Tyler’s LGBTQ+ community commemorated two national observations the weekend of October 10 – PRIDE Month and LGBT History Month – with a luau ball and PRIDE in the Park.
PRIDE month, typically observed in June but moved this year due to COVID, celebrates 50 years to mark the 1969 Stonewall Uprising and works to achieve equal justice and opportunity for LGBTQ Americans.
Beginning in 1994, October was designated as LGBT History Month coinciding with the already established Oct. 11 National Coming Out Day and the anniversary of the first march on Washington for gay and lesbian rights in 1979.
Tyler Area Gays (TAG), a local non-profit founded May 2008, organized the weekend of local events. Summer Adams, longtime TAG board member and outreach coordinator, said this is the ninth year for the TAG Ball. Picnic in the Park began in 2010. Due to COVID, this year it is simply PRIDE in the Park – no picnic, but food trucks.
Troy Carlyle, an Air Force Academy graduate and former Air Force Captain, founded Tyler Area Gays (TAG) in May 2008. He moved to Tyler in 2005 to be near family.
Carlyle said his motivation for creating TAG was “basically there was no community, and I saw TAG as a way to build community out of a bunch of desperate people that were feeling alone.
“There was one instance of two gay people who lived right next door to each other, and they didn’t even know each other.”
Carlyle served as TAG board chair for three years. His memoir, The Remainder of My Life, can be found at lulu.com.
Among Carlyle’s visions for TAG was the development of a community center with a library and outreach programs. “That takes a lot of money!” he said.
The community was receptive to the idea. “I suppose there were a few naysayers who said it would never work, but they were not obstacles. I never got any hate from the straight community.”
TAG has surpassed Carlyle’s expectations. “It makes me very proud of what they have accomplished. I’d like to see it survive and grow. I’d like to see that community center someday.”
The Saturday night luau ball included a Hawaiian-themed dinner, dancing and casino game tables. Raffle drawings, major prize drawings, a wine pull and silent auction added fun and fundraising to the event.
Starla Bickerstaff, marketing director, and Hector Hernandez, director of nurses at Hospitality ER, added Plinko and Wheel of Fortune to the ball fun and games. Bickerstaff said, “ We just wanted to show up and support the Tyler Area Gays. We are happy to be here, show a little love and give away some prizes.”
Jay Hilburn, long-time TAG Board member and current chair, is paying it forward. “TAG really helped me out when I was at my lowest point, and I now want to help the community.”
According to Hilburn, the most popular TAG social events are the monthly potluck and board game night. “We gather together, have fun and socialize. I do like the outreach programs like Adopt-a-Street and hope TAG’s outreach will grow with programs such as homeless assistance and participating in foster care and adoptions,” said Hilburn.
Long term, Hilburn said TAG has dreams to establish a resource center – a shelter, food bank and safe environment for people to come and access needed services.
Adams said TAG’s outreach efforts include the City of Tyler Adopt-a-Street Program – cleaning Bois-D’Arc Street from Front to Gentry streets once a quarter.
Also, they are in the fundraising phase of The Hummingbird Project, an effort to secure LGBTQ+ safe shelters and sober community centers for youth.
Adams said, “The Listening Ear, a support group for youth, middle school to early college age, is currently conducted via Zoom. We anticipate that group returning to face-to-face meetings in January 2022.”
Jennifer Gower is a TAG board member, treasurer and coordinator for the women’s social group. She said as a lesbian living in Tyler, she was drawn to TAG “to find some friends to socialize with and to hang out with.”
Of the difference TAG can make, she said, “There are a lot of [LGBTQ+] people out there who feel closed in and scared to come out, but joining TAG, I felt a lot more comfortable, relaxed and even able to come out to my parents.”
According to Gower, the greatest need in the LGBTQ+ community is to “just be accepted, to not be turned away, to have more freedom to be themselves.”
Gower said TAG is inclusive. “Anyone can be a part of TAG – not just LGBTQ+ folks. The person organizing the ball tonight is a straight ally.”
Sunday’s PRIDE in the Park event included 75 vendors and about 300 in attendance — exponentially more than early Pride in the Park events in Tyler.
Vendors and organizations Sunday ranged from health care to jewelry and craft sales; cookies and homemade jellies; from veterinary care and pet obedience training to places of worship and avenues for counseling. DJ Lonnie Love played lively tunes throughout the day, and some danced in the streets.
The 1st Annual “Poochilicious” fashion show brought much laughter and lots of “oohs and ahhs” as furry pets strutted in their best costumes.
Carmella DuBuque, the current Miss Gay Texas State at Large, performed and emceed a high energy music and dance show with several other performers.
DuBuque addressed the crowd. “It doesn’t matter really in the end if you are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, pansexual, transgender or whatever you might be. At the end of the day, be who you are, be proud of that, and be visible doing that.”
The Tyler Loop caught up with several PRIDE in the Park participants throughout the day.
“My name is Michael, and I’m here with ETTY (East Texas Trans Youth) today. ETTY is a group that I started. It is for transgender youth ages 12 – 21 to meet, hang out and learn about transgender topics and issues. To get information about ETTY, go to our Facebook Group and email my mom,” said Michael.
Mark Vinson, coordinator for the 2022 Longview PRIDE event, said the event is scheduled for June 11, 2022 at Heritage Plaza in Longview after a two-year COVID hiatus. Vinson said One Love Longview is a new resource for LGBTQ+ folks wanting counseling and support services. Vinson was also promoting his book, All Roads.
Tom Wigsle of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention said, “Our programs help people identify others who may be suicidal or help those who may have lost someone to suicide.
“At AFSP we know that suicide is 37% higher among LGBTQ youth than it is with heterosexual youth. We have multiple programs that we do in different communities and the LGBTQ+ program is one we do quite often. We are here at Gay Pride today to promote that program.”
Gayle Symonette said, “I can be out in the open and not in the closet. I am enjoying people who think like me or trying to learn how to get along – trying to accept and be acceptable.
“I am here. I can feel free. I can be me. Very proud of who I am, and I live in Texas.”
Victoria Bennie of the East Texas Crisis Center said, “We provide free services to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in Tyler and five surrounding counties.
“We do want to make sure the LGBTQ+ population knows about us because we know that individuals who identify as transgender, lesbian or bi-sexual women have a higher rate of experiencing sexual violence in their lifetime compared to heterosexual women.
“We want our LGBTQ+ friends to know where they can get assistance and know that they are not alone in what they might be experiencing. Everyone deserves a healthy relationship. Call us or follow us on social media to learn more about what healthy relationships should look like.”
Lou Anne Smoot of East Texas PFLAG (Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians & Gays) said, “East Texas PFLAG offers support primarily to parents of gay, lesbian and transgender individuals — support much needed in East Texas.
“And yet, so few people know about our organization. I’m simply here to let people know we exist, to offer them free literature and to invite them to join us.”
Blaine Whitgrove, Scoutmaster BSA (formerly Boy Scouts of America) Troop 510 from Irving, Texas, said, “We are a troop from Irving, Texas, with members having friends here in Tyler.
“When we heard about PRIDE in the Park, we thought it would be a great opportunity to show our support and sell popcorn so these girls can raise money and go to camp.”
Whitney Rockwell, health education coordinator at UT Health Science Center said, “We offer a variety of free services for anyone who might be uninsured or underinsured and we want to expand our reach into the community for anyone, including the LGBTQ+ community. We know there is a need.”
Trevor Striping of Nothing Vanilla Cookies, said, “Nothing Vanilla Cookies has flavors as unique as you are. Everything from cilantro lime white chocolate to our newest flavor, Butter Queer, a butter beer cookie with fruity pebbles chips.
“We are all about equality and inclusivity, and we want everybody to have options.”
Stephen Hidalgo of Tyler Public Library youth services, said, “The Tyler Public Library is an inclusive environment for all people in our community. We especially love families.”
Melissa DeCarlo of Saint Clare’s Episcopal Church, said, “We are a welcoming and fully affirming Episcopal church for LGBTQ+ folks and the full spectrum of diversity in our community. All are welcome! We are new in Tyler. We are growing and would love for folks to come check us out.”
Laura Klueppel said, “I am here today as an ally to the LGBTQ+ community and as a therapist who serves a lot of that community. It is an honor and a privilege to communicate and be a part of this community. And I am so glad to be here to show my support.”
Brenda McWilliams is retired after nearly 40 years in education and counseling. When not traveling she fills her days with community, charitable, and civic work; photography; writing and blogging at Pilgrim Seeker Heretic; reading, babysitting grandchildren, and visiting with friends. She enjoys walking at Rose Rudman or hiking at Tyler State Park. Brenda and her spouse, Lou Anne Smoot, the author of Out: A Courageous Woman’s Journey, have six children and seven grandchildren between them.
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