A sticker bearing the Equality Flag appears at a window inside the Malheur County Health Department. The flag is often used as a symbol of the LGBTQIA+ community. (The Enterprise/File photo)
ONTARIO – The calls came back to back. About a year ago, Bettye Ramirez had three parents reach out for resources to help their children who were questioning their sexuality.
Ramirez couldn’t help them.
“We had no resources in Ontario for the LGBTQ community,” said Ramirez, who runs Malheur County’s CASA program to help the area’s foster kids.
Ramirez subsequently teamed up with Kirt Toombs, CEO of the Eastern Oregon Center for Independent Living. Together they created the LGBTQIA+ Community Planning Coalition of Oregon/Idaho in June.
Once a month, the coalition is bringing together representatives of local agencies, businesses, and community members.
Their goal is to make Ontario a more inclusive community for folks who identify as anything other than straight.
The meetings are open to the public, but the stories shared by community members are confidential.
“We hope individuals can feel like they can be their true selves in the community,” Toombs said.
One of the concerns is making sure people aren’t leaving the area because they don’t feel welcome, he added. The nearest resources that exist for the LGBTQ community are in Boise.
The coalition partners – which include the Malheur County Health Department, Four Rivers Cultural Center, and about a dozen others – are brainstorming ways to make resources more visible, said Toombs. Websites are being revamped to include helpful links, and social and support groups are currently offered by many community partners.
The hope is that by next June, the coalition will have built up the momentum to have some kind of PRIDE celebration in Ontario.
The coalition is also partnering with local schools in Malheur County as well as those located in Idaho, and will hold a youth meeting every quarter.
Kids in Oregon fare a bit better than Idaho when it comes to discrimination, according to an annual report by the agency GLSEN. The agency’s 2017 National School Climate Survey revealed that 84% of the Idaho youth surveyed reported regularly hearing homophobic remarks at school.
Oregon, meanwhile, is moving in the right direction, said Toombs. Oregon law was modified this year to combat hate crimes. But there are still strides to be made in Malheur County, said Ramirez.
“I love this little community, but we can be narrow minded,” said Ramirez. “There’s things that look like they’re generational and we lack a lot of resources here to help our LGBTQ community.”
Euvalcree, an Ontario nonprofit that serves underrepresented communities including local Latinos, will be facilitating the next meetings. The group got involved in an effort to bring LGBTQ visbility to the Hispanic community.
“In the Hispanic community it’s not easy for parents to accept it,” Martinez said. “We want the Hispanic community to understand more about this topic and to open itself up to it.”
Martinez said she understands first-hand the issues that come with being a double minority in the community. A close family member who came out found it difficult to find acceptance.
“We want to support community members who may be facing these issues and don’t know how to handle them,” she said.
As for Ramirez, the next time she gets a call, she said she’ll be ready.
“I just want the community to have a safe place to ask questions and get answers,” Ramirez said.
News tip? Reporter Yadira Lopez: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.
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