YAKIMA, Wash. — The Rev. Bill Poores knew he was gay at the age of 5.
That was 50 years ago and in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains of northern Alabama.
Raised Pentecostal in an ultra-conservative area, Poores confided in a church leader who told him to “get married and act as if and it will go away.”
But it did not go away, Poores said.
It wasn’t any more of a choice for him than it is for a straight person to be straight, Poores said. However, it would be many years before Poores was able to live as an openly gay man.
He came to Yakima in 2011 to serve as pastor at the Rainbow Cathedral, replacing Jane Newall — who started the church in 1994 — when she moved from the area. Since arriving, Poores said he has met many LGBT community members who are reluctant to live their lives openly, but he’s also seen mindsets becoming progressive.
Although Poores admits some fear may exist in perpetuity, he — and many other openly LGBT community members — believe the Valley is quickly becoming a much more accepting place.
The Yakima City Council’s proclamation of an LGBT Pride Week last month is one way Poores said the area is becoming an easier place for people of varying backgrounds to coexist peacefully.
Julius Bautista was 12 when he first realized he was gay. At first, he worried friends and family wouldn’t accept him, so he waited until his second year at A.C. Davis High School to tell anyone. Now 18 and totally open, he graduated from high school last month.
Bautista said he loves the Yakima community and feels a tremendous amount of acceptance from those around him. He said he hasn’t shied away from living openly as a gay man since coming out and wouldn’t think twice about sharing affection with another man while on a date.
The announcement of Yakima’s Pride Week — which culminated in a march, rally and resource fair — was all the more reason for Bautista to love the place he calls home.
“It’s absolutely amazing that they’re having a march here in my hometown — and all for accepting oneself,” Bautista said just before the week began.
The idea of an LGBT Pride Week may be in its infancy in Yakima, but it isn’t anything new to the national landscape.
The first noted pride event was a parade on June 28, 1970 — exactly one year after a police raid and brutal treatment of the LGBT community at the Stonewall Inn in New York led to several days of rioting.
In the years that followed, gay rights groups began forming across the country, and the month of June was chosen for Gay Pride Month in direct response to and honor of the Stonewall riots.
“Gay pride was not born of a need to celebrate being gay, but it was born out of our right to exist without persecution,” Poores read from a statement he created for the Yakima march and rally. “So, instead of wondering why there is not a straight pride movement, be thankful that you don’t need one.”
Clara Lessig moved to Yakima three years ago from the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Seattle, an area she describes as being an enclave for LGBT people.
Lessig, 35, said she identifies as queer.
She keeps her head shaved and said many people automatically perceive her to be a lesbian based on her appearance.
Since arriving in the Valley, Lessig said, she’s had some struggles finding a visible LGBT community comparable to the one she knew in Seattle.
“Not that everyone has to be an activist just because they have a different sexuality, but more or less part of a community,” Lessig said.
She said she doesn’t know of any local gay bars — the closest is in the Tri-Cities — or other gay-oriented establishments in the area.
But she admits her perception of Yakima as an accepting place has improved since meeting other members of the LGBT community through the Rainbow Cathedral and groups such as ACT Yakima — a local coalition that dedicates itself to progressive values and helped organize last month’s march and rally.
She suggests other members of the LGBT community find similar outlets if they’re having trouble finding that sense of community.
“Be who you are,” Lessig said. “Some people won’t like you, but that would be true even if you were straight.”
Poores said he’s counseled several members of the community who admit they are afraid of being visible for fear of persecution. He also said he has spoken with business owners who fear if people know they’re gay they’ll lose business and their places in the community. He’s met with students struggling to reconcile their sexuality with their religion. And he has assisted at least one state organization with gay youths who have been kicked out of their homes.
Although some of these struggles may be unavoidable anywhere, one area where Yakima doesn’t appear to have any problems — unlike larger cities around the nation — is with high rates of hate crimes where members of the LGBT community are targeted for violence.
Yakima police Capt. Jeff Schneider said the department receives very few reports of hate crimes. The situation is the same countywide.
“We rarely have hate crimes,” said Yakima County sheriff’s Chief Criminal Deputy Bob Udell. “It is an issue we simply do not have to deal with. That includes any incidents directed toward the LGBT community.”
In searches back to 2012, Udell said he found only three reported incidents related to hate crimes. Two involved someone using racially charged language and one was deemed unfounded. None involved reported violent crimes targeting members of the LGBT community.
Although he admits people can be unpredictable, Silver Guerrero said he’d like to believe members of the LGBT community in Yakima are free to live their lives openly and without fear of violence.
Guerrero, 24, said he first identified as a transgender gay man when he was in first grade.
“I just felt different and I could never identify why,” Guerrero said. “It wasn’t until I went to college that I realized other people felt the same way.”
Guerrero is pursuing an arts degree at Yakima Valley College, where he’s also the acting president of the school’s gay-straight alliance.
He believes the Pride Week proclamation, march and rally were signs the Valley is on its way to greater acceptance of diverse people.
Adrian Amador doesn’t care for labels, but he said he’s definitely attracted to men.
Amador, 19, has lived in Yakima for the past five years and admits many in the LGBT community are less visible than they might be elsewhere. But he said that’s just part of the Yakima style and not necessarily people worried about being out.
In fact, Amador said the Valley is filled with people who seem to love others for living as their authentic selves.
“Yakima is more accepting than a lot of people think,” Amador said.