Billie Johnson

Billie Johnson

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June is LGBTQ+ Pride Month — a time to recognize and celebrate lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Americans. Before I talk about Pride Month and the rainbow flags all around, let’s start with a few definitions for some of these terms that may not be in the mainstream yet.

“Transgender” refers to people whose gender identity does not align with the one they were assigned at birth. “Cisgender” then, means that someone’s gender identity matches the one they were assigned at birth. “Queer,” a term that some still find offensive due to historical use as a slur, is a catch-all for people who may not be straight or cisgender. The plus (+) has been added to include intersex people or those who are asexual. Intersex people are born with anatomy, reproductive organs and/or chromosomal patterns that do not fit the typical definitions for male or female bodies, and asexual people do not experience sexual attraction.

I was raised to be a proud person. I’m not talking the arrogant type of pride (although, I can be); I’m talking about a pride that exists in the absence of shame. The messages from my mother and teachers at my Lutheran school echoed for years: be proud of who you are. Be proud to be a redhead. Be proud to be a girl. Be proud to be a child of God. By the time I started to question if I was gay, I was already too proud to let the parental or parochial messages of shame that emerged sink in. For the most part.

In high school, since I didn’t feel like I could talk to anyone, I spent hours quietly combing the archives and microfiche at the Idaho State library to find answers. I researched the “nature versus nurture” debate. I became acquainted with state laws against homosexuality, and I read every magazine article I could find on gay history, activists and celebrities. I also read religious texts on the topic and through all of this learned how to delineate and discuss homosexuality in a civic context versus a religious one.

I was searching for evidence that I was OK. That I’d be OK. I have never been suicidal, but LGBTQ+ youth are up to three times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual youth, and that’s exactly why I’m writing all of this. There is a hope that sprouts with every rainbow flag seen during Pride Month. A community finds connection. A kid finds kinship.

The first Pride event I attended was the Seattle Pride Parade in the mid-1990s. The grand marshal was Margarethe Cammermeyer, the Army colonel and reservist whose legal challenges dismantled the military’s anti-gay regulations and led to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” A Microsoft employee group marched with strollers and feather boas behind their banner. A gay men’s water polo team was there in speedos. Drag queens danced to disco, and members of the Seattle Mudhens women’s rugby team recognized me on the sidewalk from matches earlier that spring and yanked me into the street for a line-out play. I was in the parade!

I went through eight rolls of film with my little 35mm camera that day. My Idaho eyes were struck by the sheer number of people, artistry, joy and genuine pride in who they were. My Idaho heart had never felt that kind of unquestioning solidarity among thousands of people.

When I graduated from Idaho State, I wanted to move to Seattle or Portland where I’d be free to live more openly, but three things got in the way. My mom’s illness got worse, and I wanted to stay close. I got a great job, and I started to mountain bike. As my career progressed and mountain biking led to great adventures and lasting friendships, it was clear that Southeast Idaho wasn’t just going to be my childhood home but my forever home.

Ever since I was a teen, I’ve been able to spot a rainbow bumper sticker from 50 yards away in the Pine Ridge Mall parking lot. A dime-sized pride flag lapel pin leaps out at me across a room, and just last week when I attended church for the first time in 16 months, I took an extra second to take in the rainbow flag taped to a window en route to the parish hall.

I’m not alone in being an LGBTQ+ Idahoan who chooses to live and love in this state. I’m not alone in recognizing who I was at a young age, and I’m not alone in having experienced an exceptional joy among strangers at a Pride event or the soothing salve of seeing a rainbow flag in a church space. Despite rationally understanding that we aren’t alone, being LGBTQ+ in Idaho can feel lonely and isolating. June’s LGBTQ+ Pride Month and every single rainbow flag chips away at that loneliness and replaces it with camaraderie and affirmation. The rainbow flag is an acknowledgement of our existence, a symbol of promise, and a declaration that we can have … that we should have … that we do have … pride.

Billie Johnson of Pocatello holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s degree in business from Idaho State University. She is an engineer and community volunteer who relishes hiking and biking the mountains of Southeast Idaho.