Rural PA LGBTQ&A with West Branch Pride Organizers in Williamsport, Lycoming County

This is part of a new occasional series exploring LGBTQ organizing in rural Pennsylvania communities.

After our recent driving trip through the PA Wilds communities, I was impressed that after an almost complete lack of queer visibility, a slew of new LGBTQ projects unfolded in my feed – a Pride event in Elk County, a Pride parade in Altoona, the election of an openly gay borough council member in Indiana borough, and the emergence of an organized LGBTQ community group near Williamsport, serving many of the communities we had just visited. One revelation just let to another. Hence, a new Q&A series.

This Q&A series is designed to keep that momentum going in terms of all of us learning about the significant work our neighbors are doing on the ground in our rural communities across the Commonwealth. We’ve reached out to folks in Erie, Elk, Altoona/Johnstown, Washington, Westmoreland, Beaver, and beyond to talk directly with community organizers. If you know of someone whose voice should be part of this project, please email pghlesbian at gmail dot com.

First up is West Branch Pride, serving the Northern Tier and Northeastern communities. They have established a 501c3 and are working to host a Pride event in 2020 near Williamsport, Lycoming County.

via Wikiepedia. Map of Pennsylvania’s regions.

Your Name: Jay

Your Pronouns: He/Him/His

Your Age: 43

How do you describe your identity? Pansexual, Cisgender male.

Please describe the geographic area you focus on in your online organizing. Please include the counties and regional names for context by those who read this and live outside of your region. West Branch Susquehanna River Valley. Counties: Lycoming, Clinton, Centre, Northumberland, Montour, among others including the northern tier counties of northcentral PA.

What types of LGBTQ supports and services are available within your region? Very few:

AIDS Resource- an HIV services agency that covers ten counties of northcentral and central PA. STI testing, PrEP clinic, HIV case management services.

Alphabet Soup LGBTQ Support Group- meets weekly on Thursdays 5:30-7:00pm at Way Cool Beans coffee shop, Williamsport.

West Branch Pride- nonprofit LGBTQ-oriented organization. We’re creating our region’s first-ever annual Pride Festival, starting in September 2020. The exact date is currently being firmed up with the City of Williamsport. We’ll also be getting into advocacy efforts, including a future nondiscrimination ordinance in Williamsport. On the drawing board is our desire to establish an LGBTQ+ Community Center in Williamsport to serve this whole region. After years of watching our bars come and go, we need to create our own space that our community controls and supports.

Central PA Queer Resource Group- a Facebook Group that is slightly active.

Please list some of the most urgent unaddressed LGBTQ needs in your region.

Mental Health services; doctors willing to prescribe PrEP; Transgender health services; events that rebuild our sense of community, family, and connection. The events angle is something we’re currently working to address very soon.

Describe how you use Facebook to organize and engage LGBTQ folx in your region? Over the course of many months, we used it to help spread the word that we were forming a planning committee for West Branch Pride. Now, we use it to help spread the word about our activities, meetings, related events, and news.

Did you create the Facebook tools? If not, please summarize the history of the tools before your time. Yes.

How do you describe the success of Facebook in building community for LGBTQ folks in your region? Somewhat successful. Facebook keeps changing its algorithms which causes many of our posts to not see many views or engagements. They’ve made it so that you pretty much NEED to pay their advertising fees to have your posts be seen.

What are some challenges you face using Facebook or other social media tools to organize? Facebook keeps changing its algorithms which causes many of our posts to not see many views or engagements. They’ve made it so that you pretty much NEED to pay their advertising fees to have your posts be seen.

Do you network or engage others from rural Pennsylvania doing similar LGBTQ organizing? If so, what regions?

State College (Centre County), Lewisburg (Northumberland County).

What sorts of real-time LGBTQ events take place in your region (film festivals, informal meetings, GSA, etc.)

Alphabet Soup LGBTQ Support Group- meets weekly on Thursdays 5:30-7:00pm at Way Cool Beans coffee shop, Williamsport.

Has there ever been a LGBTQ Pride event or gathering in your region? Why or why not? No. We’ve witnessed many groups come and go over the years. Some of the major limiting issues we’ve witnessed that caused their dissolution: Overpowering personalities; inability to put the common purpose above individuals’ personalities; inappropriate motivations like sex and ego; inability to create and keep cohesiveness.

Do any of your local school districts have a GSA or similar organization? Yes. Williamsport Area School District, Lycoming College, Penn College of Technology, Montoursville Area School District.

Do you have any colleges or universities in your region? Lycoming College, Penn College of Technology, Penn State University, Bloomsburg University, Mansfield University, Bucknell University. Lock Haven University has a President’s Commission on LGBTQ Affairs, which is also a Facebook Page.

Who represents your region in US Congress, PA State Senate, and PA State House?

US Senators- Pat Toomey and Robert Casey, Jr.

US Representative- Fred Keller

PA Senator- Gene Yaw

PA Representative- Jeff Wheeland

Do you see an opportunity for national organizations like PFLAG, GLSEN, SAGE, or others to organize in your region? Why or why not? Yes. We already have PA Equality Project (based in Erie), Equality Pennsylvania, and PFLAG-Danville to help if needed.

Can you identify any local municipality in your region that might successfully consider a local non-discrimination ordinance? What would it take to make that happen from your point of view? Williamsport. We’re gathering the troops to begin work on it.

What are some misperceptions people have about LGBTQ life in rural Western Pennsylvania? Not all of us are redneck hicks.

How can folks living in Pittsburgh, Erie and other regions with resources support folks living in your region? Reach out to us. Any help would be welcome. Feel free to publish or share my contact information.

Please identify any openly LGBTQ owned businesses in your region. The Planet Bar in Williamsport. Although, they have reduced days and hours of operation to only Thu-Sat nights and offer only karaoke each night.

What can we expect next from your group? Big things! We won’t stop until we have all the resources and tools we need right here at home.

Where can our readers find your group on social media?

https://www.facebook.com/WestBranchPride/

https://twitter.com/pridefestlove

https://www.instagram.com/westbranchpride/

Is there anything else you’d like to add? We’re also working on monthly fundraiser events to benefit West Branch Pride starting in January. Those will entail short drag shows followed by dance music. They also have an additional purpose: To further energize our LGBTQ+ community and get them engaged in action.

Also, our website domain name will be changing to WestBranchPride.com this Friday 11/22 for simplicity and clarity and to reflect our organization’s name change to West Branch Pride since we’ve expanded our scope and mission to more than only a pride festival.

West Branch Susquehanna River Pride