Identity: Stepping up & stepping out
by Shannon Sanderson
Everybody knows what Identity is and does — but do they? Shannon Sanderson wrote this profile of the organization for a class at UAA this past June — and we thought everyone should get a chance to know Identity better.
Identity, Inc. has an amazing, and unusual, goal: to go out of business. That’s right, Identity dreams of the day it goes out of business because there isn’t anyone, anyone at all, who needs it! Most people who’ve heard of Identity think of it as the “gay people group” or some variation upon that. However, Identity is a lot more than a group of gay people. Identity is an organization that is promoting community: not just the gay community, but the whole community — youth, young adults, college students and graduates, career focused and family focused. When Identity says it wants to promote our community, it mean your community and it mean you!
On its website, Identity identifies itself as a GLBTA non-profit corporation based in Anchorage. It coordinate activities and support for Gay, Lesbian, Bi, Transgender, and Allied people throughout Alaska. The important detail here that most of us are missing about whom and what Identity is, is that “A.” How many of you know what the A stands for? I learned that the A stands for Allies. It’s the first obvious, visual symbol that denotes what Identity is seeking and backs up what its actions show so well. The volunteers who make up Identity aren’t fighting for equality for themselves. They seek equality for everyone. They aren’t creating a community of gay, lesbian, bi and transgender people. They are creating a community of and for everyone to come together; a community where we are all working together peacefully, openly, friendly, caring, supportive and non-judgmental of one another. The Identity website identifies its vision as, “a world where all people are free to express and be proud of their sexual and gender identities.”
That’s something we all benefit from, regardless of age, sex, interest, career, or family type. We can all benefit from a community where everyone is accepted and treated equally. We all benefit from a community where we know we’re all safe and have the support of everyone else to be the best version of ourselves, every day in anything we do![caption id="" align="alignleft" width="180" caption="Identity executive director Phyllis Rhodes at the 2010 Anchorage Pride parade"][/caption]
In a meeting with Identity executive director Phyllis Rhodes, she said something very telling to me, “We (Identity) wouldn’t be half of what we are without the A’s. So many of the people in our parade are Allies or Allied groups.” The more Allies that step up to say that they accept GLBTs, the more GLBTs will feel safe enough to step out in the community. It’s a circle of life, motivated by both sides.
With no small amount of emotion, she told me, “Little by little we’re finding more and more and more gay people everywhere. People didn’t realize they’re everywhere.” Allies ran the Identity booth at Pridefest this year, while Identity staff handled the heartbreaking ramifications of the accidental death of James Crump at the start of the 2011 Pride Parade. It’s a blessing to see Allies working side by side with GLBTs, working so hard to create a GLBTA community for us.
There are many examples of how committed Identity really is to our community, but the most recent was its immediate response, support, coordination of support and outreach to the community after the parade. It’s a brilliant example of how loving, non-judgmental, open and supportive of all of us they really are. Identity was proactive from the first minutes following the accident, reaching out to help people impacted by the tragedy at the parade.
Cynics might say they had no choice. However, the truth is, this organization is comprised 100% of volunteers. Volunteers whose hearts were broken by the tragedy. Nevertheless, in spite of personal pain and suffering, Identity volunteers stepped up and stepped out to help our community, again. They changed their website to express condolences to the family. They helped coordinate and share information regarding where to access support services, some of which were offered here on the UAA campus. They’ve supported the individuals involved in the accident — Allies and GLBTs alike — proving, yet again, that no matter who’s in need, they’re here to offer a helping hand.
Identity, Inc. has seven core programs noted on their website; the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Anchorage (GLCCA), the statewide Helpline, NorthView, Youth Program Support, Identity Advocacy Team, Pridefest, and the Pride Conference.
This past January, Identity updated its mission statement — it now simply states, “Identity provides programs supporting equality for the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender community and its allies.” “We want to be very easy for people to understand who we are and what we do,” Phyllis told me when I interviewed her in July. Identity’s mission statement is a very broad umbrella for all that it do in our community. It works side by side with Planned Parenthood, AWAIC, YWCA, Covenant House, Bridge Builders, and others, supporting these Allied groups who in turn also help to support Identity.
The GLCCA is located at 336 East 5th Avenue in downtown Anchorage. It’s open 3:00 to 9:00 PM weekdays and noon to 6:00 PM on weekends. It is designed to be a “safe place for GLBTAs.” It features an area for hanging out, watching movies or talking; a 4-computer internet cafe, book, video and DVD library; a conference room (available for free not only to GLBTs, but also to any supportive organizations); and of course a large bulletin board with fliers about what’s going on around the community. A number of groups use the conference room for a variety of different purposes, at no charge — among these, the GSA group, the local BDSM group, and the Polyamorous group. You don’t have to be GLBT to come here, everyone is welcome. It’s not about who you are or what you look like. They don’t care if you are heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual. They don’t care if you are a child, a teen, a young adult, or an old adult. They don’t care if you are fat, thin, active, a couch potato, or a college student! They accept everyone and all they care about is accepting who we all are and showing it through our caring, considerate, supportive, and friendly presence with one another!
Identity’s helpline started as a place to find a friendly voice, a place where you can find information on resources, referrals for assistance, and a sympathetic ear for all Alaskans. Anyone can call the toll-free number (888-901-9876) from anywhere in Alaska. Phyllis is one of the trained volunteers who staff the phones. She’s been working the line for over 10 years and joyfully told me that as the internet becomes more accessible, the number of calls continues to decrease. Nevertheless, she adamantly declares that as long as there is one person out there who may need them, Identity will keep the lines open. This last year Identity had a supporter come in and cover the entire cost of the phone bill for them. It’s volunteers like Phyllis and financial support like this that allows Identity to continue offering so many amazing services to Alaskans.
According to the Identity website, this quarterly GLBTA publication is available on the Identity website, mailed to members and sponsors and distributed at the GLCCA, local LGBT bars like Mad Myrna’s and the Raven, and the Alaskan AIDS Assistance Association (Four A’s). The NorthView has been in successful publication for over two decades in a variety of formats and under various names. It features pieces pertaining to important news in the community, announcements about upcoming events, programs, and services in the local community and exciting articles pertaining to the GLBTA community we live in. In reading past editions, I was easily able to find new and interesting ideas for becoming more involved in and supporting the community for all age groups.
Youth Program Support[caption id="" align="alignright" width="240" caption="Identity board member & youth leader Felix Rivera"][/caption]
Though excited to have a youth rep on the board, Identity continues to struggle with the hardest part of offering support to youth; knowing what it is that youth want. Identity has always wanted to reach out to GLBTA youth, but in repeated attempts, has discovered that a youth program is only successful if the youth themselves plan it. To that end, Identity is seeking Alaska youth who are willing to step up and step out, who will tell Identity what youth want, and will help plan activities and work with the adults involved in Identity to create a community that meets the needs of youth needs as well as it meets needs of adults . Identity is always looking for more volunteers, but especially youth volunteers.
A great example of what having Identity’s support can help to create is the Pride Prom. The last several years Identity has helped to fund the Pride Prom by paying the rent for its venue . Over 100 students enjoyed themselves at the 2011 Pride Prom in April. Prom planners have been able to use Identity as a central location for planning and coordinating an amazing prom for the open-minded youth who want freedom from local high school proms that limit dates to “one boy and one girl.” Identity hopes that with more teen involvement, we can plan, organize, and enjoy more activities like this in our community.
The Advocacy Team’s mission is to advocate for the interests of the Alaskan GLBT community and their Allies. They travel to workplaces, classrooms, conferences, places of worship, training sessions etc. with presentations, workshops, and panel discussions to educate on topics regarding GLBT people within our community. They’ve been to UAA, APU, local high schools, and myriad other businesses and organizations . They reach out in order to share information that helps us understand one another better, fostering acceptance and equality for all. They are educating our community about why acceptance is so important and how to incorporate acceptance into our daily lives.[caption id="" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Anne Marie Moylan, co-chair of the Identity board of directors, at the 2011 Pride Conference"][/caption]
Pridefest & Conference
Pridefest is in June and the Pride Conference is generally in October. Both are a mix of fun and educational community activities. The big push this next year will be to bring the rest of the community to these events. Identity’s plea is for everyone to invite friends, neighbors, and colleagues to attend these events. This isn’t about being gay; this is about being a combined community. These events are about learning how to support each other in being the best version of ourselves as a community in sync, abolishing segregation in our community and entwining the diverse groups into one loving family of Alaskans, celebrating together. PrideFest and Pride Conference ask everyone to come join the fun, the entertainment, see the vendors, and workshops and learn how to bolster your GLBTA neighbors. They’re not private parties; they’re a celebration for everyone.
One concern for anyone who is GLBT is the risks involved in coming out. Especially for younger men and women, this becomes a sort of rite of passage. For teens and young adults, there’s a lot of pressure to be true to yourself. The ensuing emotional battle that wages inside a person can be horrendous to sort out. In my July interview with Phyllis Rhodes, she was poignantly clear regarding her opinion on this, saying, “The most important thing in life is not coming out. If it’s going to cost you your job, if it’s going to cost you where you live, if it’s going to cost you your college education because your parents kick you out, think twice. We’re (Identity) not all about coming out, we’re about being safe.”
She implored me to understand that safety is a huge consideration when one considers the ramifications of suicide rates in Alaska. While attending a Suicide Summit intended to educate about the risk of suicide in Alaska, she learned that Alaska has a very high rate of suicide. “Especially in the villages. Especially in the age group 15-26. Especially for males. Especially if you are gay.” It’s dismaying to realize that if you fit in all of those categories, there’s a 95% chance you will attempt suicide, she told me.
Combined with the issue of ongoing discrimination and harassment of GLBTs, its clear that we need more people to take a stand, demand equal rights and equal treatment for all. In the week following the Pride Parade this summer, at which James Crump died in an accident, bigotry, anti-gay slurs, and discriminating comments filled the websites of KTVA Channel 11, The Anchorage Press, and Anchorage Daily News to the point where the websites were closed to comments and in some cases removed altogether. Whenever this type of harassment and abuse continues, even though it tends to remain just under the “observing eyes of our government,” there remains a higher risk of suicide and death in our community. These are our friends and loved ones who are suicide risks. As college students, we’re in a unique position to help all of them, not just the few we know personally. People of all backgrounds, all education levels, and all age groups surround us. With our help, Identity may yet make their dream of going out of business a reality.
This is our future, a future where every person is free and treated equally. That future will only exist if we take over the job these pioneers ahead of us have been forging. Identity has done a magnificent job reaching out to join our diverse community into one caring, supportive network. It’s up to us to carry on that work by stepping up and stepping out. Identity’s request is for us to get involved.
Do you know someone who is GLBT? Have you been avoiding them? Walk up to them today, give them a hug, and invite them to coffee. Go meet your neighbors, stop by the GLCCA, and join in the events. Come have fun and in the process, create a community of caring, supportive, proactive friends.
Driving Identity’s purpose home, a quote from a July post on Bent Alaska by Christopher Constant:
We win by building friendships of mutual respect and love. We win by giving love. Love is an orientation not a by-product. We have to love each other and we have to turn our love outward even on those who hate us out of ignorance. In this way, eventually, one handshake at a time, we turn ignorance into understanding and understanding into support.
You may also be interested in Mel Green’s June 2011 piece about some of Identity’s earlier history, when it was known as the Alaska Gay and Lesbian Resource Center (AGLRC).