Aaron Redford knows it’s hard to come out in a small town — he came out as gay during elementary school in Martin.
“In bigger places like California or New York it’s easier to be comfortable in society than, say, being in a small town like Martin,” Redford says. “Smaller towns have smaller mindsets than bigger towns, where people have explored different paths and been exposed to more.”
Redford, 19, who moved to California this fall to start college, joined Small Town Allies two years ago. This group of 175 members from Allegan, Plainwell, Otsego and other nearby communities, provides a support network for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their allies in these small towns, hosting events and get-togethers at local coffee shops.
For Redford, Small Town Allies is a “place to heal wounded minds and a place to make peace.” It offers a support system that, until the group was formed, had been absent in these communities but badly needed, he says.
“Kids who don’t have places to go or talk when they’re coming out often struggle with suicide and sometimes run away or experience abuse,” he says. “So you need something like Small Town Allies. I know what I went through, and I want to make sure that other people can walk down the hallway at their school and not feel like they can’t talk or be themselves because they feel scared or awkward. This group helps open you up and show that it’s OK to be yourself.”
Christopher Tanner, a member and organizer of Small Town Allies, says that since joining the group last April, he’s seen a lot of growth and interest in the support meetings and community events that Small Town Allies holds. He thinks it’s because a lot of small-town residents, whether gay or straight, have been waiting for a group like this.
“You don’t realize until you live in a smaller town how far away you really are from bigger towns and cities,” Tanner says. “So while we have a lot of people who would want to be in the Kalamazoo LGBTQ (the ‘Q’ usually stands for ‘queer’ or ‘questioning’) or PFLAG (Parents, Friends and Family of Lesbians and Gays) groups, there’s a distance and time constraint. That’s why we try to make our group as similar to Kalamazoo’s (groups) as we can, so people can travel five minutes to go to a similar meeting or event instead of half an hour.”
Small Town Allies started as a Facebook group in 2009, after founder Arlene Barber of Allegan attempted to connect with people interested in equality issues through a classified ad in her local newspaper and postings on bulletin boards around town. The ad and postings didn’t work, but the Facebook page attracted some followers. For a time, Small Town Allies was an exclusively online group.
Then, in May 2013, Barber canvassed in Oshtemo Township with the Kalamazoo Gay Lesbian Resource Center regarding the nondiscrimination ordinance that later passed. While surveying Oshtemo Township residents, she noticed the tide of public opinion concerning equality issues was changing, so she decided to try engaging with people in the “actual world” again. She set up a card table with a sign-up clipboard at a local concert and started collecting names of people interested in joining Small Town Allies.
“After that, I went to another music event in July, I carried a banner in a small parade in Douglas, and I got about 20 people to march with me in the Allegan County Fair Parade,” she says. “That’s when we finally started to get a lot of people and we started to make things happen.”
Tanner, Barber and other members of Small Town Allies hosted their first community art event — called Express! — in April of this year in Allegan. The event featured local writers, musicians and artists gathering to share their art with the Small Town Allies group and the community at large. The event was a success, Barber says, because it paved the way for more such events in the future.
Small Town Allies is “about as grass-roots as it gets,” Tanner says, and although the group is still struggling to gain nonprofit status and build a steering committee, it continues to expand its reach steadily, offering community gatherings and support meetings and participating in community events as a united presence. Tanner and Barber look forward to strengthening the organization and supporting others invested in gay rights and those coming out in small Michigan communities.
“Ultimately, we would like to be a support network, whether that’s finding businesses that support the same thing we believe in or helping find doctors and psychologists that will support LGBTQ community members,” Tanner says. “There is a lot of bias against LGBTQ people within small communities, so we want to help people connect with people who are going to support them.”