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'Keeping history alive': Red River Rainbow Seniors work to share stories of LGBTQ locals

The Rainbow Seniors conduct a business meeting Wednesday, May 2, 2018, at the Pride Collective and Community Center, Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service1 / 4
The Rainbow Seniors meet at the Pride Collective and Community Center, Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service2 / 4
Joe Larson, from left, Lee Clarens and Jan Jorgensen attend a Wednesday, May 2, 2018, meeting of the Rainbow Seniors, a group of LGBT people over 50, at the Pride Collective and Community Center, Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service3 / 4
Mark Chekola, right, and Bob Stone attend a Wednesday, May 2, 2018, meeting of the Rainbow Seniors, a group of LGBT people over 50, at the Pride Collective and Community Center, Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service4 / 4

FARGO — Lee Clarens walked into the room with a big smile on her face and an even bigger exclamation.

"I brought popcorn!" she said as she placed the big blue bag of cheddar and caramel popcorn on the table.

While Clarens and her friends in the Red River Rainbow Seniors weren't here for a party, it still kind of felt like it as they sat on the old white couches surrounded by books, rainbow flags and plenty of laughter. A group of LGBTQ people over the age of 50 living Fargo-Moorhead, the Red River Rainbow Seniors offer a place for socializing, education and advocacy.

On this recent night, they gathered for a business meeting at the Pride Collective and Community Center, 1105 1st Ave. S., North Dakota's only brick-and-mortar gathering space for the LGBTQ community. Other nights, the group meets at restaurants or bars for happy hours or goes to a member's house to watch movies.

"As people age, they tend to isolate themselves and that can be especially true for us," said Ella Huwe. "We wanted to create a community so they don't have to do that."

'What we've gone through'

The group formed a little over a year ago after a state representative from the AARP suggested a social gathering during FM Pride Week for LGBTQ people over the age of 55. It was a hit, and the community decided to keep it going. But it's not just a chance to hang out with like-minded people.

"Those of us over 50 have different issues — health issues and what happens as we age," Jan Jorgensen said.

"One of the reasons we organized in the first place is the questions we face, like what happens to our girlfriends or boyfriends if one of us is in the hospital or in long-term care? What rights do we have?" Clarens said.

While same-sex couples are legally allowed to marry, group members said they're unsure how private health care providers will handle them. They hope to become a resource for those seeking answers.

In addition to socialization and education efforts, the group has taken on another big project in the past couple of months —- "Breaking Barriers," an oral history of LGBTQ people from the northern Plains. As part of that project, individuals will tell stories of growing up gay in small towns and big cities of the Dakotas and Minnesota.

"In general, it's important to know about people's lives, not just LGBTQ lives, but everyone's," Mark Chekola said. "But it's important with us because for so long, we had to be discreet and things were unknown."

The oral stories will paint a picture of their past struggles, which include being disowned by family, becoming distanced from friends and fired from jobs after coming out of the closet, feeling forced to get married to fit in or leaving town to move to larger, more accepting big cities — all important stories that need to be remembered.

So far, 20 people have been interviewed for the project and another 80 are on the waiting list. Some currently live in the community, while others grew up here and have moved away from Fargo-Moorhead. Red River Rainbow Senior members are currently training on how to properly conduct oral history interviews.

Chekola said eventually, the histories will be available at the North Dakota State University Archives for the community to read, learn and remember.

"We've been through a lot," Carlie Carow said. "Part of this has to be keeping history alive. Let the kids today know what we've gone through."

Tracy Briggs

Tracy Briggs is a former TV anchor/radio host currently working as a features writer and video host for Forum Communications.

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