Finding hope in Bethel, Alaska

By Tiffany McClain

When you think of a town that is safe for LGBTQ people to live and raise families, you might not think about a place like Bethel, Alaska. Nearly 400 miles west of Anchorage and accessible only by air, snow machine, boat, or dog sled, it is the very definition of remote. The city’s 6,000 residents—predominately of Yup’ik origin — live in houses built on stilts to prevent them from sinking into the earth. You look out a window from the city’s edge and all you see is flat tundra, big sky, maybe the wide Kuskokwim River. You feel like you’re on the edge of the world even though you know that somewhere out there are the 56 villages for which Bethel serves as the health, educational, and commercial hub.

Earlier this month, Amy White and I traveled to Bethel to share information about our scholarship and grant programs and to meet people who could offer some insight into the experiences of LGBTQ people living in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region.

Why is Pride Foundation interested in Bethel?

Tiffany McClain in Bethel

There are many reasons why, but the one that seems to take people most by surprise is that there actually is a significant population of “out” LGBTQ people there. Usually, we talk about rural LGBTQ communities in terms of the challenges that they face: fear, isolation, close-mindedness. But what I learned during our trip to Bethel is that it’s important not to generalize about what the rural experience is like for LGBTQ people.

While those of us who love our urban amenities can’t imagine it, there are LGBTQ people who live on the tundra and —in contrast to the stories we hear of scared, isolated youth—do so happily. I am talking about people like Kevin Kristof and Sean Brown, who hosted a house party for Pride Foundation while we were in town. They’re married, have been living in Bethel for ten years, and now have a very happy, chatty 18-month old daughter. Every day, just by living their lives, Kevin and Sean challenge our perceptions of what is possible and acceptable not only in rural communities, but in all of Alaska.

Granted, Kevin and Sean are professional white adults who have access to resources and an amount of independence that allows them to create a safe bubble in which to establish and raise a family. Nonetheless it’s heartening to know that there are LGBTQ people living openly in Bethel who prove that queer youth don’t need to move to a big city in order to see that LGBTQ people can lead contended, productive lives.

Not surprisingly, we didn’t meet any openly gay or lesbian youth while we were in Bethel and so it’s difficult to generalize about what their experience might be. But we did meet school social workers, professors, village outreach workers, and a group of teenage anti-violence advocates  at the Tundra Women’s Coalition who have had students and peers come out to them and wanted to know how to make their schools more inclusive, their communities safer, and to spread the word about Pride Foundation’s scholarship program.

I’m not saying Bethel is a perfect place for LGBTQ families and youth. There are not very many out adult men, there is no GSA in town, not a single church that bills itself as welcoming and affirming, and while there are plenty of open-minded people who want to be able to help young LGBTQ folks, they don’t necessarily have the resources—or the level of comfort—to do so effectively.

But resources are easy to share and the more frequently conversations about LGBTQ issues are broached, the more comfortable allies will become in having them. What I’m saying is this: Bethel, Alaska is extreme in many ways, but the extreme points of its nature seem to have more to do with their geography and history than the state of their LGBTQ community.