Rural Pennsylvania Group Hosts First Local LGBTQ Pride Gathering in Elk County

Elk County LGBT
Elk County in north central Pennsylvania.

This is how it works – or it should work. A group of local folks create a safe space to celebrate and affirm their LGBTQ neighbors. In this case, a 40-year-old pansexual mother of two set up a visibility event in a park in St. Mary’s, Pennsylvania. People came, made connections, joined the Facebook group. And the world kept spinning, only with a little more rural glitter.

Ledcat and I just took a driving trip through this region in September so I was thrilled to be able to ask informed questions. They describe this as a “Show Up” event, but it seems very much in the tradition of grassroots Pride events.

I spoke with that woman about her efforts. And I was damned impressed, enough so that I began contacting other rural organizers to find out what is happening on the ground level in regions without Pride events or incorporated LGBTQ Organization. Stay tuned for that series. And keep your eyes on Elk County.

Your Name: Joleen Genevro
Your Age: 40
Your affiliation with this event: Fed up, proud, mom…aka…planner. This “meet up”, “Show Out”, event was my brain child. I’m not really sure what to call it exactly.

How do you describe your identity? My identity I would say is Pan Sexual, however, it was my daughters who taught me that there was a label to how I identify. See..I would always say “I just like people”…if I was interested in someone, it didn’t matter to me if they were a guy, girl, or otherwise. I was and am attracted to people. However, I am married to my soul mate, my husband has accepted me as I am from day 1. He’s never tried to change me.

Tell us about this event, the first ever public LGBTQ pride event in Elk County. This is how this event came about. On Oct 12 2019, I was walking around the “Diamond”, which is the center of town here (Editor’s Note – in St. Marys, PA), and on the Diamond was a small group of people. They had signs posted all over the diamond, they said things like “pray for the end of abortion ” “1man+1woman=God’s marriage”. Now I have to say that I’ve seen these people before with various signs. If they are a part of a group I do not know, but after they walked around the diamond a few times, they stopped in the center and prayed for the end of abortions, and all the homosexuals. After seeing these people at various intersections, this is the first time ive seen them gather. And it made me…..angry, sad, disappointed, disgusted, and fed up. I was done having to see these people be rude to a group of people they obviously don’t know the first things about, and I knew yelling at them, or talking to them would get me nowhere…so I thought, I’m taking this to Facebook, and I’m going to say, enough is enough. Even if I have to stand out there alone, I’m going to stand there, rain or shine, and be a face for these people to see who they are judging and talking about. I did not expect such a big response, nor did I expect as many people to show up as did.

Elk County LGBTQ
Community members gather in St. Mary’s, Pennsylvania. Photo: Mindy Sabatine

What is life like for LGBTQ folks living in Elk County and nearby communities? I wish I could say that life for members of the LGBTQ community is easy here. However, in my opinion, I think life for LGBTQ members varies. We have never had a case of tragedy for someone who identifies in the LGBTQ community, thank goodness. But I think it goes from people being indifferent about who is gay, who is trans, etc. To those who will speak out against being gay or trans. Some LGBT members are afraid to come out and be who they really feel they are. Becuz this is such a small town, and there is definitely “small town mentality” here, I think some members are afraid to come out, and be public becuz they think they may be hurt. Emotionally, physically, and financially. I have close friends who live openly as gay couples who aren’t treated any different, and I have friends who are scared to be open about their sexuality or gender, in fear they will be hurt physically. I know the people who attended this event were pleasantly surprised at how the community honked their support. We had more members of the community yell encouraging words, vs the couple that yelled rude or ignorant things.

Your event grew out of a Facebook community group. Please tell us about that group’s history and the value it brings to the LGBTQ community in Elk County. Our group LGBT OF ELK CO was founded by Ruth Tyger. Who has recently passed away. My close friend Mindy Sabatine has taken over the group, along with me who I am now (or will be soon) an administrator also. due to my post about my plan for Oct 20th, that is how I got invited to this Facebook group. I did not know we had one for this area, and I am happy that I found it. I 100% believe that the group is invaluable to our LGBTQ community becuz it’s a safe place for people to go and talk. I hope that it gets bigger and bigger, and we have more and more young members in there that if they need help, we are all there to in any way we can.

Do you think Elk County could support a chapter of PFLAG or GLSEN or other national organization? What would it take? I honestly don’t know how to answer this question. I don’t think that we have had many issues in this area that would call for these groups to be represented. Maybe if the LGBTQ community gets bigger and is more visible…this would be something to look into.

I was in Elk County in September. Our experiences as a white middle-aged lesbian couple were mostly benign. We didn’t see much in the way of oppressive symbols, but we also didn’t really meet any other gay folx. And we saw a lot of American flags, far more than is usual in Southwestern PA. Is it fair to say that it is a bit of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” region or it there more overt forms of discrimination? I would say that there is definitely a “don’t ask don’t tell” mentality here. However. .there are also a good number of people who do live openly also. But this also plays to the small town mentality, people here know everyone and everyone here knows everyone’s business. I think what isn’t overt is LGBTQ gatherings like we had on the 20th. We have such an amazing LGBTQ community here…that I think of the interest is here, the 20th showed that it doesn’t have to be scary…and I’m hoping to have more events, to get everyone together and see how they would all feel about doing more of these public events.

I believe that if a town like Ridgeway were to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance, they would not only be on the right side of history but also open the floodgates to more tourism dollars. I would personally travel with intention to LGBTQ owned businesses and LGBTQ friendly communities. Ridgeway can easily be a day trip from Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Philadelphia and more. But perhaps it is more likely to start in the schools? Where in Elk County do you see the most potential for local municipal government action on LGBTQ issues? For this question I asked Mindy her thoughts on this. This is her answer:

“I think St Marys would be an excellent start and could possibly create a ripple effect. As Sunday’s gathering showed. There ARE allies that will stand with the LGBTQ community. But those in the community are still sort of “keeping their heads down” so to speak out of fear of retaliation by their employers/community.

By doing more of these types of things, it is my hope that it will show those in the LGBTQ that they have nothing to fear. It’s time to get vocal and elect local leaders who are sympathetic to the community and it’s allies and attend City Council meetings as well. Change will only happen if people are heard loud and clear. Since St Marys is the only classified city in the county, I feel it could be a beacon for others in neighboring towns to follow suit.”

What plans does your group have for more visibility? Mindy and I were talking about planning more events. I had a week to throw together the 20th, and it was so spur of the moment and last min that I think given more time and more talking, we would see an even bigger turn out. There is an LGBTQ group out of clearfield that we are going to contact…and see if maybe a cross town gathering would be possible. To bring people here, and for those of us in elk county to go there as well.

Do you have tools to accept donations – a crowdfund, Paypal, etc? No. We do not have those in place just yet.

When I was in college, a friend was from St. Mary’s and couldn’t wait to get out – he now has a robust life in Washington DC. But my work with AMPLIFY has taught met that a lot of rural LGBTQ folks in Western PA actually prefer to say in their communities (or similar communities), they simply want to free to their lives. Both are valid responses, of course, but how do the rest of support LGBTQ folks in rural Pennsylvania? I agree. Both valid, people born and raised in small towns either love it, or want to get out. This town though is all I’ve know. It’s a lot safer to raise kids here, and quieter. Becuz there’s less people, there’s less diversity also. So for someone who wants to meet people, the gay scene here is the same group of people…to actually meet someone new, most have to leave..and some then come back to live in their home town with the love of their lives..

Where can our readers find the group and group leaders on social media? Readers can find my group on Facebook, it’s LGBT of Elk county, thru that you can find myself and Mindy there. My Instagram is username: joleengen and my IG name is JoleenG

Thank you, Joleen.


For photos and other information about LGBTQ organizing in Elk County, visit the group on Facebook.

Please remember that if you live or have ties to Elk County or any of the 26 counties of Western Pennsylvania, we’d love to include your LGBTQ voice in our #AMPLIFY archive. It is one tool to remind the world that we are visible, in big and quiet ways. You can be anonymous if you prefer. I’d love more Q&A’s from Elk County and nearby regions. You’ll find the online Q&A here (takes about 30 minutes) and the existing archive of 310+ stories at this link.

Here are three Q&A’s that we’ve received over the years …

Kelsey, 22, Talks Lesbian Life in Elk County #AMPLIFY

Mindy, 42, Lives Semi-Open as Trans in Rural Elk County #AMPLIFY

Sarah, 38, Talks Transitioning in Her Rural Pennsylvania Community #AMPLIFY

If you want to get something started in your own community, a great way to find support is to connect with the LGBTQ Facebook groups defined by region – Elk County, Northeastern PA, Clearfield County, Indiana (2), Mercer, Erie, and more are right there for you to access. There’s no one size fits all solution for each community, but there is a lot to be learned from engaging people with shared lived experiences.

 

  • Hi! My name is Wendi, I identify as Bisexual, and I’m the head volunteer coordinator for West Branch Pride in Williamsport, PA. I checked out your blog and it’s great! Very informative and enjoyable to read… We’re in the process of organizing this region’s first-ever Pridefest! I’ll be back to check for updates!

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