5-Track of Trash Panda Go Kart performs during the Stanwood-Camano Pride event at Freedom Park in Camano, Washington on Saturday, June 1, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

5-Track of Trash Panda Go Kart performs during the Stanwood-Camano Pride event at Freedom Park in Camano, Washington on Saturday, June 1, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

She was a ‘lone soul’ before starting a Pride event for rural Snohomish County

In recent years, groups have led celebrations in Stanwood, Arlington, Lake Stevens and elsewhere — cities where “we absolutely need to find each other.”

CAMANO — Michelle Huntley’s friend lost her son to suicide.

At 10, he couldn’t envision a world where his friends wouldn’t reject him because of being gay.

When Huntley’s child came out at age 11, Huntley went from fear to action quickly.

Last weekend, Huntley hosted the third Stanwood-Camano Pride.

Her child, now 14, realized how little they should have feared their mother’s opinion — if anything, she’s “obnoxiously supportive,” Huntley said. Her kid teases her, calling Huntley “the gayest straight person you’ll ever meet.”

“I was kind of a lone soul,” Huntley said. “I don’t have a lot of friends. So I wasn’t worried about losing friends, and like, what’s going to happen?”

Now, Huntley gets recognized at the grocery store all the time.

In the past three years, Pride celebrations like Huntley’s have sprung up throughout the county, filling June weekends with outdoor festivities.

Stanwood is one of several smaller Snohomish County cities that now have their own festival, along with Arlington, Snohomish, Lake Stevens, Lynnwood and Monroe. Organizers, some who identify as LGBTQ+ and some who do not, say they have the same goal: Convince locals young and old that they are cherished in their hometown. That supporters far outweigh the protesters. That life is not only filled with grief, but also pride and joy. That life is worth living.

‘Rewrite our history’

Four years ago, LaRae McCurry felt ashamed being from Snohomish, where she has lived most of her life.

In May 2020, over 100 armed locals converged on downtown, purportedly to defend businesses from looters — in an apparent social media hoax started by white nationalists. In the ensuing days, students marched nightly downtown, often passing gunmen standing guard in shop doorways.

“We didn’t want that to be Snohomish,” she said. “We want to rewrite our history.”

Having three LGBTQ+ children and being herself pansexual, McCurry wanted to shape her city. A few small Pride events popped up, but for a few years, gay Snohomish residents and their allies only felt safe demonstrating from their cars.

Last June, the city hosted its first official Pride. McCurry said many locals avoided the festivities because of fear. A few businesses closed in protest.

Still, 8,600 showed up. McCurry heard the businesses that stayed open had a great sales day.

Afterward, some residents went to the City Council to voice their opposition.

This year, about 10,000 came to the event on June 1. And this time, McCurry said, public comments at council meetings were “all positive and lovely.”

The presence of local churches has been important to McCurry. A practicing Lutheran, she sought out a more supportive church when one of her children came out.

“Coming out” as Christian makes her sometimes more nervous than saying she is pansexual.

“I’m nervous that people will think I’m one of the closed-minded, fear-driven Christians that are very vocal and loud,” she said. “It’s not that I’m ashamed of being Christian. I am very proud of being a Christian — the type of Christian that loves like Jesus did and accepts everyone with open arms.”

‘Good quality information’

In Lake Stevens, retired counselor Angela Riebli plans to host Methodist church members for the city’s second Pride event Saturday.

While not religious herself, Riebli worked in Lake Stevens and understands how important Christianity is to the city’s history.

Last year, a dozen anti-gay protesters tried to hand out “lovely pamphlets” to the 1,000 attendees, Riebli said, with sarcasm.

The performances and vendors are there to draw people in. But the workshops and resources are what she cares about most. Experts will present about gender-affirming health care and how to navigate LGBTQ+ relationships. To those squeamish about giving information about LGBTQ+ topics to minors, she said, the alternative is far worse.

“These kids know how to get information online,” she said. “… If they’re going to attend one of our workshops, at least, they’re getting good quality information from a professional that’s been vetted.”

This year’s event is set to double in size and volunteers.

New vendors keep asking to be included, leaving Riebli to figure out how to fit everyone. The outpouring of support powers her through all this work.

When thinking about how Pride events affirm people, Riebli is reminded of many of her former students. At last year’s event, she saw a student who graduated a few years earlier.

“He was certainly one of the people that was kind of in my mind, and in my heart,” she said.

She made sure to tell him: “Hey, man, you’re one of the people that was kind of guiding me through this.”

Not all local politicians have been supportive. Last year, Mayor Brett Gailey declined to sign a proclamation declaring June as Pride Month in Lake Stevens.

“The motto of Lake Stevens is ‘One community around the lake.’ So we believe in that,” Riebli said. “We believe that everybody is part of the community, and deserves equal representation.”

‘We absolutely need to find each other’

Caera Gramore moved to Arlington in 2018 to live where “there are more trees than people.”

Gramore first struggled to find other LGBTQ+ residents. They existed but were isolated. She struggled with homophobic “segments of the population who think they are the only ones here.”

Before, Gramore lived in California, where she saw Pride events even in smaller cities. In bigger cities, well attended events can be overwhelming.

Gramore said COVID made the need for local connections even more urgent.

“With the pandemic there was a lot of: I don’t even know if I’m going to be alive in three years. I’m not just going to wait for ‘it gets better,’ I’m going to need to be better now,” she said. “We’ve been so isolated for so long and now we just went through an even more painful isolation and we absolutely need to find each other.”

Arlington Pride did not foresee the opposition they faced for its second annual event in 2023. Ahead of the festivities, the city tried to have Pride organizers pay a $3,500 security fee due to the potential for threats and violence, a fee officials later dropped.

Last year’s event drew around 60 protesters, who marched around the celebration seven times over nearly two hours, in a “Jericho March” while praying and waving signs warning about the purported dangers of drag queens.

This year’s event, held last Sunday, went smoothly, Gramore said, aside from rain and a slightly lower turnout.

‘Love your kid’

Stanwood-Camano Pride has avoided much of other Pride groups’ challenges by holding the event in Freedom Park, a private community park.

The event has no obligation to guarantee free speech. They also don’t have to worry about county permits.

She would have been happy with 50 attendees. The first year, 800 people showed up.

Above all, Huntley wants people to have fun: a bouncy house, 45 vendors, live bands, drag show and a big color throw. It’s a party, not a political event. She has heard the event has made a huge difference, amid “lots of big truck energy” in rural Snohomish and Island counties.

More women hold hands on the sidewalk. More residents wear LGBTQ+ pins. Being an LGBT ally has become Huntley’s “whole life,” she said.

“My whole intent was just to get the community to be a community and not have to hide,” she said.

There was one lone protester in 2023, but no one bothered this year.

“Nobody chooses the hardest path,” Huntley said. “You just got to love your kid and trust that they know.”

Find out more about Pride events by checking The Daily Herald’s Pride Guide at heraldnet.com.

Aina de Lapparent Alvarez: 425-339-3449; aina.alvarez@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @Ainadla.

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