Best Weekend Ever (copy)

From left, Friendly City Safe Space staff members Jennifer Iwerks, William Martin and Hyacinth Bellerose make buttons and provide information on the community during a Pop-Up Pride Celebration at Liberty Park in Harrisonburg on Saturday.

Liza Koonin walked into the day care with her spouse. They were touring different day cares for their first child, and on the phone they were told that this place would have a spot open up soon.

However, Koonin and her wife were met with odd looks. The couple were told by the day care employees that they didn’t know when a spot would open up. Koonin called it an overall “strange” experience.

“They looked at us really weird,” Koonin said. “It didn’t make any sense.”

Koonin didn’t realize until her wife pointed it out afterwards — they may have been discriminated against because they are a same-sex couple.

Koonin’s experiences as an LGBTQ person in Harrisonburg haven’t all been like this. She said she feels accepted for the most part and has become more comfortable discussing her identity openly over time. It’s much different than being in Washington, D.C., though, which is where Koonin lived before she and her wife came to Harrisonburg in 2017.

But, Koonin said progress is being made in Harrisonburg — especially with the opening of the Friendly City Safe Space in November.

The Friendly City Safe Space, located in the Ice House downtown, provides resources and gathering opportunities for LGBTQ people and allies in the city as an extension of the Shenandoah LGBTQ Center in Staunton. Hyacinth Bellerose, director of the Safe Space, said the motivation to open the space came from their own journey as an LGBTQ person in Harrisonburg.

Bellerose has lived in Harrisonburg for six years and came out shortly after arriving. However, they soon realized there wasn’t a social support network established in the city for LGBTQ people. While volunteering with the Shenandoah LGBTQ Center in February 2021, Bellerose came up with the idea to create the Friendly City Safe Space.

“I wanted to provide a space that would be able to empower others with resources that I felt like I didn’t have when I came out,” Bellerose said. “I wanted to create a space that could make the queer community here very visible, and hopefully keep more people here and empower them to thrive.”

Some of the resources at the Safe Space include a lounge, mental health room, LGBTQ library and self-expression closet. The space is also used to host events and programming like writing groups, game nights and poetry slams.

Bellerose said they have met hundreds of LGBTQ people since the Safe Space’s launch, which is encouraging as it continues to grow. Koonin visited the Safe Space when it first opened, and she said she’s excited to see it develop.

“I feel hopeful about the LGBTQ community coming together here and being more visible, being more comfortable, more accepted,” Koonin said. “A lot of that is thanks to the Safe Space.”

Like Koonin, Bellerose’s experiences as an LGBTQ person in Harrisonburg have been mixed. Bellerose said the Safe Space was prohibited from being established at its first location because the landlord didn’t support the mission and didn’t want Pride flags put up. They said they’ve also experienced dirty looks and online harassment.

“It’s a complicated mix of things,” Bellerose said. “In many ways, as a queer person in Harrisonburg, I do feel very welcome and I feel able to be more out and proud here than I do in many other places I’ve been. But at the same time, there is still a long journey ahead for us to get to a place where we are actually thriving in this town.”

Koonin’s only gripe with the Safe Space is its visibility. She said she wishes it was more noticeable and accessible from the street.

“It’s something that is like the secret club: If you know about it, you know about it, and if you don’t know about it, you’ll never know about it,” Koonin said. “It shouldn’t be that way, and I think it’ll take time for us to get there.”

While the Friendly City Safe Space is still in its first year of operation, the Shenandoah Valley Pride Alliance has been visible in the area for years. And after a two-year hiatus because of COVID-19, the alliance’s annual Pride celebration will return to Court Square in October.

Michele Sullivan, president of the alliance’s board of directors, said the organization hosts its celebration in the fall rather than during Pride month because there are too many similar events in Washington, D.C. She also said more students from James Madison University and Eastern Mennonite University can attend their Pride if it’s in the fall because it’s during the academic year.

Sullivan said the alliance’s Pride event hosts several vendors and attracts 3,000 to 5,000 people on a “shoestring” budget. She said she looks forward to this year’s event and enjoys giving LGBTQ people an opportunity to be out and proud.

“There may be some people who are actually only being their authentic self for one day,” Sullivan said. “But if we can bring that just one day a year to people, it makes it all worth it.”

Ben Bear, who identifies as gay, said he’s been to the Pride celebration a few times since moving to Harrisonburg in 2017. He said it’s encouraging to see so many people being themselves and to see vendors show their support.

“There is a little bit of a gamble in the Shenandoah Valley,” Bear said. “If you express that you are supportive of all ethnicities, of all gender identifications, of all sexualities, then you will draw in some people that will appreciate those types of things. But it also means that there are some people that will certainly not utilize your business. It’s nice to be able to see those organizations recognize who they are and to have them feel seen as well.”

Bellerose said the Safe Space plans on helping the alliance by providing volunteers for October’s Pride celebration.

“Shenandoah Valley Pride was the first place I was ever publicly out as a queer person years ago,” Bellerose said. “So it does mean a lot to me. I definitely want to be able to support them.”

The alliance also provides programming for LGBTQ people in the Valley throughout the year. But, Sullivan said there should be more resources made available for LGBTQ people in the area.

“You can always use more,” Sullivan said.

Koonin, Bear and Bellerose echoed this sentiment. Koonin said there need to be more LGBTQ resources in Rockingham County, not just Harrisonburg.

Bear said there needs to be more LGBTQ representation locally. If residents are exposed to different identities, Bear said, this can lead to more acceptance and understanding.

Cultural shifts, according to Bellerose, take time. They said they hope that as the Safe Space grows, it will empower LGBTQ individuals and help them flourish in the community. Bellerose’s dream is for Harrisonburg to be a destination for LGBTQ people to live and thrive.

“I recently saw somebody say that they were excited to move to Harrisonburg because of the queer community here, which is something I feel like you wouldn’t have seen even two years ago,” Bellerose said. “So I do feel like change is coming.”

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