By James Neal, Staff Writer
Enid News & Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles covering LGBT issues in the Enid community.
In many communities, the work of LGBT organizations is seen only on pre-designated “Pride” days, at specified marches and festivals.
Enid Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Coalition is taking its work beyond “Enid Pride,” to promote acceptance and equality for all throughout the year.
The group’s founding and current members are split about evenly between LGBT and straight members of the community, from a wide range of professions, backgrounds and socio-economic levels.
The Enid LGBT Coalition was incorporated as an organization in 2011.
Founding member Kristi Balden said Enid has had several different organizations formed to support the LGBT community since the 1980s.
She said what sets Enid LGBT Coalition apart is the group is working to not just represent LGBT people, but to improve relations between LGBT people and the community as a whole, and to promote acceptance for all diversity groups.
“There have been many different groups who tried different things, but the other groups really had their own agenda starting out,” Balden said. “We started with the desire to find out what people wanted, and then create an organization based on serving those needs.
“We started, really over the course of several months, by having literally hundreds of conversations with LGBT people and people in the community, to discern from the general public and the LGBT community what the needs really were.”
She said the surveys revealed the community as a whole wanted to see an organization more focused on service, and less focused on pushing an agenda.
“There was an overwhelming sense that most previous organizations were self-serving, and were asking for something from the community,” Balden said. “Instead of asking for services and things, we really wanted to be the people who provided help to others.”
Balden said interacting with the general public as a service organization is far more effective than just organizing marches and pushing an agenda.
“We’ve never put forth any legislative agenda or anything like that,” Balden said. “We’re just here to help our community and the LGBT and diversity communities.”
Balden said that desire to help others is reflected in the Enid LGBT Coalition mission, “to serve the needs of our diverse community by building connections and by encouraging acceptance of all.”
“LGBT is in our name, but it is not in our mission statement, because our mission is about building acceptance for a diverse community,” Balden said.
“You can’t force people into acceptance,” she said. “The lowest end of the spectrum we’d like to see is tolerance, and the ideal is acceptance. But, you can’t force people into that. You have to grow acceptance organically with personal relationships.”
The congregation of Crosswalk United Church is one organization that has been helping Enid LGBT Coalition build those relationships.
J.F. Wickey, former pastor at CrossWalk and a founding member of Enid LGBT Coalition, said the work of the congregation and the work of the coalition “go hand-in-hand.”
“I have always been interested in LGBT issues, and when I started getting interested and working with the congregation in Enid five years ago, we thought it was important as a worship community to provide support to the LGBT community in Enid,” Wickey said.
As a gay pastor, Wickey said he received more support than opposition in Enid, including some from a close-knit group of fellow clergy.
“I had a close-knit group of clergy friends in Enid who were very supportive of me personally, and the ministry of CrossWalk,” he said.
Wickey said more than half the CrossWalk congregation is straight, but are drawn to CrossWalk because they are seeking “an accepting atmosphere, a place to worship, a place where everyone is celebrated.”
Wickey said many CrossWalk members, both gay and straight, left other churches because they did not feel welcome.
“There needs to be someplace where the doors are always open to everyone,” Wickey said. “When you’re told you’re going to hell because of who you are, it tends to drive you away. We just don’t believe that.”
Wickey said LGBT Christians continue to face the idea in many congregations that you cannot be a true Christian and be gay.
“That is a false dichotomy,” he said. “The church is a welcoming place for all people. By our baptism we’re called to ministry, and the word of God is in full use in the lives of LGBT people as well.”
“There is a ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’ attitude, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s just hogwash,” Wickey said. “We’re all sinners when it comes down to it, and none of us deserve the love of God. And yet, God loves us all.”
CrossWalk United Church had its services as a congregation of United Church of Christ, Kansas-Oklahoma Conference for four years in the sanctuary of Faith Lutheran Church, 201 S. Oakwood.
The congregation entered a period of “self-discernment” in December, and stopped having Sunday services at Faith Lutheran. Wickey also departed the congregation in December, citing a “personal need to move on.”
‘A lot of hate’
While CrossWalk currently does not meet for Sunday services, the congregation has continued to meet in the home of Lynne Bussell, a CrossWalk congregation member and one of the founders of Enid LGBT Coalition.
Congregation members meet at 3209 Neilson at 6:30 p.m. each Wednesday, with formal worship the first Wednesday of each month, learning and dialogue sessions on third Wednesdays, and public service work nights on the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month.
Bussell said she and other CrossWalk congregation members want to continue the church’s mission of providing education and fellowship in an open, accepting environment.
“It pierces my heart to hear people say they’ve been kicked out of their church because they thought they were gay or lesbian, and they felt like they needed to know who they were,” Bussell said. “Whatever’s going on for someone, they’re still a child of God, and you can’t shut the door. You can’t judge and condemn. That’s not your job.”
Bussell said she wants to help the community overcome the fear and judgment that surround LGBT issues.
“There’s still a lot of hate and judgment in the area,” she said, “and people aren’t always the most accepting.”
Bussell said she became passionate about getting Enid LGBT Coalition off the ground because of personal experiences in her own family.
“It goes back a lot of years,” Bussell said. “I have been divorced since 1990, and the reason I am divorced is because I had a gay husband, or a bisexual husband.”
Bussell said her ex-husband struggled with his sexual identity through 27 years of marriage.
“We married in 1962, and there were times from about 1977 on that I thought maybe ... but I didn’t know, and he didn’t tell me,” Bussell said. “He wasn’t truthful, to himself or me.”
Bussell said the pain continued to mount for her ex-husband, and the strain began to take a toll on their marriage.
“By 1985 or 1987, he did say things to me to let me know of the pain he was in,” Bussell said. “He had been depressed a lot, and I’m sure it was probably a direct result of living in this limbo land.”
Living in denial finally proved too painful, and Bussell’s ex-husband ended the marriage.
“He just moved out in 1989,” Bussell said. “He came in on our 27th wedding anniversary ... he came in with a bouquet of roses that were 12 different colors.
“My response was, ‘You must be planning to move out, because you’ve never bought me roses before.’ Two weeks later, he did move out.”
Bussell said she works with the Enid LGBT Coalition because she doesn’t want other people to go through the pain and years of denial she and her ex-husband experienced.
“I just felt I needed to do something,” she said. “I would like to do what I can to make people be accepted as people, as human beings at all times.
“Not allowing people to be truthful is hurtful,” Bussell said. “He felt like he had to lie, and he struggled with his identity, and I don’t want that condition to exist for other people. I don’t want anyone to feel like they have to lie about who they are to prevent losing their job or being kicked out of the community.”
Bussell said helping Enid LGBT Coalition isn’t necessarily even about LGBT issues — it’s about helping protect people’s rights, and promoting an atmosphere of acceptance for all in the community.
“I am a straight person, and I’m trying to deal with a world where people are hurt for their identity,” Bussell said. “I don’t want to see anyone be hurt for being who they are. People are people, and they have rights, and their rights are being denied daily in America, and that’s wrong.”
Enid LGBT Coalition is gaining increasing support for its message that no one should be excluded or denigrated based on their identity.
Balden said the group has continued to gain support as it has worked to support community causes.
“I would say the support, at first, was tepid, probably because people have seen organizations come and go,” Balden said.
“But, we increasingly gather more support and get more feedback from the public.”
Balden said all the feedback she’s received about the LGBT coalition has been positive, “but I don’t expect the negative people to reach out to us.”
Balden said Enid LGBT Coalition currently is working toward being classified as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. She said once the coalition officially is recognized as a nonprofit, it will be able to expand its services, both to LGBT members of the community and to the community as a whole.
One of the services the group would like to provide, Balden said, is an empowerment group for parents of LGBT youth in the community.
“Being a parent is challenging anyway, but being a parent of an LGBT youth can be especially challenging in Enid,” Balden said.
Balden knows firsthand the challenges, and lack of support, faced by parents of LGBT youth in Enid. Her son, Christian, came out as being gay as a teenager.
Balden said she and her husband knew Christian was gay long before he came out.
“He didn’t publicly come out until he graduated from high school, but his dad and I always kind of knew he was gay or bisexual,” Balden said.
She said Christian resisted coming out earlier out of fear of how it would affect his place in high school, and in the community.
“Coming out as gay, when you need support from other various adults in Enid, that was a very frightening aspect for him,” Balden said. “Since he was in the closet, he had the disadvantage of hearing people gay-bashing. People didn’t filter that because they didn’t know he was gay, so he was constantly imposed with the idea that this wasn’t OK.
“He had so much riding on his reputation, he was very fearful of coming out.”
‘The next level’
Balden said she worried for her son because LGBT youth who feel unable to share their true identity often turn to alcohol and drugs. Some never overcome the fear of rejection and succumb to suicide.
“LGBT kids, especially those from rejecting families, are eight times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual peers,” Balden said. “I was very worried about Christian — what he was struggling with personally that he wasn’t able to communicate.”
Balden said she and her husband sought to ease Christian’s fears before he came out, telling him they thought he could be gay.
“When he finally decided to come out, he knew we already had set the table, and he knew it wouldn’t change anything in our relationship. What I learned from that process is, you really have to wait until they’re ready.”
Balden said her experience with Christian, and his coming out process, motivated her to become involved with founding the Enid LGBT Coalition.
“I already knew a lot, and had heard a lot, and was very empathetic,” Balden said. “When Christian finally did begin conversing with us about being gay, it solidified a belief I already had, and it pushed me to the next level, of really doing something.”
Balden said the understanding and support of family members is crucial for LGBT youth as they go through the coming-out process.
All too often, teens who do not enjoy that support sink into depression, leading to the high suicide rates for LGBT youth.
“Parents of teenagers sometimes think that their influence is second to their teen’s friends, but this is really not true,” Balden said. “Parents really are on the front lines of the support their children need.”
Balden said that support is especially important “because of the bullying issues among youth that lead to suicide attempts.”
“The prevention of bullying and suicide is a never-ending battle we take very seriously,” she said.
Balden said she wants to use her experience to help other parents, and empower them to understand and support their LGBT kids.
“It’s important for parents to have other parents to talk to about what they’re going through,” she said. “And, even if kids aren’t ready to come out to their parents, it’s important for them to know there are people in Enid who will support them and understand what they’re going through.”
Balden said different families will have different ways of handling a child coming out as gay, and all families need support.
“You really have to meet parents where they are,” Balden said. “There shouldn’t be any judgment about a parent who’s not ready, or is scared, or doesn’t feel accepting right off the bat.”
She said her own experience of learning and growing with Christian as he came out has drawn them, and their whole family, closer together.
“We’re personally and spiritually closer,” she said. “Once he came out of the closet, and we could begin to have our relationship with me as his mom and him as my gay son, we could become more intimate. The more you know someone, the better your relationship. Those challenges have brought us closer.”
For parents dealing with the fear and uncertainty of a child coming out as LGBT, Balden said there is hope.
“I would say don’t panic,” she said. “You can use this as a way to strengthen your relationship with your child, and I would recommend they talk to other parents who at one time were exactly in their shoes.”
She said the best advice any parent of an LGBT child can follow simply is to keep unconditionally loving their child.
“Love your child as fiercely as you did the day they were born,” she said. “They haven’t changed. They’ve just invited you into a deeper, more honest relationship with them.
“The greatest gift you can give your child is unconditional love. And just because acceptance may not be instant doesn’t mean you won’t get there.”