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Columbia Montour Pride highlights queer youth

A poster shown at the resource and vendors' fair at Outfest.
Isabela Weiss | WVIA News | Report for America
A poster shown at the resource and vendors' fair at Outfest.

Last weekend, LGBTQ+ Pennsylvanians and allies came together to celebrate queerness and to support queer youth.

Every October, Columbia Montour Pride (soon to be rebranded as AIRE Pride) holds Outfest – honoring National Coming Out Day, LGBTQ+ History Month, and 1979’s March on Washington, which demanded equal civil rights for queer Americans.

Corrine Albright, interim co-chair of the Association of Inclusion, Respect and Equity (AIRE) Pride, was a coordinator for this year’s event. She said communities should show their support for their queer residents year-round.

“We’re not here just for June. But we’re here every single day, all month long, all year long. And we do it to bring the people out to let them know that we’re still here. Let them know that they are seen, they are heard. And most importantly, when they feel like they have no one, we’re there,” said Albright.

Jen Zarko, AIRE’s treasurer and interim co-chair of AIRE Pride, feels that it’s especially important for LGBTQ+ youth to see queerness be celebrated.

“When you’re young, it’s tough enough. When you’re a queer youth, I think it’s just that much harder. So, for the youth that are here today, to see all of these people and this much support and love, I think it just gives them a brighter future,” said Zarko.

Andronica (John Oates) reads a children's book to the crowd.
Isabela Weiss | WVIA News | Report for America
Andronica (John Oates) reads a children's book to the crowd.

Other attendees said that there’s more work to be done for queer youth.

Kristine and Travis Culver co-chair Columbia County’s Defense of Democracy group – which promotes inclusive education in schools.

“Kids need queer books. Kids need representation. And positive representation,” said Kristine and Travis Culver.

The Culvers are concerned about schools banning LGBTQ+ books.

“In Bucks County, here it’s happening. In Ohio, in Nevada, in Florida, in Texas, in California – in all these states. And this is what’s happening. Y’know, they’re removing – some schools are going as far as removing curriculum…literally closing their libraries because some parent might have a problem with any book,” said Kristine and Travis Culver.

12-year old Maylen Zarko read out a welcoming speech to queer youth at the start of the festival. Zarko said that events like Outfest help queer youth feel safe.

“Sometimes their school – like, a lot of people at their school don’t support them, or maybe at their house, their parents don’t support them. So, it’s important for them to have a place where they’re supported and respected for who they are,” said Maylen Zarko.

Drag Queen and AIRE’s Co-President Trixy Valentine said that creating Outfest was challenging.

“Not a lot of people had an open mind to what it could look like. Or, we had a lot of people thinking like, ‘You can’t do a Pride [event] here. We’re in rural Pennsylvania. Like, nobody’s going to come. We’re going to get a lot of hate,’” said Valentine. “And, y’know, we got a little bit on the backend…that wasn’t too vocal…people sent us rude emails and other social media type stuff. But then the other thing happened, where you saw our entire community show up.”

At the first Outfest in 2021, almost 500 people showed up, according to Valentine.

Through events like Outfest, AIRE’s Co-President Gwen Bobbie said that support for the queer community in Columbia and Montour counties has grown. Each year before the festival, organizers ask local mayors and commissioners for a proclamation of support for LGBTQ+ residents.

“We’re in a rural community…we send out proclamations to all of the local municipalities. Some say yes, some just ignore us. Every year we have one or two more. So, again, there’s progress there,” said Bobbie.

AIRE shows four signed proclamations from local municipalities in support of the LGBTQ+ community.
Isabela Weiss | WVIA News | Report for America
AIRE shows four signed proclamations from local municipalities in support of the LGBTQ+ community.

Corrine Albright and Jen Zarko, interim co-chairs of AIRE Pride, said that Outfest shows queer youth they have a place in their community.

“We’re here. We’re not going anywhere. And, y’know, we’re in your community. We work in your hospitals. We’re your neighbors, we’re your teachers, we’re your doctors, we’re your lawyers. We’re everything. We’re everywhere…and it’s 2023 and you no longer have to hide, y’know, in the closet, behind a door. It’s okay to be who you are,” said Albright and Jen Zarko.

This was AIRE’s third Outfest. They also run religious, cultural, and racial inclusion events.

Isabela Weiss is a storyteller turned reporter from Athens, GA. She is WVIA News's Rural Government Reporter and a Report for America corps member. Weiss lives in Wilkes-Barre with her fabulous cats, Boo and Lorelai.

You can email Isabella at isabelaweiss@wvia.org