Hoquiam resident Jen Gillies-Alvarez works at Grays Harbor College as a coordinator of the Food Employment Training and Opportunity Grant programs. She and her wife, Sarah Gillies-Alvarez, have two children: 14-year-old Leif and 11-year-old Cassidy. Before earning her bachelor’s degree at The Evergreen State College, Jen Gillies-Alvarez studied at Grays Harbor College and was a founding member of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). Gillies-Alvarez and other local activists are working to create more resources for Grays Harbor’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community through the Out &Proud Grays Harbor Coalition. The coalition will host the first Grays Harbor Pride Festival Aug. 23 in Hoquiam.
You recently founded Out &Proud Grays Harbor Coalition. Where did the idea come from?
In my work at Grays Harbor College as the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) advisor I have seen all too often students who are very broken. I have had several students who have been suicidal in the past and this last fall I had a past student pass away from suicide. The students are more than that to me, they become like my family or my kids. I am very protective of them and work hard to help make them feel safe while on campus. I have had many who were, or currently, self-mutilating, or what is known as a “cutter.” Many of the students are not accepted by their families or have been bullied for years by peers.
Out &Proud came about one day over coffee in the old Tully’s in downtown Hoquiam. My dear friend, Miki Cabell, and I were talking about all that was happening to some local youth we knew and our own experiences here. We decided it was time to step up and help create some change and provide events and places for people to feel safe that identified as LGBTQ. Miki likes to quote this: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now I know better, I do better,” by Maya Angelou.
What do you hope to accomplish with this organization?
Our dream for the organization is to have a safe space for the LGBTQ and ally communities locally. There are very limited services for the LGBQT community here and we would like to have a center where people could come for support and resources. My personal goal is to start to facilitate support groups in the local high schools and middle schools. I believe these are very crucial ages where teens need the most support. With our children heading into high school and middle school next year, my goal is to work with the school board and the administrators to start groups at both schools. I would also really like to hold safe space training for the employees each school. Last year I worked with Hoquiam Middle School on an anti-bullying assembly where I talked about my experiences in middle school and how I came out. It was a really profound experience for me and my son was so proud of me. Both of our kids are very against bullying and want to start campaigns in their schools this next year. Sarah and I spent all last year being “Popcorn Moms” at our daughter’s school because we wanted her peers to know that we are just like all other families, most kids were jealous that she had two moms!
You and the other Out &Proud board members are working to create a Pride Festival in downtown Hoquiam. What is your vision for this event?
We have an extremely dedicated group of people who want to help the LGBTQ community become locally visible. I hear all the time that there is no “community” here and that there is nothing to do or no place to go to meet others. Miki and I had an idea that we should hold a pride festival and show the local community that we are here and we are queer! We wanted to have a festival where people could come and support LGBTQ individuals, have some great food, listen to music, watch a drag show and have educational resources available.
Pride festivals have long been a tradition in larger cities, such as Seattle and Olympia. How do you think the event will fare in a smaller town like Hoquiam?
We have had an overwhelming amount of support locally. We met with Hoquiam Mayor Jack Durney when we first wanted to have this event, explained why it was so crucial and he was really supportive. We had a float in the recent Founder’s Day Parade and an Indian taco booth (tacos made with fry bread). The amount of people who cheered us on or stopped by the booth was overwhelming and humbling to all of us. It is a true testament that there are supporters of our cause out there and that there is a need for this type of an organization and festival. Gargoyle Tattoo, Herbig Jewelers, Swanson’s Foods, Trio’s Bar and Grill, McHugh’s Furniture, The Stuff Store, Durney Insurance, Burgess Automotive, Safeway, Jay’s Produce, the Grays Harbor College GSA, CaKecaKes Gourmet Treats and Dunsire Printers have already been local donors. Met Meds is going to be one of our bigger sponsors for the Pride Festival, but we are in need of more.
What issues specific to Grays Harbor does the LGBTQ community face?
I think the biggest issue that LGBQT people face here is the lack of anything for them. There are no places for resources, no GSAs in local middle/high schools, lack of awareness that they are LGBTQ people even in the area. Many people feel very afraid to be out in this area and keep their identities hidden. There are no specific counselors who advertise that they work with LGBTQ individuals and I had to do a lot of research to find ones that were accepting. Other than the GSA at the college there are not a lot of places for people to go. I get calls from all over the community about how to connect people or case managers looking for resources for individuals they are working with. It breaks my heart when I have to tell them, there are none. LGBTQ individuals historically face more homelessness, alcohol and drug abuse and family violence.
Are there other resources in the community for people wanting to participate in LGBTQ programs?
I am working on trying to get our PFLAG chapter up and running again. PFLAG is Parents, Friends and Families of Lesbians and Gays. We are really in need of support groups for people.
I am really excited about this new adventure and have been amazed at how quickly it has all come together and the support we have been given. If people want to learn more, donate, or volunteer they can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to our website at www.opghc.org. For more information about the Grays Harbor Pride Festival, visit www.graysharborpride.com.