by: Melissa Gonzalez
North Dakota Human Rights Coalition held an LGBTQ+ Summit over the weekend of Oct. 5-7 at the Baymont Inn in Mandan.
The summit was a historical moment as it was the first statewide gathering for members of the LGBTQ+ community. The goals of the summit were to provide opportunities for networking, support and strategizing for educational opportunities as well as assisting attendees in recognizing their political power.
The North Dakota Human Rights Coalition and Dakota Outright, an organization that is dedicated to serving the LGBTQIA community of the central and western parts of the state, facilitated the summit.
The summit was inspired by a conversation between Erin Pringle, Chair of the Board of Dakota Outright, and Barry Nelson, a board member for ND Human Rights Coalition. After their observations of communication between local LGBT organizations and resources, the two wanted to find a way to bring more organizations together for networking and collaboration.
One of the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition’s goals is to advocate for communities that face discrimination and human rights violations. North Dakota is lacking an official hate crime law and in terms of the LGBT community, there is no protection for sexual orientation or gender identity in the North Dakota Human Rights Law.
In order to meet the goals of the two organizations, there were panels and break-out sessions that discussed potential community partnerships and available programming for health and wellbeing in North Dakota for youth, adults and elderly individuals.
There were also panels representing transgender individuals that allowed them to share their experiences. And Two Spirit individuals from North Dakota and from Wind River Reservation representing indigenous communities in North Dakota and Wyoming attended to share their work and experiences as well.
Aside from individual people, the Red River Rainbow Seniors, FM Pride Collective, Equality Federation and the National Center for Lesbian Rights attended the summit.
Nelson, 66, of Fargo, is not new to organizing or advocating for human rights, and was involved in refugee resettlement for Lutheran Social Services before becoming involved with the Human Rights Coalition in 2002.
Nelson believes that progress is measured and that, although North Dakota is led by conservative lawmakers, public opinion is shifting in terms of support for human rights and acceptance of people in the LGBTQ+ community.
The summit is a chance to increase visibility in North Dakota and to help shift public opinion even further.
“To have a state-wide gathering is historical,” he said. “I think that’s the thing, part of the reason that people were pumped up was that we’re making history here.”
Eighty people attended the summit from various places across the state, including Fargo, Bismarck and Williston. A majority of people were older, and the organizers of the event hope to increase attendance for younger community members.
Cody Severson, 32, of Fargo, attended the summit on behalf of the Harbor Health Clinic.
Harbor Health Clinic is a medical center that offers gender affirming hormone therapy for transgender folks in the Fargo-Moorhead area, free of charge. Severson’s goal was to promote the clinic, which opened in January. He was happy to have people interested in the clinic and in collaboration approach him.
After attending the summit, Severson had the sense that there is support for LGBT+ topics in North Dakota.
“I’m always a fan of anything that lets us say anything queer related out in the open, especially in North Dakota,” he said. “It was really nice to see people come together for the singular cause of promoting LGBTQ+ agenda items.”
More information about the Harbor Health Clinic can be found on the clinic’s website, https://harborhealthclinic.org.
Cindy Roholt, 63, is a founding member of the Red River Rainbow Seniors and went to the summit to collaborate with others and increase visibility of the organization.
The Red River Rainbow Seniors, founded in 2015, advocates for older members of the LGBT community and the issues that affect them: Particularly long term care needs. They are currently working on an oral history project that shares experiences of people who are part of the community in the Red River Valley.
Roholt described the event as a casual, but energy filled three days. From the discussions and panels she attended, her belief in the need for building community and including different voices and experiences of the entirety of that community was reinforced.
“The thing that people were very interested in, [as] we were the only senior group that was there, was being able to go back to their own communities and reach out to the seniors in their communities to helpfully do some organizing … but also connect them with the oral history project,” Roholt said.
The Red River Rainbow Seniors were able to make connections with Dakota Outright, YouthWorks, as well as individuals in Bismarck and Williston. Roholt has no doubts that the summit will continue and that the organization will continue to attend.
“This was truly an inaugural event in the sense that this was the first pebble that has been cast,” she said. “That’s the biggest take away is that there is something happening here. There are people that are willing to come together.”
The Red River Rainbow Seniors can be found on Facebook.
North Dakota remains a conservative state and the first LGBTQ+ Summit was a bold move to showcase the undeniable presence of the community. The goal of the summit was to bring people together and bring change for the better.
As Nelson said, progress is measured, and time will tell how North Dakota will change, both socially and politically, in regards to individuals belonging to the LGBTQ+ and other marginalized groups.
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