Ah, small town life.  I live in a town where, if your house catches fire, a loved one dies, or you have a flood (which is common here), people will flock to your side with offers to help.  Maybe it's because our little community is geographically isolated.   We have the Pacific ocean on one side, and steep mountain passes and treacherous roads on all three other sides, which are prone to downed trees and landslides.  We have learned to take care of our own here, and we pride ourselves on it.  For several decades, our local high school has done a week-long charity drive that raises huge amounts and has received national attention.  I'm proud of our neighborly spirit and resilience.

We also have a darker side.  Our community, like so many other Oregon communities, was a Ku Klux Klan stronghold and a "Sundown Town," one that enacted a local ordinance requiring all black people to be out of town by sundown... or else.  It's been well-known that Tillamook isn't the safest place to be different, i.e. black, Hispanic, non-English speaking, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender), Athiest, or other non-Christian, just to name a few.

Many intolerant attitudes remain, and I'm not so proud of that.  In 1996, a black student ended up leaving Tillamook after having hate speech scrawled across their locker and being otherwise harassed.  Other local high school students were outraged, and created a county-wide declaration and held a march in support of the student.  Still, things are slow to change.

For the last few years, I have been involved with the Rural Organizing Project, a statewide organizations that works in small rural communities to stand up for civil and human rights.  About two years ago, I began coordinating an LGBT and Allies monthly social, to bring people together to create a community where all felt safe.  It quickly became apparent to me that Tillamook is a very closeted community, still shrouded in fear and the kind of misinformation that supports oppression.  I have long dreamed of a gay-straight alliance being formed at our local high school.  We need to do far more than practice tolerance; we need to actively support all members of our community.  Every kid has a basic right to a safe educational atmosphere, free from harassment and bullying.  I have been on this soapbox for some time, and trying to find ways to build that support and create an active local voice for equality.  But it's hard when people don't feel safe being who they are.  

Something happened on Tuesday, May 19th, which was a game-changer in my sleepy little town, and it started with one teenage girl.  

For months, two local men have basically terrorized downtown Tillamook.  They are aspiring street preachers, whose method of preaching includes screaming abusive and hateful things at passers-by, yelling that people are going to hell, and calling young girls and women whores (like a teenager who had just left dance class with her parent).  People had tried to reason with them, only to be screamed at abusively.  Local businesses, who need all the business they can get in our depressed rural economy, have been none too happy at having potential customers driven away outside their doors.  It came to a point that people largely ignored them, out of disgust and embarrassment.  Until Tuesday.

They began their usual diatribe on the sidewalk, by the parking lot of an eye clinic and a dance studio full of children.  This time, their focus was on homosexuality.  They were yelling about gay sex, and one was holding a sign that read, "homo sex is a sin."  Makaila Ragan, a local high school junior, heard them outside her mother's place of work, and decided enough was enough.  With her mother's permission, Makaila made her own sign, which said, "I <3 Gays."  She bravely walked out to the sidewalk and stood silently next to the two men, holding her sign.  She endured being yelled at and verbally abused.  Her mother was also verbally abused.  Horrible, hateful things were said, but Makaila stood her ground and did not return hateful words.

Within minutes, she was joined by one of her friends from the high school, then another, then a crowd began to grow, and stood surrounding the two men, while holding signs about love and tolerance.  I heard about the protest at my office right after a few of her friends had shown up and got a picture:


Makaila and a few friends about 5pm.



The crowd eventually spilled across the street to take up two street corners, while others drove by honking and shouting their support.  Makaila and her friends vowed to stay on the corner until the two men left, and that's what they did.  She stood on the corner with her sign from 4pm to 10:30pm that night, until they left.  Here's a picture from  8:45pm:



 
In a small town like Tillamook, we like to joke that if you do something, everyone in the county will know by the end of the day.  While gossip can be annoying, in this case it was a blessing.  More than one pastor came down to the corner to lend support to the group.  Local business owners thanked them for doing something about what had become a big problem.  Parents and loved ones of LGBT people came down to express thanks and support.  A Facebook group (Tillamook for Love) was created that night, that now has over 3,000 members from all over the globe.  Local papers picked up the story about the petite, brave young woman who handled two bullies with class and wisdom.   Her story has now been told in several national publications, as well as international publications, such as London's Daily Globe.  

There have been follow up rallies, as well as planning meetings, by the cohesive and committed group of people who wish to change community norms.  Our rally on May 23rd had over 75 people, some who had traveled from other areas, and a pastor and followers from a local church.   Not everyone supports us, but more people do than we expected.  

It has created a heated conversation in our small town, mostly around the line between free speech and hate speech.   My focus is on two other issues: One is the difference one person can make, with a simple action.  The other is the fact that there are many more caring, open-minded, non-judgmental people in Tillamook than any of us previously realized.  And now we have found one another and will make things happen.  We know who our allies are, there is a multitude of us, we are organizing, and we aren't going to back down!

We aren't going to put up with abuse, especially when it targets one group of people, often children, who are picked on already.  We are going to be meeting, holding conversations, planning, coordinating, and backing each other up to speak out when we see hate in our community.  Visitors come to our town, to enjoy the gorgeous coastal scenery and try the famous Tillamook dairy products.  Instead of being greeted by two men screaming foul and vicious things "in the name of God," they will be met with tolerance and kindness.  And our kids (speaking of God, God bless 'em) are creating their own culture at the high school.  They are organizing, gathering together, and supporting each other.  We adults have a moral obligation to support them in creating a safe community.  We can all be deeply proud of these young people, who are completely committed to love and kindness, when it would be so easy to respond with anger and vitriol.

Statistics show that one in three teen suicides is an LGBT youth.  There's something wrong in our society when someone is bullied to death, or wishes to die because someone has made them feel so wrong about being who they are.  We want our kids to stop bullies, and apparently we have taught them well.  They have banded together to stop adult bullies in the streets of our town.  They have even formed what I like to call a response team to show up with signs, using the Facebook group to alert when the men are spotted.

A friend of mine referred to Makaila's actions as a "Rosa Parks moment." I guess my point in writing this is that these "Rosa Parks moments" don't happen in a vacuum.  Her friends showed up, the community showed up, in my native town where I would have been less surprised if folks had thrown tomatoes at her.   I grew up and went to high school here and saw the deeply ingrained racism and homophobia.  I know many people who left this town for those very reasons.  I can't be the only person giggling at the irony of Tillamook being hailed as a place of tolerance.  At the same time I'm giddy with the potential for change, and I can feel the change in the air.  


Of course a Rosa Parks moment, while beautiful, doesn't excuse us from maintaining action.  If anything, it's a call to action.  There will be resistance,  and tough choices.  One young friend of mine has lost his job for participating in Tillamook for Love, on his own time.  There is still intolerance, and a solid need to remain steadfast in our common mission, which is create a safer and more loving community.


Our youth are ready to take this on.  Are we ready to stand alongside them?

Each one of us has a circle of influence, whether it is our church, our friends, our workplace, online, or any other place we have a presence.  Come join the group, be part of the conversation, and part of positive change.  We have a responsibility to not let these young people down, as well as their children and grandchildren.  What a golden opportunity!   If it can happen in this little dairy town, it can happen anywhere.  Let's make it happen! 

Check out the Facebook group: Tillamook for Love!