The Orcas LGBT community for the first time publicly joined the Island’s July 4th Community Parade to show their support for approving Referendum 74 in November.
EASTSOUND, Wash. — There are few images more quintessentially American than the Fourth of July in a small town.
Children and their grandparents lining the parade route. Hawkers at the Saturday Farmers’ Market. Music playing at the bandshell on the village green. It all came to life again this summer in wonderful, historic rhythm on Orcas Island.
Yet for some residents, this year’s parade held a deeper meaning.
For the first time, members of the Orcas Island Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender (LGBT) community joined friends and allies marching in support of Referendum 74 which, if approved, would allow same-sex couples in Washington state to marry.
The island’s LGBT community is diverse — teachers, public servants, and local business owners. Their participation in the parade was a public show of support for “marriage equality,” a term favored by many political progressives.
Orcas residents Ken Conant and Jim Sankey led the delegation in their 1948 Jeep Willy’s Roadster.
“Jim and I were legally married in California, but we are denied a very basic right here in our home state,” Conant said. “Referendum 74 is about equality for all couples.”
However, there is more to this story than support for approving R-74.
The Orcas LGBT community is a tightly-knit group of islanders who have long struggled to turn what has historically been a social group — Out on Orcas — into a political force.
Out on Orcas provides a place for all LGBT islanders (whether publicly gay or not) to socialize without fear of disclosure. This creates a sense of family for those isolated on the island while fostering an important support system for the LGBT community.
In 2009 a group of LGBT islanders made their first public foray onto the Orcas Island scene when they formed the Orcas LGBT Fund, a community fund designed to increase LGBT awareness and give back to the island. In its first two years, the Orcas LGBT Fund has given more than $25,000 in grants to local non-profit initiatives, and Out on Orcas recently joined the local Chamber of Commerce.
The Out on Orcas group had long debated being part of the Orcas holiday parade before R-74 became a tipping point. The Chamber’s July Community Parade seemed like the perfect venue.
For some who chose to march, there was fear and trepidation. Marching meant publicly coming out in this small community, so there was uncertainty about public response.
“It was affirming,” said Cindy Elliot, a longtime Orcas Island High School teacher. “For those watching, we were their neighbors, owner of the local restaurant, the volunteers at the library. We were only asking for support for what other couples in Washington take for granted.”
Signs among the marchers included “Vietnam Vets for Equality” and “Just Married?” on the back of one of the cars, prompting cheers from some of the hundreds along the parade route.
In many ways, this was just another Fourth of July week celebration in small town America. But for the LGBT community on Orcas Island, this was a new kind of independence day.