‘I wanted to make sure our voices were heard loud and clear’: LGBTQ group works to build acceptance in rural Pa.

(Image via The Standard-Journal of Milton, Pa.)

By Frank Pizzoli

MIFFLINBURG, Pa. — If you see something, say something.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, advertising industry executive Allen Kay coined the public service announcement for New York City. And from there the message spread widely.

Can that kind of message spread work in in tiny Mifflinburg, Pa? On July 26, the members of The I Am Alliance, organized a pride event in the Union County village (pop. 3,600)  to find out.

The answer turned out to be “Yes.” And organizer Victoria Matthews told the Central Voice that her goal “is to keep awareness going.”

“I had been thinking about the I Am Alliance for quite some time,” she said. She later told FOX-56 News that the “idea for the rally started after a sign was put on Wenger’s grocery store spreading misinformation about mask usage and coronavirus, going on to say the LGBTQIA lifestyle is ‘a sin in God’s eyes and spreads deadly diseases.”

“They are people of powerful love, people who deserve to be loved, people with rights, and people with a voice that will not be silenced,” Matthews said of the local queer community. “We will not stand by while they’re smeared with derogatory statements, but we will stand with them and for them.”

“I believe the queer community needs events like this,” Matthews continued. “So often LGBTQIA, especially children and teens in the community, feel isolated, rejected and alone. This showed them that they’re not alone, that they belong to something that is big and beautiful.”

At least 26 trans people have been killed in the U.S. this year. This is who they are

If it’s successful, the Alliance’s work will show queer people “there is a place where they can be accepted and not bullied, where they are free to just be themselves and to be the person they are,” she said.

Matthews is keeping the Alliance Facebook and Instagram pages active with postings and event photos. She’s working on “more events and working on a coalition of social justice groups.”

The Alliance has held other rallies in the area in support of the Black Lives Matter. Frank Mazano, who heads If Not Us Then Who, told WNEP-TV, “Their fight is our fight. Oppression is oppression whichever way you look at it, especially when it’s systemic.”

During an Aug. 8 event in Milton, Pa., the Alliance had rally-goers form a human pride flag along a main street. Counter-protesters, some of whom carried confederate flags, took their place across the street.

“It does make me a little bit angry, but that’s okay, anger doesn’t always lead to hate. I don’t hate them; a lot of other people here don’t hate them,” participant Tiana Rawls-White of Northumberland, Pa., told WNEP-TV “Anger can lead to so many positive things like a movement, like right now.”

Manzano added: “We are only coming with love, and we are only coming with community. The only people who should be scared are the people who are trying to oppress us because we are done with that.”

One person “done with that” is Christopher A. Kalcich.

Kalcich, 19, is a member of borough council in neighboring Selinsgrove, as well as an organizer for the activist group Central Pennsylvania Advocates for Justice. He attended the July 26 event in an individual capacity, he told the Central Voice.

“The rally was “the first event that I, as a transgender man, have had the opportunity to fight for myself in particular,” he said, adding that he wanted to show Mifflinburg and the region’s LGBTQIA community “there are people who love and support them. They are not alone.”

Kalcich stressed “central Pennsylvania is not as hateful as it appears from the outside. There are people here that truly know how to love others. We won’t surrender this fight. We passed the first step in this process but we have a long way to go. It’s up to each individual person to make this movement successful.

‘Say Her Name’: Philly Protesters seek justice for Black, trans women

Kalcich advocating for himself reflects one of several growing concerns within the current swirl of social justice activity in the region – BLM, anti-racism, police and prison reform, and skyrocketing numbers of transgender deaths.

In 2019, advocates tracked at least 27 deaths of transgender or gender non-conforming people in the U.S. due to fatal violence, the majority of whom were Black transgender women, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

Through the end of July, at least 25 transgender or gender non-conforming people fatally shot or killed by other violent means. Data often uses the phrase at least because often these stories go unreported or misreported.

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, a transgender woman, has been the target of relentless public and social media messaging taking her to task for being a transgender woman.

Her detractors have included the nearby Columbia County’s Bloomsburg Fair. As part of fundraising, the event offered a dunk tank with a Levine representation. Further away, The Crossroads Tavern in Tioga County offered on their menu an item describing Levine and human anatomy. Both entities have since apologized for their actions.

‘Hate has no place in Pennsylvania’: Wolf rebukes Bloomsburg Fair over Facebook post featuring Levine lookalike

Last May a Pittsburgh radio host repeatedly referred to Levine as “sir” during an interview, and social media comment sections have often run rampant with transphobic comments in response to stories that had nothing to do with Levine’s gender identity.

On July 23, Levine pushed back against critics, saying that her “only reaction is that I am going to stay, no matter what happens, laser-focused on protecting the public health in Pennsylvania. Our vision at the Pennsylvania Department of Health is a healthy Pennsylvania for all. And I’m going to do absolutely everything I can to achieve that, whether people agree with me, or if they don’t agree with me. Their health is still important to me.”

Regarding her recent experiences and in reference to LGBTQIA individuals, Levine also said: “Your actions perpetuate the spirit of intolerance and discrimination against LGBTQIA individuals, and specifically transgender individuals.”

One of those individuals feeling “the spirit of intolerance and discrimination” is 28-year-old Bucknell University senior Mary Collier. She helped coordinate the July 26 rally, and is involved with Green New Deal/Lewisburg, affiliated with the national youth-led environmentalist movement known as The Sunrise Movement.

Say her name: Dominque Fells. And what Pa. lawmakers can do next | Monday Morning Coffee

“I was disgusted, disheartened, and disturbed by reading the sign that Wenger’s Grocery Outlet posted on their front doors because it made me feel unwanted in my own community,” she told the Central Voice. “I wanted to make sure our voices were heard loud and clear across central Pennsylvania we spoke out against hatred and bigotry.”

Anne Coyne, 23, of Selinsgrove, told the Central Voice told  that “as a queer person growing up in the region, I was never able to square my identity with my feelings about my hometown. This event was an opportunity to feel fully like myself while also being in solidarity with others.” Coyne is also involved with Green New Deal Lewisburg as well as the I Am Alliance.

The I Am Alliance is planning other events in August as well.

Frank Pizzoli is the editor and publisher of the Central Voice, where this story first appeared. Readers may email him at [email protected]