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Out in the Valley: Growing up LGBTQ in Yakima

Silvia Leija poses for a portrait on Friday, July 13, 2018. Amanda Ray / Yakima Herald-Republic

In June, the city of Yakima formally acknowledged Pride Month for the first time in its history. Those in the LGBTQ community and their allies call this progress. But some say that progress doesn’t make it any easier to grow up gay in the Yakima Valley.
Family acceptance, community pressures and internal struggles play a powerful role in every lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) person’s experience.

Getting an idea of what it’s like to grow up LGBTQ in the Valley is difficult because many are afraid to share their story. Of the three who spoke openly, many others didn’t for fear of rejection, retribution and family embarrassment.

Here are their stories:

Sethalee Williams, 18

At birth, doctors said Sethalee Williams was male, but she doesn’t remember a time when she wasn’t female.

She always played with traditionally girl-targeted toys. She remembers taking dresses from her mom’s closet and trying them on. She didn’t know what it meant, but she knew it wasn’t accepted. Her biological father made sure of this by ruining any girl-related thing she played with.

Growing up with a religious family in Selah didn’t help, she said.

“I feared who I was. I was afraid that God hated me and that I would go to hell,” Sethalee said.

When her parents split and her father left, she saw a door open. Shortly afterward, Sethalee came out as gay to her family. They were slow to accept, but eventually came around. It was her religious great-grandmother who soothed Sethalee’s religious anxieties with four simple words: “God don’t make trash.”

A bigger turning point came when she watched a YouTube documentary about a little girl’s experiences being transgender. She remembers calling her mom in tears afterward and coming out as transgender.

“It opened up my eyes. I saw this video and it literally made me tear up and cry because it spoke to me on a level that I couldn’t explain. It felt like a movie moment, to be honest.”

Sethalee transitioned from male to female at the start of eighth grade. Her overall experience coming out and transitioning in school was good. In fact, she said she was bullied more before she came out.

While they had questions, friends were kind and teachers were accepting.

The only problems she said she faced were when the office staff at her junior high school wouldn’t allow her to change for gym class in a bathroom away from the boys locker. Not a girls bathroom, she emphasized, but one farther away. She said they told her because she was a boy, she had to change in the boys locker room.

“When I got dressed, I had on underwear and a bra and some of the guys were like, ‘What the heck,’” Sethalee said. “They used to joke about it, but I didn’t let it bother me because I knew who I was and where I was going.”

She ran track in middle school, but being transgender led to difficulties. At track meets, the boys she raced against made comments. This was part of the reason she dropped out of track right before high school. She also wanted to cheer, but was afraid to do so for fear of being judged.

Since leaving high school, Sethalee, now 18, has worked in retail and fruit warehouses. She said this work hasn’t always been easy because of the discrimination she’s faced being transgender. That includes being sexually harassed and denied a job.

With all this, however, Sethalee said if she was to die tomorrow, she would die happy because she’s changed people’s perceptions about what being transgender means.

“I’ve changed so many people’s outlooks and misconceptions,” Sethalee said. “I’ve opened the eyes of the most gay-hating, ignorant people. So many people think we’re weirdos, but I want them to know that there is more to us than being transgender.

“We’re human beings.”

Silvia Leija, 18

Silvia grew up in a tight-knit, Latino-dominated part of Union Gap. She and her family came to the United States when she was 4.

“Growing up, my family was very religious and conservative,” Silvia said. “I had my ideals of being a Mexican girl and going to church, but liking women and the things I was feeling didn’t sit with my ideals. I felt like I needed to push these feelings away. I didn’t feel Mexican or woman enough.”

Her struggle was made even harder because she had few people to turn to. The only gay person she knew of was a distant uncle the family didn’t talk about. She didn’t find much support in the greater Yakima community, either, she said.

“I wasn’t surrounded by people to figure myself out. I just had to go through it alone.”

Things changed when she got a computer at age 8. While she couldn’t find anyone to relate to in the real world, the internet provided a thriving community.

When she came to the United States, Silvia learned English by reading comic books. She later developed an interest in drawing, animating and web design. When she got her computer, she started drawing online. On the internet, she found young people like her who helped her understand herself more.

At age 8, Silvia stopped attending church. At the same time, she stopped celebrating things like Christmas because she “didn’t feel worthy of going through those traditions.”

In middle school, she was outed to the entire school by her girlfriend at the time. She said her friends defended her, and people overall were accepting.

At age 12, she went back to church. And at 14, she dedicated herself to God.

The next big step came at age 15, when she accidently came out to her mother. She was texting her girlfriend when her mom grabbed her phone and read the conversation. Afterward, her mother refused to talk to her. Later that day, she came out to her father. He was a little more accepting, she said.

“I honestly don’t think they believe me,” she thought. “I think they’ll figure it out when I get married.”

At Davis High School, Silvia saw the Gay Straight Alliance club as an opportunity to connect with the LGBTQ community. She tried going to the club, but found it hard to hide it from her mother, who picked her up after school.

In her sophomore year, the GSA club died out. During her senior year, Silvia and two friends brought the club back.

“We knew the people could use the solidarity it brought,” she said. “Younger students especially needed the help as they were coming out.”

Silvia thinks there should be more resources for those younger people: “My little sister said that at the middle school, there are lots of children who are dealing with things like this.”

This fall, Silvia will attend Western Washington University and study public relations and political science.

Silvia’s experiences with her Latino identity are not unique.

Holly Mayer is a case manager at Rod’s House, a local resource center that supports young people ages 13 to 24 who are experiencing homelessness and housing instability.

Mayer said LGBTQ discrimination is especially prevalent in Latino communities because of traditional cultural stigmas associated with being LGBTQ. High rates of religiousness are also a factor.

“We have many kids, especially males and those in Latino communities, who are coming in and really struggling. They’re finding it hard to accept themselves when others won’t,” Mayer said.

Mayer recalls how one Latino client recently came out to his father. She said his father beat him up and called him homophobic slurs in an attempt to “beat the gay out of him.”

Familial rejection isn’t just a Latino problem. Youths from all backgrounds face problems. Mayer said she has clients from all backgrounds, and many of them have been ostracized by their families.

Many of her clients complain about being targeted at school and by family members. Suicide ideation and attempts are also common. For homeless youths, some clients turn to illicit means for survival.

“I’ve had several clients openly admit to prostituting themselves out on the street. It’s a means of survival whether or not it’s stealing or bartering,” Mayer said. “It’s a sad reality, but at the end of the day these kids don’t have employment and don’t even have a GED, so what do they have at their disposal?”

Many of these youths aren’t bad people, Mayer said, noting that one of her clients was the valedictorian of her high school when she graduated.

“They just don’t have the resources and privileges that other people have,” said Mayer — who added that acceptance in the Valley is getting better.

“I think if more people knew how this affects the queer community, to the point that they are throwing adolescents out on the street, like 11-, 12-, 13-year-olds who have no chance of surviving, I hope everyone as a compassionate human being, regardless of your beliefs, would want to do something.”

But not all stories involve rejection and hardship. With support, many LGBTQ youths in the Valley have found success.

Elle Barela, 18

Elle realized she was different at a young age. While her friends would talk about the next up-and-coming Disney actor, she was interested in the female actresses. She also gravitated toward female protagonists in shows moreso than her friends. At the time, she didn’t know what it meant.

Like others, a religious family made figuring herself out harder as there was little talk about anything LGBTQ-related.

“Religion played a big role. I remember in one of my first sermons, the pastor said being gay was a sin and how we shouldn’t allow them into our hearts. It has hard for a couple of years.”

It wasn’t until she was 12, after searching on the internet, that she figured out she was bisexual. An emotional struggle followed that took awhile for her to come to terms with.

During Elle’s freshman year, her mother’s best friend came out as lesbian and left her husband of 20 years. Her mom said she was having a hard time figuring out what to do. Elle told her mom that she could only provide support and acceptance.

That experience helped Elle find the courage to come out.

In the final project for her art class, Elle decided to draw a photo of two women kissing at sunset. Her art teacher, who encouraged her to channel her emotions into her art, liked the piece so much that he put it in the school’s display cabinet.

Soon afterward, her friends and others started asking questions. Elle saw an opportunity to be honest and came out. What she found was a community of people who accepted her.

“There’s a joke that gays kinda run the school,” Elle said. “They’re in every area of the school. It’s a very interlinked community. ... It’s hard to not find someone who wasn’t gay in anything and who wasn’t willing to help you out.”

That didn’t mean she did not face any trouble. Elle said some people were mean at first, and she recalls the time a boy pushed her down a flight of stairs and knocked everything out of her hands.

But those instances were the exception, not the norm.

Soon after coming out to her friends, she came out to her mother. She said her mother’s best friend was a big ally.

“She came to the house and talked with my mom and then talked to me, and before she left she said ‘OK, you have to tell her today.’ It really helped me out.”

She said her mother was accepting but doesn’t talk about it.

In school, she was part of everything from National Honor Society to marching band, the theater program to the sports medicine program. In these, she met many friends, LGBTQ and otherwise.

“(Support) was so important. I couldn’t have managed the first few years being out and proud if it wasn’t for the support.”

Elle knows plenty of people who were thrown out of their homes because their parents didn’t accept them. In particular, she recalled how one of her Mormon friends was kicked out because of his parents’ religious objections.
“It’s so upsetting to see kids struggle because of family, church and friends. It’s so important for kids to have a support system.”

Elle graduated this year. She plans to stay in town and study massage therapy at Elite Academy.

LGBTQ youths at risk

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2015 national Youth Risk Behavior Survey, lesbian, gay and bisexual students were 140 percent more likely to not go to school at least one day during the 30 days prior to the survey because of safety concerns, compared with heterosexual students.

The study also found that nearly 29 percent of LGBTQ youth had attempted suicide at least once in the prior year, compared with 6 percent of heterosexual youths.

LGBTQ youths also are at higher risk for sexually transmitted diseases, noted Holly Mayer, a case manager at Rod’s House.

LGBTQ resources in the Yakima Valley

In November 2016, Yakima opened its first resource center for LGBTQ youth: The Space. The center is run by Yakima Neighborhood Health and is open six days a week, offering a place for LGBTQ youths ages 13 to 24 to interact with one another.

In 2017, 60 people visited The Space a total of 2,000 times, said Leah Ward, communications director for Neighborhood Health. She said many of them were close to becoming homeless.

Karelys Davis, case manager for The Space, said many visitors need to come to The Space secretly because their family members would disown them if they found out.

She also said numerous clients are bullied in school. The problems extend to home, too: “Some of them are experiencing domestic violence at home, so they prefer to be homeless.”

Many say they can be their true selves only when they are at The Space, she said.

A psychologist is available to provide services to clients and lead group sessions where things like mindfulness are talked about.

If you know of an LGBTQ youth who is struggling with housing, harassment or needs help, The Space encourages you to call 509-574-4216.

The Space is also always in need of volunteers. Call 509-454-4143 and ask for human resources or fill out an application online at

Outside of The Space, high school Gay Straight Alliance clubs have traditionally been a place where young people can turn in order to find support with their sexuality. In these clubs, students can get together and talk about various things related to the LGBTQ community.

Elizabeth DeVilleneuve is the fifth-year faculty adviser for Yakima Valley College’s LGBTQIA+ Club. She said on average the club sees 12 to 15 core members per year, a number that has stayed steady over the years. The club meets weekly throughout the school year and is available to students and community members.

“We provide members with support and a place that they feel included with people who have had similar experiences and challenges. Overall, we give them support and empathy.”

Some leaders in the LGBTQ community say the networks in place aren’t enough. Christina Ortega, 36, president of this year’s Yakima Pride, is taking steps to fix that.

In the near future, Ortega plans to create a support group where they’ll have access to information and resources.

“They need to know they aren’t alone and that they have people who they can relate to,” Ortega said. “The LGBTQ youth should have a support system early on. They can’t go to their parents, so they need another system.”

In June, Ortega hosted an LGBTQ youth prom at the Unitarian Universalist Church. About 25 people ages 15 to 20 attended. Ortega said many of these people said they wouldn’t have gone to a prom this year if it wasn’t for the event.

“It’s hard. You don’t ask to be born this way and it’s just sad,” Ortega said. “You don’t ask to be born male or female or straight. They didn’t ask to be rejected and excluded from society and subjected to persecution.

“So many people think this is a choice.”

Article originally published in the Yakima Herald-Republic.