Door County's LGBTQ students, elders push for visibility with events, groups, community
John Contratto, a Sturgeon Bay resident since 1975, married a woman, had a couple kids. He went through many years that way, happy but with something stirring inside. It wasn’t until he was 60 that he opened up about the part of him he’d kept buried.
Now 73, Contratto proudly discusses being gay. He even served as president of Door County’s PFLAG chapter — the county’s first LGBTQ organization.
Sandy Brown, who presently serves as the group’s treasurer, brought PFLAG to the county in 1995. She was on her own for about two years before more members trickled in when they threw a party in 1997 celebrating talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out.
Brown was alerted to the need for a regularly-meeting group after a letter arrived in the organization’s P.O. box from a local young person who thought he was the only gay person in town and was considering ending his life.
In small, rural communities like those in Door County, it’s likely the man — who is still alive — was not the last to feel alone.
A common phrase PFLAG President Beth Mitchell hears when LGBTQ people move to Door County is “Where are all the gays?” They’re out there, but many remain hidden.
Media often portrays urban areas as the places LGBTQ must live in order to thrive, while rural America has a reputation for being unfriendly to LGBTQ folks.
A study conducted by the think tank Movement Advancement Project said “the challenges of rural life often lead to different consequences for LGBT people, and can amplify LGBT people’s experience of both acceptance and rejection.”
There are fewer alternatives in small towns. For example, if a LGBTQ student is being bullied, there are fewer opportunities to move to a different school. In smaller populations, those who are "different" stand out, the study says, making it easier for someone to be targeted.
Yet, 15 to 20% of the country's total LGBTQ population live in rural areas, according to the study. That’s between 2.9 million and 3.8 million people.
Since Contratto came out in Sturgeon Bay, he has not experienced harassment. He sees acceptance spreading in the city of about 9,000 people, and LGBTQ residents feel there are appealing options beyond large cities.
"If (people) don't agree with you, at least they aren't going to be harassing or condemning you," he said. "I've never received one harassment or negative comment (in Door County)."
Cathy Grier, a blues musician, left New York City for Sturgeon Bay three years ago. When she arrived she had one question: "Why isn’t there a Pride event?"
So, she launched Open Door Pride, a group that primarily focuses on organizing Door County's annual Pride festival. Each event drew significantly larger crowds, making Grier hopeful about the turnout at the fourth festival on June 27.
Cathy Grier performs during the third annual Open Door Pride festival, which she launched after moving to Sturgeon Bay. (Photo: Sammy Gibbons/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)
There, David Hayes gave a tearful keynote speech. He also moved several years ago from a metropolitan area, Washington, D.C. He was elected to Sturgeon Bay’s common council in 2018, making him the city’s first openly gay alderperson in recent memory. After his speech, that acceptance was evident — several people said "I'm proud of you."
It may seem to newcomers that Door County is facing sexual orientation and gender identities late in life, like Contratto, with a pride festival and openly gay elected official appearing in the area just in the last few years.
But these occurrences fuel youth growing up in a more accepting environment — and the future is in their hands.
Upcoming generation pushes for greater acceptance
Contratto grew up Catholic and entered the seminary at a young age. In the years before coming out, he thought he had a mental illness because that's what he'd been told. He did not know until then that the American Psychiatric Association debunked that idea in 1973.
A few days after separating from his wife, Contratto stumbled upon PFLAG's booth at a farmer's market. Twelve years later, Contratto helps people through their own identity journeys, and mentors family members who struggle with accepting their loved ones.
PFLAG helped Contratto get to the point where he can say, "I don't care what people think."
This year, a group serving a similar purpose established itself in Sevastopol High School. The Sexuality and Gender Alliance, or SAGA for short, started when sophomore Bianca De Larwelle, the group’s president, wrote an editorial about LGBTQ issues for an assignment in her freshman English class.
She interviewed Lynn Kotte, a science teacher who’s now one of SAGA’s advisers, who introduced De Larwelle to gender and sexuality student organizations. She knew other Door County schools had offered clubs: Sturgeon Bay had a Gender and Sexuality Alliance but the group has been inactive for two years, and Gibraltar School District has a Diversity Club.
De Larwelle sought support from two classmates, and the three pushed her project further, taking the idea to the school board at the end of 2018. With unanimous support from the board, they started holding weekly meetings this fall semester. The three leaders said national conversations surrounding the LGBTQ community, and slurs heard in Sevastopol hallway made it “perfect timing" to form SAGA.
“We all realized how much harmful stuff was going around related to the LGBTQ community so it was something we were really invested in right away,” said Ethan Frank, a Sevastopol sophomore and SAGA’s treasurer.
SAGA’s goal is making LGBTQ+ students know they have a home on campus, but it’s also aiming to educate the student body in order to reduce some of the harmful incidents the group has noticed.
“Having a community is better than feeling like you’re alone,” SAGA Secretary Lilly Turner, also a sophomore, said. “It builds that foundation of a family. It’s easier to bond and it’s easier to understand and get that knowledge across.”
In a main hallway at Sevastopol High School, the group tacked information on a rainbow backdrop. On one section they post various pride flags associated with each sexual orientation; while the rainbow flag is the overarching symbol for the LGBTQ community, each subgroup has its own. For example, the bisexual flag is colored with deep pink and blue stripes bleeding into a violet color in the middle.
Sevastopol High School students installed a Sexuality and Gender Alliance this year to provide support for LGBTQ students and education for all. From left: Treasurer Ethan Frank, President Bianca De Larwelle and Secretary Lilly Turner. (Photo: Sammy Gibbons/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)
The bulletin board defines each letter of the acronym, showcases a different prominent LGBTQ person every month. At its center, it explains what SAGA is and when meetings are — an open invitation for students who have questions about the material pinned to the rainbow flag.
While De Larwelle said SAGA has received mostly positive responses from peers, of course there’s been negative words flying around classrooms. That’s what the group is working to fix.
“I really hope that with us bringing knowledge to our school and peers that that (negativity) is diminished a little bit,” De Larwelle said. “I know there’s been a lot of kids making fun of the org and the community in general, and now I feel like as they’re starting to see it show up more, it’s not getting worse, it’s more of a topic that people are talking about.”
Contratto's sons attended Sevastopol many years ago, and he said he could not have imagined the "archaic" school having a group like SAGA.
He congratulated the students when he met them at Open Door Pride festival.
"Young people are not just swallowing dogma," Contratto said. "They're not just gay or trans, it's a fluid thing. They are actually thinking."
Nonacceptance lingers, but efforts plow forward
Like Kotte’s classroom in Sevastopol, there are small spaces around the county where people feel secure coming out.
Mitchell, PFLAG’s president, is known by passengers she drives for Door 2 Door, a countywide taxi service, as “the lesbian or trans Door 2 Door driver.” Because of her identity, numerous people who keep their sexuality under wraps have come out to her while buckled into the safety of her cab.
Many people only come out anonymously in vans or at meetings, and even people who are openly out, like Hayes, Contratto and other LGBTQ adults are still hesitant to boldly showcase their sexuality, saying they would still be afraid to hold hands with a partner in public.
Door County "hasn't come as far as cities have," Contratto said.
“We may feel like it’s easier to be out, but there’s still some level of barrier, a psychological barrier or sense of belonging to the community,” Hayes said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever in our generation feel 100% integrated or comfortable in a community. I think that’s a message you’re going to hear across the country and everywhere else, too.”
But those LGBTQ elders are encouraged by SAGA’s formation and have hope that upcoming generations will accomplish that complete integration.
The Movement Advancement Project study says it’s critical to educate rural leaders and service providers on LGBTQ competency. That’s starting to happen locally: Mitchell gave a lecture to Door County Health and Human Services about caring for transgender people.
Contratto emphasized there is a thriving LGBTQ community in Door County, but people who come here, or to another small area, should seek out organizations like PFLAG Or Open Door Pride.
"It's the best way to meet other people," he said. "Don't sit and wait for things to come to you, go and advocate for what is already there."
Though there’s hardships for LGBTQ community members in the area, and, as is true anywhere, some lack of acceptance, Mitchell believes Door County residents are generally not homophobic.
“I do believe if there were an incident of violence or something, this community would lock step and say ‘no that’s not right,’” Mitchell said. “Let’s give this community a chance to rise above the stigmas.”
PFLAG: A Journey of Love
PFLAG is all about sharing our personal stories to change hearts and minds. The PFLAG National Board of Directors came together in Kansas City to share their personal PFLAG stories—and PFLAG’s story, as we work together for full equality for ALL people.
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16 PFLAG at the UU Fellowship in Ephriam changed to 6:30 pm, 3rd Thurs.
21 PFLAG Door County meeting at 6:00 p.m. on the 3rd Tues. at the Door County Library in Sturgeon Bay