MARYVILLE – Becky Lucas well remembers that first meeting of PFLAG Maryville last September.
As she set up a room on Maryville College’s campus, where she teaches education, she was hoping at least a few people would turn out. The word had been put out about the organizational meeting, but this was East Tennessee, known much more for its conservative politics than its GLBT-friendly attitude.
"I guess when you don’t really know what to expect, it is easy to surpass a non-expectation," said Lucas, who got launched into advocacy work when her 17-year-old son came out to her in 2009. "We were shocked at the number in attendance."
The hoped-for handful turned out to be 60 people, and they came from all walks, and times, of life. For Lucas, who had been involved in the Maryville College GSA and so knew some of the GLBT students on and around campus, it was a validation.
"We were shocked and then terrified at the realization that we would need to do something to maintain that kind of interest,” she said. “We enjoyed two whole days of celebrating our success."
Indeed, the new wore off quickly for PFLAG Maryville, which stepped into an immediate leadership role following the arson attack on a lesbian couple and their family in Vonore.
“We became involved in supporting the Stuttes [right away], and over the next four to six weeks we were immersed in efforts to support the family,” Lucas recalled. "At the October meeting, PFLAG Maryville and the East Tennessee Equality Council presented the Stuttes with a check for more than $11,000, and invited the community to a potluck celebration. Attendance doubled from our kick-off meeting of 60 people to 120 people!"
The crowds nowadays number around 30, a respectable number, but PFLAG Maryville’s online growth has been exponentially bigger. Lucas’ e-mail list is at 140 and growing, the group’s Facebook page has 241 followers and the website has gotten more than 6,000 hits thanks to a listing at the HRC’s BackStory. And the recognition just keeps coming.
"PFLAG Maryville was recognized in the local print and television news, mentioned on the HRC website, contacted by Michaelangelo Signorile, discussed on Pam’s House Blend, a popular GLBT blog, and featured in several other news outlets because of our efforts to support Laura and Carol Ann Stutte," Lucas said. "We are very proud of the community involvement and support offered to PFLAG Maryville during our drive to collect donations for the Stuttes. In addition to the monetary donations, there were hundreds of material donations received from all around the world. From Puerto Rico to Seattle, we had people calling wanting to know how they could help. Without a doubt, that was a success.”
In November, PFLAG Maryville supported the National Transgender Day of Remembrance with a roadside vigil and candlelight service. That was also well attended and drew strong outside interest, further proof that just by establishing the organization, the GLBT community in Blount County and the surrounding area can be visible in a positive way.
“I’m still amazed that in the span of 12 weeks, this community supported a lesbian couple who lost their home to arson and gathered publicly to remember transgender individuals lost to violence,” Lucas said, adding to those actions the presence of "many new friends, important community connections, increased community awareness and support, partnerships with East Tennessee GSA, PFLAG Knoxville, Spectrum Café, ETEC and involvement with the Knox County Chapter of TEP" as further successes.
And 2011 hardly appears to be the year for slowing down.
"I’m looking forward to sustaining the great strides we’ve seen in 2010. To be relevant and important in 2011, we will have to find ways to meet the needs of our community,” Lucas said. "There is a focus on youth support — anti-bullying campaigns, safe schools and coming out. PFLAG Maryville is working with the East TN GSA, a regional GSA collaborative, to become a recognized chapter of GLSEN. Area high school GSAs have been meeting together to make plans for a Diversity Prom, a summer youth conference, and other youth-organized activities.”
The group’s also taking its efforts on the road. Last month PFLAG Maryville, East TN GSA and the Maryville College GSA presented a 90-minute session at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Conference.
"The NGLTF Creating Change Conference was an opportunity for us to foster important relationships, learn more about LGBT issues and gain important knowledge," Lucas said. "Several youth involved with PFLAG Maryville and East TN GSA attended this event."
Other upcoming events and efforts include attending TEP’s Advancing Equality Day on the Hill, a diversity prom, a booth at Knoxville PrideFest and a monthly article contribution to One4All magazine.
On the home front, PFLAG Maryville is involved in the nuts-and-bolts work of any membership organization: growing the roster.
"We have lots of interested, supportive followers, but we want committed members,” Lucas said. “For now, we are just happy to be out there and talked about," Lucas said. "We have several attendees who drive in from surrounding areas like Madisonville, Vonore, Townsend, Kodak, Clinton, and Knoxville. A strong base of paid memberships will enable our local chapter to support PFLAG National in moving equality forward for all. It’s an honor and a privilege to live and work for equality in Tennessee!"