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.
Next up is OUTIndiana serving Indiana County. Indiana County has been home to multiple organizations, including a film festival, Pride events, and more. Scroll to the end for links to all posts in this series.
Your Name: Shelly Bouchat
Your Pronouns: She/her
Your Age: 37
How do you describe your identity? I am a lesbian who is a mathematician and also a partner to an amazing woman with two children.
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. Indiana County
Through this organization, we have also began having yearly Indiana County Pride events, which began in 2016. This past year, for the Pride event there was a community Pride dinner in the streets of Indiana (one of the main sections of a street was closed down and tables were placed in the street).
What types of LGBTQ supports and services are available within your region? The supports and services for LGBTQ people in Indiana County is extremely limited, with most offerings being in Pittsburgh (one hour away). There are several therapists who advertise expertise in LGBTQ issues, as well as some health care services that display signage to advertise a safe place for LGBTQ to seek services. There is a chapter of PFLAG listed on the website for Indiana County, but in the six years I have lived here it has never been active.
Please list some of the most urgent unaddressed LGBTQ needs in your region. Community …. community …. community. I think that LGBTQ people in Indiana County first need to realize that they are not alone and that there are LGBTQ people here. Through gathering as a community, we are also showing our presence to all residents of Indiana County. From there, we can together push for more services and protections from our region. There are already initiatives in place through the local university, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, to offer trainings about LGBTQ people for law enforcement officials and health care providers, as well as from the local Indiana Borough Council who has established a non-discrimination statement of support.
Describe how you use Facebook to organize and engage LGBTQ folx in your region? The OutIndiana organization, which has a presence on Facebook, was started to provide a public group for LGBTQ people from Indiana County to connect. In the beginning, there were monthly meet-ups at a variety of locations, from bars and restaurants to pumpkin patches and bowling alleys. The amount of activity in the group has gone through its ups and downs and is currently on an upswing, as the transition of power has been to a larger group of organizers. There is currently a monthly meetup at a local bar/restaurant that provides the organization with a safe space. Through this organization, we have also began having yearly Indiana County Pride events, which began in 2016. This past year, for the Pride event there was a community Pride dinner in the streets of Indiana (one of the main sections of a street was closed down and tables were placed in the street).
Did you create the Facebook tools? If not, please summarize the history of the tools before your time. I did create the Facebook group and initially planned all of the events for the first several years, as I was working to get the name of the group known. However, in the past year and a half I have been transitioning the group to a newer, more energetic organizing body. They are doing a great job with organizing events and re-energizing the LGBTQ community in Indiana County.
How do you describe the success of Facebook in building community for LGBTQ folks in your region? Facebook provides a convenient and free way to advertise events and have people sign-up for notifications from a group. It has really helped to form a community of LGBTQ people in a rural area, like Indiana County.
What are some challenges you face using Facebook or other social media tools to organize? To be able to reach all LGBTQ people, whether they are in the coming out process or not, we have to make the group public. This allows for individuals who are not able to be out for their job or to their families to still see the posts and events in the group. While being a public group is beneficial to these individuals, it also means that individuals who don’t support the LGBTQ community can also see the group. In the past, I was generally personally targeted with the threats and comments, often receiving personal messages from these types of individuals. Occasionally this has been a problem, but I have had support from law enforcement in Indiana County when dealing with these individuals.
Do you network or engage others from rural Pennsylvania doing similar LGBTQ organizing? If so, what regions? At the present time, we don’t network with other counties, as we are still establishing a more active LGBTQ community here. However, I do keep an eye on the types of events happening in larger cities to see if they could be possible events that we could organize here.
What sorts of real-time LGBTQ events take place in your region? As mentioned previously, there are monthly LGBTQ Happy Hours that happen through OUTIndiana. With the local university, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, there is a weeklong celebration during the week of National Coming Out Day that is called “Spirit Week”. Those daily events are open to the entire Indiana community. Through IUP, we have also been able to bring in national LGBTQ speakers, like Robyn Ochs, and nationally known LGBTQ musicians, like Namoli Brennet. These events are also open to the public.
Has there ever been a LGBTQ Pride event or gathering in your region? Why or why not? I mentioned in one of the questions before, but Indiana County began having a Pride event in June 2016. This tradition continues, and the Pride events continue to expand.
Do any of your local school districts have a GSA or similar organization? The Indiana County High School has an active GSA called the “Love is Love Club”.
I would like to see PFLAG organize/re-organize in Indiana County. I think there are many parents and friends who could use that support network.
Do you have any colleges or universities in your region? Yes, Indiana University of Pennsylvania is located in our county.
Who represents your region in US Congress, PA State Senate, and PA State House? No response.
Do you see an opportunity for national organizations like PFLAG, GLSEN, SAGE, or others to organize in your region? Why or why not? I would like to see PFLAG organize/re-organize in Indiana County. I think there are many parents and friends who could use that support network.
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? Approximately 3-4 years ago the Borough Council chairman Peter abroad read a statement condemning hate and discrimination in Indiana. The statement was read in front of the Indiana County Courthouse. One of our County Commissioners, Sherene Hess, was also there to endorse the statement. They included sexual orientation and identity in this statement. Due to the lack of funding at the Borough level, they cannot fund an investigations office/positions, so there is not a way (at present) to make it actionable. However, the Indiana County officials continue to publicly address that hate is not welcome in our region. Just recently, there was an article in the Indiana Gazette where Indiana Borough Council President Peter Broad was quoted as saying:
“Indiana Borough strives to be a welcoming community within Indiana County. This means to embrace principles which celebrate diversity, equality and inclusion. It also means to keep the public aware of the adverse effects of racial discrimination; and do all we can to ensure it is clear hate has no place in our community.”
This statement was in regards to a billboard located 32 miles west of Indiana, PA. Here is a link to the full article: https://www.indianagazette.com/news/council-denounces-billboard/article_54d1ca3f-d462-51f1-9bc9-4e8b03190a6d.html
What are some misperceptions people have about LGBTQ life in rural Western Pennsylvania? I think there is just a general misunderstanding and inaccurate perception about who LGBTQ people are. Instead of addressing what those misperceptions are, I would like to instead provide my take on how we change these misperceptions. Many people in rural Pennsylvania don’t realize that they have probably actual met (and are often friends with) LGBTQ people. When people start to realize that their friends and neighbors are LGBTQ, then we often work toward greater acceptance of the LGBTQ community.
How can folks living in Pittsburgh, Erie and other regions with resources support folks living in your region? Supporting events, like Pride events, in rural communities would be a huge boost.
Please identify any openly LGBTQ owned businesses in your region. I am not aware of any.
What can we expect next from your group? You can expect to see a continuation of the monthly events and a growing community presence of LGBTQ people in Indiana County.
Where can our readers find your group on social media?
Is there anything else you’d like to add? I just want to thank you, Sue, for the opportunity to increase the visibility of OUTIndiana as well as to showcase the work being down in rural areas of Pennsylvania to support LGBTQ people living in these areas.
Thank you, Shelly
Previous posts in this series: