COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho - Washington legalizes same-sex marriage next month at a time when the geography of the Northwest’s gay and lesbian population is changing. Their numbers are still largest in metropolitan areas. But if you look for the biggest increases – that trend is happening in small towns and rural areas. In Idaho more gay and lesbian couples are making a choice that was once unthinkable in rural areas — they’re living openly.
Joe Palisano is used to a certain kind of reaction when he tells people where he lives.
Joe and his partner Tom Bry live just south of Sandpoint, Idaho to be precise -– population 7,000. He says people expect them to live in a city. They are equally surprised to hear that he is a farmer.
Josh Swan, 18, came out a year ago to his family in north Idaho. Photo by Jessica Robinson
Out in the barn, Tom and Joe show off their drove of pigs. Tom and Joe are both wearing scuffed rubber boots. Moments like these are what they love about living here.
Joe cites "the openness, the freedom …” while Tom revels in “Sailing! Swimming! Kayaking, canoeing.” They also both like the changes in the seasons.
Just to the west, across the border, Washington voters have legalized same-sex marriage. In contrast, couples like Tom and Joe can be legally fired or evicted in Idaho.
But Tom and Joe have no interest in moving.
“You know, we never feel uncomfortable going in any place, any bar in town," Tom says.
“No, I mean we don't go in holding hands and kissing. There's a time and place for everything," Joe adds. "And you respect that.”
Have they ever felt unsafe?
“Here? No," Joe says. "No. Absolute opposite.”
Tom and Joe aren't alone. Other gay and lesbian couples in Idaho say there's been a shift -– even in staunchly conservative parts of this red state.
Peggy Roberts lives with her partner in Coeur d'Alene, not far from the mining town where she grew up.
"Twenty years ago, I wouldn't never thought about holding hands in public, wouldn't have even crossed my mind," she says. "Today, we can walk through Coeur d'Alene city park if we want to.”
At one time, conventional wisdom said that people like Roberts –- kids who grow up gay or lesbian in a red state –- will high-tail it for the coasts. But now, they’re just as likely as anyone else to live in the same state they lived in at age 16.
Gary Gates is a demographer at UCLA. He specializes in the demographics of the lesbian, gay, bi and transgendered population. Gates says the 2010 U.S. Census shows the number of same-sex couples jumped in rural areas of the country. And he doesn't think it's because of an influx of people.
“It's very likely a big portion of that increase is really just increased willingness to report themselves as same-sex couples, instead of, for instance, calling the relationship roommates.”
But small towns and rural areas are still worlds away from places like Seattle, Portland or even Boise.
Take the example of James Tidmarsh. He moved for a job with the Fox News Radio affiliate in Twin Falls, a town in heavily Mormon southern Idaho. Dating there, he says, was relegated to the world of online personals.
“It's a little bit scary and sketchy and you're not sure who you're meeting. And so I would drive up to Boise almost every weekend.”
James Tidmarsh lived in Twin Falls, Idaho for several years. He helped start an LGBT community center there. Photo by Jessica Robinson
Tidmarsh says when he started a gay and lesbian community center in Twin Falls, he got resistance from people he didn’t expect: older gays and lesbians.
“It was easier to build connections with the outside community, with the straight community, to build bridges that way, than it was to get especially older LGBT individuals to come out of the closet.”
It was only six years ago that Idahoans voted overwhelmingly in favor of a constitutional amendment that bans both same-sex marriages and domestic partnerships in the state.
But Mike Larson thinks that could change someday. Larson is a pastor at the Coeur d'Alene 7th Day Adventist Church. He's seen attitudes soften even among his fellow religious conservatives.
“They're finding more and more people they know –- relatives, friends -– who are choosing to follow that lifestyle and they're trying to figure out how to reconcile their relationships with what they've always believed. And so, I've seen a lot of confusion.”
Joe Palisano and Tom Bry have a farm just south of Sandpoint, Idaho. Photo by Jessica Robinson
Larson is 31 and sees a generational change. It’s a change visible across town — at the unofficial gay bar in Coeur d’Alene. Mik’s is in the basement of the VFW building. Inside, you won't find rainbow flags. But on Wednesdays, you will find karaoke.
Danni Bain came here with a group of friends. She's the president of the Gay-Straight Alliance at North Idaho College. Bain says Mik's is one of the few places in town members of the group can feel totally comfortable.
On campus, there’s more resistance.
“Like in the last year since the gay-straight alliance has become more active, we've run into problems at the college we've never had before," Bain says. "But that's a good thing. Because people are talking about it. And people are recognizing that we are there.”
Last year, just north of here, Sandpoint became the first city in Idaho to pass an ordinance that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Boise and Pocatello may soon follow.
That’s a welcome trend to 18-year-old Josh Swan. He lives in north Idaho and came out just a year ago.
“Honestly, at some points it's really scary,” he says.
Swan glows when he talks about watching the returns coming into Washington, Maine and Maryland on election night. But for now, he's staying in Idaho.
“It'd be so easy to move over to Washington and just be completely clean and free of it. But I believe I've gotta do work like the people who were before me in Washington originally pushing did. It's important to be that pusher. To make sure rights will be here for people who are coming out.”
Here’s one example of Idaho's transition. A year ago, a theater in Coeur d'Alene put on the musical “Rent,” which features gay characters with HIV. It drew protest from some people in town who found it morally objectionable. The show also sold out.
On the Web:
Census & LGBT Demographic Studies (UCLA Williams Institute)
Danni Bain is the president of the Gay-Straight Alliance at North Idaho College in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Photo by Jessica Robinson
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