Support for the LGBTQ2S+ community has sometimes sparked controversy in Cortez and Montezuma County.
In February of this year, a member of the Montezuma-Cortez Re-1 School Board, Lance McDaniel, was recalled for reasons that had little to do with any of his actions on the board. One of the frequent criticisms of him on social media was what was called his “involvement with the Rainbow Club,” a group of students that met at lunch time once a week in Cortez Middle School. There were other such groups in Montezuma-Cortez High School, Southwest Open School, and Mancos.
McDaniel’s involvement consisted of dropping off pizza for the meetings, which offered an opportunity for students with concerns about bullying to gather in a safe setting. These meetings were not exclusively for LGBTQ2S+ students, though they were sometimes regarded that way because of the use of the term “rainbow” in some of the clubs’ names.
At its meeting May 11, the Re-1 school board heard a number of public comments about the lunch clubs. There was nothing on the board’s agenda regarding the clubs’ future, but the formal meeting that night had been preceded by an executive session “for the purpose of receiving legal advice about student groups.”
Critics of the lunch groups who addressed the board said the children were being “bribed with money and pizza” and that the meetings caused kids to “question their own identity” at a time when their sexuality was still being formed. One woman claimed numerous parents were considering pulling their kids out of school because of the existence of the clubs.
However, other people voiced support for the groups, citing statistics showing that LGBTQ2S+ youth are more than three times as likely to attempt suicide as heterosexuals of the same ages.
The school board heard the comments but took no action regarding the lunch clubs.
Two MCHS graduates who used to attend meetings of the high-school club, which was called the Rainbow Alliance, say the group helped them through difficult times.
Both spoke to the Four Corners Free Press on condition of anonymity. Per request, the Free Press is referring to one of them by the term “they” because it is gender-neutral.
One, “Blake” (not her real name), who graduated from MCHS in 2020, said she attended meetings her junior and senior years.
“I didn’t go to very many my junior year,” “Blake” said. “It was every Monday, so every other Monday or once a month in my junior year I’d go, and then senior year I tried to go every Monday
“I more publicly came out my senior year, so it was way more important that year. There was some bullying from different teachers. It felt like everyone was watching me.”
“Blake” said she knew in her mid-teens that she was gay, but had sensed it long before that. “When I finally came out to myself and realized it, I was 15, but looking back I’ve always liked women, so I have always known.”
She felt fairly isolated. “I mostly felt unaccepted. I didn’t have really any support. Mostly the only support I got was from that group.”
During the first semester of her senior year, “Blake” was startled by a remark a male teacher made.
“I had a girlfriend at the time. I was in his class and we were doing a project. He was talking to one of the other students. I wasn’t really paying attention. I looked up because he said something about alphabet people, and I thought, ‘What does that mean?’ He was saying the alphabet people are taking over [which she realized was a reference to LGBTQ people].”
“Blake” later confronted him and said the remark wasn’t appropriate, but he didn’t back down. “Blake” threatened to report him to the principal, she said, “and he threatened to out my girlfriend to her parents.”
They reached a standoff, “Blake” said. “He agreed I wouldn’t report him to the principal and he wouldn’t out my girlfriend. Later my girlfriend came out, so I was going to go to the school board.”
“Blake” tried to gather testimony from her classmates and approach the administration, but ultimately she couldn’t persuade people in positions of authority to listen, “Blake” said. She did get support and help from the club facilitators, especially Annie Seder, she said, and the meetings of the Rainbow Alliance were helpful in many ways.
“It’s hard to find other gay people here unless there’s a specific place to meet them. That’s the only place I could meet with other people like me, people who weren’t judging, who actually understood who I was.”
The lunchtime meetings, which generally involved fewer than a dozen students, mostly consisted of socializing, “Blake” said. “Some days we might have a presentation on the gender spectrum. Other times we’d just eat pizza and hang out.”
Not many straight people knew about the gatherings, she said, so most attendees were LGBTQ2S+, but others were welcome. “We had a lot of allies come. So it was very inclusive to everybody. If I had a close friend, I would bring them.”
Another graduate, “Alex” (not their real name), also went to gatherings in 2019 and 2020. “Alex,” who does not identify as being of a specific gender, doesn’t think society is tolerant of people who are not traditional heterosexuals.
“I would say it’s not tolerant at all and I used to resent it so much. The Rainbow Alliance was the only tolerance I ever discovered. The only potential for not being hated.”
“Alex” said they were “one of the only openly visibly gay people in high school.” In addition, “Alex” was born in Mexico, which was another strike against them.
“I’m brown before anything else. You can see that before anything else,” “Alex” said. “I’m brown and fat and I have ADHD. People mostly bullied me about weight and race and my tattered clothing.”
Their last year in school, “Alex” said, “people would give me a lot of shit because I walked through halls holding hands openly with my girlfriend. People were bullying me and my girlfriend separately, too.”
One of their teachers “wanted to out me to my parents,” “Alex” said. “I got it from my teachers and some of the students.”
Going to the club provided a breather, “Alex” said.
“I started going in October 2019 and I went every week unless I was out of town, but I only missed about two meetings. We went to the virtual ones after COVID. The free lunch was nice because I didn’t have much money. It was very enticing, eating pizza, I never missed that.
“I got to get new friends and talk about things I didn’t get to talk about in a teacher-student setting. It felt good.
“It was like a little tea party every week. Nice to get a break, a breath of fresh air.”
“Alex” was in middle school when they identified as “gender-fluid,” “Alex” said. “I’ve known since I was 3 maybe that something was off.”
Both “Alex” and “Blake” said the idea that the club would influence their sexuality or gender identity was wrong.
“I think that argument is dumb, frankly,” “Alex” said. “They’re trying to create barriers to keep someone in. It doesn’t matter if someone’s gender changes every week.”
“Blake” expressed a similar sentiment. “I think that’s a really uneducated argument that it’s going to make people gay.”
“Blake” said her father truly does not care about her sexual preferences. However, her mother “was freaked out about it and a bit ashamed.”
“Alex” did not tell their parents, who are both pastors, until “Alex” was almost out of high school, they said.
“About two weeks before I graduated, I decided to open Pandora’s box, so to speak,” “Alex” said. They had just suffered their “first-ever gay heartbreak” and felt they had to tell their mother. “Alex’s” mother said she already knew.
“My dad has a big issue with it, my mother does too somewhat, but they tolerate it,” “Alex” said.
Both graduates told the Free Press they don’t want to remain in Cortez.
“It’s been my dream to direct movies,” “Alex” said, adding that they like to paint, create jewelry, and make clothes as well. “I always wanted to move to New York City. But while I’m here I figured I’d do my best to try to help it [the local area] because I don’t hate it where I’m from. But I want to move to a big city.”
“Blake” said she will definitely go somewhere else. “I don’t like it here very much. I don’t feel the community is very welcoming. People who are like me won’t want to move here, so I’m not going to meet anyone like me. If I want to have a better worldview I have to move somewhere else because everyone here is so small-minded.”
“Blake” said she would advise younger students like her to join the club in their school. “I think joining the group is a good start because of leaders like Annie, who help so much.” Later, she said, they should “get out of Cortez because there are places other than here. There are way more resources to help people who are transitioning or coming out.”
Though things are better for LGBTQ2S+ people than they were in the past, the two said, there remain many problems and obstacles.
“Every day it changes,” “Alex” said. “There’s a new gay governor [in Colorado] but there were days when the president was trying to take away rights just casually. It’s like a game of tennis every day and I’m the tennis ball.”
When the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2015, “Alex,” then just a young teen, cried tears of joy. “I was so happy for Robin Williams’ character in The Bird Cage [a movie] – that he could potentially be married now.
“I think we’re moving forward every day. It’s 2021. I’m not going to shove my identity down your throat, but if I need to show it, I will. I want to be able to be as open in every space as I can. I’m not terrified of that as I would have been when I was younger. I’m ready now.”
“Blake” said the fact that gay marriage is legal does not ensure tolerance.
“I think because there are things that are legal now on paper, it says we are equal, but there’s still a lot of prejudice that exists and a lot of dangerous things. There are still people who are being killed and abused because of their identity. Just because this is on paper doesn’t mean prejudice goes away. It doesn’t change people’s minds.”