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Gay In Wasilla
– Views From The Last Frontier

Gay In Wasilla
– Views From The Last Frontier

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While Alaska is a solidly red state and one of the first in the nation to pass a constitutional measure banning same-sex marriage, being gay in Wasilla isn't quite what you might think according to the natives.

The surprise selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin for the Republican ticket has generated intense interest in her majestic home state and the previously little-known town of Wasilla. The pick has left no shortage of questions, but in the LGBT community, people might be wondering, what's it like to be gay there - to be out in the place Palin calls home?

Like the vast terrain of Alaska - which is both the largest U.S. state by area and the least densely populated with nearly 700,000 people total - the gay experience in the Last Frontier is marked by contradictions that can perplex the rest of the country, and even Alaskans.

"Alaskans live by a mindset of 'live and let live'," says former Wasilla resident Aaron Stielstra. Yet Alaskan residents were among the first in the nation to approve a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage back in 1998. "I would be lying if I told you I could rationally explain it," Stielstra says of the disconnect, "I don't know how."

Stielstra, 29, was born in Anchorage and soon afterward his family moved to Wasilla, about 40 miles north, where he lived until he was 19. Despite the influential presence of Evangelical Christian churches, and the absence of any detectable gay community, he says he felt welcome when he came out at 18.

The reaction he received from his parents - who are solid Republicans - lends some insight into what distinguishes conservative Alaskans from their partisan counterparts in the continental U.S.

One afternoon during the '98 holiday season, Stielstra and his mother were on their way to the mall in Anchorage when he pulled their vehicle over and told her, "There's something I need to tell you. I'm gay." He remembers crying, enduring a long pause, and then his mother finally asking, "Ok, are we still going shopping?"

It took five years before Stielstra summoned the courage to tell his father, an avid hunter and frontiersman, whose opinion worried him the most. But what Stielstra didn't know was that his father had been in therapy in the interim, trying to work on ways to make his son feel comfortable enough to come out to him.

Even now, when Stielstra returns home from Chicago to visit family, he says he doesn't feel much of an anti-gay bias.

"I have never, ever had a problem being openly gay in that town," he says of Wasilla. "I have brought two men up there to meet the family in the past five years, and no one's even batted an eye."

He contrasts this with reactions he's received in some of the country's most celebrated gayborhoods.

"I once had an experience where I was walking down the street in Boys Town [Chicago] holding the hand of my then-boyfriend, and we were heckled by people passing by in a truck," he says. "Similar things have happened to me in Los Angeles, and in Orange County. Nothing like that has ever happened to me in Wasilla, and I have acted the same way there."

"I think Wasilla is a pretty good generalization for most of the state," he says about the conservative Republican town of 7,000.

Fellow Alaska native Ryan Quinn, 27, says the socially conservative outlooks of state residents are characterized more by unfamiliarity than actual anti-gay bias.

"It's mostly lack of awareness, which could be chalked up to not being exposed to gayness," says the Manhattan-based writer, who came out to family and friends in Wasilla after his freshman year away at college, and even brought a boyfriend to visit. "The reaction was overwhelmingly positive from the people I heard from, and certainly from the people who know me on a personal basis," he says. "I've never encountered homophobia in Alaska."

For Quinn, Alaska and Alaskan attitudes are defined by the geographical isolation and separateness from the rest of the country.

"What surprises me the most, now having lived outside Alaska," he says, "is there's just this huge divide in social world experience, and it covers everything - from seeing homeless people on the street, to crime, racial diversity and exposure to gay people. There's just none of that in Alaska."

Will Hanna, 30, who moved to Alaska from what natives call "The Lower 48," agrees.

"It kind of feels like its own country sometimes," he says, referring to the strong culture of hunting and individual rights that often finds expression in gun ownership. "It wouldn't be unusual to see someone walking around Wasilla with a .45 strapped to them."

Hanna, a New Mexico native, made the trek to Alaska, where his mother lives, and tried life in small, conservative towns including Wasilla and Kenai. He moved to Anchorage, the state's largest city and de facto gay capital, in 2004 and is pleased with the small gay community he found.

"I probably have five or six really close gay friends," he says of the group he met online and in the city's one reliably gay bar. "We go out all the time. We go hiking, bike riding, out to dinner, and hang out at each other's houses."

More than 350 miles north in Fairbanks, transplant Tim Stallard, 34, also finds comfort in the small, independent-spirited and increasingly assimilated gay community around him. Stallard, who came to Alaska from California in 1993, owns and operates Out in Alaska, which takes out-of-state gay tourists on adventure tours throughout the state. He says the groups are well received in small towns, some of which include not only right-wing activists, but also ex-hippies and other left-leaning sorts.

But in contrast to the Alaskan natives The Advocate interviewed, Stallard and his partner of 14 years are more careful about public displays of affection. "Even now, we're pretty conservative in public. I think it would be smart for anybody up here to be pretty low-key. People have guns," he says. "Maybe holding hands is okay."

Stallard sums up the political climate in Alaska as being a red state with a large progressive minority. "Even among our Republican voting compatriots," he adds, "some are religious conservatives, and many others are libertarians."

What's important to note, say those interviewed, is that among this Alaskan mix of progressives, libertarians and social conservatives, viewpoints all seem to veer toward the extreme ends of the spectrum. That may help explain the fact that although gay issues are not the typical political hot buttons they are in the rest of the nation, in general, they can gain an unusually outsized head of steam when they do appear.

Take the religious crowd, who defy the general trend against attending church in the Pacific Northwest.

"I think the people who are religious happen to be a particular kind of religious," says Heather Christensen, a parish secretary at a progressive Episcopal church in Anchorage. "There's a lot of whacky religious stuff up here."

Christensen, 37, moved to the area when her partner took a job there in 2005. The New Jersey native says that it is so easy to fit into the mainstream look for women, she suspects many lesbians may be passing as straight.

"A lot of the stereotypes that people have about lesbians - it just kind of looks like an Alaskan woman," she says about the outdoorsy, active and strong image projected by many of the locals, not to mention Gov. Palin. "There are not a lot of high heels and skirts up here."

But as usual, in the complex moose stew of Alaska, that doesn't mean Christensen feels at ease broadcasting her sexual orientation, either.

"It's not the kind of place where I'd feel comfortable walking hand-in-hand with my partner," she says. "But you do see a decent number of rainbow stickers on cars."

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