When local LGBTQ activist Tammie Willis was attacked by a man with a knife outside her Sterling home early the morning of Dec. 9, the experience was all the more terrifying because she was alone.
At a town hall forum held last weekend at the Soldotna Public Library, she met more of a community than she realized existed on the central Kenai Peninsula.
“And seeing the outpouring of support and the people who want to make a difference and who really, genuinely want to make the community more open, more accepting and more welcoming and safe for everyone, is really, really helping me move forward,” Willis said.
More than 150 people squeezed into the community room at the library, some to share their experiences as LGBTQ people in the central peninsula, most to listen to those experiences and show their support.
Willis reported finding a threatening note on her truck, full of homophobic slurs, in November. Later that month, she reported someone throwing a rock at her windshield as she drove near Kenai Peninsula College, where she works.
Then came the assault in December. Soldotna Police Department and Alaska State Troopers are investigating the incidents but have made no arrests.
“I don’t want to stand up here and say, you know, this act of violence is the reason why we should do better. We’ve always needed to do better. And I’m sorry that I had to bring it to attention this way, because this is not the way I wanted to do it,” Willis said at Saturday’s town hall meeting. “But now that we have everybody’s attention, I’m really hoping that this community, the people who have gathered in this room here, will help me work to do better.”
One of the more poignant testimonies came from Kaegan Koski, who brought a written statement recounting the experiences of Soldotna students who report being bullied on social media and in the community. Koski recounted their experiences and pointed skyward in lieu of every slur and profanity used.
“These messages included, ‘Go … kill yourself, you …’ and, ‘You’re a … freak,’ and, ‘You’re all just doing this for attention, and go … kill yourself you …’” Koski said. “Where do kids learn these words? Why do kids think this is OK? The simple answer is, adults. The people who, time and time again, practice these atrocious slurs, who laugh at these atrocities, (they are) teaching our children to have no empathy for our fellow people, simply because we aren’t in the room.”
Tracy Silta is a retired school nurse. Koski’s testimony hit her hard.
“I almost wanted to throw up, Kaegan, when you were talking about your story, because I know those stories are true, and they make me sick,” Silta said. “I want to go back to work, and I want to put that flag on my office door and I want to just go. But what I want to say is, we are capable. We are capable of taking this on. We have a strong community. We can do this.”
Many of the people who spoke as allies confessed their journey to becoming accepting, being raised in homophobic families or cultures.
Barbara Waters works at the LeeShore Center in Kenai, which identifies itself as a safe place for those needing refuge. She said she’s still a work in progress.
“A couple weeks ago, one of the very outspoken, very loud-mouthed persons at that table was very derogatory about your community. And I stiffened my spine, and my husband looked at me and was like, ‘Don’t say a word.’ And so I didn’t. And so I apologize to you for that,” Waters said. “I should have been stronger to be able to say, ‘You have no right to say what you just said.’ But I want you to know you’re making me stronger by looking around at each one of you. Thank you.”
Audre Gifford-Hickey, one of the organizers of the annual Soldotna Pride in the Park rallies in June, encourages businesses to display a rainbow as a show of support. Elected officials also were asked for help.
Alaska state Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Kenai, attended the meeting and said he will submit legislation that would add an LGBTQ category to the state’s existing hate crime statute. Representatives from the Kenai and Soldotna city councils and borough assembly spoke of passing resolutions in support of the legislation.
State Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, was also at the meeting and said that every Alaskan should be safe and treated equally. He stopped short of promising support for hate crimes legislation.
“I, personally, think that every Alaskan, no matter what, must be safe and adequately protected,” Micciche said. “And that we need to root out those that are going to challenge that sense of safety and make sure that it’s not a part of our communities, period. Because I feel like, anytime you separate a category, you leave someone else exposed. I don’t want to leave anyone exposed. I think everyone must be equally protected.”
Organizers also requested that cities and the Kenai Peninsula Borough declare June as LGBT Pride Month and encourage businesses, municipalities and organizations to take a Safe Zone class on Feb. 8, which trains people on how to provide a safe space for LGBTQ members of the community.
As the meeting wrapped up, Willis thanked her wife, family, coworkers and friends for supporting her, and challenged the room to be there for others in need.
“And it’s really, really important to me that it not just be about me,” Willis said. “And I’m asking you guys to stand up and support each other and support other members of the LGBTQ community who (don’t) have the same safety nets that I do.”