced. I suppose that is where it all began, with the divorce. Up until about a year and a half or so ago, I considered myself a cross-dresser. I am attracted to women and enjoy sex, like most other men. It wasn't until I started reading online more about the transgender community and read stories about other trans folk that I began to see similarities between them and myself. The more I found, the more I came to accept that I may be transgender. Keep in mind, the full story here could fill a book; it's not a happy story. I'm leaving out a lot of details, especially the darker ones. One night while relaxing in the bath, something I'd not done in years, a Pandora's box of memories flooded my brain. Thoughts and feelings I'd repressed sent me into tears; memories of when I was going through puberty, crying out to God to fix me and take away the odd desire to be a girl. If not that, then to change me into one! It was overwhelming. The relationship that I had with my ex-wife and the failure of our relationship I blame upon my own ignorance, in not knowing who I was. Ultimately, I blame that lack of knowledge on my own fear and ignorance of who I am, and I can't help but fault the society around me for creating that fear in me in the first place. I'm not saying this to play the part of the victim, only to say that we fear what we do not understand. How much easier would my life have been had someone been able to sit down with me and explain it to me? Instead, I believed that God hated me. I grew up fearing and hating myself. How many others in the Utah LGBT community have felt the same way?

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Gavin: How was it for each of you growing up LGBT in Utah?

Adaryn: Growing up gay in Utah was a challenge. I always knew I was different, but I always liked boys – it especially was challenging during my teen years when the dating scene came around and all my guy friends wanted to date girls. I just couldn’t understand what they saw in the opposite sex to grasp what it was they craved. I had lots of friends who were girls, and I got along with them great. Many times, my guy friends were jealous that so many girls were around me; they wanted to know my trick -- what WAS IT that I could do to talk to girls and get them to respond? I found out later it's because I was a "non-threat" of sorts. Since there was no attraction toward women, it was more comfortable to talk and be myself toward them. High school was especially tough. I was belittled, made fun of and teased by school bullies for my perceived attraction toward guys. I would, of course, DENY those accusations, because I wasn’t OUT yet to the world, or to myself. I was on seminary council for the LDS church seminary program for Utah high schools, and in assemblies-committee student government so I had an "image" to protect. One time, I was in a PE class in our high school; it was both girls and guys in the same class. For the next five weeks, we had a baseball program and the PE teacher lined everyone up and sorted teams. As it was my turn to bat, the ball was tossed, and it was CLEAR I had NEVER done this before, so, being the "good" PE teacher she was, she brought all the girls and ME over to the tennis courts across from the field to teach us how to hit a ball. It was the most HUMILIATING thing I’ve ever gone through. Here I was, the ONLY BOY being taught by a 60-year-old PE teacher with my girl classmates how to hit a baseball, with all the boys watching from the sidelines. From that point on, I was teased relentlessly by the boys in my high school about being gay. Growing up gay in the '80s and early '90s was taboo, and society hadn’t come far enough along yet to accept the LGBTQ folks in their midst.

Rebecca: In short, it was terrifying. I was afraid all the time: afraid as a small child of getting teased or bullied; fear of my family finding out and getting angry with me and stop loving me; fear that the church would find out and kick me out. All of these fears continued throughout the rest of my childhood until about a year and a half ago, when I finally came out of the closet. I had nothing left to fear. My family came through when they found out. My friends from school grew more distant, my wife left me and I was questioning my belief in religion -- what did I have to lose? In the words of Tyler Durden from the movie Fight Club: “It's only after we've lost everything that we are free to do anything.” I think it is important at this time to make it clear that I speak only for myself; each person's experience is going to be different. I also want to tread carefully. I'm not sure what my religious beliefs are at this point and I do not want to speak ill of the LDS church or its membership. I think it is fair to say that I've been disillusioned with my religion and I've got a lot of unanswered questions. Normally, I like to leave religion out of it, but growing up here in Provo, as a member of the LDS church, it is a very critical part of my background and development. I think my childhood was pretty normal, for the most part. There were times when playing house, I wanted to be “mommy” or “sister” but was afraid to say anything to my friends. I noticed the girls around me and was envious of their dresses, and braids. It wasn't much of an issue, though, until I began to hit puberty. I was living with a deep, dark secret: I noticed the girls around me and desperately wanted to look like them; I wanted to be one of them. I began to cross-dress in private, at home, or under my school clothes.

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Rebecca: As mentioned, I remember crying in the shower, and never spoke any of this to anyone. In junior high, I began having problems with my stomach and gal bladder, spending time in the hospital, having tests done with little evidence of anything being wrong. I felt sick all the time. I can't say for sure, but feel that a lot of the health problems I had growing up were caused by the stress of repressing this aspect of my life. At some point, my parents found out that I was cross-dressing, but didn't know what to do about it, nor did we associate my health problems with the mental/emotional stress I was going through. We thought that I would grow out of it at some point. Words can not describe the shame I felt for having these feelings. At the time, though, the last thing I wanted was for someone to find out I was seeing a therapist, and all the stigma I believed at the time that comes with kids who have to go to counseling. I also grew up with the belief that if my faith were strong enough, God would heal me. I did my best to fulfill my church callings, pay my tithes and do whatever else I could to show God I wanted to change. I served a full-time mission, came home and got married. I did all this with the hope, faith and expectation that God would heal me. After my marriage, things between my ex and I became increasingly tense as my desire to cross-dress and feelings grew more intense. Later, after my divorce, I felt betrayed, by my ex, by God, by everyone. My thoughts turned darker and became self-destructive. I reached a point where I felt that suicide was my only escape. I was also struggling with other issues at the time, and addressed this issue with my therapist, who said that he didn't want to discourage me, but that to continue to fight it would be extremely difficult. In most cases like this, it is better to learn to accept this aspect of my life and move on. He encouraged me to research and read what I could find on the topic. We resolved my other problems after about a year of monthly visits, though I continued to struggle with my gender identity. I could no longer financially afford to go to see my therapist and decided to stop going. It was at this point I began my own independent research.

Gavin: When you hit adulthood, what drew you to continue living in Utah, specifically Provo?

Adaryn: Many folks outside Provo think Provo is just BYU. Over the years, I’ve learned to separate Provo from BYU. Provo is SO much more than "just BYU." I love the proximity to the mountains, rivers, trails, and outdoor activities here. I like my neighborhood. I like the fact that I KNOW my neighbors. I like the atmosphere here. Since leaving the LDS Church, I gathered friends who are not of that same faith; yes, they are here. I’ve also gained a lot of friends who are not LDS anymore. When talking with folks outside Provo, I'm constantly asked, "Eww ... how do you live THERE?" I look at them with bewilderment and say, "Well, with 550,000 of us in the Provo metro, I’ve managed to get a few friends who think the same way I do." Not everyone down here loves BYU, or is Mormon. Since its been growing, the area is diversifying. I also like to remind Salt Lakers, in particular, that how they feel about Provo, the rest of the world feels about Salt Lakers. When I say that, their eyes widen, and they say, "Ah, yes, I understand that now." After visiting Southern California a few summers ago for a while, I told folks I was from Salt Lake City since I know they'd never heard of Provo before. I love Sundays. Most things are open if they are national chains, as well as the Provo mall, theaters, etc. I’ve never had a hard time living here in Provo. I like our little downtown and can see the potential for what it's becoming. I feel like I have a type of "ownership" for my little city of Provo. Yes, we have our quirks. Yes, some think we have our judgmental attitudes, but something I’ve learned over the years is you can find folks like that anywhere you go. I'm not going to let their attitudes affect how I feel about where I live. I’ve learned to love Prov,. and now that I'm here, I’ve learned to let my attitude about Provo become a beacon for others. There are a lot of positive things happening here, and I feel I can have a piece of that and be an example that yes, you can be GAY and live in PROVO ... and ENJOY it.

Rebecca: While getting out and starting fresh sounds nice, there is too much keeping me here. Sure, I've lost friendships, as well as relationships with extended family members. That being said, I've found support from my co-workers, and later found local support groups that I've become involved with. Slowly, my family has been coming to terms with my transition and are trying to be supportive. Most importantly, my kids, who are here in Utah, need their father nearby. I also have a good career here. The average Joe on the street leaves me alone, and the more I transition, the less “sirs,” weird stares and double-takes I get. Tweens admittedly drive me nuts with their whispers and titters, trying to act like they aren't looking at me yet going as far as taking pics of themselves with me in the background, to make it look like they aren't taking a picture of me specifically. Come on, guys, can you be more obvious? Even those moments are fewer, however.

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Gavin: What got each of you acting in LGBT affairs and becoming active in the community?

Adaryn: Utah Pride in SLC has really helped me to become an activist. After attending our Utah Pride in our capital city, over the years I’ve learned to not be ashamed of who I am. It's been nice to see the attendance at Pride increase over the years. The parade is especially an eye-opener to see some great, local support. Just because it's in Salt Lake City doesn't mean it's only for Salt Lakers. It's for EVERYONE in Utah – and even surrounding states. Its a great place to be in June for Pride Month.

Rebecca: I'm not sure what exactly happened; I would call it a personal miracle. I was ready to end it all when suddenly and inexplicably, I strongly felt that suicide was not the answer and that I needed to change my approach to living my life. Fighting it to this point always ended with a gun in my hand. What if I did accept this as part of my life? I slowly began to transition, and the more I did, the happier I became, to the point where I am now working with a doctor who specializes in these types of issues and have been on hormone replacement therapy -- HRT -- for the last two months. After about two weeks of HRT, I came to an inner peace that no amount of therapy or anti depressants has ever come close to helping me find. Until now, I've never known what “normal” people feel like on a daily basis. There has always been this underlying feeling of anxiety and doom. Since I started the HRT, those feelings have gone away. I found a life I never knew could exist for me. People are afraid to come out here. They are afraid of their religion. They are afraid of their friends. They are especially afraid of their families. No one should ever feel this level of oppression. No one should ever live in fear of who they are, regardless of whether they are LGBT or not. I recently read a criticism regarding Provo Pride and reaching out to teen suicide among the LGBT community. The question was why just focus on these teens when there are rape victims and other teens, as well, who are at risk? I can see where the critic is coming from, but it wasn't well thought out. Teen suicide is a problem, regardless of the cause; too big for any one group to take on by themselves. While my heart goes out to these teens, I can't relate to what they are going through. I can, however, relate to other transgender people. I feel that my support in this area would mean a lot more than in an area that I can't relate to.

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Gavin: What projects have each of you been involved with over the years?

Rebecca: Other than my my time as a BoySscout obtaining my Eagle, other church youth projects and serving an LDS mission, this is my first. It feels good, though, to be doing something that I believe in.

Gavin: How did the idea come about to do Provo Pride?

Rebecca: I have to admit that this isn't an original idea, nor was it mine. I'm sure that, over the years, there have more than likely been multiple groups/individuals wanting to, but for whatever reason, the time wasn't right. I think that the time is right, though, now. When David Pate and other friends approached me to help out, I felt it was exciting to be part of something that would help the communities to which I belong.

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Gavin: What was it like organizing the events and getting people involved?

Adaryn: It has been really fun and a lot of hard work. Virtually everyone we have talked to about Provo Pride has been excited to find out there will be a Pride Festival in Provo, and many have wanted to volunteer as well as attend.

Gavin: How has it been working with the city and setting up the fest at Memorial Park?

Rebecca: It was great meeting with Mayor Curtis. He was very polite, and I felt he gave us the attention he would have given any other group petitioning to have an event in his city. He brought up valid concerns about the overall organization, with the end goal of maintaining order and providing a safe environment for everyone involved.

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Gavin: What kind of events are you setting up and how is it working with organizations to be a part of the fest?

Rebecca: There are a lot of really good Utah County and Salt Lake bands who are going to be playing at the festival. There will be booths from local nonprofits and businesses, as well as food vendors. There is going to be a children's area with a bouncy house and face painting. All in all it has been great working with local entertainers, businesses and even the city government to create a fun festival on the Sept. 21.

Gavin: Are you working with any local LGBT companies or organizations for this fest or are you going at it alone?

Rebecca: We have received a lot of support from Equality Utah and the Utah Pride Center. When it feels like we are trying to reinvent the wheel, we have approached one or both of these organizations to see what they have done in the past with a similar issue and they have been very helpful in helping us to overcome a lot of the difficulties you'll find in planning a Pride Festival the first year. The Utah Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce has also been very supportive in helping us get the word out about the festival to Utah businesses that are owned by members or allies of the LGBTQ community.

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Gavin: How important is it for Provo to have this kind of festival themselves as opposed to bring linked to Pride in SLC?

Adaryn: This is important to me on so many levels. To have a pride in Provo is pretty amazing. In my opinion, the more Pride fests we have in Utah, the more our message of inclusion and equality gets out. Other states have more than one Pride fest; Utah has 3 now. With 550,000 in our metro of Utah county, we are ready to have a Pride event and have it be successful. Many gay-friendly companies are moving in and our county is diversifying. I see the Utah Pride Festival in Salt Lake as the pinnacle gay-pride event in Utah; like county and state fairs, I think other cities could have their own Pride events and the granddaddy of them all is Utah Pride in our capital city. As Utah grows and more prides pop up, more people get involved and our message is heard more clearly. I don’t see Provo Pride as competing with Utah Pride, rather Provo Oride is complementing Utah Pride. It's ONE MORE gay event in Utah, and it's at a later time in the year, as well.

Rebecca: It is critical that Provo/Utah County has some form of “Pride.” Growing up, especially after I was out on my own, I began to realize that I can't be the only person in Utah who is transgender -- where is everyone? A little research brought up the Pride Center in SLC, but between work and my kids, I don't have the time to go to SLC to be with those like me. After a little more research, I found USGA' “It Get's Better At BYU” video. Here, at least, was a group of LGBT people in Utah County. I personally don't know of any other groups in Utah County who are secular. UVU has a group, I believe, but I don't know much about their group. It would be great to establish a community group that caters to the community rather than those belonging to the schools.

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Gavin: What do you hope to achieve with the festival and the community who attend?

Adaryn: I think it will be a great thing for Provo and the surrounding area to have a pride event here. I also think it's important that Provo has a great pride for those who can't make it to SLC. We have many gay youth who have no way of getting to the Utah Pride Festival in the summer. If it's here locally, they have a greater chance of attending and feeling included and not so alone.

Rebecca: I hope to show other members of the LGBT community living in Utah County that there are others out there. We live here, we are your neighbors, you have others you can be yourself around without judgment. I hope to show non-LGBT people that we are here, we have been here for years and have not posed any threat to them. We don't bite. We understand there are stereotypes and fears you have. Ignoring it and pretending it doesn't exist doesn't fix the problem. Let's work together to resolve these fears, on both sides.

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Gavin: What can we expect from both of you over the rest of the year?

Adaryn: I think you can expect this being only the FIRST year of pride. Provo Pride is not going away, and we have lots of great events planned for next year. We are planning on Pride getting better and better every year. Lots of folks are coming in from all over the state to support us in this endeavor.

Rebecca: I think you will see more fundraisers for next year's Pride Festival. I'm currently involved with a local support group who is secular and would like to see more community support. I would like to see this or another group similar rise up and grow. I hope to be part of that when it does. Utah County is ready to come out, folks, and we need to be ready when we do.

Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?

Adaryn: At this point in the planning stage, none of us has any time to think about anything beyond Sept. 21. That being said, after you come to Provo for our fest, check out Moab Pride the week of Sept. 22-28.

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