In the wake of several highly publicized suicides across the nation committed by young gay men, a group of individuals and local nonprofits are working to expand a safety net across western Montana capable of better supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
"We aim to save lives," says Cheryl Wolfe, a Flathead Valley resident leading the effort to create a new Polson branch of Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), a support group with affiliates in more than 500 communities across the globe.
Wolfe's sister is a lesbian, and that connection leaves Wolfe especially attuned to the imprint homophobia leaves on LGBT people.
"This is my family, my children's family, and it's hurtful to me to hear people speak hatefully," says Wolfe, who is also a Green Party candidate running for the Montana Legislature in House District 11.
Wolfe says she regularly hears stories not just from her sister but also from Flathead Valley neighbors who witness bullying and name-calling directed at kids deemed different by peers. For instance, Wolfe recently heard from a man who was upset because his grandson is routinely called a "faggot" at school. According to Wolfe, a group of elementary school children chased the effeminate 10-year-old student down and shot at him with a plastic pellet gun.
"It happens all the time," Wolfe says. "Too often—more than people realize."
Studies routinely find LGBT youth are disproportionately likely to commit suicide, says Donald Stuker, president of PFLAG Missoula, which is helping the Polson branch get off the ground.
"Gay youth are actually four times more likely to commit suicide than straight people in our cohort," says Stuker, a 21-year-old Hi-Line native.
That's why, says Wolfe, PFLAG aims to unite LGBT people and their allies.
"It is not acceptable for even one young person in our town to commit suicide for being bullied and not knowing where to get help," she says. "There are many, many people who care about these kids and know that (they) are just the same as any other person. They are our friends and families and neighbors."