In the community

Local gay man looks back at Ontario’s first Pride Month event

As Ontario concluded its Pride Month celebration recently, the local man behind the city’s first celebration reflected on his early efforts to get community support for the event.

Christopher Plummer, 46, a gay man who grew up in Ontario, said early on, around 2015, after returning to the area after living in Chicago for a decade, Plummer looked around and thought to himself that the community did not have any representation or social events for those who are LGBTQIA+ – an abbreviation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, or Asexual.

Indeed, he said, there were folks in the community, some in leadership, who were openly gay, but there was no infrastructure for those in the community who identified as LGBTQIA+.

As Plummer tossed the idea of having a pride event, he said he received some “pretty bad” pushback from some longtime members of the LGBTQIA+ community in the county who told him that the conservative Malheur County was not ready for a Pride Month event. He was told that if he held such a gathering that there would be swift backlash.

“They basically told me,” Plummer said, ‘”if you do this, you’re going to cause us to lose our jobs. You’re going to cause the community to turn against us.” 

Plummer, who declined to name the people who asked him not to hold the event, took their concerns to heart. Instead, he had LGBTQIA+ “social hours,” where LGBTQIA+ people, their friends, or allies would go to a different restaurant each month to have brunch and put pride flags on the tables to be “seen.”

The idea, he said, came from his time in Chicago where in some neighborhoods, there were several gay bars, but in others, there were few. He said an LGBTQIA+ group decided to organize and make certain establishments into “gay bars” for a night.

He said the group was never “obnoxious” about it. The idea, he said, was for LGBTQIA+ folks to have a presence and have somewhere to go where they could feel safe.

Plummer said he never thought Ontario would be too willing to have a “bar scene” given how conservative the community is, but he thought monthly brunches struck the right balance.

“There’s nothing gayer than brunch,” he said. “It’s a proud gay tradition.”

Plummer said the brunches drew up to 15 people at one point. Moreover, he said the group never experienced any negativity at the restaurants. And they went to quite a few, he said.

“They didn’t cheer for us,” he said. “But they didn’t say anything negative. They just accepted us as part of the community.”

Plummer said the conversations among those in the group were always good. What was great about the social hours, he said, was that there was a good mix of new people and regular attendees.

“It started to feel like people weren’t alone,” he said.

But then, he said, the pandemic hit in 2020 and “shut it down.”

The onset of the pandemic, Plummer said, was followed by the false claims by former Ontario City Councilor Freddy Rodriguez and Riley Hill, the former mayor, against Marty Justus, an openly gay man and then a political rival of Hill’s when they both served on the city council.

The Ontario Police Department and the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office found no evidence of crimes

Plummer said the accusations by Rodriguez, who was later recalled and Hill, who lost his for reelection last year, reminded him of the homophobia of the 1980s when Oregon passed the citizen-initiated Measure 8. That removed legal protections for gay and lesbians and required the state to actively discourage homosexuality, that it was a moral offense, on par with pedophilia. The Oregon Court of Appeals found the measure unconstitutional in 1992.

“Back then,” he said, “many people automatically assumed that if you were gay, you were a pedophile or a groomer.”

Plummer said he could handle that bigotry by coming of age during the 1980s and early 1990s. But he worried about younger people who were alone and at home, isolated due to pandemic lockdowns.

That’s when Terry Basford, then director of Project DOVE, a local organization established to help victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking, told him about a state grant intended for LGBTQIA+ communities. So, in 2020, with a state grant, Project DOVE sponsored a socially-distanced Pride Month event at Four Rivers Cultural Center—the first of its kind in Ontario.

Plummer said the event was a group effort with a host of community partners and featured a slate of speakers, which included himself and a local mother of two openly gay sons, who told the story of her kids coming out for the first time from a mother’s perspective.

Overall, Plummer said outside of a few posters being torn down, the organizers had broad support from the community.

He said that compared to his first Pride Month event in Boise in the mid-1990s, where he had rocks and homophobic slurs hurled at him. Now, LGBTQIA+ communities indeed have the visibility and presence he did not have growing up in Ontario during the 1980s.

During that time, he said he didn’t know other gay people existed. Representation in the broader culture was scant, at best. 

Not only that, in the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic was a full-blown public health crisis and not the controlled public health crisis it is today now that there are treatments. Also, during that time, most states outlawed same-sex relationships. Religious groups were offended by the gay lifestyle and believed it to be a sin. They saw AIDS as a punishment.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell, the co-founder of the Moral Majority, one of the largest evangelical Christian political lobby groups, told the Canadian Broadcasting Channel in 1983 that AIDS was God’s punishment for “homosexual promiscuity.”

“I thought my options were that I could get AIDS and die. Be some girl’s gay best friend, or become a hairdresser,” Plummer said. “Because that’s the only thing I saw in the media.” 

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