Some in area gay community feel they are targets

As the dust settles after a mass shooting left 49 dead and dozens more wounded in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, the attack is raising awareness of a culture of fear in the Northern Shenandoah Valley’s LGBT community that some members say was present long before Sunday morning’s first shots rang out.

Joel Bowers is a 20-year-old gay man who lives in Woodstock. Following a series of incidents while out shopping, Bowers said he won’t go to a local store, where he said he has been verbally harassed multiple times, without pepper spray.

“I’ve either been yelled at and called gay, and called a fag,” he said.

Bowers is not alone in this sentiment of fear about going out into public spaces. Several lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals in the area have said they need to be aware of their surroundings, or they make sure not to go out alone. In some cases, they said they don’t go out at all.

Windie Monn is grappling with how to handle herself after the shooting. Monn, 33, is a lesbian from Strasburg, and while she said she finds Strasburg a tolerant town, she said Winchester and more urban areas are not as friendly.

After the attack, Monn said, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are at a crossroads between pride and fear.

“Now it’s like there’s a super big target on us,” Monn said. “There’s always been a target on us, but now it’s like, do you continue to show how proud you are and be yourself, or do you say, ‘It’s time to think about personal safety’?”

Another Strasburg resident, Lauren Beth Allen, 26, has been dating her girlfriend for two years. While they’ve gotten used to people staring when they hold hands in public, the trepidation Allen has felt since the attack is a new feeling.

“Yesterday (Sunday) was the first time we ever felt like we were in danger for being who we are,” Allen said. “It’s terrifying that someone could hate love so much.”

Additionally, Allen said, if she and her girlfriend felt like having a beer tonight, they would pour a cold one at home, because for them it’s too uncomfortable drinking in a public space at the moment.

It’s not just sexual identity that has been inciting nervousness among area residents, but gender identity as well.

Area resident Kendra Brill graduated Strasburg High School in 1999, though at the time she went by the name William.

Brill now identifies as a transgender woman and works to support the LGBT cause. She said she finds Strasburg to be a place that’s respectful of her identity. However, when she’s working in Winchester or away from home, it’s second nature for her to be aware of her surroundings and keep her head on a swivel in case she encounters hostility.

“I’m afraid to be alone in public,” she said. “I don’t go out by myself.”

There are some local places where people of any sexual and gender identity have received compassion.

Victoria Kidd owns Hideaway Café in Winchester. She and her co-owners are all gay, and they’ve given the coffee shop the informal title of “The Safe Space Café.”

Kidd said she, her coworkers and the usual crowd at the café were appalled when they heard about the violence, but she added that the threat of violence is nothing new to the local gay community. While she knows there is a threat of violence in owning any LGBT-oriented establishment, she has more important things on her mind.

“I’m more interested in ensuring that we are open and inviting and available for our clients,” Kidd said. “There are few places in communities like this because there are few places like this in the first place.”

To support members of the LGBT community, Winchester also hosts a PFLAG chapter. PFLAG is an organization that provides support and offers guidance and education to communities about LGBT issues. PFLAG meets from 6 to 8 p.m. on the third Sunday of each month in Winchester’s New Life Building.

Contact staff writer Jake Zuckerman at 540-465-5137 ext. 152, or jzuckerman@nvdaily.com