By Crystal Proxmire
Four years ago, there was one place in Battle Creek that gay people could get together, the local gay bar. And while Partners has long been a strong supporter of the community, folks like 67-year-old Larry Dillon knew that in order for LGBT people to thrive in the town of 52,000 people there needed to be more.
“People around here had nowhere to turn, unless they went to Kalamazoo. But not everyone can do that, or should. We needed our own resources here, especially for the young people,” Dillon said.
Recognizing the need for resources, the Calhoun County Coalition for Inclusion was created with funding help from the Arcus Foundation and Planned Parenthood. The purpose is to give young people support in the coming out process. Known as 3Ci, the program started in 2008 in response to youth in Calhoun County who were at greater and greater risk for substance abuse, homelessness, and even teen suicides as a result of not having support systems in their lives while questioning their own value and sexual orientation.
Being a leader in the community school system, Dillon was asked to sit on the board of the new project. At that time no one knew that he was gay, though he had no problem stepping up as a straight ally at the time.
Over the past four years, with the help of many involved citizens like Dillon, 3Ci has grown to be a strong support for youth program and it’s birthed many other initiatives and events.
“We started out to help young people aged 13 to 24 with the process of coming out, but what we found was that there were not a lot of adult mentors for these youth. We thought that maybe there ought to be an organization in the area for gay adults. That way we would have a place we could pull volunteers from and have a good support system in place for everyone. Plus not everyone likes the bar scene,” Dillon said.
“So I met with my gay friends, 26 of them, at dinner one night and said ‘We should start an organization.’ The idea got a lot of support and we talked about what we wanted to do. We all agreed that our purpose would be to provide support to youth, some activities for the adults and to provide a Pride event, not just for ourselves but to be visible in the community.”
And so BC Pride was born, with Dillon as its president.
The organizing began three years ago, and small events and fundraisers were held. They hold a Peace Prom for the youth where they can go and dance and have whomever they want for a date without any evil-eyed looks or nasty comments. There is a Break the Silence program, and events for adults held mainly at Partners to raise money and awareness for the adult community.
Like many of the youth who are struggling with their identities, Dillon also faced moments of uncertainty since he started coming out two years ago. But he is happy now being able to be himself in retirement.
“I was married 30 years,” he said. “When my wife passed away I could really address the feelings I had. I also really enjoyed my work, and it’s difficult to be a gay man in education in a small town.”
“I’ve only been out two years myself, and there are still many people who don’t know, but I guess they will figure it out when they see all my pictures online,” he said with a slightly nervous chuckle. “I was a little worried when they (BC Pride) said ‘we need a President’ and I thought how long before I was in the newspaper or maybe TV.”
And finally, last year, BC Pride held their first Pride celebration. BC Pride had several events including a night of music and history, a White Party, and a family picnic that attracted over 100 people.
This year BC Pride is growing with a White Party held at Partners on Friday, July 20. On Saturday, July 21 there will be a Pride Picnic at the beach, followed by the Pride Bash also at Partners. On Sunday in Memorial Park there will be a candlelight vigil recognizing those who were lost in the fight for LGBT rights, and the youth who have taken their own lives because of the pain, shame and torment they experienced while grappling with their sexuality.
“We’re having the vigil around the statue of Sojourner Truth who stood up for equality,” Dillon said.
Pre-Pride parties and fundraisers have already begun, and a pageant held in June determined the first-ever Miss BC Pride – a beautiful transgender woman named Sydney Chalbis. There was also a Totally Rad 80s party on Saturday.
The Battle Creek City Commission declared June to be Pride Month in Battle Creek and the overall community has been surprisingly supportive, Dillon said. “People always want to know why our Pride is in July, and the reason is that people around here like going to the other Prides. Kalamazoo Pride is very popular, but some people go all the way to Chicago or Lansing. BC Pride is nowhere near as big as those other ones, and we want to have our events when people are in town and can come.”
Ambitions are high for next year as well. Dillon explained that this year Battle Creek’s downtown is in the midst of some upgrades, and that construction projects prevent them from having a Pride Parade. But there will be one for next year as the event continues to expand. They are also in the process of setting up a scholarship fund.
The group has an email list of over 300 people, and as they move forward with their work, the impact is noticeable.
“We have been very well-received so far. More and more people are coming out of the woodwork, and they aren’t ashamed of it.”
To find out more about BC Pride, including the schedule of events, check out their Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Battle-Creek-Pride-Public-Page/249732625098534.