Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of Beyond Pride stories that will dive into issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community every month. KOIN 6 News will air a Pride Month special looking at the past year of news and events that impact the LGBTQ+ community.
PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Behind the hair, makeup and choreography of the drag artist “Vegas Flights” is Jacob Reppeto, a 19-year-old Portland native using the show to overcome and inspire.
“Growing up I didn’t really get to see people like me and so art was really truly my escapism. It was kind of like the oxygen my lungs needed,” Reppeto told KOIN 6 News. “Portland has always had this beautiful magic about it where we have so many options and opportunities for people to be who they want to be.”
He created “The Takeoff,” a drag show for teens to provide the example he never had growing up.
As a child, he felt pressure to normalize. “I think everyone does. Everyone as a queer person is like, it would be so much easier if I did not feel this way or did not have to experience this at all.”
Despite the magic the Rose City has shown him, he has also felt its thorns. His family was always accepting. His classmates were not.
Bullying from classmates led being diagnosed with depression when he was just 8.
“I had kids threatening to kill me. I had kids that physically assaulted me. I was punched, slapped, whatever,” Reppeto said.
Portland reputation is not reality
Portland often finds itself at the top of internet lists for the most queer and trans-friendly cities, or most accepting places. But Debra Porta, the executive director of Pride Northwest, has seen a different reality over the decades she’s led the city’s Pride Festival.
“It’s still scary to be out because you have no idea how that person across the street is going to react to you,” Porta told KOIN 6 News. “I have a lot of friends and I know a lot of folks in the community who are more unsafe than I am. There’s just this visceral reaction from people when it comes to bucking those gender lines that brings an unsafe (reaction), something out of them toward our people.”
The Department of Justice hate crime data shows 15% of the hate crimes in Oregon for the most recent year of available data were related to gender identity or sexual orientation. In 2018, there were 31 crimes reported. That number rose to 45 in 2020.
While data from the pandemic isn’t available, Porta believes the pandemic cause a lack of visibility that has continued the trend.
She often talks about the origins of Pride and taking their place in the public sphere because “it is very easy to ignore a community that is living on the margins as a whole. And the pandemic has shown me that front and center.”
In the 30 years Porta has been in Portland, she’s seen the visibility of the queer community erode in policy decisions. She and other queer and trans community leaders said they were ignored when Portland City Council voted to create sanctioned camp sites.
“There’s been zero planning around that process to take into the account the very real dangers for our people when it comes to large congregate settings,” Porta said.
Ian Morton, the director of the Q Center — which is the largest LGBTQ community center in the Pacific Northwest — said he’s seen the lack of car for the trans and queer community show itself in Portland’s most visible societal struggle, homelessness.
“I think the biggest challenge I’ve seen is that I think Portland as a whole, the value system within Portland is one of inclusion,” Morton said. “The infrastructure does not follow.”
Homelessness among LGBTQ community
In Portland there is only one designated place for them to go: the Queer Affinity Village, 2185 SW Naito Parkway, that holds 60 people.
“There are folks who would rather take their chances out in the elements than engage in some of the services because they feel as though they’re just not designed to serve them,” Morton said.
Katie Cox, who helped found the Equi Institute, turned it from a clinic for the queer and trans community to become an organization that helps people find healthcare in a place that will accept and understand them.
“A lot of the trans and queer folks I’ve met with don’t access shelters because (the shelters are) gendered and that doesn’t feel safe to them,” Cox told KOIN 6 News. “Portland has gotten a lot better as it pertains to, like, physical medical care for queer folks. I think there could always be more. I think that where we really lack in is queer and trans mental health providers. I think that’s a very big piece.”
Cox and Morton believe the barriers of access for queer and trans people who are already in Portland are compounded because of the city’s repuation.
People are finding refuge in Portland, Morton said, in an attempt to escape the anti-LGBTQ laws being passed in other states.
“Portland is seen as a sanctuary for the queer community. So we do have a lot of folks who actually move into this space to come out to leave states or leave cities where they feel like they’re experiencing high discrimination,” he said.
Cox said she feels like she’s bracing “for an influx of folks moving to Portland as refuge, you know, from other states and areas that are now telling them they don’t exist or they can’t be who they are.”
Porta, Morton and Cox are leading 3 of several organizations working together to fill the gaps with the resources they have, pulling on the strengths of each organization to tailor services to the needs they’re facing.
Organizations work together
They said that if they coordinate and start conversations about the challenges they face, Portland can live up to its Pride-friendly reputation.
Cox is hopeful there are finally more resources being able to help the queer and trans community. The Equi-Institute received money from Measure 110 to fund 2 recovery counselors.
“One of the reasons I’m still here is because I think there’s potential to actually move forward and to address and to bring equitable thriving lives to everyone who lives here,” Porta said. “Portland is not the accepting, amazing place that it thinks it is. But it’s better than the vast majority of any place else in this country. “