“Breaking Barriers” – Red River Rainbow Seniors Secure The Future By Recording the Past


Physical barriers are often plainly obvious, and, just-as-often, physical barriers can only be defeated with physical force—a stout shoulder, a battering ram, or even a stick of dynamite.  Some barriers, however, are more subtle and can only be defeated with subtle force.  Accepting this challenge is a group that boosts not one, but two overlooked demographics:  “The Red River Rainbow Seniors is an organization dedicated to providing advocacy, education, support, and fun for the 50+ LGBTQ+ community in the Red River Valley,” according to the organization’s website, the Red River being the wet and wiggly barrier that separates North Dakota from Minnesota…but in a nice, natural, nautical, and neighborly kind of way.  

Fairly recently, these advocates saw a specific focus for their variegated purpose.  As recounted by the organization’s website, “In November 2017, the Red River Rainbow Seniors began an oral history project, ‘Breaking Barriers: Harvesting LGBTQ Stories from the Northern Plains,’ to gather the histories of older LGBTQ people and their allies in North Dakota and Northern Minnesota in their own words.”

Of course, in order to break a barrier, said barrier must first be defined.  “I think there are three barriers broken by the project,” supposes Larry Peterson, a North Dakota State University history professor emeritus and the project’s coordinator.  “Silence and invisibility are the first.  Because of the power of the closet, the vast majority of cisgender white straight people who grew up in the 1930s through the 1970s in the Northern Plains of North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota did not know that they knew any LGBTQ people personally.”

This might have led to a tragic I’m-the-only-one-ism that’s as understandable as it is inaccurate.  Peterson continues, “They probably thought of LGBTQ people as ‘those weird folks’ who lived in San Francisco or New York City.  And many LGBTQ people of that era who grew up in small towns, could not name their identity. They only knew that somehow they were ‘different.’”

That different-ness, as perceived and processed by others, can lead to a more sinister possibility.  “Hate and fear are the second barrier,” the professor professes.  “It’s easy to hate and fear ‘the others,’ those people whose lives are not like ours and whom we don’t know.”

The final possibility is probably the most subtle of the subtleties.   “Time and memory are the last barrier,” Peterson points out.  “Without historical records of the lives of mostly ordinary LGBTQ people, most of whom grew up in small towns, their lives almost disappear from the historical record.  There will be evidence of community leaders or victims of hate crimes, but the lived texture of people’s lives will not be there.”

(Left to Right) Marlon Davidson and Don Knudson. Photo courtesy of Larry Peterson

That broad people-texture is the key to Breaking Barrier’s barrier braking.  “Probably the most common misunderstanding [we encounter] is that we only want to interview LGBTQ community leaders,” Peterson notes.  “We emphasize that everybody’s life is important. Everyone’s life stories are part of the beautiful tapestry that makes up the many communities within the LGBTQ experience.”

Thanks to Breaking Barriers, those experiences are brought to life via the parallel miracles of digital video and simple storytelling:  in one video, a gay man recounts achieving ultimate happiness only after being nudged into a complicated, doomed heterosexual marriage; in another, a trans woman remembers enduring a sham boyhood, finally finding authenticity and acceptance in the unlikeliest of places; and in a third video, a lesbian couple tell of the time that they, along with their son, were the guests of honor of President Barack Obama’s 2013 Pride Celebration after the scribing of a letter of thanks to the POTUS for his work on marriage equality.  

This trio of true tales compose a fraction of the testimonies available for viewing on the Breaking Barriers website.  Each narrative features a unique voice, every recollection alternately harrowing and inspiring, heartbreaking and heartwarming.  Each biography showcases a formerly-silent, formerly-invisible person who overpowers fear and hate via the simple-yet-profound act of telling his or her or their truth.

Collecting these reminisces can be as challenging for the interviewer as it (sometimes) is for the interviewees.  “The stories we hear from our interviewees are almost always inspiring, but many of them bring tears to my eyes at times,” Peterson admits.  “I feel as if we are making a difference in the lives of those we interview by affirming how important their stories are and I know we are creating a valuable archive for present and future historians.” 

That archive requires a supportive environment.  “The Red River Rainbow Seniors has been behind this project, in every way possible, from the start,” Peterson reveals.  “Our Oral History Committee and our interviewers have been a hard-working and fun group throughout this project.”

Like the most benevolent members of any generation, the Red River Rainbow Seniors work to alleviate the hypothetical aches of future generations.  “Virtually all the interviewees reflect on how they have been resilient and really triumphed in the face of hatred, bigotry, and indifference,” Peterson catalogs.  “Likewise, almost everyone shares the hope that future generations will never need to worry about losing jobs, friends, and loved ones once people know who they really are.”

These stories might seem prohibitively distant to the slickers living within the Twin Cities of today…but stories, wherever their footing, have a long reach.  “Our focus is primarily on older people who grew up in or have lived most of their lives in North Dakota or northwestern Minnesota,” Peterson observes.  “There are many LGBTQ refugees from those areas who live in the Twin Cities. We’d love to get their stories.”

Physical barriers are often plainly obvious, and, just-as-often, physical barriers can only be defeated with physical force.  Some barriers, however, like those broken by the Red River Rainbow Seniors, require a more subtle force.  “The power and magic of another’s voice, sharing their fears, loves, and triumphs, brings their world in a very concrete way to those listeners,” insists Peterson.  “These stories touch people’s hearts.”

The Red River Rainbow Seniors

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