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Gay Interior Dept. employees share their experiences

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Stephanie Paige Ogburn | Sep 12, 2011 03:05 PM

When I was preparing to move to the Four Corners town of Cortez, Colo., to take a job as a newspaper reporter, I did some background research to learn more about my future home. I'm well connected with the gay and lesbian community, so one of the first stories I heard was the tragic tale of Fred Martinez. Martinez had the double curse of being both a Navajo (racism still runs strong in many border rez towns) and a transgender individual. In June 2001, when he was just 16 years old, he was beaten to death by 18-year-old Shaun Murphy.

It was a horrifying, sad story to hear, and made me wary of the place I was moving.  When I arrived in Cortez, though, I met several outstanding gay couples (one was a town councilman) and encountered a community working towards addressing some of the tensions illustrated by such an awful act. (Martinez' story was made into a documentary film called "Two Spirits.")

While most LGBT youth don't suffer fates like that of Martinez, many of them are subject to bullying, teasing, and other social interactions that can harm self esteem and lead to depression or even suicide. The "It Gets Better" project aims to support LGBT young people by providing testimony from older members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, or celebrities (here's one by Steven Colbert), who have made it to the other side of what can be many hate-filled years.

And, to my surprise, I was recently passed along a testimonial video for the project from the U.S. Department of the Interior. In the video, you can see gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender public servants from the Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and United States Geologic Service and others, followed by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, all sharing their experiences of bullying and shame, but then all telling youth or whoever is watching the video how happy they are now, after high school, with jobs they love and co-workers and partners who respect and love them.

It's normal for people to fear what they don't know. And in rural communities such as the one I live in now, gay people, same-sex couples and transgender or bisexual individuals aren't a regular presence in the lives of youth. This often makes it easier for kids to demonize or stigmatize those of different orientations. The many "It Gets Better" messages do their part to raise awareness across the country, but videos like this one, from Interior, can play a special role by pointing out that there are gay people in rural areas like much of the West -- and that some of  these people have gotten great jobs working as caretakers of our natural resources. 

Seeing a ranger in Yellowstone affirming that he's gay and happy, and a motorcycle-riding Interior department employee doing the same, sends a powerful message.  If rural kids (and their parents) could see more gay cowboys -- or hunters, or bikers, or BLM employees -- maybe we'd all see less hate.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is the online editor at High Country News.

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