The first National Coming Out Day took place three decades ago, but Saturday was the first time the occasion was publicly observed in Fort Atkinson.
A Unity Pride rally held Saturday morning on Fort Atkinson’s Main Street bridge drew lots of attention with its colorful signs and rainbow flags, and almost all of the attention was positive, said organizers from Fort Atkinson’s Unity Project.
Around 60 demonstrators spanning all ages, from tots to senior citizens, gathered for the event. Among the crowd were white faces, black faces, brown faces, people from different cultural and religious traditions, and people from surrounding communities including Fort Atkinson, Whitewater, Jefferson and Watertown.
As ralliers began to set up, a person from one of the local stores came running out to provide free muffins. Other participants brought apple cider doughnuts and pumpkin bars to share as they arrived.
As motorists passed by, many indicated their support — or lack thereof, in some cases.
It seemed that every third vehicle honked, while drivers and passengers waved and cheered to indicate their support. But the rally also drew several “thumbs-down” signs and disapproving looks, and one passerby appeared to form a gun with his finger, with which he pretended to shoot the demonstrators.
The mixed reaction was indicative of American society’s split opinion on the issue of gay rights, ralliers said. While strides in civil rights have led LGBTQ people to live more openly in recent decades than in the past, this visibility also has drawn a backlash from people opposed to the “gay lifestyle.”
Supporters noted that some Christian denominations teach that same-sex attraction and different gender identities are an illness or a problem to be fixed. Meanwhile, others preach acceptance and inclusion, calling on people to “love their neighbor” — not just to love their straight, Christian, white neighbor, but to love and respect others without restrictions or disclaimers.
Pastor Amy Waelchli of Fort Atkinson’s Trinity Lutheran Church was preaching that message with her inclusive signs and hugs for all. She was joined by Pastor Susan Bresser of the First United Methodist Church in Whitewater.
Many young people — children, and teens straight and gay, cisgender and transgender — stood among the demonstrators. Also in evidence were a number of wearers of “Free Mom Hugs” shirts, who noted that many LGBTQ young people do not receive support from their own families.
One of these people, Amy Voss, said she has traveled all over the state in support of people in the LGBTQ community.
“The stories I hear are heartbreaking,” Voss said.
“There’s days I give out thousands of hugs,” she said. “I didn’t know hugger’s shoulder could be a thing,” she said with a chuckle.
MaryBeth Klietz, a mom from Fort Atkinson, said that society is changing to become more accepting, and she was encouraged by the support Saturday’s rally drew from passersby.
Klietz, the mother of a transgender son, Marty, said that she recently wore her “Free Mom Hugs” with its rainbow symbol to a (Christian) life rally elsewhere in the state.
She wasn’t sure what reaction she would get and was bouyed by an amazing number of positive responses, from young people, parents, a couple of the security guards, and even the featured performers at the event, who signed the back of her shirt.
In fact, Klietz’s open support led one person to come out as transgender to their mother that day, the Fort Atkinson mom said.
Klietz appeared right at the start of the rally, bedecked in an eye-catching rainbow tutu, rainbow-striped socks, her “Mom Hugs” shirt and pig tails. Later in the day, when Marty was able to join her, she enveloped him in a great big hug.
“My child was so cute as a little girl ... and now he’s a wonderful young man,” Klietz said.
This marks the first time Fort Atkinson has ever hosted a pride rally, to organizers’ knowledge. The event was coordinated by The Unity Project, a Fort Atkinson-based nonprofit organization that has focused the majority of its efforts on welcoming the local Hispanic community.
The rainbow rally Saturday fit with the organization’s mission statement, which is “to promote a sense of acceptance and belonging among all members of our community.”
Laura Alwin, coordinator, said that while the response from passersby was not universally positive, she thought the event went really well.
It drew good participation from people of all backgrounds standing against hate, she said. It also opened up area residents’ eyes to the fact that LGBTQ people do live among us and that it no longer has to be something to keep “in the closet.”
Kim Simes of Whitewater, who works with the Family Equality Council advocating equality for LGBTQ families, said that it was great to see some 60 people out on the streets for the cause.
“There are a lot of people who are not ‘out,’” Simes said. “Seeing 60 people lined up on the streets in support — that can literally be lifesaving.”